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Nearly 200 in Tampa protest Venezuela violence


Published:   |   Updated: February 18, 2014 at 11:14 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez emerged from days of hiding and surrendered to police before thousands of supporters Tuesday, saying he hopes his arrest awakens Venezuela to the corruption and economic disaster caused by 15 years of socialist rule.

Before his arrest, Lopez spoke with a megaphone to more than 10,000 people, saying he didn't fear going to jail to defend his beliefs and constitutional right to peacefully protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

“If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice, by Nicolas Maduro,” Lopez told the sea of supporters who were dressed in white to symbolize non-violence.

The unrest in Venezuela and Lopez' arrest sparked three separate rallies in Tampa on Tuesday, each drawing close to 200 people. Another rally is planned for Saturday.

“Every day we see more Venezuelans here and the situation has gotten to a breaking point,'' said Armando Acosta, one of nearly 200 marchers at a noon rally in front of Tampa City Hall. “We all have family members there risking their lives.”

Lopez' arrest in Venezuela was dramatic.

As crowds surged around him, Lopez — 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.

He will face charges of homicide, vandalism, terrorism and intimidation, among others, his lawyers said.

The U.S.-educated Lopez, 42, was taken to Los Teques, in the state of Miranda, his lawyers said. His Popular Will party said he was expected to appear before a civilian judge today on charges linked to protests last week in which three people were killed as government forces clashed with protesters.

The threat of more violence hung over Tuesday's demonstration as Maduro led a rival march to denounce what he calls a “fascist” plot to overthrow him. But Lopez's repeated appeals for restraint, a strong police presence and heavy rain appeared to calm emotions and there were no reports of major violence in the capital.

A serious outburst was reported in Valencia, the third largest city where opposition demonstrators clashed with National Guard troops. Enzo Scrano, a mayor of one of the districts that make up the city and a member of an opposition party, said 11 protesters were wounded, including at least three with bullet wounds fired by unknown gunmen on motorcycles. One woman was shot in the head and was in critical condition, he said.

Hours after the arrest, Maduro addressed the rival crowd of red-shirted, pro-government oil workers, and said he personally oversaw security arrangements to make sure the opposition march and Lopez's surrender didn't generate violence.

“Nobody has the right to subject families to street violence by small, armed and hooded groups that today, the 18th of February, wanted to overthrow the government,” Maduro said, accusing Lopez of “psychological warfare” and treason. “In Venezuela everyone has full political freedoms.”

Maduro said Lopez was escorted to a jail outside Caracas by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who in recent days met with the opposition leader's family to warn them of an attempt by right-wing extremists to assassinate him. He didn't provide any details or evidence to back up the claim.

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 Lopez 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.”

The dueling marches 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.”

In Tampa, scores of people waving signs and flags paraded down Kennedy Boulevard to Tampa City Hall during the first of a trio of rallies. A 4 p.m. rally at Curtis Hixon Park also drew an estimated 200 people, many wearing caps or shirts featuring the Venezuelan colors of red, yellow and blue.

Elisardy Briceño came from Sarasota with a friend to the rally at Curtis Hixon. His face painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, he carried a bullhorn to lead chants.

“We want a liberated country,” said Briceño, who was born and raised in Venezuela. “We don't want a dictatorship like the one that exists in Cuba.”

He said he'd like to see the United States government take action against Maduro's regime.

“We want the United States to intervene,” said Briceño, 45. “In Venezuela there are no arms to fight against the government. The armed government fights against its unarmed countrymen.”

An estimated 220 people attended the 6 p.m. vigil for peace in Venezuela at Tampa's Fútbol 5 Soccer Sports Center.

“We feel frustrated in not being able to do something for the Venezuelans who are over there,” said Nela Suarez, a Venezuelan who helped organize the event. “It's very frustrating because we can't be there and be there together with our brothers.”

She anticipates there will be change in the government. But she worries, she said, that “there will be more violence and more repression.”

The rallies in Venezuela came one day after Maduro's government gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting opposition plots to topple his 10-month-old administration.

In Washington, the State Department said allegations that the U.S. is helping to organize protests are “baseless and false” and said it was evaluating what retaliatory action to take for the diplomats' expulsion. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.

“We've seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the U.S.,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding that the Obama administration was “alarmed” by displays of violence by security forces and pro-government militias at recent demonstrations.

Hundreds of students have spent the past week in the streets of Caracas alternating between peaceful protests by day and pitched battles with police at night in unrest fed by hardships that include rampant crime, 56 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods.

Three people were killed in clashes last Wednesday – two students and a government supporter. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly into a crowd of protesters. On Monday, a 17-year-old boy was killed when an unidentified vehicle accelerated into a group of student protesters in the state of Sucre.

In Tampa, another rally is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at the intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive.

Philip Williams, director for the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, said he understands the push for rallies.

“It's a country that has been polarized politically,” Williams said. “A lot of Venezuelans (here) are concerned about the developments in their country. When you're far from home you want to do something.”

“(But) the United States isn't there yet in making any major changes to its foreign policy towards Venezuela,” Williams said.

Centro reporter Miriam Silva-Warren and Tribune reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.

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