(CARACAS, Venezuela) — Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez re-emerged from days of hiding to address an anti-government demonstration and then surrendered to authorities Tuesday in a move that he said will open the world’s eyes to the increasingly authoritarian bent of Venezuela’s socialist government.
Speaking to some 5,000 supporters with a megaphone, Lopez said that he doesn’t fear going to jail to defend his beliefs and constitutional right to peacefully protest against President Nicolas Maduro.
“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Lopez told by a sea of supporters dressed in white.
After the short speech, Lopez descended from a statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti and walked a few feet to a police picket, where he turned himself in.
Lopez was being sought by authorities on an arrest order stemming from violence that broke out during protests last week, and he faces charges including homicide to vandalism of public property. Maduro accuses Lopez of leading a “fascist” plot to overthrow him.
Lopez’s supporters say the three people who died in the protests were shot by pro-government forces.
The opposition rally and a competing pro-government one downtown came one day after Maduro’s government gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting opposition plots to topple his socialist administration. The U.S. denied that.
Supporters of Lopez, who is Maduro’s most vociferous foe, rerouted their protest march away from the central plaza in Caracas where pro-government oil workers planned their own demonstration.
Still, a police picket initially kept protesters from entering the plaza where they were scheduled to gather. Nearby subway stations were also closed, leading organizers to appeal to neighbors to open their Wi-Fi networks so protesters can communicate.
Eventually police allowed the crowds to trickle in but authorities were adamant that a planned march wouldn’t be allowed.
Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, said that even if the opponents had the backing of the U.S. Marines, under no circumstances would they be allowed to enter the government stronghold of downtown Caracas.
The Venezuelan government accuses the Obama administration of siding with student protesters it has blamed for the violence. Maduro claims the U.S. is trying to stir up unrest to regain dominance over South America’s largest oil producer.
In Washington, the State Department said allegations that the U.S. is helping to organize protests are “baseless and false” and called on Venezuela’s government to engage the opposition in “meaningful dialogue.”
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Monday that the three senior U.S. consular officers are being expelled because they tried to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.
The State Department said Monday it hadn’t received any formal notification of the expulsions of the three senior officials, who Jaua said were all second secretaries.
Hundreds of students have spent the past week in the streets of Caracas alternating between peaceful protests by day and pitched battles with police at night in unrest fed by hardships that include rampant crime, 56 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Three people were killed in clashes Wednesday — two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly into a crowd of protesters.
On Monday, a fourth victim, a 17-year-old boy, was killed when an unidentified vehicle accelerated into a group of student protesters in the state of Sucre.
Evelyn Montes, a 30-year-old medical student, said that the arrest of Lopez will make plain to many Venezuelans and the world what she considers Maduro’s authoritarian bent.
“People are scared,” said Montes as a group of several protesters began to gather in eastern Caracas Tuesday. “This will open their eyes.”
Fabiola Sanchez and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report.