BOGOTA, Colombia -- Venezuela is bracing for a high-stakes showdown Tuesday as opposition and government supporters march on the capital amid heightened tensions that have left at least three dead and scores injured during week-long protests.
At the head of the opposition march will be Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Chacao and a political activist, who has been underground since the government said he was wanted for sparking last week’s violence.
López, a Harvard-trained lawyer, has dared authorities to detain him during Tuesday’s demonstration and said he will head to the Ministry of Justice to demand the government arrest those responsible for last week’s murders.
Shortly after López announced the march, President Nicolás Maduro called for a simultaneous rally around the Miraflores presidential palace. On Monday, the president of the state-run PDVSA oil company called on its 53,000 workers to head to Miraflores to “defend of the revolution.”
Both sides are calling for peace, but the prospect of the dueling marches has the capital on edge.
“There’s definitely a sense of nervousness,” said Hector Pinares, who drives a taxi in downtown Caracas. “Today, everything is OK but [Tuesday] I think a lot of people are going to avoid the center.”
The government has not authorized the opposition demonstration. And late Monday organizers said many of their supporters would end the march before crossing into central Caracas.
“The idea is not to put anyone’s life in danger,” said Karina Rico, an official with López’s Voluntad Popular political party. As Rico was on the phone, security forces were raiding the party’s headquarters, where they reportedly seized hard drives and detained an official’s bodyguard.
On Twitter, López said he would go to the Ministry of Justice alone. “I will not put any Venezuelan’s life at risk,” he wrote.
If López is taken into custody Tuesday, as some suspect, it’s likely to fuel discontent, said Oswaldo Ramirez, a political analyst with ORC Consultores, an independent consulting group, in Caracas. López is a popular figure who is recognized by 95 percent of Venezuelans, he said. When he was banned from political office in 2011 for three years, it was largely because the late President Hugo Chávez recognized him as a threat.
“He would be much more powerful behind bars — he would be an icon of the struggle,” Ramirez said.
Instead, the government probably wants to keep him on the street where it can hem him in and continue to chip away at his reputation, Ramirez speculated.
On Monday, the ruling PSUV party accused López of being a CIA plant intent on destabilizing the government.
López’s defiance and the swelling marches are, perhaps, the biggest challenge that Maduro has faced since narrowly winning election in April. The one-time bus driver, union organizer and long-time foreign minister has struggled to fill his successors shoes as he has been battered by runaway inflation, soaring crime and sporadic food shortages.
Added to that volatile mix is a surging student movement that has been at the vanguard of national demonstrations for more than a week.
On Wednesday, the protests turned violent and three people were killed. While the government has blamed “right-wing fascists,” the opposition points to videos and photos that appear to show security forces and gunmen behind police lines firing into the crowd.
Scattered protests have continued since then and on Monday local media reported demonstrations in Caracas, the university town of Merida and the border-state of Táchira.
The government has blamed the malaise on everyone from “Nazi fascists” to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. On Monday, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country and accused them of fueling the protests.
In a news conference, Jaua said the three consular officers had been meeting with university students under the guise of offering U.S. visas, when they were actually making contact with student leaders and providing training.
The U.S. State Department called the allegations “baseless and false.”
Jaua also repeated government claims that the protests are part of a destabilization plot aimed at toppling Maduro’s 11-month-old administration.
“Venezuela is facing a fascist attack promoted by groups that have previously been trained to generate violence,” he said. Maduro’s predecessor, Chávez, was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup that the government has long maintained was U.S. backed, despite Washington denials.
Jaua said he would be meeting with ambassadors to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, on Tuesday “to provide them with details about the threats and impositions the government of the United States is directing at Venezuela.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the government had not been formally notified of the expulsions and denied any involvement in the protests.
“We support human rights and fundamental freedoms — including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly — in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide,” she said in a statement. “We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”
The two countries haven’t had ambassadors since 2010 and diplomatic ousters are commonplace.
In October, Venezuela ejected three U.S. embassy officials after it accused them of plotting to “sabotage” the economy and electrical infrastructure. The U.S. responded by kicking out Venezuela’s top diplomat Calixto Ortega.
In March, just hours before Chávez’s death was announced, Maduro ordered the expulsion of two U.S. military attachés after he said they tried to infiltrate the armed forces.
On Sunday, shortly after he ordered the latest round of expulsions, Maduro said Venezuela would not tolerate interference from any nation.
“Go back to Washington and conspire,” he said. “Leave Venezuela alone.”