CARACAS, Venezuela — The man who has aroused Venezuela’s latest protest movement against a decade and a half of socialist rule surrendered to authorities Tuesday after an impassioned speech to thousands of his followers.
Leopoldo López, a Harvard-educated former mayor whom the government has accused of inciting violence, emerged from hiding and scaled a statue of Cuban revolutionary José Martí to warn Venezuelans about government corruption and economic stagnation. When his brief speech ended, Venezuelan authorities hauled him away.
The arrest intensified the most serious political crisis that President Nicholás Maduro has faced since he took over in April, after the death of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez. For a week, anti-government prostesters have staged rallies and clashed with authorities. The confrontations have left at least three dead and dozens wounded.
After last week’s bloodshed, López was charged with terrorism by the government. Maduro has described him as a “fascist” in cahoots with the United States.
“I would be a coward, I would be a traitor to Chávez’s memory, if I let myself be intimidated by the empire or any of its regional lackeys,” Maduro told the country Tuesday after López’s arrest. “The one who can mess with Venezuela hasn’t been born, because this is the nation of [military and political leader] Simón Bolívar. These are the people of Chávez.”
Maduro said López would be taken to a prison outside Caracas.
Before Tuesday’s demonstration, López issued a video challenge to authorities, saying that he would lead the anti-government rally to the justice ministry and then offer himself up to be arrested, even as he declared his innocence.
Residents woke Tuesday to find that the subway in the neighborhood of Chacaito, part of the opposition stronghold where López was mayor, had stopped running and that police had blocked the planned protest route.
So the protesters held the rally there — an estimated 5,000 people, according to the Associated Press — many of the dressed in white to signify non-violence. Those who attended said they were angry with the country’s failing economy, rising inflation and rampant crime.
López, wearing a white long-sleeve T-shirt and holding a Venezuelan flag, said into a megaphone that his fight was for the country’s youths, its students, “for the repressed, for the imprisoned, for all the Venezuelan people that today are suffering” from shortages of food and basic goods.
Before he ended, López cautioned the crowd to remain calm after his arrest. “I beg you that when I go and give myself to the authorities, I ask you to be cautious. With no confrontation,” he said.
When López finished speaking, Venezuelan soldiers approached. He gave himself up without resisting. The crowd followed the military vehicle as it drove away.
Earlier this week, Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country — the third time in the past year such action has been taken — and accused them of conspiring against his government with opposition protesters. The State Department called the claims “baseless and false.”
“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,” a State Department spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday. “These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.”
López has emerged as the leading critic of Maduro’s socialist government. His supporters praised his courage for standing up to the authoritarian government.
“He is our voice. He is the voice of us all,” said Maria Zafra, a 22-year-old university student who attended the rally.
Not all of the protestors are aligned with López, and some described themselves as politically independent. Computer science student Alejandro López said that he wants a future where he can study and live freely in Venezuela. “I’m sick of this,” he said.
Across town, a pro-government march took place at the same time as workers from the state oil company walked accompanied by music and drumming.
“I’m marching to support Mr. President and all the measures that he is taking to stop violent groups,” said Juan Hernández, a 40-year-old oil worker.