CARACAS, Venezuela - At a moment of high social tension and with the country drowning in violence, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has decided to grant house arrest to opposition leader Leopoldo López, calling the decision a "humanitarian measure." López, the country's most important political prisoner, was sent to Ramo Verde jail on February 18, 2014 and subsequently sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for organizing protests that resulted in 43 deaths at the beginning of 2014.
The house arrest announcement comes 100 days after the start of protests against the Maduro regime, which have resulted in 91 deaths. Last week, Chavista paramilitary groups attacked the headquarters of the Parliament, where the opposition holds the majority. Using firearms, explosives, knives and pipes, the attacks left at least five representatives wounded and garnered global condemnation against Maduro's socialist regime.
So why did the executive branch allow López to go home?
The President of the Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, points out the ruling was due to López's "health problems." The "Truth Commission” headed by former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez issued a statement saying that "it urged the justice system to evaluate ... alternatives to the deprivation of liberty of detained individuals."
But in the midst of worsening violence, López's release is also being interpreted by some as a government gesture to relieve pressure, save face and try to rekindle dialogue with the opposition.
On July 30, Venezuela will vote to elect more than 500 representatives to the national Constituent Assembly, which will be tasked with rewriting the 1999 Constitution. Through the assembly, Maduro also plans to “annihilate” his detractors, close the parliament and design a custom State.
The opposition has branded the assembly as "fraudulent" and organized an unofficial referendum for July 16 in order to lay the foundations for a "government of national unity."
To tackle rumors about deals with the Chavista government, López's Popular Will party stated that “ López did not negotiate anything, his release is a government strategy, it was not his decision," and pledged to continue supporting the protests. “The government is cornered and it needs to cool down the streets, nobody here will surrender," the organization said. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda, expressed his “great joy” for Lopez and recalled that there are still 431 political prisoners in the country.
In a message read by Freddy Guevara, the coordinator of Popular Will and first vice president of the Parliament, Lopez reiterated his commitment to "fight to conquer freedom" for the country and urged Venezuelans to stay in the streets and to participate in the July 16 vote. "Venezuela, this is a step toward freedom (…) let this step lead to a greater conviction," he said.
"We must abide by the decision of the Supreme Court"
Maduro's supporters are using the situation to shore up support for the Constituent Assembly, praise Maduro, claim the alleged independence and legality of the Supreme Court of Justice, and demonstrate that "the rule of law works."
"We all must abide by that decision of the Supreme Court, whether we like it or not," said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez emphasized that the measure is a "product of tolerance, dialogue and political maturity."
But Oscar Vallés, the head of the Department of Political Studies of Universidad Metropolitana, said "the government is trying to scale down the intensity following the assault of the parliament and, in turn, 'revamp' the image of the Supreme Court of Justice around the world."
Vallés said he thinks Maduro is seeking to "lessen internal tension, particularly within the National Bolivarian Armed Forces."
Dead and risen
Opacity and confusion are signs of the times in Venezuela. Just two months ago, a rumor spread that López had died in Ramo Verde.
"No one has done anything to the monster of Ramo Verde (…) he is there in his cave, as he should be, for the next 13 years and whatever may come after because he's a killer," said vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela Diosdado Cabello at the time.
On the night of June 4, Lopez disclosed on Twitter that he had been visited by the former president of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who had served as a facilitator in unsuccessful dialogue between the government and opposition. On that visit, Zapatero was accompanied by the mayor of Caracas, Jorge Rodriguez, and the former chancellor Delcy Rodriguez, negotiators on behalf of the government. After the meeting, Lopez released two videos supporting the protests and called for the military to ignore Maduro's orders.
That visit resulted in a war of words. Mayor Rodriguez stated that Lopez had "accepted house arrest," but that Guevara and Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, "blocked" the application of the measure. "(Lopez) was very willing to propose, even sign documents to stop the violence," said Rodriguez's spokesperson. Tintori, on the other hand, recognized that they had discussed the option of house arrest, but said that "Leopoldo is never going to negotiate his freedom, the freedom of a whole country comes first, the freedom of Venezuela."
Tintori denounced on June 23 that her husband was being tortured in Ramo Verde prison, while ombudsman Tarek William Saab, a staunch advocate of Maduro, said on June 26 that the house arrest offer still stood.
The news about López's house arrest appeared first on Twitter. Javier Cremades, a Spanish lawyer who supports the opposition leader, wrote: "Leopoldo Lopez is at home in Caracas with Lilian and their children. He is not yet free, he's still under house arrest. He was taken out in the middle of the night."
Spanish President Mariano Rajoy applauded the humanitarian measure and emphasized that "Venezuela deserves a negotiated solution that includes the release of political prisoners and democratic elections."
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, perhaps the most critical voice against Maduro outside Venezuela, hailed the ruling as an "opportunity for national reconciliation and a democratic solution to the deep crisis."
However, the head of Venezuela's Parliament, Julio Borges, warned that the opposition will not give an inch in its strategy of civil disobedience. "Leopoldo being with his family gives more strength to the Venezuelan people to keep on fighting for freedom in the streets. Venezuela remains strong," said Borges. Former National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado suggested that "the regime is cracking" and urged for protests to continue "until the end."
López's house arrest does not imply a truce. The opposition will return to the streets July 9 to commemorate 100 days of resistance. Chavism is preparing for the Constituent Assembly. These two trains are still on a collision course.