CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition political leader Leopoldo Lopez says he is seeking to draw millions of Venezuelans into the streets to join protests decrying corruption, crime and shortages in a nationwide push to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
But Lopez, who is spearheading a protest campaign under the banner “The Exit,” denies accusations he is fomenting a coup similar to a botched attempt to oust then-President Hugo Chavez in 2002, saying he hopes to force Maduro into stepping down.
The campaign against Maduro’s 10-month-old government has spurred small but rowdy demonstrations around Venezuela in the last several weeks, with some 20 protesters arrested.
A furious Maduro has said right-wing “fascists” and “coup-mongers” are trying to force him from power.
“In the street, we can send a message that we are here, we are alive, that we exist, that the government cannot succeed in ignoring more than half the country,” Lopez, 42, said in an interview at his party’s headquarters late on Tuesday.
Lopez, who heads the hardline Popular Will party, is a former mayor of a district of the capital, Caracas, and was educated in the United States on a swimming scholarship.
He told Reuters he is seeking to bring change only by legal means, including Maduro’s resignation or a possible referendum to ouster his “corrupt, inefficient” government.
He was helping lead another march on Wednesday amid reports of violent attacks on protesters in western Venezuela.
Maduro, who won the country’s presidential election last April by a slim majority, just weeks after Chavez’s death, was the socialist firebrand’s hand-picked successor.
In one of his lengthy televised speeches which were the hallmark of his predecessor, Maduro has branded the hardline protesters “coup seekers,” accusing them of trying to undermine his dialogue with the moderate majority of the opposition coalition.
Opposition leaders complain that Maduro rules by decree, as if he enjoyed the same sweeping support of the charismatic Chavez despite winning by only 1.5 percentage points, effectively ignoring nearly half the electorate that voted against him.
“We are proposing to have millions of people supporting the movement and to activate one of the mechanisms that is within the Constitution, including (seeking) the resignation of the president,” Lopez said, insisting that he sought to lead only peaceful protests.
“It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not incitement to a coup ... It’s the citizens’ right to assemble in the street,” he added.
Venezuela’s Constitution allows for a recall referendum halfway through a president’s six-year term, which for Maduro would be 2016, provided nearly 4 million people sign a petition requesting one.
The president faces growing complaints over economic problems including shortages of staple products like corn flour and toilet paper, annual inflation above 56 percent and one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime.
“This is a president responsible for the highest inflation rate in Latin America, for scarcity of basic goods, for having people in the streets every day waiting in line for four, five, six hours to buy basic goods,” Lopez said.
Maduro, a former bus driver, has not said what type of coup he believes Lopez is preparing. Like his predecessor, he frequently accuses rivals of leading destabilization plots.
During the most serious period of protests against Chavez in 2002-03, a botched military-led coup and a two-month-long shutdown of the oil industry nearly bankrupted the country.
The sporadic protests of recent weeks, including violent clashes between students and security forces in the western Andes region, have so far shown no signs they could force Maduro from power or convince him to resign.
The primary opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, has refused to endorse the protests, preferring to build on the opposition’s strong presence in local government to broaden support among the electorate before the next presidential vote in 2019.
Capriles lost narrowly to Maduro in the April 2013 elections.
Moderate opposition sympathizers say the protests have no obvious strategy and could bring more harm than good. Some suspect that Lopez is seeking to usurp Capriles’ position as the country’s most prominent opposition leader.
But Lopez denied he was dividing or weakening the opposition, saying support for the demonstrations was growing.
He said he was pulled off a flight on Monday to the state of Tachira where he had planned to join demonstrators. The government-run airline said it had not allowed him to board because he was leading “disruptions of public order.”
“This is David versus Goliath ... Venezuela is getting darker and darker in terms of the kind of future we can have,” said Lopez.
“We are fighting a very corrupt authoritarian government that uses all the power, all the money, all the media, all the laws, all the judicial system in order to maintain control.”
Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Kieran Murray and G Crosse