CARACAS, Venezuela -- Moments before being taken into custody, opposition leader Leopoldo López told several thousand supporters he was willing to go to jail if the country would “wake up” and “build a way out of this disaster.”
The dramatic move — to become a potential political martyr rather than flee or go underground — presents a fresh challenge to President Nicolás Maduro and the country’s 15-year-old socialist revolution, as sporadic street protests enter their second week.
The government had been hunting López, 42, since Wednesday, when student demonstrations turned violent, leaving three dead and more than 60 injured.
But the former mayor and the leader of the Voluntad Popular party says he is not responsible for the bloodshed and is asking the government for a thorough investigation. Even so, López isn’t expecting a fair hearing.
“I’m turning myself over to an unjust justice, a corrupt justice, a justice that does not rule in line with the constitution or the laws,” he said.
López will face charges of homicide, vandalism, terrorism and intimidation, among others, his lawyers said.
As crowds surged around him, López — draped in a Venezuelan flag, wearing a white shirt and holding up a white flower — crossed a police line and was bundled into a white van by security forces.
It took the vehicle more than three hours to plow its way through the chanting crowds.
Initial reports had López going to the Carlota airbase, but his legal team said late Tuesday he would be spending the night in custody in Los Teques, in the state of Miranda, and face the court Wednesday.
Maduro said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello had personally driven López, to a “jail outside of Caracas.”
Maduro also said that Cabello had negotiated with López and his family for three days to coordinate the surrender.
On the other side of town, tens of thousands of red-clad government supporters huddled around the presidential palace.
The state-run PDVSA oil company had called its workers to the rally and claimed that more than 30,000 were present.
Luis Madrid, 30, an oil worker, said he was there to support Maduro and defend the socialist government that has provided free housing, education and healthcare. He also said López needed to face the consequences of stirring up dissent.
“People have to be responsible for their acts,” he said. “They want to set the country on fire with protests and call for help from international bodies saying Venezuela needs them. Then they wash their hands of everything.”
Speaking to the crowds, Maduro accused the opposition of trying to take power by force after having lost 18 of the past 19 elections.
Maduro said that since he narrowly won office in April, Venezuela’s right-wing has been intent on “killing” and “toppling” him.
“Fascism is an infection that has broken out in Venezuela again,” he said. “And the only treatment is applying justice and ending impunity.”
Maduro said he would jail anyone who provoked violence “regardless of who they are.”
Invoking the name of his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro said what he truly wanted was “dialogue and peace.”
Despite the large turnouts by both sides, the masses never met.
However, the administration said one government supporter was shot and killed, and that another was wounded in a separate attack at the ruling party’s headquarters in Carabobo state.
Local media reported that as many as 11 opposition supporters in Carabobo were wounded when they were swept by gunfire.
But the dueling marches also shined a light on the government’s control of the streets. While the opposition demonstration was surrounded by riot police and armored troop carriers, the pro-government march had free rein in downtown Caracas.
“They don’t confront them with lead, they don’t beat them and they can go wherever they want,” Alex Bonaldes, 40, an opposition protestor, complained of the police. “It’s a sign that Maduro doesn’t like dissidents. He only governs for one part of the country.”
Also Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said it was considering “what actions to take” after Venezuela ordered the expulsion of three U.S. consulate officers.
On Monday, Venezuela Foreign Minister Elías Jaua accused the three of “conspiring” and meeting with student leaders to fan the flames of the protest.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied the allegations and said the officials were simply “conducting normal outreach activities at universities on student visas, which is something we do around the world.”
“We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.”
Fifteen years of socialist rule have given the country one of the highest inflation rates in the world, hitting 56 percent last year. It’s also saddled with soaring crime and sporadic food shortages. The troubles have even some longtime Chavistas worried about the future.
One city of Caracas employee who did not give his name for fear of losing his job said he’s always voted for “socialism and the process” but that he’s losing faith amid the economic problems and government cronyism.
“Things are getting worse all the time,” he said. “Basic food items cost the world; they kill people like flies and a group of pseudo revolutionaries are disgustingly rich while the rest of the country is poor.”
The latest crisis is being driven by swelling student protests that began more than 10 days ago and have whipped up opposition sympathy.
Kleiber Marchan, a 21-year-old literature student at Caracas’ Central University, said he’d been joining the opposition protests because he “was tired.”
“I’m tired of the fact that my mom and her whole family have to wait in line just to buy flour, milk or paper,” he said. “I’m tired of the insecurity — of not being able to go onto the street without fearing that I might be robbed or even killed at any moment.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla, said he was asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate last week’s “crackdown” that left three dead.
Relying on photos and video that have circulated on the web, the opposition has been blaming government security and plainclothes gunmen behind police lines for shooting into the crowds.
The administration, in turn, pins the bloodshed on the opposition.
Even so, on Tuesday, the government officially replaced the head of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or SEBIN. The change comes after Maduro said that some SEBIN officials had disobeyed an order to stay in their barracks during the protest. According to the Ultimas Noticias newspaper, one SEBIN official is detained.
But the days of discontent have many weary, as shops have been shuttered and streets have been blocked.
Justo Hernández, a 43-year-old petroleum engineer at the pro-government rally, said the students needed to get back to school.
“They need to focus on what’s important,” he said. “They need to ask for libraries, study, work to become professionals. They shouldn’t be getting involved in politics.”
López, however, is counting on their continued activism. Before being detained, he called on Venezuela to work “peacefully and within the constitution” to change the government “but also on the streets.”
If his detention helped make a difference, he said, “then this wretched jailing will be worth it.”