Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro has a violent situation on his hands, as protests against the socialist regime escalate and the death toll rises. Reuters reports that protesters have vowed to continue until Maduro resigns, but Maduro has only escalated the oppression, raiding Caracas homes in search of opposition leader Leopoldo López.
The streets of Caracas–already among the world’s most violent thanks to more than a decade of rule under Hugo Chávez–were aflame this weekend as Venezuelans used the national “Youth Day” holiday to trigger protests against the socialist dictatorship this weekend. This Youth Day, a holiday celebrating a battle of independence against Spain, three student protesters were reported dead and 23 injured thanks to government violence. The protest itself was peaceful; violence began when it culminated and police agitated the remaining protesters.
In response to the deaths, President Maduro called the protesters “fascists” and insisted on the arrest of major opposition leader Leopoldo López. López has been a fixture in Venezuelan opposition since the late 1990s, when Hugo Chávez began amassing what became a total of 26 criminal charges against him for being a leader of student protests against socialism. Rather than back down, López entered public life, becoming the mayor of the city of Chacao in 2000. He has since remained a prominent opposition leader and loudly encouraged the protests of this weekend.
Maduro accuses López of “murder and terrorism in connection with violence around four days of sporadic anti-government protests,” including the protest this weekend that killed three. The arrest warrant for López is the second of two major decisions by Maduro to stall the protests–the second was to expel three U.S. envoys from the country. Maduro alleges that the envoys were working with student protesters to destabilize the country to the benefit of the CIA.
In response to the arrest warrant, López announced via Twitter the organization of a new protest on Tuesday, February 18. López has vowed that he will appear publicly there and accept the consequences of the “illegal arrest.” “I tell you, Maduro, you are a coward. You will not force my family nor myself to submit. To my family: Strength, I love you,” López tweeted yesterday. He also posted a video describing the protest and the next steps for his supporters.
“I have nothing to fear, I have not committed any crime. I have been a committed Venezuelan with our country, with our people and our future. If there is any decision to illegally detain me, I will be there to assume the persecution and this travesty of a decision on the part of the state,” he tells supporters.
The Guardian reports that the Venezuelan government does not want to wait until Tuesday to find and arrest López. Security forces, they note, have been raiding the homes of his immediate family looking for him late last night.
The Obama administration has almost entirely removed itself from the turmoil. Secretary of State John Kerry did release a statement on the expulsion of the American envoys in the country, and one of support to López. “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez,” Kerry said in a statement. He denounced the “chilling effect” on free speech and “citizens’ rights” that such arrests would have on the nation.
While the Hugo Chávez regime was characterized by the skyrocketing violence, poverty, and diminished quality of life and freedom of expression in the country, his successor Maduro has threatened to eclipse that legacy.
Maduro has been governing the country by decree since last November when, after removing a number of opposition leaders in the legislature, he managed to have his supporters pass a law that gave him the ability to unilaterally legislate without their approval. Under Maduro, Venezuela has suffered severe toilet paper and food shortages and has seen its entire medical infrastructure collapse. It is widely believed that Maduro perpetuated massive amounts of election fraud in his victory against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the latter who called for a recount that never arrived.