November 23, 2013 / 4:26 PM / 6 years ago

Venezuela's opposition leader says aide arrested before marches

CARACAS, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition leader said state agents arrested one of his aides on Saturday before planned marches across the country to pressure President Nicolas Maduro’s government in the run-up to Dec. 8 municipal elections.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Twitter that his national tours coordinator, Alejandro Silva, was forcibly taken from a Caracas hotel room by military intelligence agents.

“@NicolasMaduro I hold you responsible for what happens! Be a man and stop persecuting my team, coward!” Capriles said.

There was no immediate official comment from the security forces, but a senior government minister, Andres Izarra, tweeted that “one of Capriles’ fascist henchmen” had been detained.

Late on Friday, Maduro said he had ordered the arrest of two opposition officials whom he accused of trying to pay individuals to disguise themselves as government supporters and attack Saturday’s opposition rallies, with the goal of blaming his administration for any bloodshed.

“They’re looking for a death in order to try to light a fuse. We won’t allow it,” Maduro said in a televised speech. He did not name the two opposition officials.

The opposition called for supporters to protest on Saturday ahead of next month’s vote for control of 335 municipalities, which will be the first major test of Maduro’s political strength after he narrowly won a presidential election in April.

With Venezuelans frustrated over surging inflation and product shortages, a major part of the government’s strategy has been a theatrical confrontation with business leaders that echoes the style of Maduro’s late mentor, Hugo Chavez.

The authorities have ordered businesses to slash prices and people have flooded shops to take advantage of discounted items ranging from car parts to electronics and sports shoes.


Competing with the opposition rallies for local media headlines over the weekend will be the latest move in what Maduro calls an “economic offensive,” with ministers leading inspection teams to check shopping malls nationwide.

The government charges that anyone who marches with the opposition will be showing support for corrupt “speculators” who it blames for an annual inflation rate that neared 55 percent last month and a black market rate for dollars that has risen to some nine times the official level of 6.3 bolivars.

“It’s class warfare ... we love the homeland and happiness, and others want to concentrate power and riches in a few hands and exploit the people,” said Vice President Jorge Arreaza.

The opposition counters that Maduro’s socialist policies are the problem, and says his “offensive” - which began with the military occupation of an electronics chain - amounts to state-led looting that punishes businesses and makes things worse.

They were angered further last week when the “Chavista”-dominated National Assembly granted Maduro decree powers which he has vowed to use first to cap retailers’ profits and reorganize the distribution of foreign currency.

Venezuelan politics is deeply polarized after 14 years of rule by Chavez, who died from cancer in March. As local elections approach, both sides have leveled aggressive, personal barbs at their opponents.

On Friday, Maduro accused the opposition of wanting to cause chaos and deaths with their marches on Saturday, in part because it is his 51st birthday.

“Maduro says there’ll be violence because we hate that it’s his birthday,” one opposition leader, Julio Borges, said on Twitter. “Have you heard anything more stupid than that?” (Additional reporting by Diego Ore; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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