Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s latest move amidst rising tensions and volatile political protests involves the expulsion of three U.S. consular officials following accusations that they met with anti-government protesters, as well as calling opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez a “coward.” Maduro made no mention of the consular officials he was expelling by name, but made an announcement on a national TV broadcast saying that the foreign ministry would provide details at a later date.
President Maduro was skeptical of the intent of the consular officials in his address, saying in the broadcast that the officials “work in visas.” Maduro implied that the U.S. was snubbing his authority by helping secure visas for anti-government protesters.
This follows a speech Maduro made before supporters on Saturday, insisting that opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez turn himself in. Maduro added that Venezuela’s direction towards a strong socialist government will not be undermined. “Turn yourself in, coward,” Maduro said, openly belittling the opposition leader.
Secretary of State John Kerry made his concerns known, saying in a statement Saturday that he was “alarmed” by the crackdown on protests, as well as the outstanding warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
Leopoldo Lopez, the former mayor of Chacao in eastern Caracas, has become the face of the movement which began a little over two weeks ago. Escalating into violence, clashes between protesters and government forces have put Leopoldo Lopez and his movement’s top figures on President Maduro’s blacklist. The latest clash claimed the lives of three men who were protesting in the capital.
The protests come as shortages of basic necessities, a rising crime rate, and high inflation plague the fragile Venezuelan government. In the wake of the death of former President Hugo Chavez, Maduro has done little to ease tensions over Venezuela’s state of affairs.
Pro-government demonstrators have also descended into the capital’s streets, showing their support for the embattled Maduro. Observers fear that the two sides being so close to each other could bring more violence in the coming days. So far hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested.
Maduro scapegoated “corrupt businessmen” and “saboteurs” for the shortages, saying that there are forces who are intentionally seeking to sow unrest into the country. Following this, Maduro maintained that Leopoldo Lopez and his movement have incited violence in order to carry out a coup against his government.
Lopez deflected the claim, saying that all he wants is peace for the country and for the wrongs of the administration to be righted. Lopez urged his supporters in a video message on Twitter to join him on a march Tuesday towards the Justice Ministry building from Venezuela Square in Central Caracas. He added that his supporters should wear white to symbolize their intent of peacefully protesting.
Lopez also called out Maduro and the government, openly challenging them to arrest him under what he calls “illegal” pretenses. “I have nothing to fear. I have not committed any crime.” said Lopez in the video message.
Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and the standard of living has rapidly declined, with power outages and basic shortages running families and businesses dry.
By John Amaruso