CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leading Venezuela opposition leader Henrique Capriles announced Friday that he has been banned from running for office for 15 years, a move sure to ratchet up tensions amid a growing street protest movement.
Capriles reported the ban on his Twitter account. There was no immediate comment from the government. Leaders in the ruling socialist party had accused Capriles in recent days of stoking violence through his leadership of a week of near-daily protests, many of which have ended in tear gas and rubber bullets.
President Nicolas Maduro called out Capriles on his television show Thursday night, after tens of thousands of Venezuelans shut down Caracas with a march against the socialist administration. He said followers of “little Capriles” were seeking a bloodbath.
Capriles responded to the ban on Thursday, saying, “The only one who is disqualified here is you, Nicolas Maduro. You and your circle of corrupt drug traffickers.”
The move against Capriles is part of a broader government crackdown this week that included detentions at marches and threats against party leaders.
“They are trying to raise the costs of protest, plain and simple,” said Michael McCarthy, a research fellow focused on Venezuela at American University. “But this move may well backfire, as Capriles is likely to harness this smear campaign to place himself front and center in the push to hold transition elections.”
Authorities have been investigating Capriles since the beginning of the year for what they say are a half dozen administrative irregularities, including taking suspicious donations from abroad.
Capriles is the most recognizable of the leaders behind the protest movement that has been roiling the embattled country this week. He is the governor of Miranda State and lost a hard-fought presidential election to Hugo Chavez in 2012. The following year, he was the opposition’s presidential candidate again, and lost to current president Nicolas Maduro by the slimmest of margins.
Among the opposition, he’s considered the more moderate of leaders, having criticized a wave of protests in 2014 that led to scores of deaths. Even amid this current round of unrest, he has consistently emphasized that protests are no more than a means to what he sees as a more important end that will bring about change: general elections.
Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the sometimes bloody 2014 protest movement, has been held in prison for the past three years after having been sentenced on what are widely seen as trumped up charges of inciting political unrest.
This week’s protests claimed their first victim Thursday night. College student Jairo Ortiz was shot dead by an unknown assailant during a protest in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas. Ortiz was a 19-year-old law student at a local university and had been planning to move to Colombia this summer, according to local news reports. The state prosecutor’s office said it would investigate the death.
The protests were touched off by a Supreme Court ruling in late March nullifying congress. That decision was walked back amid fierce domestic and international criticism, but opposition leaders say it revealed the government’s authoritarian nature.
The opposition has been calling for immediate elections. With both Capriles and Lopez now out of action, it’s unclear who the leading candidate in such an election would be.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday night about rumors that the government was trying to shackle him politically, Capriles was defiant and called another protest for Saturday.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .