NEW: Charges against Leopoldo Lopez include murder, terrorism, arson
NEW: In a video message posted on Twitter, Lopez says he has no regrets
Maduro compares Venezuela's opposition to an infection that must be cured
Government blames U.S.-backed opposition; protesters call for freedoms, end to scarcities
They’ve faced gunfire, tear gas and water cannons.
And now a man who led them in days of anti-government demonstrations is behind bars after turning himself in to authorities.
But Venezuelan protesters were still in the streets after opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez’s arrest Tuesday, demanding better security, an end to scarcities and protected freedom of speech.
President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters also rallied, blaming the opposition for causing the very problems it protests.
Clashes during days of demonstrations have already left three anti-government protesters and one government supporter dead. And the simmering tensions show no signs of letting up.
The confrontation took a dramatic turn Tuesday, when Lopez, accused by the government of conspiracy and murder in connection with the recent violence, marched with a crowd of thousands of protesters before surrendering to national guard troops.
“The options I had were leave the country, and I will never leave Venezuela!” Lopez told the massive crowd. “The other option was to remain in hiding, but that option could have left doubt among some, including some who are here, and we don’t have anything to hide.”
Hours later at a rally with throngs of supporters, Maduro said the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly had helped negotiate Lopez’s surrender and was taking him to a prison outside Caracas.
Maduro: Opposition leaders are ‘fascists’
Maduro described opposition leaders as right-wing fascists who plant seeds of fear and violence. He claimed they have U.S. backing and repeatedly tried to assassinate him and overthrow his democratically elected government.
And he compared the opposition to an illness plaguing the South American country.
“The only way to fight fascism in a society is like when you have a very bad infection … you need to take penicillin, or rather the strongest antibiotic, and undergo treatment,” he said. “Fascism is an infection in Venezuela and in the world. And the only treatment that exists is justice.”
Footage from Tuesday’s demonstration shows Lopez being led by national guard troops to a military vehicle, waving to the crowd as he is placed inside and even continuing to speak on a megaphone until the door is closed.
Charges against him include murder, terrorism and arson in connection with the protests, according to his party, Popular Will. Lopez denies the accusations, the party said in a statement calling for witnesses of the protests to send their own accounts of what happened to be used in his defense.
A message on Lopez’s Twitter account Tuesday night said he was on the way to a military prison, where party officials said he would be held at least until a court appearance scheduled for Wednesday. The post included a link to an apparently pre-recorded video message, showing the opposition leader seated on a couch next to his wife, calling on Venezuelans to keep pushing for change.
“If you are watching this video, it is because the government has carried out one more abuse, full of lies, of falsehoods, of twisting facts and trying to manipulate the reality that we Venezuelans are living,” he said. “I want to tell all Venezuelans that I do not regret what we have done up to this moment, in convoking the protests … The people came out. The people woke up.”
Obama: Venezuela ‘trying to distract from its own failings’
Major social and economic problems in Venezuela have fueled the protests. But as the demonstrations gained steam, officials have pointed fingers at other factors, accusing the United States of plotting to destabilize the government.
On Monday, Venezuela gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, accusing them of conspiring to bring down the government. At a rally Tuesday, Maduro shouted, “Yankee, go home” from the stage, drawing cheers from the crowd.
The opposition has been defeated over and over again at the polls, and despite this decision by the people, it continues to call for marches and protests, Julio Rafael Chavez, a ruling party lawmaker, told CNN en Español on Tuesday.
“The peace-loving Venezuelans feel very, very worried by the irrational, fascist-leaning attitude and actions of a sector of the Venezuelan opposition,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that bitter protests and counterprotests by supporters and opponents of the government have threatened political stability in Venezuela over the past decade.
Many of Maduro’s claims – of U.S. intervention, of assassination plots – were also lobbed by the late President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, but otherwise outlasted the protests and repeatedly won reelection. He ruled for 14 years, until his death last year after a long battle with cancer.
The U.S. State Department has repeatedly denied Venezuela’s accusations. Asked whether the United States backs Lopez, Sen. John McCain told CNN Tuesday that his country “backs the people’s right to express their will, to object to corruption, the repression of the media and the arrest of political dissidents.”
Opposition leader: Government wants confrontation