Thousands march to back a jailed opposition leader, who has gone on a hunger strike.
Tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters marched in this politically divided country Saturday to back a jailed opposition leader, who has gone on a hunger strike to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to hold congressional elections and free prisoners allegedly detained for political motives.
Gatherings were reported across Venezuela, with large turnouts in the major cities of Maracaibo, Valencia and Barquisimeto as well in Caracas, in some of the largest protests since government opponents roiled the oil-rich country last year for several bloody, chaotic weeks.
Leopoldo Lopez, a distant descendant of Venezuela’s founding father, Simon Bolivar, has been in prison 15 months for backing protests last year that resulted in 43 deaths after a crackdown by state security forces and militant government supporters.
Mr. Maduro says that 44-year-old former mayor tried to topple the government by stirring widespread unrest. In a twitter post on Friday, he said Mr. Lopez’s followers were attempting the same with these new marches. “The unpatriotic right wing continues on the path of shortcuts and violence, we triumph with the #heartofthefatherland,” he wrote.
Mr. Lopez maintains the charges against him are a trumped-up excuse to add him to a growing number of political prisoners. His trial is ongoing. Mr. Lopez reportedly launched his hunger strike on Sunday.
Government officials insist that there are no political prisoners in Venezuela. Human rights groups and judicial watchdog organizations, however, have said that the country’s courts have been cowed by his ruling Socialist party.
“The people, we are all out here because we are angry, angrier than last year,” said Miguel Lares, a 60-year-old civil engineer. “We want freedom for political prisoners, and we want an end to the dictatorship of this government.”
A call seeking comment from government officials was not returned.
In the capital city, thousands of protesters dressed in white chanted and carried signs as they marched through an opposition neighborhood in eastern Caracas before gathering for a rally. Organizers of the march called for the white attire to symbolize peace.
“This government is going to fall, it’s going to fall, this government is going to fall!” crowds of protesters chanted as they filled the streets.
“We have a humanitarian crisis here in Venezuela,” former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado said at the rally. “Venezuelans are demanding reforms that Maduro won’t or can’t install.”
While the marches Saturday had the backing of high-profile leaders, such as Ms. Machado, the country’s largest coalition of opposition political parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, distanced itself from the event, underscoring the divided nature of Venezuela’s political opposition.
Last year, opposition leaders seeking to make gains at the ballot box were at odds with more militant government opponents, such as Mr. Lopez, who supported the nationwide protests last year. Some opposition leaders believed the marches gave the government an excuse to crack down and tighten its grip on power.
“The other political parties said they were not coming out today, but look how many people are out here,” said Rafael Guerra, a 72-year-old retired travel agent. “This doesn’t even include all the people who stayed home, scared of potential violence.”
In February 2014, demonstrations in the western border city of San Cristobal swept across the country, with protesters venting anger against the oil-rich but cash-strapped country’s failing economy and rampant crime. More than 3,700 protesters were detained in connection with the marches that lasted for weeks. Most have since been released.
Mr. Lopez announced his hunger strike a week ago in a video recording smuggled out of prison and distributed by Popular Will, the political party he founded. Mr. Lopez, a popular former mayor and past presidential candidate, called for the Saturday marches and the end of government “censorship and repression” as well as the release of political prisoners and the scheduling of congressional elections.
He was joined in the hunger strike by Daniel Ceballos, who was stripped of his office as San Cristobal mayor and imprisoned last year for backing the protests and allegedly calling for violence. He has denied the charges.
“I am willing to give my life for the man I love,” Patricia Ceballos said to cheering protesters Saturday. She replaced her husband as San Cristobal mayor after his arrest. “It hurts so much that he has been kidnapped by this oppressive regime!” On Saturday, rally organizers said 11 student protesters had also joined the hunger strike.
Government officials, including the head of the electoral board, have assured that legislative elections will take place this year, after October.
But opponents of the leftist government, which has grown increasingly unpopular as the economy worsens, are concerned that the vote will be canceled to keep the ruling party in control of the unicameral parliament.
“It’s a crucial election because it’s our chance to grab back the congress,” said Marianne Castillo, a 51-year-old homemaker. “But we need international observers because if no one is watching, the government will steal the election.”
Venezuela’s central bank has stopped releasing its consumer price index, but many economists estimate that Venezuela’s inflation rate could reach well over 200% in 2015.
Years of restrictive currency controls and high government spending have drained the government’s international reserves leading to shortages of basic goods in the heavily import-dependent country. Mr. Maduro, who won a contested vote in 2013 to replace his late mentor Hugo Chavez, has seen his approval ratings tumble to record lows in recent months.
He has blamed the country’s economic woes on an international conspiracy allegedly headed by opposition leaders, such as Mr. Lopez, and backed by ideological enemies in Washington. In February, the embattled leader renewed a crackdown on his political foes and arrested the opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, for allegedly conspiring against the government. Mr. Ledezma, who like Mr. Lopez has been a longtime critic of the government, has denied the charges. The Wall Street Journal