Surprise concession for opposition leader renews hope in Venezuela

This troubled South American nation will be marking the 100th day of chaotic protests Sunday as it digests what appears to be an administration peace offering: the transfer of opposition leader Leopoldo López from military prison to house arrest.

In an unexpected move in the pre-dawn hours Saturday, the Supreme Court said it had moved López, who has served more than three years of a 14-year sentence, for humanitarian reasons and because of health problems.

In a speech late Saturday, President Nicolás Maduro suggested the concession was an olive branch, and reiterated the need for negotiations to “reach a grand peace deal” that could be “signed by all parties.”

But on the streets of the capital, López’s transfer was seen as a hard-fought victory borne from almost daily protests.

In a statement read by members of his Voluntad Popular party, López said he wouldn’t quit fighting until the entire country had been “liberated.”

“If maintaining my conviction to fight for freedom means I run the risk of being put back in my cell at Ramo Verde [military prison] then I am more than willing to do it,” he said.

And the MUD coalition of opposition parties is calling for more protests Sunday.

More than three months of chaotic demonstrations have left more than 90 dead, thousands injured and cast a shadow over the future of this once prosperous nation.

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Demonstrators are demanding general elections, humanitarian aid and the release of more than 300 people they consider political prisoners.

Maduro, for his part, has been digging in and says he will serve out his term through 2019. He’ also pushing ahead with controversial plans to overhaul the constitution.

But on Saturday, Venezuela’s public defender, William Saab, suggested more prisoner releases might be in the works.

Journalist and political analyst Vladimir Villegas, who was standing vigil outside of López’s home Saturday, told Globovisión television that it was too soon to tell what the surprise transfer might mean.

“We don’t know if this was a unilateral decision on the government’s part, part of a political negotiation, or due to the pressure on the street,” Villegas said. “But I do think that starting from this, we can re-float the idea that what we need in Venezuela is a political negotiation.”

He also said that a group of leaders planned to present a document to Maduro on Monday that might open the door for talks.

If that does happen, it would be a dramatic shift for the opposition, which has soured on negotiations after failed efforts in 2014 and 2016 produced no real results and created division in its ranks.

López, 46, a former presidential candidate, is one of Venezuela’s best-known and popular political leaders. He was jailed in 2014 and sentenced to 13 years and nine months for his role in widespread protests that year that claimed more than 40 lives. While the government held him responsible for inciting violence, civil rights groups called the closed-door trial a farce.

“Terms like ‘kangaroo court’ or ‘sham trial’ do not begin to describe what happened to López since his arrest in 2014 … the conviction should have been vacated immediately,” Garry Kasparov, chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, said in a statement Saturday. “The dictatorship is crumbling fast in Venezuela, and this surprising decision [to transfer López] may be a catalyst to recuperate democracy in Venezuela.”

The government has long insisted that the man they call “the Monster of Ramo Verde” wasn’t eligible for clemency. And López himself in recent weeks said he wouldn’t accept house arrest until all political prisoners were released.

Even so, his transfer was being received as progress amid widespread violence that has been edging closer to outright civil war. On Wednesday, Venezuela’s independence day, a pro-government mob broke into the National Assembly and beat and bloodied opposition lawmakers.

“The release of Leopoldo López is a major capitulation by Venezuela’s government, which just days ago allowed armed thugs to assault the National Assembly and beat up opposition legislators in broad daylight,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. “It’s a sign that the massive street protests — plus the calls by democratic leaders throughout Latin America to end the repression — are having an impact.”

In neighboring Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos said it was good news that López was back with his family and urged Venezuelans to embrace dialogue to “find a peaceful solution.”

But others were more skeptical of an administration that has appeared to make concessions in the past only to continue shutting-down dissent.

The White House issued a statement calling Lopez’s continued house arrest “unacceptable.”

“We welcome Leopoldo Lopez’s release from prison, however his confinement under house arrest and continued denial of basic human rights is unacceptable to the United States. The President has followed Mr. Lopez’s case closely and personally met with his wife at the White House regarding his situation earlier this year. All Venezuelans should be able to express their political beliefs freely and the United States continues to call for the immediate release of all political prisoners held by the Maduro regime,” the White House statement read.

“The Supreme Court and the Maduro regime didn’t make this decision because they’re good, they did it because they’re looking for benefits,” said Patricia Andrade, with the Venezuela Awareness Foundation in South Florida. “I’m happy that [López] is out of prison, but the problems persist and we can’t let our guard down.”

As news spread about López’s release, hundreds of supporters and well-wishers gathered around his house. Among them was Jose Baptista, 39, who was wearing the tricolor Venezuelan flag as a cape.

“This gives me a lot of hope,” he said. “And it makes me think that this could be the beginning of interesting changes — that we desperately need in our country.”

El Nuevo Herald’s Catalina Ruiz Parra contributed to this report from Miami.

Jim Wyss: +57-312-465-1776, @jimwyss