Venezuela’s Leopoldo Lopez moved to house arrest in good health, relatives say

A triumphant Leopoldo Lopez appeared from behind a fence and kissed the Venezuelan flag. He raised it with his right arm and stretched it, as supporters cheered in front of his home on Saturday. 

The Venezuelan Supreme Court released the politician, a fierce opponent of President Nicolas Maduro, from prison and transferred him to house arrest Saturday after more than three years in a military prison.

“This is a step in the march toward freedom,” Lopez wrote in a letter in Spanish that lawmaker Freddy Guevara read aloud to reporters and allies. “I carry no resentment, nor will I give up my beliefs. My position against this regime is firm as are my convictions to fight for a real peace, coexistence, change and freedom.”‘

The euphoric crowd of supporters chanted in unison, “Yes, we can!”

The Venezuelan government announced the “humanitarian measures” were due to health reasons and “serious signs of irregularities” in the handling of the case. But a relative who left Lopez’s house in Caracas said he was in good health. 

Lopez’s father, who shares his son’s name, said from exile in Spain that his son’s transfer was the result of international pressure on Maduro.

Dozens of supporters celebrated his release outside of his home, as they demand the release of other political prisoners. Lopez, 46, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014.

Carlos Vecchio, Lopez’s close friend and also a member of the Voluntad Popular party, said this is only the first step.

“He’s in his house, but he’s not completely free, so it’s not enough. It’s not enough,” Vecchio said.

Vecchio told Local 10 News that Lopez’s release came without any warning and although he’s thrilled to be back with his family, the political leader isn’t wasting any time getting back to work.

“I ask him, ‘How do you feel physically and mentally?’ and he told me, ‘I’m fine, Carlos, but we need to continue this fight,'” Vecchio said.

That sentiment was echoed by other Venezuelans who have made their homes in South Florida, such as Patricia Andrade.

“Leopoldo is a man, he’s a father, he has two kids. I’m happy for him, but we need to focus on the conflict,” Andrade said.

On July 30, an election will be held to select who will write the country’s new constitution. The thing is, the people of Venezuela never actually voted to write a new constitution — it’s an unprecedented move by Maduro that polls show most people in Venezuela oppose.

“We need to keep the eyes open because Venezuela is in a conflict. In three weeks is an illegal election,” Andrade said.

“What we are doing on the streets in Venezuela, what we are getting from the international community is getting results, so we need to keep pushing in order to get back democracy in our country,” Vecchio said.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reported in early May that Lopez had been rushed to a hospital in very serious condition. The report was later denied by the government, which released video of Lopez saying he was alive and well.

Lopez’s party said he had not been allowed to see his lawyers for 90 days and had been in solitary confinement for the last 32 days.

A Venezuelan prosecutor on the case who later sought asylum in the United States has said he was ordered by the government to arrest Lopez despite a lack of evidence.

Lilian Tintori, Lopez’s wife, has campaigned in Venezuela and abroad to try to win freedom for her husband.

“I can’t stop thinking about all of the families who are still feeling the pain of separation from their loved ones,” Tintori wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon. “Unjustly imprisoned and fallen … We will continue to fight for the freedom of political prisoners.”

In February she met with President Donald Trump in the White House. Trump tweeted a photo of the Oval Office encounter and called for Lopez to be released “immediately.”

Lopez’s lawyer in Spain, Javier Cremades, said the terms of Lopez’s release mean he will be allowed to serve out his sentence at home and cannot leave.

“It is a gesture of weakness of the Maduro regime and of the opposition’s strength,” Cremades said. “It is a step forward, and very positive news.”

Lawmaker Gaby Arellano of Lopez’s Popular Will party said his release represents “the end of the dictatorship.”

Maduro partisans said the decision in no way exonerates Lopez or the opposition from attempts to destabilize the government.

“We adhere to the supreme court’s decision and hope the (opposition) Democratic Unity Alliance will view it with maturity and stop the violence,”” said Elias Jaua, a close ally of Maduro.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott reacted to the news in both English and Spanish on Twitter. He demanded Lopez’s “complete freedom.” Cuban-American lawmakers in the U.S. also reacted to the news. 

“We will continue to demand freedom for Venezuelan people and release of Venezuelan political prisoners,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart wrote on Twitter. 

