Lopez’s release raises hopes for talks

CARACAS: Venezuela hit its 100th day of anti-government protests on Sunday, amid uncertainty over whether the release from prison a day earlier of prominent political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez might open the way to negotiations to defuse the profound crisis gripping the country.
Lopez was placed under house arrest immediately after his surprise release from a military prison. Still, the gesture — the most visible sign of conciliation since protests erupted April 1 — triggered speculation over the prospect of talks between the opposition and the embattled leftist government of Nicolas Maduro.
Three months of destructive street protests have left at least 91 dead. On Sunday demonstrations continued as 2,000 people marched in eastern Caracas, wearing T-shirts with Lopez’s face and carrying banners that read: “One hundred days and I continue to rebel against tyranny.”
Meanwhile, thousands of government supporters marched in the city center.
Maduro on Facebook voiced support for his controversial plans to form an assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution, which he said had “the hope to build a solid peace among all.”
Voting for members of the assembly — which the opposition has rejected as Maduro’s bid to maintain power — is scheduled for July 30.
Lopez’s release was welcomed — sometimes with calls on Caracas to do more — by several other Latin American countries, Spain and the United States.
Lopez, leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and a leading symbol of anti-Maduro resistance, emerged after his release from prison looking fit and happy — though wearing an ankle bracelet to allow authorities to monitor his movements, his family said.
“I maintain my firm opposition to this regime,” Lopez said in a statement read by a leader of his party. “I reiterate my commitment to fighting until Venezuela’s freedom is won.”
President Maduro, in televised remarks Saturday, called for a message of “peace and rectification” from Lopez.
Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, underscored that no deal was negotiated for her husband’s release.
“You don’t cut a deal on freedom, on human rights, on dignity. Never,” Tintori said.
“It was a unilateral decision by the Nicolas Maduro government.”
She said Lopez suffered cruel treatment and serious stomach troubles, having shed six kilos.
Analysts said it seemed significant the government had agreed to release a man it once termed “a monster,” while Lopez had accepted house arrest after insisting he would leave prison only with full freedom and once all opposition members were free.
One analyst, Luis Vicente Leon, said the government hoped to lower tensions in the face of a serious risk of destabilization, while the moderate opposition wanted to avoid “suicide in a lose-lose situation.”
While negotiations now appear possible, he added, they would require concessions sure to be unpopular with extremists on either side. “No one voluntarily offers to sacrifice their head,” he said. — AFP