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Venezuela Political Tensions on Brink of Boiling Over

Image: Anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday

A young woman argues with members of the National Bolivarian Guard during a protest against the Venezuelan government in Altamira, Caracas, 17 February 2014. The Venezuelan government accused the USA of being behind the violence in the recent protests in the country, as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez ratified his intention of marching on 18 February. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ MIGUEL GUTIERREZ / EPA

LIMA, Peru — Tensions in Venezuela look close to boiling over after an opposition leader wanted for supposedly inciting anti-government violence said he would lead a protest march in downtown Caracas on Tuesday.

After several days in hiding, Leopoldo Lopez published a YouTube video defiantly blaming President Nicolas Maduro for the bloodletting during protests last week, effectively daring the government to arrest him at the march on the ministry of justice and the interior.

Lopez described the ministry as the “symbol of the repression, persecution, torture and lies” carried out by the government against the Venezuelan people.

“I will be there showing my face. I have nothing to fear,” Lopez said in the grainy, three-minute video of the murder and terrorism charges leveled against him.

Image: Leopoldo Lopez
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of one of Caracas' five districts, is accused of inciting anti-government government. JUAN BARRETO / AFP - Getty Images

“If there is any illegal decision to jail me, then I will accept that decision and this infamous persecution by the state.”

The opposition leader's plan sets him on a collision course with the government, which is rallying supporters to launch a rival march along the same route.

Three people were shot dead and dozens injured in clashes in Caracas last week as students took to the streets calling on Maduro, a left-wing populist and the political heir to late President Hugo Chavez, to quit.

They are enraged over a series of deep national crises, including widespread food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, one of the world’s worst violent crime waves and the government’s increasingly authoritarian direction.

The protesters were confronted by riot police and “colectivos,” armed Chavista neighborhood militias. Two of the dead were student demonstrators and the third was a colectivo leader.

Maduro has responded by blaming everyone but his government for the turmoil — despite his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) having held power for the last 15 years.

Image: Nicola Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a left-wing populist and the political heir to late President Hugo Chavez, has faced calls to quit. Reuters

Over the weekend, he expelled three US diplomats, faulting them for encouraging the demonstrations.

The government also blocked Twitter users’ access to images of the protests shaking the country. A Colombian cable news station, NTN24, was also taken off air in Venezuela after reporting on the disturbances.

Social media and foreign TV news are now the only ways Venezuelans can track the turmoil in the streets across their nation after all critical local news networks have been squeezed off the air since the late Chavez first took power in 1999.

President Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union leader who rose to the top of the Chavez administration, has also accused Lopez of launching an attempted coup — though the latter insists that all protests should be peaceful and constitutional.

On his English-language Twitter feed, Maduro described Lopez as a “coward” and “fascist,” adding: “Surrender we are looking for you.”

But Lopez, whose home was raided along with that of his parents by security forces over the weekend, appears unintimidated.

In his video, released Sunday, he demanded an impartial investigation of the government’s role in the deaths last week, an end to official repression of dissent, and the disarmament of the colectivos, who speed around Caracas on motorbikes wielding guns.

Image: An opposition supporter shouts at a riot police officer during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas
An opposition supporter shouts at a riot police officer during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas on Monday. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

They were first armed by Chavez in response to the 2002 attempted coup — apparently backed by the George W. Bush White House — as “el Comandante” vowed never to permit a US invasion. Critics now accuse the colectivos of being thuggish government enforcers who are routinely used to bully opposition demonstrators.

Lopez makes an unlikely rabble-rouser. A Harvard-educated economist, the 42-year-old is a former mayor of the wealthy Caracas district of Chacao and one of the opposition’s most telegenic and articulate figures.

This isn’t his first run-in with the Chavistas.

In 2008, government officials barred Lopez from seeking public office over alleged corruption — even though he was never convicted by a court. The region’s top human rights court ruled in 2011 that that was a breach of his rights.

After last week’s violence, Human Rights Watch called for a full investigation and said the probe “should not be used as a pretext for prosecuting political opponents or limiting free speech.”

Both the European Union and the United Nations have called for calm and for the government to respect human rights and the rule of law.

The State Department had not received official notification of the expulsion of its three Caracas staff members, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday.

“The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protesters in Venezuela is baseless and false,” she added.

Venezuela Orders US Diplomats to Leave 0:22

The US government has responded to several previous expulsions of its diplomats from Venezuela by booting out staff from the South American nation’s embassy in Washington.

Venezuela and the US have not had ambassadors in each others’ capitals since a 2010 falling out.

But, according to Maduro, US officials this weekend called on him to negotiate with the opposition, free jailed protesters and drop the charges against Lopez.

“I replied that I don't accept threats from anyone in this world,” Maduro told Venezuelans during a Sunday night TV address.

But a massive turnout for Lopez’s march would ramp up the pressure on the besieged president.

And even small numbers might not do Maduro much good. Modest crowds could vindicate the more cautious power-seizing strategy of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, until now the unofficial but undisputed leader of the Venezuelan opposition.

But the authorities’ response will also be in the spotlight. Arresting Lopez for any longer than a few hours could backfire, ramping up the domestic and international pressure on a desperate president whose political credit appears to have run out.

All eyes will be on Caracas on Tuesday.

This story originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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