BOGOTA, Colombia -- In a move that could escalate tensions in divided Venezuela, two of the country’s top opposition leaders called for marches in coming days amid swelling student protests that have been marred by violence.
Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and the head of the opposition coalition known as the MUD, said he would call for a national march against criminal gangs and violence.
A few hours later, Leopoldo López, a sometimes-rival of Capriles’ for opposition leadership and who is being sought by authorities, asked followers to join him on Tuesday as he marches to demand the government quit persecuting protesters and release those jailed in last week’s demonstrations.
Capriles did not set a date for his march and it’s unclear if the two will be combined. But either mobilization, in unison with ongoing student protests, would likely generate a large turnout.
Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro says he’s ordering the expulsion of three U.S. consular officials, The Associated Press reported.
President Nicolas Maduro made the announcement during a televised speech Sunday night that comes amid rising tensions in Venezuela over anti-government protests.
Maduro hasn’t identified the officials but accuses them of infiltrating Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing consular work involving student visas.
The president has accused the U.S. of working with the opposition in trying to topple his socialist government. Washington denies it is trying to undermine Maduro.
The opposition leaders’ announcements come after more than a week of student demonstrations have rattled the nation and left at least three dead and scores injured.
The government has blamed “right-wing fascists” and is seeking López, whom it accuses of being behind the violence.
In a statement Sunday, López said he would be leading Tuesday’s march and that authorities could apprehend him if they wanted.
“I have nothing to fear, I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “If there’s a decision to put me in prison, I will be there.”
He said protesters will be demanding that the government find those responsible for last week’s killings. But many are blaming the administration for the bloodshed, pointing to eyewitness accounts and videos circulating on the Internet that seem to show security forces and plainclothes gunmen behind police lines, firing into the crowds.
Speaking to demonstrators on Sunday, student organizer Gaby Arellano placed the blame on pro-government groups known as colectivos, which have been accused of acting with impunity.
"They’re the ones responsible for the chaos and anarchy not only in Caracas but all of the national territory," she said. "They’re the ones who have made families mourn in the last days and now the [government] wants to blame Leopoldo López for the situation."
More than a week’s worth of scattered protests have taken their toll, as storefronts have been smashed and traffic has been paralyzed with burning barricades. The government is also accusing demonstrators of attacking government buildings and the state-run VTV television station.
President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday continued to cast blame on the opposition.
"Venezuela has the right to defend itself from fascist gangs," he said. "We will defeat those gangs."
Maduro also accused the national and international press of being "accomplices" of the violence. While Maduro’s predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, had a long track record of hounding the national media, Maduro seems to be escalating the attacks. During the protests last week, he pulled Colombian cable broadcaster NTN24 off the air because he said it was causing "alarm."
Maduro maintains that the protests are cover for a coup and says the tensions mirror the tumultuous time in April 2002 when Chávez was briefly ousted.
Communications Minister Delcy Rodriguez hammered away at that theme Sunday.
"The right has had opportunities at the ballot box and they’ve lost," she said, referring to presidential elections in March after Chávez succumbed to cancer. "There are no other elections this year, but their methods of dissenting and expressing themselves cannot include violence and destruction."
The protests — and the violence that ensued — have grabbed international headlines. The United Nations and others have called on the government to investigate the three deaths that occurred Wednesday. Two of the dead were opposition protesters and one was a pro-government protester. Maduro has said that authorities are investigating and said that the pro-government protester and one of the students were killed by the same gun 15 minutes apart.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in on Venezuela.
"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 López," he said in a statement. "We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence."
Venezuela has been plagued by problems recently. Fifteen years of socialist rule by Chávez, and now Maduro, are being blamed for saddling the country with the hemisphere’s highest inflation rate (it hit 56 percent in 2013) and a murder spree that claimed almost 25,000 lives last year, by some counts.
On Sunday, Capriles said the administration was the only one benefiting from the latest round of protests and bloodshed.
"It’s obvious the government has a plan to hide the country’s problems," he said. "The country is profoundly unhappy and the government knows it."