US Condemns Venezuela Opposition Leaders' Return to Jail, Hints at Regime Change

US President Donald Trump has released an official statement condemning the Maduro administration as a “dictatorship” for the first time, after right-wing politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were returned to prison Tuesday. Authorities say both men had violated the conditions of their house arrest.

By Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas
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US President Donald Trump has called for the immediate release of jailed rightwing politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma. (Reuters)
US President Donald Trump has called for the immediate release of jailed rightwing politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma. (Reuters)

Merseyside, UK, August 3, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – US President Donald Trump has released an official statement condemning the Maduro administration as a “dictatorship” for the first time, after right-wing politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were returned to prison Tuesday. Authorities say both men had violated the conditions of their house arrest.

“The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized,” reads the August 1 statement.  

As leader of the right-wing Popular Will party, Leopoldo Lopez was arrested in 2014 and charged with leading deadly anti-government protests that claimed the lives of 43 people. He was later found guilty and sentenced to 13 year nine month jail sentence, but transferred to house arrest in July on health grounds.  

Similarly, former Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma was charged with financing terrorism and violent anti-government groups in April 2015. He was transferred to house arrest due to health complications the same month, but has still not faced trial.  

Both Lopez and Ledezma made calls via video on social media for more anti-government protests in relation to July 30's National Constituent Assembly elections, amidst opposition-led unrest that has resulted in more that 120 fatalities since the beginning of April. 

In particular, Lopez called on the armed forces [FANB] to "disactivate the Republican Plan," in reference to their protection of voting centres on election day. The FANB's abandonment of electoral centres would have left voters vulnerable to opposition violence, and 200 voting centres were ultimately attacked on the day.

According to Venezuela's Supreme Court, both Lopez and Ledezma violated the terms of their house arrest, which "does not permit them to undertake any kind of political advocacy". 

In its statement, the top court also cited an alleged escape plot by both politicians that was detected by intelligence officials. 

In recent years, a number of high profile opposition leaders indicted for their role in attempting to overthrow the elected government have fled the country. Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega, protagonists in the short-lived US-backed 2002 against then President Hugo Chavez, both escaped state custody in 2002 and 2006, respectively. 

Regime change 

Meanwhile Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted Tuesday that the Trump administration is actively working towards regime change in Venezuela.

Tillerson’s comments follow controversial elections held in Venezuela last Sunday, when millions of voters turned out to choose delegates for a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution – in spite of hostility from the US and a boycott from the national opposition.  

Despite substantial turnout, the Trump administration has so far refused to recognize the elections, and imposed sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in response. 

“We are evaluating all our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either [Venezuelan President] Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution,” said Tillerson at an August 1 press conference. 

“Our approach to Venezuela has been to try to work through coalition partners, through the OAS [Organization of American States] as well as others who share our view of Venezuela’s future,” he also stated. 

Tillerson’s comments echo those of CIA head Mike Pompeo earlier in July, when he told an Aspen Institute forum that the agency was working with the governments of Colombia and Mexico to undermine the elected Maduro administration in Caracas. Thirteen high ranking Venezuelan government and military officials were hit by US sanctions less than a week later. 

But mixed messages have also accompanied Washington’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Venezuela. On Tuesday Michael Fitzpatrick – one of Tillerson’s chief diplomats and the state department’s deputy assistant for South America – said that the Trump administration still considered the Maduro government to be legitimate.

“We want to dialogue with the government of President Nicolas Maduro,” said Fitzpatrick during an interview with Spanish news site EFE.  

“We don’t necessarily recognize parallel or separate governments. We respect the official government of Venezuela and President Maduro at this moment,” he stated. 

There has been speculation that Fitzpatrick’s comments were a veiled message for opposition spokespeople such as Freddy Guevara, a legislator for Lopez’s Popular Will party in the National Assembly.  

At the beginning of the week, Guevara proposed that the opposition-held National Assembly should declare itself the legitimate government of Venezuela and dismiss and replace the current leaders of the country’s National Electoral Council. He was immediately shot down by Democratic Action legislator and opposition veteran Ramos Allup, who lambasted the suggestion as “irresponsible”. 

The dispute has been cited by observers as proof of the deep rifts that exist within the Venezuelan opposition. 

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