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Venezuela braces for demos over jailed opposition leader

AFP , Wednesday 19 Feb 2014

Venezuela braced for another day of protests Wednesday with jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez expected to appear in court to hear charges blaming him for a deadly episode of street violence.

Heavy security surrounded the Palace of Justice where about 100 supporters awaited the arrival of the Harvard-educated economist, who spent the night in jail after his dramatic surrender to national guard troops at a protest rally Tuesday.

It was the culmination of two weeks of tension-filled protests in the oil-rich country, led by students angry over the jailing of demonstrators and a litany of other grievances against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, the successor of the late Hugo Chavez, is under fire over what protesters say is rampant crime, runaway inflation, high unemployment and other economic problems.

After three people were killed in street clashes last week, Maduro ordered Lopez's arrest, blaming him for the violence.

Political scientist Angel Oropeza said the government is walking a tightrope.

"They may hold him for a few days. If they free him right away, it would be a sign of weakness," said Oropeza, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University.

"But if they hold on to him for a long time, it could fuel the protests even more and the government would come under more international pressure," he said.

Oropeza said that with the arrest, the only thing the government has achieved is to divert people's attention away from Venezuela's economic woes and "shift debate to an area it has always handled better -- that of political confrontation."

On Tuesday, Lopez told thousands of his supporters, all clad in white, that he hoped his arrest would highlight the "unjust justice" in Venezuela. He drew an explosion of cheers from the crowds.

Maduro, speaking to pro-government oil workers dressed in red in the western part of the city, countered that Lopez would have to "answer for his calls to sedition."

Defying a ban, thousands of Lopez's supporters turned out dressed in white at the Plaza Brion on Tuesday, two days after he called the march in a video message.

Lopez, also in white, suddenly emerged in the crowd, climbing a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti with a Venezuelan flag. After delivering a brief message to his cheering supporters, he surrendered to the National Guard.

"I present myself before an unjust justice, before a corrupt justice," said Lopez.

"If my incarceration serves to wake up a people... (it) will have been worth it."

He calmly walked under escort to a National Guard vehicle as his supporters pressed in around the vehicle, blocking its path.

"We are expressing the frustration we feel. The country is in chaos, there are no supplies in the hospitals, we are sick of the insecurity. I want a Venezuela of progress," said Satle Oviedo, a 27-year-old hospital worker.

Maduro's government summoned its followers to rallies of its own in an area of downtown Caracas, amid fears of clashes with the opposition demonstrators. But there was no violence.

The tensions generated by the protests have spilled into the international arena as well.

On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting with student leaders under the guise of offering them visas.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, confirming the expulsion orders, said Tuesday the United States was considering possible action.

"We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela," she said.

Venezuela's relations with Washington, long strained under Chavez, have remained sour and distrustful under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor's socialist policies.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.