Venezuela’s Jailed Opposition Leader Erroneously Reported Dead

Patrick Goodenough | May 4, 2017 | 4:20am EDT
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President Trump and Vice President Pence meet with Lilian Tintori, wife of the jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and Sen. Marco Rubio at the White House on Feb. 15, 2017. (Photo: White House)

( – Amid a deepening political and economic crisis in Venezuela, the fate of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was uncertain for several hours late Wednesday, as his wife and supporters sought confirmation of reports that he had been taken to a military hospital in life-threatening condition.

The claim that Lopez had been taken to the hospital in Caracas “without vital signs” came in a tweet from one of the country’s most prominent journalists, but turned out to be inaccurate.

The Associated Press reported that state television showed a brief video clip of Lopez in prison, saying that he was speaking at 9 PM on May 3, and assuring his family that he was fine.

Earlier, his wife, Lilian Tintori, tweeted that she was heading to the hospital. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (F-Fla.) also tweeted that Lopez had been “rushed from jail to hospital in grave condition.”

The journalist responsible for the original tweet, Leopoldo Castillo, did not immediately provide an explanation, although he discounted speculation that his Twitter account had been hacked.

Less than three months ago, Rubio accompanied Tintori to a meeting at the White House where they were photographed meeting with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump then tweeted that photo and a message saying that Venezuela should immediately free Lopez, whom he described as a “political prisoner.”

In early 2014, student protests erupted against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, and after three people were killed following a rally, authorities accused Lopez, a U.S.-educated economist and founder of the centrist Popular Will party, of inciting what it called a coup attempt.

An arrest warrant was issued for him, and Lopez handed himself over. The following year he was convicted of inciting violence and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment.

In March of that year, a U.S. diplomat at the U.N. Human Rights Council charged that Lopez had been assaulted in prison.

Wednesday’s confusion about his fate came shortly after a teenager died as riot police clashed with opposition supporters protesting Maduro’s latest controversial move – a decree creating a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, thus bypassing the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The opposition won a majority in the legislature in Dec. 2015 elections that ended 16 years of control by the socialist ruling party of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013.

Maduro has sought to curb the legislature’s powers, and last March the government-controlled supreme court stripped the National Assembly of its power to make laws. That move sparked weeks of almost daily protests, during which at least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than one thousand arrested.

U.S. deputy assistant secretary Michael Fitzpatrick described the constituent assembly decree as the latest attempt by Maduro to “change the rules of the game.”

“Recognizing his grip on power has slipped, he seeks to stack the deck, to rewrite the rules, so as to assure himself and his cronies continued access to power, privileges, and protections,” he said during a teleconference briefing on Tuesday.

The Organization of American States (OAS) has held several extraordinary sessions to discuss the crisis, and after accusing it of interfering in its internal affairs Venezuela last week formally withdrew from the bloc in protest.

Fitzpatrick said what Venezuela needs is to hold democratic elections and seek national reconciliation. What it does not need, he said, is to leave the OAS – “taking their marbles, as it were, and going home” – or a “top-down authoritarian exercise dressed up as a constituent assembly.”

Venezuela’s political crisis is closely linked to an economic one, characterized by a growing budget deficit and severe shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods.

International Monetary Fund officials at a briefing in Washington last month said the IMF projected inflation of 720 percent in 2017, but said some estimates were higher.

On Wednesday, a group of lawmakers led by Sens. Rubio and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed new bipartisan legislation aiming at tightening sanctions against Venezuelan officials while providing humanitarian assistance for the country’s people.

“Venezuela is a mess,” Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri last week. “I’m very sad to see what's happened in Venezuela. Venezuela is a very sad situation.”

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