Protest leader surrenders in Caracas

| Feb. 18, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by USA Today

Peter Wilson and Girish Gupta

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez exhorted Venezuelans on Tuesday to fight government repression before he turned himself in to police.

Lopez, who had been in hiding for days, arrived at Plaza Brion shortly before noon, and using a megaphone, he told the crowd he was not afraid of jail.

"If they put me in prison, it'll wake up the people. That's worthwhile," he said. "I'm never going to leave this country."

President Nicolas Maduro countered Lopez late in the day with a speech of his own.

"The fascist right is now in the hands of the law," he said.

Globovision reported that Lopez surrendered to National Guardsmen who had surrounded the plaza and was taken to be charged with murder over demonstrations last week that turned violent. Lopez denies the charges.

National Guard and police units, including trucks with water cannons, closed off access to the plaza from all directions. Subway stations in the zone, an upscale neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, were also closed.

Television reports showed hundreds of protesters wearing white to show their commitment to peace milling in front of lines of police and Guardsmen. The authorities didn't make a move to arrest Lopez until he was done with his remarks.

Lopez and others accuse Maduro of bankrupting the country with failed state policies and repressing the rights of citizens.

"This struggle is for our youth. It is for the students. It is for the repressed, for those who are jailed, for all the people of Venezuela who are suffering," he said.

Venezuela is in the middle of an economic meltdown that has led to widespread shortages of food and medicine.

Pro-government demonstrators, including thousands of workers from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, congregated a mile away from anti-government protesters.

"The fascists are not going to destabilize our country,'' PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez said at the government rally.

"We are in the street to protect our government and our revolution,'' said Ramirez, the country's vice president for economic affairs and oil minister.

Ramirez likened the protests to demonstrations in 2002 that led to a short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez, whose anti-American socialist policies have been promoted by Maduro.

Others sided with the protesters, many of whom are students.

"This is our country, too," said Ana Ramirez, 42, a housewife who left her two small children with a babysitter to join protesters, "and Maduro has to listen to us as well."

Carlos Rivero, 43, a Caracas-based engineer, said the country has a tough road ahead.

"We must convince the poor that this is also their fight," he said.

Angela Trujillo, 23, a beauty therapist, said she was frustrated: "Our basic needs are not being met by the government. We're just being ignored."