CARACAS: Venezuela hit its 100th day of anti-government protests Sunday, amid uncertainty over whether the release from prison a day earlier of prominent political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez might open the way 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 April 1 — triggered speculation over the prospect of talks between the opposition and the embattled leftist government of Nicolas Maduro.
Three months of destructive street protests have left at least 91 dead. On Sunday demonstrations continued 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.”
Meanwhile, thousands of government supporters marched in the city centre.
Maduro on Facebook voiced support for his controversial plans to form an assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution, which he said had “the hope to build a solid peace among all”.
Voting for members of the assembly — which the opposition has rejected as Maduro’s bid to maintain power — is scheduled for July 30.
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.
“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.”
President Maduro, in televised remarks Saturday, called for a message of “peace and rectification” from Lopez.
Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, underscored that no deal was negotiated for her husband’s release.
“You don’t cut a deal on freedom, on human rights, on dignity. Never,” Tintori said.
“It was a unilateral decision by the Nicolas Maduro government.”
She said Lopez suffered cruel treatment and serious stomach troubles, having shed six kilos.
Analysts said it seemed significant 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 destabilisation, 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.
Release called ‘humanitarian’
Lopez — a 46-year-old Harvard-educated politician and former mayor of a Caracas municipality — 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.
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 as the crisis deepens.
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.
In T-shirts emblazoned with Lopez’s face, marcher Maria Esther Pinto, 46, called his release “a step forward for his family and all of us who are seeking [political] change”.
“His release will help keep us in the street demanding freedom for all the political prisoners,” she said, marching alongside her daughters.