Venezuela Opposition Leader Faces Judge at Military Jail
Detained Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez faces arraignment at a military prison outside Caracas amid calls from supporters for more protests after a fifth person died following violence yesterday.
Lopez hasn’t been allowed to meet with legal counsel a day after being arrested and sent to the Ramo Verde military prison, his lawyer Juan Carlos Gutierrez said today in comments broadcast by television station Globovision. A federal court said the move to the military site from the Palace of Justice was done to protect the 42-year-old opposition leader’s life, according to Gutierrez.
“We are concerned that due process will be violated,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t want this to turn into a prison trial.”
Lopez’s arrest threatens to exacerbate tensions in Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro struggles to contain opposition to his 10-month-old government amid 56 percent inflation and shortages of basic foods and medicines. Lopez’s supporters massed in front of the Palace of Justice today and the country’s main opposition alliance called for a rally on Feb. 22.
Tires burned in the streets of Caracas’s upscale Chacao neighborhood this evening as workers headed home before sunset, while hundreds of students gathered around the city’s Altamira plaza. A fifth person died today from a gunshot wound to the head sustained during demonstrations in Carabobo state yesterday. At least five protesters were injured after being beaten with rocks and clubs in Caracas today, news website La Patilla reported.
“The protests in Venezuela are anarchic and based on the frustrations of the population,” said Colette Capriles, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, who isn’t related to opposition Governor Henrique Capriles. “There isn’t any clear leadership in the government or the opposition able to control this situation.”
Venezuela’s dollar bonds fell to their lowest in more than two years yesterday. Yields on the benchmark 2027 dollar bond fell 7 basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, to 15.87 percent today after surging 39 basis points yesterday. The country’s bonds have lost 12 percent this year, the most in emerging markets, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBIG index.
“Maduro is clearly facing a major political crisis at a time when economic conditions have also deteriorated markedly and it seems likely that protests will continue and tensions increase in the next few days as both sides have incentives to raise the stakes,” Daniel Kerner, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, wrote in a report today.
The Ramo Verde prison, two hours outside Caracas, has been a detention center for high-profile opponents of Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.
Former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, who served as a paratrooper with Chavez before being jailed after breaking with the government, is among a group of political opponents serving an eight-year sentence there.
“It’s a prison where people are easily isolated,” said Chavez’s former finance minister, Francisco Uson, who spent three years at Ramo Verde after being charged with insulting the military. “It’s difficult to communicate with the outside world there.”
Lopez was mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao from 2000 to 2008. He co-founded the party Primero Justicia with Capriles. He was banned in 2008 from holding public office following allegations by the government that he embezzled public money. He denies the charges.
Responding to his critics, Maduro said yesterday that Venezuelans were welcome to push for a recall referendum in 2016, adding that anyone who signed it would have to present their fingerprints and photos. The president also said he would use oil revenue to import an additional $1 billion of food and medicine to guarantee supplies for four months. Venezuela has the world’s biggest oil reserves.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver who served as foreign minister under Chavez, defeated Capriles in April with 50.6 percent of the vote. It was the narrowest election in 45 years.
Under Maduro’s watch, the annual inflation rate has more than doubled, according to the central bank, and now is the world’s fastest. At the same time, the bank’s scarcity index rose to a record 28 percent, meaning that more than one in four basic goods was out of stock at any given time.
It’s unlikely the protests will force Maduro’s government to collapse the way public demonstrations did in Egypt and Tunisia, said Vladimir de la Cruz, a former Costa Rican ambassador to Venezuela.
“Protests still seem to be supported by opposition voters, and do not seem to have spread beyond this group,” Eurasia’s Kerner wrote. “The most likely outcome is that the situation will get worse but that Maduro will be able to contain it and protests will probably die down in a few weeks.”