MEXICO & THE AMERICAS

Opposition leader ends hunger strike after Venezuela sets election date

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez ended his 30-day hunger strike Tuesday after the government scheduled legislative elections for Dec. 6, thereby meeting his demand.

By setting a date for National Assembly elections, Tibisay Lucena, head of the electoral council, on Monday ended weeks of speculation that the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro might call off the vote. Lucena said the vote was never in doubt.

Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, on Tuesday read a statement from her husband in which he asked 104 other hunger strikers to end their fasts as well.

“We took on this protest not to die but so that all of us Venezuelans can live with dignity … I will continue the struggle for a better Venezuela,” Lopez said in his note.

A former mayor of a Caracas borough, Lopez has been detained at a military base prison near Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, since February 2014 on charges of incitement to violence. He denies the charges and claims they are politically motivated.

Lopez was arrested after Maduro opponents took to the streets last year to protest hyperinflation, high crime and scarcities of basic foodstuffs. Violent confrontations with authorities across the country left 43 dead and 850 injured.

Various human rights and international political leaders, including former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, have demanded that Lopez be freed, along with Mayors Daniel Ceballos of San Cristobal and Antonio Ledezma of Caracas, who are being held on charges of rebellion and conspiracy, respectively.

A caravan of buses carrying a group of Brazilian politicians who traveled to Venezuela last week in a show of support for Lopez was blocked on an airport road by pro-government protesters. The Brazilian government issued a formal protest over the incident.

Ordinarily, the date for National Assembly voting to elect deputies for five-year terms is determined much earlier in the year to allow for a longer campaign season. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and allies hold a 99-seat majority in the 165-member body. 

Some opposition figures were concerned that Maduro, whose popularity has been battered by a worsening economy and food scarcities, might call off the elections so as not to risk losing control of the assembly.

In a speech at a Caracas auditorium Monday, Maduro indicated he would not take loss of assembly control sitting down.

“If the right wing takes control of the assembly, serious things will happen. It will unleash a process of street confrontations,” Maduro said. “I will be the first to go to the streets.”

Lopez and other opposition members are also calling for international monitors for December election results in light of disputed voting in the 2013 presidential election to replace Hugo Chavez, who died in March of that year.

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia,  respectively.

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