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said his release to house arrest will “not end the calls for freedom, democracy and the respect of human rights for all Venezuelans. He has committed no crime and should not be under house arrest.” 

Venezuela has been rocked by months of near-daily protests again this year, fueled by widespread discontent over shortages of basic goods, galloping inflation and allegations that Maduro is undermining democracy in the country.

The Associated Press Fabiola Sanchez, Joshua Goodman and Joseph Wilson contributed to this report. 

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Here is how ‘bachaqueros’ make a living in Venezuela

Lionel Guillen made a living selling food and hygiene products in the black market. In March during an argument over toothpaste, he was fatally shot in Baruta, Globovision reported. 

Those familiar with the food sector in Venezuela say every major city has a black market and an intricate network of illegal food merchants known as the “bachaqueros.” Guillen was one of them.

The deep economic crisis in Venezuela continues to create opportunities for the food vendors who are thriving despite the government’s many efforts to destroy the market. It remains a lucrative but dangerous profession.

Amid triple-digit inflation, the government views the “bachaqueros” as the criminals who are to blame for the food shortages. President Nicolas Maduro’s opposition doesn’t blame them. They hold the socialist government’s inept policies — including currency control and price freezes — responsible for their existence.

Some of the “bachaqueros” wake up early to line up in front of supermarkets, where they have access to the government’s fixed prices. They resell the items to other “bachaqueros” who deal with greater volumes.

The great majority of shoppers at supermarkets are “bachaqueros,” according to a consumer survey by Dataanalisis.

When the government installed a database to identify shoppers and monitor their purchases, some of the “bachaqueros” changed their strategy. They made deals with employees of warehouses or supermarkets to get to the rice and sugar before it even got on the shelves.

They deal in U.S. dollars, Euros and Colombian pesos.

The “bachaqueros” increasingly rely on informants and corrupt police officers and soldiers. They handle their deals with cash and coordinate the delivery of rice, flour, eggs, oil and other goods through messaging apps such as Whatsapp.

 

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Here is how ‘bachaqueros’ make a living in Venezuela

Lionel Guillen made a living selling food and hygiene products in the black market. In March during an argument over toothpaste, he was fatally shot in Baruta, Globovision reported. 

Those familiar with the food sector in Venezuela say every major city has a black market and an intricate network of illegal food merchants known as the “bachaqueros.” Guillen was one of them.

The deep economic crisis in Venezuela continues to create opportunities for the food vendors who are thriving despite the government’s many efforts to destroy the market. It remains a lucrative but dangerous profession.

Amid triple-digit inflation, the government views the “bachaqueros” as the criminals who are to blame for the food shortages. President Nicolas Maduro’s opposition doesn’t blame them. They hold the socialist government’s inept policies — including currency control and price freezes — responsible for their existence.

Some of the “bachaqueros” wake up early to line up in front of supermarkets, where they have access to the government’s fixed prices. They resell the items to other “bachaqueros” who deal with greater volumes.

The great majority of shoppers at supermarkets are “bachaqueros,” according to a consumer survey by Dataanalisis.

When the government installed a database to identify shoppers and monitor their purchases, some of the “bachaqueros” changed their strategy. They made deals with employees of warehouses or supermarkets to get to the rice and sugar before it even got on the shelves.

They deal in U.S. dollars, Euros and Colombian pesos.

The “bachaqueros” increasingly rely on informants and corrupt police officers and soldiers. They handle their deals with cash and coordinate the delivery of rice, flour, eggs, oil and other goods through messaging apps such as Whatsapp.

 

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Venezuelan protesters continue to defy Maduro’s riot troops

The fierce political crisis in Venezuela has already cost over 70 lives, but with the economic collapse reducing much of the population to poverty there is no shortage of protesters. Most of them are willing to risk it all to confront President Nicolas Maduro’s riot troops. 

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, is familiar with the passion and dedication of the student protesters known among their supporters as “The Resistence.” The former leftist student activist went on to become the nation’s top law enforcement official.

In 2007, the leftist loyalist was named chief prosecutor, and in 2014 she was appointed again to a six-year term. She is committed to investigating public corruption and emerged as one of the most critical voices of Maduro within the government.  

“We have to begin demanding that they start providing the bills of where all this money is coming from that that they spend on stages and for the marches,” Ortega Diaz said on Monday. “Maybe what they spend on stages would be better used buying medicine and food.”

