Venezuela opposition leader surrenders amid mass protests

Student-led demonstrations against President Maduro's government have grown larger, more violent in recent weeks

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, dressed in white and holding up a flower stem, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb 18, 2014.
AP Photo

Hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez handed himself over to Venezuelan security forces on Tuesday as a fourth person died from political unrest over the past week against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist who has spearheaded some of the protests, boarded an armored vehicle after giving a speech to an opposition rally in Caracas on another chaotic day in the South American OPEC member nation.

"I have nothing to hide," he told supporters with a megaphone minutes before. "I present myself to an unjust judiciary. They want to jail Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change."

Lopez, wanted on charges including murder and 'terrorism,' says he is being made a scapegoat by a dictatorial government.

In the coastal town of Carupano in eastern Venezuela, residents said a 17-year-old student struck by a car died after a demonstration against the socialist government. That added to three fatal shootings last week in Caracas.

Student-led protests have multiplied this month across the nation of 29 million people in the biggest challenge to Maduro since his election last year following Hugo Chavez's death. The demonstrators are demanding Maduro's resignation and expressing a litany of complaints, from rampant crime to 56 percent inflation to shortages of basic goods.

"The country's in an unsustainable state," said filmmaker José Sahagun, 47, wearing white like many among thousands of demonstrators with Lopez in east Caracas. "The government's mask has fallen off. This man (Maduro) has held power for 10 months and the deterioration has been fast."

So far, there has been no evidence Venezuela's military might turn against Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Chavez.

"The armed forces will always be on the side of justice and development of the fatherland," Defense Minister Carmen Melendez said. "Every act of violence takes us back to intolerance."

Thousands of oil workers and Maduro supporters, clad in the red of the ruling Socialist Party, held their own demonstration on Tuesday, with music blaring in a party atmosphere.

"Comrade President Nicolas Maduro can count on the working class," said oil union leader Wills Rangel.

In a nation split largely down the middle on political lines, 'Chavistas' have stayed loyal to Maduro despite unflattering comparisons with his famously charismatic predecessor. Many Venezuelans fear the loss of popular, oil-funded welfare programs should the socialist lose power.

"Chavez lives, the fight goes on!" Maduro backers chanted.

Security forces in Caracas on Tuesday patrolled the streets with water cannons as police kept opposition supporters in the city's eastern district. Many residents stayed home, fearing more trouble after the daily clashes that have erupted since last Wednesday's fatalities in the capital. Schools were mostly closed.

Maduro's government accuses opponents backed by Washington of seeking to promote a coup against him, similar to a botched attempt against Chavez in 2002, when he was ousted for 36 hours. Maduro, the burly former bus driver and union activist, this week expelled three U.S. diplomats accused of recruiting students for the protests. Washington called that "baseless."

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Monday that the three senior U.S. consular officers are being expelled because they tried to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.

Anti-government protesters, meanwhile, have lashed out against media censorship in recent weeks. Maduro's government, which controls most of the nation's airwaves, has limited protest coverage, demonstrators say. And Maduro warned that he could impose new rules regulating newspaper ownership. Last week, the government took a Colombian cable channel, NTN24, off air last week after it aired coverage of anti-government protests.

Twitter last week announced that the Venezuelan government blocked online images from protesters marching through Caracas streets. And a Venezuelan newspaper union, the National Union of Press Workers (SNTP), said last week that 20 of its members were harassed and 11 detained during anti-government protests.

Complaints about acts of violence by both sides have piled up over six consecutive days of confrontations between police and demonstrators. Only 13 students were still reportedly detained after nearly 100 arrests in the past week.

Opposition activists say some of the detained students have been tortured, but Maduro says police have been restrained in the face of provocation and attacks. He has, however, publicly criticized the Sebin national intelligence service for having agents in the street and replaced its head on Tuesday.

Al Jazeera and news wires

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