Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called supporters to take to the street tomorrow, hours after an opposition politician sought by police urged his allies to march with him on the same day.
Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular, whom Maduro accuses of inciting violence, urged Venezuelans to dress in white and march with him on Tuesday, daring officials to enforce an arrest order issued against him. After Maduro responded by summoning a demonstration of 30,000 to 40,000 oil workers at the same location, Voluntad Popular today switched the site of their march.
“I’ve not committed any crime,” Lopez said in a YouTube video posted on his Twitter account yesterday. “If there is a decision to illegally jail me, I’ll be there.”
On Feb. 12, three people died and 66 were injured when protesters clashed with government supporters. The biggest demonstrations against Maduro’s administration since he was elected in April spread across the country this month as Venezuelans struggle with the world’s fastest inflation and shortages of everything from medicine to food.
Carlos Vecchio, a Voluntad Popular spokesman, said today in Caracas his party has spoken to the Catholic Church and foreign diplomats about ensuring the protests are peaceful. He said the government bears the ultimate responsibility for the demonstrators’ safety.
“We’re maintaining our call to march at 10 in the morning tomorrow,” Vecchio said.
No demonstration permit has been requested or authorized for tomorrow in central Caracas, where Lopez plans to march, the municipality’s Mayor Jorge Rodriguez said on state television today.
The South American country’s benchmark dollar bond due in 2027 fell 1.7 percent in the past week to 64.8 cents on the dollar, near a 30-month low. The yield on the bond rose to 15.45 percent on Feb. 14, the highest among emerging markets, according to the JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBIG index. U.S. markets are closed today.
Thousands of students protested in Venezuela’s capital for the sixth day today, defying a presidential ban on public demonstrations. The national police fired tear gas and pellets last weekend to disperse crowds in the upscale Chacao municipality in eastern Caracas, leaving at least 40 people injured, Chacao Mayor Ramon Muchacho said in posts on his Twitter account.
Maduro has accused the U.S. of financing the opposition to destabilize the country and ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats on Feb. 16. They have 48 hours to leave Venezuela, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said on state television today.
The U.S. has not been notified of the expulsions, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement today. Accusations of meddling are “baseless and false,” she said.
Venezuela and the U.S. haven’t had ambassadors in each others’ capitals since 2010, when then-President Hugo Chavez refused to accept the U.S. government’s chosen top diplomat in Caracas.
The prospect of competing marches on the same day may lead to more bloody clashes this week and heightens the chance of a disorderly outcome to the stand-off between government and opposition, said Virgilio Arraes, professor of international affairs at the University of Brasilia.
“If violence continues, Venezuela moves closer to an institutional crisis,” in which the legitimacy of the government may be questioned, Arraes said by phone.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said this weekend that Venezuela’s government had issued an arrest warrant for Lopez. Military officials visited Lopez’s house in Caracas, and the residence of his parents, on Feb. 15 and showed a warrant that included the charge of intentional homicide, Voluntad Popular said yesterday in a statement.
Lopez said he would take petitions to the Interior Ministry that declare the government responsible for the Feb. 12 violence, seek the release of students being held and ask for the disarmament of pro-government groups known as collectives. He has maintained his innocence and says he only called for peaceful protests.
Maduro banned street demonstrations, threatened media and ordered the arrest of opposition politicians in an effort to quell the protests. He accuses his opponents of trying to incite a coup.
“I’m not going to step down,” Maduro said to allies in Caracas on Feb. 15. “No one will remove me from the path of building the Bolivarian revolution.”
Inflation more than doubled in Venezuela in the past year to 56.3 percent in January, according to the central bank. 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.
The public prosecutor said Feb. 15 in an e-mailed statement that 13 of 99 people who were detained over violent events on Feb. 12-13 will remain in prison after judges ruled that their actions were “severe.” Student protesters are demanding the release of all those detained.
Maduro has accused international news outlets of bias. He took Colombian station NTN24 off the air in Venezuela for covering the protests and in a national address Feb. 13 criticized Agence France-Presse for manipulating information.
“We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on Feb. 15. “These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”
Maduro has repudiated Kerry’s statement.
“The U.S. said that we shouldn’t arrest Leopoldo Lopez because it would have negative consequences,” the Venezuelan president said yesterday. “That’s an insolent and unacceptable request. I don’t take threats from anyone.”