CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan 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 via his Twitter account, saying he had just been notified of the decision. There was no immediate comment from the government. Officials in the ruling United Socialist Party had accused Capriles in recent days of stoking violence through his leadership of a week of near-daily protests, several of which have ended with tear gas and rubber bullets.
President Nicolás 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 blood bath.
Authorities have been investigating Capriles since the beginning of the year for what they say are a half-dozen administrative irregularities, including taking donations from abroad.
Capriles is the most recognizable of the leaders behind the protest movement that has been roiling the country. He is the governor of Miranda state and lost a hard-fought presidential election to Hugo Chávez in 2012. The next year, after Chávez’s death, he was again the opposition’s presidential candidate and lost to Maduro by the slimmest of margins.
Among the opposition, he’s considered a moderate leader, having criticized a wave of protests in 2014 that led to scores of deaths. Even amid the current unrest, he has consistently emphasized that protests are no more than a means to what he sees as a more important end to bring about change: general elections.
Leopoldo López, the leader of the 2014 protest movement, has been imprisoned for the past three years after having been sentenced on what are widely seen as trumped up charges of inciting political unrest.
The recent protests were touched off by a supreme court ruling last week nullifying the powers of congress. That decision was later 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 out of action, it’s unclear who the leading candidate in such an election would be.