As Venezuela descended into violent unrest, the nation’s military dispatched paratroopers to its western region to squelch the intensifying protests, while a government opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, said from jail that his followers should continue demonstrations.
“I’m fine, I ask you not to give up, I won’t,” Lopez reportedly said in a handwritten note he gave his wife at Ramo Verde prison in Caracas, and which was eventually posted on the Internet.
Lopez, 42, is a Harvard-educated economist and one of the few surviving relatives of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar. Lopez is considered the leader of the protest movement that began earlier this month against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to the late President Hugo Chavez.
Many observers predicted that after Chavez’s death, Maduro would lack the charm and immense charisma to hold together a nation where many Venezuelans had grown frustrated with the everyday difficulties of life under a socialist regime.
At least six people have died during the protests, five from gunshots, and one who was run over by a vehicle, according to published reports. The government added two more deaths to the toll: a woman who had a heart attack and a judicial official who crashed his car swerving around a barricade.
Lopez, accused of instigating the violence, surrendered to the military this week after an arrest warrant was issued.
According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, the battalion of paratroopers would be sent to the state of Tachira, on the western border with Colombia, where life in the state capital of San Cristobal has been pushed to a standstill because of the clashes between protesters and government units.
“These units will enable the city to function, so food can get in, so people can go about their normal lives,” Rodriguez said. “It’s simply meant to restore order.”
Meanwhile, President Maduro has called for talks with U.S. President Obama to resolve the lingering hostilities between the two countries. The U.S. was a frequent target of attacks by Chavez against American imperialism.
Maduro, who has accused conservatives in the U.S. and the American media of attempting to overthrow his government, said the meeting would help “put the truth out on the table.” But the Venezuelan government is unlikely to engender much good will in Washington after its move to revoke the accreditations of CNN reporters covering the conflict.
On Thursday, Maduro had threatened to “take action” against CNN unless it ceased what he described as “hostile coverage.”
“I won’t accept war propaganda against Venezuela. If they don’t rectify themselves, out of Venezuela,” he said.
Patricia Janiot, one of the two U.S.-based CNN journalists who had their work permits revoked, said she had been harassed by Venezuelan officials as she left the country.
CNN issued a statement saying it was still negotiating with Venezuelan authorities.
“We hope the government reconsiders its decision. Meanwhile, we will carry on covering events in Venezuela in a fair, accurate and balanced manner,” the statement said.
While Maduro is asking to meet with Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry was denouncing the actions of the Venezuelan government.
“This is not how democracies behave,” Kerry said. “I call on the Venezuelan government to step back from its efforts to stifle dissent through force and respect basic human rights. The solution to Venezuela’s problems can only be found through dialogue with all Venezuelans, engaging in a free exchange of opinions in a climate of mutual respect.”
In the words of Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition who lost to Maduro in the last election, the government engaged in “brutal repression” as it went after students and other protesters. He said in some cases they broke into apartment buildings to arrest those accused of taking part in an attempted coup.
“What does the government want, a civil war?” Capriles asked at a news conference.
“If this isn’t a totalitarian system then I don’t know what can explain what is happening in this country,” said David Smolansky, an opposition mayor of a district in Caracas.