| CARACAS | From the print edition
After an opposition leader is arrested, the violence continues unabated
“HE WHO tires, loses”, ran the slogan on the back of the T-shirt of Leopoldo López, who was perched precariously on the plinth of a bronze statue in the east of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. “I’ve committed no crime,” he told tens of thousands of supporters on February 18th in his first public appearance since the government had issued an arrest warrant for him. To cries of “No!”, he announced that he would hand himself in to what he called an “unjust justice system”.
Mr López was giving what could be his last public speech for a long time. On February 12th three people were shot dead in the aftermath of a protest march that he and others had convened. The government promptly accused him of conspiracy, terrorism and murder. After passing through a cordon of riot police, he was bundled into a white, armoured national-guard vehicle (pictured) and whisked off to a military prison outside the capital. He could spend decades in jail if convicted.
Mr López leads the more confrontational wing of Democratic Unity (MUD), an alliance of opposition parties. Like Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate and the leader of MUD’s moderate wing, he preaches non-violence. But unlike Mr Capriles, Mr López believes that demonstrations can prompt a change of government. The present one, he says, is incapable of solving the country’s problems.
Widespread discontent, goes his argument, can be channelled into effective political action. Under Nicolás Maduro, the radical leftist president who was elected last year after the death from cancer of his mentor, Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan economy has hit the buffers. Inflation is rocketing; the black-market value of the country’s currency is plummeting (see chart); and food, medicines and other basic goods are in increasingly short supply. To gain momentum, Mr López’s camp has joined forces with students, who had taken to the streets demanding action to curb violent crime.
The government’s response to days of opposition protests has been brutal. Police and national-guard riot squads have made generous use of batons and tear gas. Officers of Sebin, the state-security service, and plainclothes gunmen have fired live rounds. Dozens of detainees describe sustained beatings, electric-shock torture and death threats.
Cowed by the country’s media watchdog, TV and radio stations have eschewed live coverage of the protests (whereas marches organised by the government got lots of air time). A score of journalists have been beaten, detained or had their material erased. NTN24, a news channel based in Bogotá in Colombia, was removed from cable and satellite services for failing to observe the blackout. State media reiterated Mr Maduro’s claim that he was the victim of a “fascist coup plot”, financed by the United States. On February 17th the government ordered the expulsion of three American consular officials.
In a triumphalist speech after Mr López’s arrest, the president claimed to have “contained the attack—for now”. But demonstrations, now in their third week, are continuing. As The Economist went to press there were reports of widespread violence, much of it carried out by armed pro-government gangs known as colectivos. Far from exploiting the split in the MUD, the government crackdown has forced moderates to take to the streets in support of Mr López. Mr Capriles has promised to call his own march in the next few days.
Yet Mr Capriles has also said it was wrong to create the expectation that the government was about to fall. There have been demonstrations in poor districts of Caracas, but less well-off Venezuelans remain reluctant to back the opposition. “For the protests to be effective, they must include the poor,” argued Mr Capriles.
In arresting Mr López, however, the government may have gone too far. Already a well-known victim of political persecution, his stature stands to be enhanced, both at home and abroad. In 2011 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that a decision to bar him from holding elected office for six years was illegal and ordered it to be reversed. The Venezuelan government refused to obey. International reactions to Mr López’s arrest were swift. José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, a lobbying group, said that the Venezuelan authorities had provided no evidence linking Mr López to any crime—just “insults and conspiracy theories”.
It is unclear to what extent Mr Maduro is actually calling the shots. After images emerged of Sebin officers apparently firing on demonstrators, the president claimed they had disobeyed his orders and sacked the general in charge. He also attempted to distance himself from pro-regime gunmen on motorcycles by saying such groups “had no place in the revolution”. But Iris Varela, the prisons minister, tweeted gleefully that the opposition was “shit-scared” of the colectivos, calling them a “fundamental pillar in the defence of the homeland”. And not long after Mr Maduro declared anyone using firearms should act within the law, the same black-clad irregulars staged an armed raid on the headquarters of Popular Will, Mr López’s party.
If not the president, who is putting the thugs on the street? A prime suspect is Diosdado Cabello, the hardline president of the National Assembly. Perhaps the two men are playing good cop/bad cop. Either way, discontent within the army is said to be growing. Repeated government calls for “unity” in the armed forces suggest all is not well in the barracks. He may not be behind bars but, trapped in a vicious cycle of radicalisation, Mr Maduro increasingly seems a prisoner of events.