In Venezuela, Anti-Government Demonstrations Build

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in Caracas after the arrest of an opposition leader. The protests come a year into the tenure of President Nicolas Maduro, who has overseen a sagging economy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

While the world has been watching Ukraine, protests have been building against the government in another country, Venezuela. In Caracas, a jailed opposition leader is scheduled to appear in court today. His name is Leopoldo Lopez. He's a Harvard-educated economist and he's accused of murder and terrorism after last week's violent demonstrations.

He turned himself in rather dramatically yesterday and we're going to talk about that and more with reporter Girish Gupta, who is on the line from Caracas. Welcome to the program.

GIRISH GUPTA, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what was it like when Lopez turned himself in?

GUPTA: Well, he really did make a spectacle of it. The arrest warrant was issued last week after a couple of weeks of protests here across Venezuela, which really came to a crescendo this weekend. The arrest warrant was issued and Lopez went into hiding for a few days. And then on Sunday he very dramatically on YouTube announced that he'd like all of his supporters, and they do number in the tens of thousands here, if not more, to dress in white and march with him towards the interior ministry, where he would surrender himself.

And it really was dramatic. We saw him piled into a national guard tank yesterday. He made a speech through a megaphone where he basically said that his imprisonment would wake people up in Venezuela, wake up the opposition. And it looks like it may well be doing that. The opposition marches have been big and I think they might be getting bigger.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what's going on there. We've heard on this program how the economy has, in many ways, collapsed. Of course there was a disputed election last year. Who is this man Lopez and how has he become a leader of the opposition?

GUPTA: Well, Lopez isn't new to the scene. He's been a major opposition leader for a long, long time. He was once touted to be the next president of this country, in fact. He was actually made what's called (unintelligible) here a few years ago, which means he's not allowed to stand for office and that's because there were corruption charges made against him by authorities.

Now, supporters say they were completely trumped up. The government has offered some evidence, but it's never taken him to court for them. So it seems that he's now displacing Henrique Capriles. Now, Capriles is the opposition leader who fought against Huge Chavez and fought against Nicolas Meduro, the current president, and failed to win essentially.

And supporters of the opposition, at least some of them, are saying that Capriles just hasn't got enough. He didn't win and they're now moving to Lopez, who is a hard line - who's a hard line radical, essentially, and he is playing this politically very well. He seems to have galvanized support for both himself and the opposition. It looks like the process will continue here because of that.

INSKEEP: Now, in spite of these protests, which have gone on for close to a year now, the government has remained in power of President Nicolas Meduro, and in fact there's been some feeling among the opposition that it's not time to attempt to overturn the government. Is that changing? Are there people in the opposition saying they think that this is the moment they could overthrow the government?

GUPTA: They certainly are. Now, the opposition can hold a referendum in two years. That, I think, it seems too far away for these people. I mean Venezuela does have a lot of issues at the moment. We've got 56.3 percent inflation over the last year. We've got one of the world's highest murder rates, around 70 people killed every single day, according to NGOs here. That's two and a half times as many as in Iraq last year for about the same population.

So it does have some serious issues. Now, the only way electorally to get power is in two years for the opposition. You know, but people are talking about coups because this has happened before in this country. Now, it's one of these things the opposition don't want to say publically, but they're certainly saying it privately.

INSKEEP: Reporter Girish Gupta in Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

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