MEXICO CITY — After five days of bloody student-led street protests, Venezuela appeared headed for a dangerous new showdown as opposition leader Leopoldo López said he will emerge from hiding Tuesday to lead an anti-government march.
The Venezuelan government charged López with “terrorism” and other crimes after demonstrations Wednesday in Caracas left three dead and more than 60 injured. Smaller protests in the capital and other cities have followed, including on Monday, setting the country on edge and pitting sometimes-violent demonstrators against police using batons, water cannons and tear gas.
Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro announced Sunday that he had expelled three U.S. Embassy officials, accusing them of conspiring against his government. It is the third time in less than a year that Maduro has ordered U.S. diplomats out of the country.
“Go back to Washington and conspire,” Maduro said during a televised address. “Leave Venezuela alone.” The State Department denied that it was helping to organize the protesters or trying to undermine Venezuela’s leftist government.
López has emerged as the most forceful and fearless critic of Maduro, at a time when annual inflation is topping 50 percent and the oil-rich country’s economy is tanking, with citizens facing chronic shortages of toilet paper, milk and other basic goods.
The former mayor of a Caracas municipality, López, 42, released a three-minute video statement Sunday calling for a fresh rally against the government in the capital Tuesday and said he would end the march by offering himself up for arrest.
The announcement raised the possibility of new clashes if protesters rush to his defense.
“I have nothing to fear,” López said in the video. “I have committed no crime. I have been a Venezuelan with deep commitments toward my country and my people.”
Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have goaded the protesters for days by calling them “fascists” and depicting them as U.S. agents involved in destabilization plots.
The protests are the most serious challenge to date for Maduro, 51, who was narrowly elected in April to succeed Hugo Chávez, his mentor. Chávez ruled Venezuela for 14 years until his death from cancer last March, and Maduro has adopted Chávez’s blustery rhetoric to vilify critics as “parasitic bourgeoisie” and traitorous Nazis.
In his address Sunday, Maduro declared Caracas “a fascist-free territory” and called on state oil workers to stage counterdemonstrations.
“This is the last time fascists come to Caracas. Rain or shine, fascists will not enter Caracas,” he said. “I will have zero tolerance toward fascism. Even the possibility of living in peace among ourselves for the next century is at stake here.”
Venezuelan authorities identified the expelled diplomats as Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark, all vice consuls.
The State Department said Monday that it had not received any formal notification of the expulsion.
In a statement, spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied allegations that the U.S. government was supporting the demonstrations, calling such charges “baseless and false.”
“We support human rights and fundamental freedoms — including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly — in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world,” she said. “But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”