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Venezuela protests reach boiling point as opposition leader is arrested

February 19, 2014 at 6:17 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: A month of protests reached a boiling point this week in economically strapped Venezuela. At the center of the uproar is a charismatic leader seeking to oust the current government.

Demonstrators burned trash, chanted, and made noise any way they could outside a Caracas court where a top opposition leader faced criminal charges.

Leopoldo Lopez is accused of fomenting protest during a tumultuous three weeks in Venezuela. The Harvard-trained economist surrendered to police yesterday, after imploring supporters to keep up the pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ, “Popular Will” Party (through interpreter): Every Venezuelan who wants change, gather ourselves, organize ourselves and hold nonviolent protests. I swear to you, we will overcome and very soon we will have a free and democratic Venezuela.

GWEN IFILL: The protesters have denounced Maduro’s stewardship of the oil-rich Venezuelan economy, also at issue, rampant crime, controls on media, and food shortages.

Five people have died in the last week, as protests turned violent, a turn many blame on so-called colectivos, a paramilitary citizens militia allied to the Maduro government.

MARIA SANCHEZ, (through interpreter): We cannot support Maduro. He’s a bad man. He’s worse than Chavez. There are no medicines. There’s nothing in this country. For how long are we going to continue to suffer in this country?

GWEN IFILL: Maduro, in turn, has minced no words in denouncing the protests.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela (through interpreter): I have been personally overseeing the operations, so that I can guarantee peace in the face of the fascists gathering today with their armed gangs, with their trained groups, so that there would be peace.

GWEN IFILL: Maduro was elected last April by a razor-thin margin. He’d been vice president for the late Hugo Chavez, who feuded with successive American presidents and accused the U.S. of orchestrating a 2002 coup.

Maduro has leveled the same charge this time. On Monday, Venezuela’s foreign minister ordered three American diplomats to leave the country. It’s been four years since the U.S. posted an ambassador there.

The White House rejected claims the U.S. is promoting unrest.

For now, a tense calm prevails in Caracas, as both sides wait for whatever comes next.