Venezuela anti-government protests enter 100th day; major political opponent released by State

Caracas: Venezuela hit its 100th day of anti-government protests on Sunday, amid uncertainty over whether the release from prison a day earlier of prominent political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez might open the doors to negotiations to defuse the profound crisis gripping the country.

Lopez was placed under house arrest immediately after his surprise release from a military prison. Still, the gesture — the most visible sign of conciliation since protests erupted 1 April —
triggered speculation over the prospect of talks between the opposition and the embattled leftist government of Nicolas Maduro.

Three months of street protests have exacted a rising toll of death and destruction. The protests continued on Sunday, as 2,000 people marched in eastern Caracas, wearing T-shirts with Lopez's face and carrying banners that read, "One hundred days and I continue to rebel against tyranny."

File image of Venezuela protests. AP

File image of Venezuela protests. AP

Meantime, thousands of government supporters marched in the center city, many wearing the revolutionary red of the "Chavista" movement.

Lopez's release was welcomed — sometimes with calls on Caracas to do more — by several other Latin American countries, Spain and the United States.

Lopez, leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and a leading symbol of anti-Maduro resistance, emerged after his release from prison looking fit and happy -- though wearing an ankle bracelet to allow authorities to monitor his movements, his family said.

He pumped his fist in the air, unfurled the Venezuelan flag and told supporters: "Yes, we can!"

"I maintain my firm opposition to this regime," Lopez said in a statement read by a leader of his party. "I reiterate my commitment to fighting until Venezuela's freedom is won."

Maduro, in televised remarks on Saturday, called for a message of "peace and rectification" from Lopez, "because the nation wants peace."

But a defiant-sounding statement from the MUD opposition coalition said Lopez's release was not so much "a concession by the regime" as the result of "the insistent street pressure that Venezuelans have exercised for 100 days, and from international solidarity with our struggle."

Analysts said it seemed significant that the government had agreed to release a man it once termed "a monster," while Lopez had accepted house arrest after insisting he would leave prison only with full freedom and once all opposition members were free.

One analyst, Luis Vicente Leon, said the government hoped to lower tensions in the face of a serious risk of destabilization, while the moderate opposition wanted to avoid "suicide in a lose-lose situation."

While negotiations now appear possible, he added, they would require concessions sure to be unpopular with extremists on either side. "No one voluntarily offers to sacrifice their head," he said.

Lopez, a 46-year-old Harvard-educated politician, was imprisoned for more than three-and-a-half years for allegedly inciting violence by calling for anti-government protests.

His release has been a key demand of Venezuela's opposition and the international community, amid an intensifying political confrontation aimed at forcing the unpopular Maduro to hold early elections.

At least 91 people have died since 1 April in clashes between protesters and security forces over moves by the courts and the government to strip the National Assembly of power, delay elections and rewrite the constitution.

The Supreme Court said it had ordered Lopez's move to house arrest for health reasons, calling it a "humanitarian measure."

In Madrid, Javier Cremades, Lopez's Spanish lawyer, underscored that "all of Leopoldo Lopez's civil and political rights must still be restored" and all political prisoners must be freed.

Foro Penal, an NGO, puts the number of political prisoners at 433. The government insists they are in jail for acts of violence.

The US State Department called Lopez's release "a significant step in the right direction," but said more such steps are needed.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), a severe critic of the Maduro government, said the release provided an "opportunity for reconciliation."

The former mayor of a Caracas municipality, Lopez was an early champion of street protests to force political change as oil-rich Venezuela spiraled into a severe economic and political crisis after the death of Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

The government blamed Lopez for a months-long outbreak of anti-government protests in 2014 that left 43 people dead. He was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison on charges that his defense said were manufactured and politically motivated. Since then the crisis has deepened.

On Wednesday, pro-government militants wielding sticks and pipes stormed the opposition-held National Assembly and beat lawmakers, injuring at least five. Maduro condemned the violence and said he had ordered an investigation.

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 09:34 AM

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