On Tuesday, the same Supreme Court justices who ruled to take powers away from the National Assembly and later reversed their ruling, decided to clear the way for the prosecution of Ortega Diaz. The justices approved a request from a socialist party lawmaker accusing her of committing “grave errors.” 

After the protests started in March, Ortega Diaz became a hero to Maduro’s opposition when she denounced Maduro’s plans to elect delegates for a constitutional assembly in July. She said the move was an affront to the legacy of Hugo Chavez, who crafted the nation’s current constitution.

Maduro’s supporters mounted a campaign to discredit her. Some accused her of being crazy. Others accused her of becoming a spokeswoman for “right-wing terrorists.” The National Assembly, which Maduro’s opposition controls, is the only entity able to remove her under the current constitution. 

Meanwhile, at the Organization of American States general assembly Tuesday, delegates from the United States and Venezuela exchanged harsh words. The U.S. representative said the OAS must pass some kind of resolution on the troubled South American country to remain true to its principles.

John Sullivan, U.S. deputy secretary of state, made an impassioned plea for the 34-nation organization to approve naming a “contact group” of countries to mediate the crisis.

“If we can’t take that step forward here, we seriously impair our ability to go forward as an organization. It is the least we can do,” Sullivan told the OAS general assembly being held in the Mexican resort of Cancun.

Sullivan described the proposal, which has yet to be voted on, as a plan to create a “group of friends” – a multi-country mediation group like the one that helped end the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s.

The members of the group would be named later, and Sullivan said they would be “balanced” and could include the United Nations or the Vatican. Sullivan said the U.S. wants political prisoners in Venezuela freed, elections held and violence ended.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, who walked out of the meeting Monday but returned Tuesday, said the United States wanted to intervene in Venezuela to take advantage of the country’s oil reserves.

Rodriguez said the countries willing to collaborate with the U.S. were “lap dogs of imperialism.” Sullivan responded that Rodriguez’s comments “can be summarized in three words: distractions, distortions and irrelevancies.”

That sparked an angry response from Rodriguez. “I think the only way they (the U.S.) can impose their will is with their Marines, who would be met with a swift response in Venezuela, should they dare” to intervene, she said.

The OAS narrowly failed to pass a resolution calling for an end to Venezuela’s political crisis. But Peru and other countries continued Tuesday to mention the desperate situation on Venezuela’s streets.

Fabian Urbina, 17, was out protesting, while his mom was dying of cancer. He was protesting the food and medicine shortages. Authorities believe a video shows Urbina carrying a wooden shield and throwing stones at members of the National Guard.  

The video also shows members of the National Guard hold a 9mm pistol to shoot at protesters. Urbina died on Monday. 

“The impunity is too great. The government does what it pleases,” Urbina’s cousin Clemedy Flores said in tears during an interview with Caraota Digital. “I just want this to end. It’s always young kids. It’s just kids who say they want a free country.”

The Associated Press Mark Stevenson and Joshua Goodman contributed to this report. 

 

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Venezuelan violinist attends events in Washington, D.C.

When Wuilly Moisés Arteaga walks out to play his violin in the streets of Caracas, sometimes other students stand near him with shields to protect him. This week he was in Washington D.C. to speak for them.

The 23-year-old musician and composer started to play in the streets as an homage to Armando Canizales, a 17-year-old member of the youth orchestra, who was shot in the head during a May 3 street protest. He played while students battled heavily armed riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. 

A video of Arteaga crying after a National Guard motorcyclist grabbed his violin by its strings and dragged him when he held on to it went viral. He received so many violins to help him continue playing that he has been giving some away to other young musicians in need. 

“With our music we hope that the National Guard will reason and stop repressing us and stand on the side of the Venezuelan people,” Arteaga wrote in Spanish on Twitter. 

Robert Carmona- Borjas, a Venezuelan attorney who is the co-founder of the Arcadia Foundation, took notice of Arteaga and flew him to Washington D.C. The foundation has been critical of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime.  

This week Arteaga told Cuban-American lawmakers that he has heard members of Maduro’s riot troops in Caracas speak in a Cuban accent. He and other Venezuelans are concerned about the Cubans who they say are turning against protesters in Caracas. 

Arteaga and Carmona- Borjas met with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo. The musician also played his violin on Wednesday during a Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation event. 

 

 

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