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Maduro likely to feel heat from both sides after López’s release

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro holds a copy of the country’s Constitution as he speaks during a meeting with supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas.
By Alexandra Ulmer
Reuters

President might end up energising opposition and alienating part of his base


CARACAS — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro sought to ease protests and global censure by granting house arrest to opposition leader Leopoldo López. But he risks both energising the opposition and alienating part of his socialist base with the decision.

After three months of often violent street demonstrations demanding early elections and freedom for activists, the pro-government Supreme Court has now let Venezuela’s most famous jailed politician return to his Caracas home after three years.

López, 46, a US-educated economist and leader of the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) party, is beloved by some in the opposition who admire his hardline stance and see him as a future president. But he is loathed by many in the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) who deem him an elitist coup-monger intent on overthrowing them.

The government has framed the release, partly brokered by former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as evidence that dialogue, not conflict, is the way forward.

Maduro quickly urged López to rein in protests he says are seeking a coup amid a blistering economic crisis. But the decision could be an unhappy middle ground that further isolates Maduro, a former bus-driver and union leader narrowly elected to replace late leader Hugo Chávez in 2013, without bringing him tangible benefits.

Greeting the decision with fireworks and tears of joy at López’s home last weekend, opposition supporters vowed to stick to the streets until all their demands are met.

“This is like a burst of oxygen after so many years of fighting,” said student Ángel Ybirma, 28, who called his mother when he heard the news before draping himself in a Venezuelan flag and hopping on a motorbike to celebrate at the López home. “This shows the government is scared, that it’s under a lot of international pressure, and that we’re going to emerge from this soon. We have to keep going with more passion.”

López, jailed on charges of inciting violence during similar protests in 2014, himself urged Venezuelans to keep up the gruelling and often violent street action that has led to nearly 100 deaths, hundreds of arrests, and thousands of injuries.

The opposition is holding an unofficial plebiscite this Sunday to ask Venezuelans what they think of Maduro’s controversial plan to rewrite the Constitution and whether they instead want an early vote to remove him. Also cheered by some signs of dissent within government and the Armed Forces, Maduro’s foes are unlikely to soon sit down for public talks with the government.

A dialogue mediated by Zapatero last year collapsed with little to show for it, and many in the opposition see him as a sellout who bought Maduro more time. Still, the López decision and the revived role of international mediators could carve out a potential roadmap for future negotiations.

CHAVISMO

The concession to López, the scion of a wealthy family, could also deepen some fissures within Chavismo, previously united under the charismatic and domineering Chávez.

For years, officials have derided López as a murderer and instigator of violence responsible for dozens of deaths during the 2014 protests, so his sudden release for alleged health reasons is sitting badly with some Chavistas.

“Today we awoke to a decision that fills us with indignation,” said former prisons minister and prominent Socialist Party official Iris Varela, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with a stylised image of Chávez’s eyes.

She added that the decision highlights separation of powers in Venezuela and that she would accept it, but there were further rumblings on social media from other Chávez supporters who think Maduro is betraying the late leader’s legacy.

Some questioned the Supreme Court’s stated reason for granting López house arrest given he seemed healthy and fit when he saluted supporters, while others warned it would not halt protests and said it was an insult to the 2014 victims.

To be sure, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding López’s release from jail, including how the move was negotiated and whether other releases could follow. But in any case, the decision to let him go home is not a game-changer for the opposition. Maduro retains a firm grip over institutions, including the crucial Supreme Court, and is pushing ahead with a new constitutional assembly with powers to rewrite the charter and supersede institutions.

The opposition warns the July 30 vote is a sham poll designed to consolidate his powers as a “dictator.” They hope their own plebiscite on Sunday will further de-legitimise Maduro, although the process will be purely symbolic.

The historically fragmented Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition will also have to adjust to the return of López, seen by some in the opposition as hot-headed and domineering. He and fellow opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a sports-loving lawyer who advocates more moderate tactics, have clashed over strategy and leadership in the past and could jostle for a future presidential ticket.

The terms of López’s house arrest have not been made public, so it is unclear to what extent he will be able to participate in future strategising within the opposition. But the coalition is united in its street strategy and both men are banned from holding office, likely lessening tensions.

“This is not the moment for individual rivalries. The big responsibility right now is to find a path forward for the country, so I wouldn’t worry about divisions,” said political consultant Armando Briquet, a former campaign manager of two-time opposition presidential candidate Capriles.

 


@alexandraulmer

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