Venezuela’s turbulent politics appear headed for a new phase of confrontation a day after intelligence agents stormed the offices of the Caracas mayor, Antonio Ledezma, seizing the opposition leader for his alleged role in what President Nicolás Maduro called an “endless coup.”
Ledezma will be indicted on charges of “conspiracy,” according to a statement released by Venezuelan state prosecutors Friday night after the 59-year-old mayor’s appearance at a Caracas tribunal. He was taken directly to the Ramo Verde military jail, the statement said — the same facility where another opposition leader, Leopoldo López, has been imprisoned for the past year.
In a speech Friday night, Maduro said he would lay out recordings and videos next week in a special broadcast revealing the “gringo intervention in Venezuela” that Ledezma allegedly conspired with. “In Venezuela, no one is untouchable,” he warned.
A sharp drop in oil prices has deepened the political and economic crisis that has simmered and at times boiled over in badly divided Venezuela during the past year. On Friday, government critics denounced Ledezma’s arrest as an ominous sign of Maduro’s growing willingness to silence critics with force and stoop to political sideshows to distract from his failings.
“What does [Maduro] want? To cover up the crisis?” asked opposition leader Henrique Capriles at a rally in Ledezma’s defense. Capriles narrowly lost to Maduro in the April 2013 election after the death of Hugo Chávez.
“If this is what they do with the mayor of the capital city, how will they treat you, a citizen, forcing their way into your business, shop or house to take you away by force?” Capriles asked.
Maduro accuses business owners of waging an “economic war” against him and asserts that Ledezma and other leading opposition figures are part of an international plot that also includes Colombian paramilitary forces, Venezuelan expatriates in Miami, right-wing Spanish politicians and the United States, all bent on toppling his socialist government.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that such claims were “ludicrous” and that the Obama administration was evaluating how it might bring new pressure to bear on the Maduro government after moving last year to sanction top Venezuelan officials by freezing their U.S. assets and revoking their visas.
Ledezma’s arrest was widely denounced by international rights groups, while José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, called the raid on the mayor’s offices by heavily armed agents “alarming.”Ledezma was taken into custody almost exactly a year after fellow opposition figure and political ally López was arrested at the height of street protests calling on Maduro to resign.
Those protests left 43 dead but fizzled out, and street demonstrations have returned only sporadically, even as the country’s finances spiral further downward and Venezuelans must wait for hours in supermarket lines for basic goods.
Many who supported Chávez have soured on Maduro, analysts say, but are not likely to march alongside opposition activists who have yet to convince them they’ll do better.
Though Maduro’s approval rating slumped to 22 percent in the most recent polls, he and his United Socialist Party remain in control of every branch of government.
The country is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections this year. Maduro said Thursday evening that the vote could take place as soon as July.