CARACAS (AFP) ― A Venezuelan opposition leader jailed for a month urged supporters Tuesday to maintain their fight against socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s protest-hit government.
As the size of demonstrations seemed to start to wane, Leopoldo Lopez said in a handwritten letter from detention: “I send my deepest admiration of the Venezuelan people for its peaceful protest on the streets.”
“I call on the country to keep the pressure on,” urged Lopez in a letter read out at a meeting where supporters rallied for his release. Lopez also asked them to stage new rallies around the country on Saturday.
The death toll from a month and a half of protests rose to 29 Monday, after a National Guard captain shot one day earlier during a protest in the city of Maracay died.
Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association.
Lopez, with the Popular Will movement, has pressed for a strategy dubbed “The Way Out” in which protests would drive Maduro from office.
The president, with Lopez detained, says he has quashed a would-be coup against a democratically elected government.
Lopez is awaiting trial in a small cell at a military facility, and his pretrial wait could be at least another 15 days, officials say.
“The protests have ended up dividing the opposition,” said political analyst Carlos Romero, in large part due to Lopez’s arrest. “The college student-wing of protesters was following his orders but it is not any more” with him detained.
Whether Lopez’s call for fresh mobilization on Saturday will get into gear remains to be seen.
But Monday government forces quickly established control after moving into the area around the Plaza Altamira, a focal point of nightly clashes in eastern Caracas between masked protesters and security forces.
The government described the operation as a “liberation” of the neighborhood, an area of middle and upper income homes and businesses called Chacao.
Maduro’s government has been the target of daily protests in cities around the country since Feb. 4, fueled by public anger over violent crime, inflation, shortages and further stoked by often heavy-handed police tactics.
Maduro contends the protests are part of a “fascist” right-wing, U.S.-backed plot to destabilize his year-old government.
Yet days ago, Maduro suggested a “high-level” bid to improve highly strained ties with the United States.
Meanwhile the Venezuelan government said Tuesday it is severing commercial relations with Air Canada after it suspended flights to the country for security reasons.
International airlines have scaled back their operations in Venezuela amid a dispute over dollar payments with the government, local media reported this week.
Ultimas Noticias said 11 of the 26 airlines operating in the country have either reduced the frequency of their flights or were using smaller aircraft to service Venezuelan routes.
The report linked the shrinkage to the government’s failure to reimburse airlines some $3.7 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In Venezuela, airlines are required to sell tickets in bolivars under an arrangement in which the government later converts the local currency to dollars.
But IATA says the government has made no dollar payments to the airlines since October.