CARACAS May 4 The wife and mother of jailed
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez stood outside his
prison on Thursday, demanding to see him after rumors about his
health rattled the protest-hit country overnight.
They had rushed to a military hospital in Caracas and then
the hilltop Ramo Verde jail on Wednesday night after a
journalist tweeted that Lopez had been taken to a medical center
without vital signs. President Nicolas Maduro's leftist
government later issued a short video in which Lopez, standing
in front of cell bars, says he is fine.
"Today is May 3, it's 9 p.m. ... I'm sending a message to my
family and my children that I am well," said Lopez, 46, wearing
a sleeveless white shirt and crossing his arms.
But Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori, who says she has not been
allowed to see her spouse in over a month, rejected that as
evidence that he was alive.
"The dictatorship's video is FALSE. The only proof of life
that we will accept is to see Leopoldo," she tweeted early on
Thursday, posting a photo of herself and Lopez's mother facing a
line of green-clad National Guard soldiers in front of the
prison about an hour's drive from the capital Caracas.
Venezuelans, already on tenterhooks after a month of
protests and unrest that have left at least 34 people dead, were
shaken by the rumors over Lopez, a former mayor who was jailed
in 2014 during the last major round of protests.
The U.S.-educated economist and leader of the hard-line
Popular Will party is accused of inciting street violence, and
in 2015 was sentenced to almost 14 years behind bars. The
government says he is a dangerous agitator, pointing to his
involvement in a brief 2002 coup against the late Hugo Chavez,
when Lopez even helped arrest a Cabinet minister.
Lopez's supporters say he was sentenced in a kangaroo court
because he had been viewed as a future presidential hopeful and
thus a threat to unpopular Maduro. Still, others in the
opposition deem him a divisive hothead who took to the streets
too early and failed to get the backing of the country's poor.
His case has become a cause celebre for the anti-Maduro
movement, with Tintori meeting U.S. President Donald Trump at
the White House in February.
"OPERATION TO FAN HYSTERIA"
In this latest bout of unrest, rights group Penal Forum says
over 1,700 people have been arrested since early April with 597
of them still jailed. Hundreds have also been injured, often in
confusing street melees between stone-throwing hooded youth and
security forces firing tear gas and water cannons.
Protesters are demanding early elections to remove Maduro
and bring an end to a devastating recession that has food and
medicine running short. The government retorts the opposition is
secretly seeking to stoke a coup and says many demonstrators are
little more than vandals.
Officials presented the buzz over Lopez's health as another
attempt to stoke unrest.
"This was an operation to fan hysteria, hate, and violence,"
said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late on
Diosdado Cabello, the second-in-command of the ruling
Socialist Party, also suggested the rumors were part of a media
campaign by his family to draw attention to Lopez, who has
powerful backers abroad.
"They're inventing that I don't know what has been done to
Leopoldo to put together a big, pretty show, so that we forget
the 43 deaths he caused," said Cabello in reference to those
killed during unrest in 2014. "We haven't done anything to the
monster of Ramo Verde."
But Lopez's family says it is concerned after weeks without
seeing him, including after a march to Ramo Verde on Friday and
on his birthday on Saturday, when his wife and two children
stood outside the jail with a cake.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer;
Editing by W Simon)