CARACAS Jailed opposition Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez is well and is urging street demonstrators to keep up massive anti-government protests, his wife said on Sunday after her first visit with the former presidential hopeful in over a month, putting to rest rumours of his ill health.
With tensions already high after over a month of street action, many Venezuelans were shocked on Wednesday when a journalist tweeted that Lopez had been taken to hospital without vital signs.
President Nicolas Maduro's leftist government later released a video of Lopez saying he was fine, but his wife, Lilian Tintori, said the footage was "false" and demanded to see him. The government accused the Lopez clan of whipping up a media frenzy to gain attention.
Lopez, a former mayor jailed in 2014 for fomenting violent street protests, is indeed alive and well, Tintori told reporters after a visit at the Ramo Verde military prison with Lopez' mother and two children.
"We finally saw him... Of course the first thing I did was hug him hard and ask if he was well. He said: 'I'm well, I'm alive, I'm strong,'" said Tintori, who is leading an international campaign to free Lopez, Venezuela's most prominent imprisoned politician.
Supporters say the U.S.-educated economist and leader of the hard-line Popular Will party was sentenced by a kangaroo court because he was seen as a political threat to unpopular Maduro.
"I told him everything that we've been living. Leopoldo didn't know anything, because he's been isolated," said Tintori, who added Lopez was purposefully kept in the dark about the unrest in Venezuela and blasted "rumours" about his wellbeing.
"Leopoldo is proud of Venezuela and asks us to keep fighting," she added to cheers.
Building on weeks of near-daily protests, Maduro opponents took to the streets again on Sunday to decry what they say is his authoritarian administration and destruction of Venezuela's oil-rich economy.
Demonstrators are seeking early elections to remove Maduro and put an end to a devastating economic crisis that has caused widespread food and medicine shortages, huge lines at shops, soaring prices, and increasing hunger in the nation of 30 million people.
Musicians and opposition supporters walked through the streets of Caracas in remembrance of at least 37 people who have been killed since the unrest started in early April. The dead include protesters, government sympathizers, bystanders, and security forces.
"Today we took a moment to honour, mourn, and bid good-bye to our heroes," said opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido on Twitter. "And also to prepare ourselves for a week in the STREET, full of demands."
The opposition is planning major marches on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, seeking to heap pressure on Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who was elected to replace the late Hugo Chavez in 2013.
Over 1,800 people have been arrested, with a third of them still jailed, since early April, according to rights group Penal Forum. Hundreds have also been injured, often in confusing street fights between security forces using tear gas and hooded young men throwing rocks and erecting barricades.
Nighttime looting also appears to be on the rise.
As the political crisis deepens, an anti-Maduro governor said on Sunday he had been banned from holding office for 15 years.
Maduro says protesters are in fact seeking a coup with U.S. support and harbouring "terrorists" and "murderers" in their ranks.
From now on all citizens arrested for "instigation to rebel" will be judged in military tribunals, a top military official said on Sunday.
"We're facing an armed insurgency," Maduro told state television on Sunday.
His critics condemned the decision as a further slide into what they say is a dictatorship.
The president's call on Monday to rewrite the Constitution has also energized the protest movement, with the opposition coalition vowing it would not participate in his bid to create a new "constituent assembly" with powers to tweak the constitution.
But the opposition now seeks to maintain momentum despite fatigue, cynicism that marches can bring about change, and fear of violence.
So far, the government has not agreed to any of the opposition's demands, which include early elections and a humanitarian channel for food and medicine.
But unlike protests in 2014, demonstrations have spread well beyond wealthy enclaves and protesters say they are more determined than ever due to a bruising economic crisis that has sparked severe shortages and sky-high inflation.
There have also been some rare cracks in the "Chavismo" movement, which usually presents a fully united front in public.
A top Socialist Party official has criticized a "rupture of the constitutional order." The son of the human rights ombudsman and a cousin of the powerful defence minister have both publicly called on their relative to speak out against the government.
Famed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, once friendly with the government, also blasted what he said was "repression."
With Venezuela's large diaspora mobilizing too, there have been protests in front of embassies and public rebukes of officials abroad.
On Sunday, Venezuela was abuzz with a video circulating on social media that appeared to show the daughter of influential Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez being shouted at while she was walking by the sea in Australia.
"It's very nice to live in Bondi (beach) while they're killing all the students," an unidentified Venezuelan shouts at Rodriguez' daughter, who appears to be in her early 20s.
"Respond!," the person continues, as Rodriguez' daughter keeps walking and doesn't answer. "Because of your father there are people dying! Do you hear me?... As a Venezuelan you have a duty to respond!"
Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the video. There was no immediate comment from the government.
Venezuela's opposition says corrupt officials have allowed their relatives to lead a lavish lifestyle while many in the country to find basic foods.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)