CARACAS (Reuters) - Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez’s trip to support jailed opposition leaders in Venezuela has brought cheers from anti-government foes but cries of interventionism from socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Gonzalez, a Socialist who governed from 1982 to 1996, met on Monday with Venezuela’s opposition bloc in support of jailed politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Daniel Ceballos who are both on partial hunger strikes.
“That’s what has motivated my visit,” Gonzalez said at a press conference in affluent eastern Caracas, flanked by the politicians’ wives and members of the MUD opposition coalition.
Hardline leader Lopez and former city mayor Ceballos, jailed for their role in 2014 anti-Maduro protests, stopped eating around two weeks ago to demand freedom for jailed activists and push for a date for parliamentary elections.
Both men have been losing weight, their relatives say, though they are taking water and nutrient serum.
Gonzalez has already visited former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is under house arrest on accusations of backing a coup plot.
The visit comes as an economic crisis weighs on Maduro’s popularity. Polls forecast his Socialist Party will lose this year’s vote.
State TV and ministers lashed out at Gonzalez, promoting the hashtag “#FelipeFueradeAqui!”, or “#FelipeGetOutOfHere!”
Senior ruling party official Jorge Rodriguez accused him of chumminess with late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, a role in FIFA corruption scandals, and a throwback to colonialism.
“We expelled them from this land, we don’t want them here,” Rodriguez said.
An extrovert from the Andalusia region of Spain, Gonzalez, 73, helped transform the country into a European democracy and modern economy, though he was later wearied by corruption scandals and charges that his government ran death squads against violent Basque separatists.
In the past, Maduro’s government has blocked conservative former presidents, including Bolivia’s Jorge Quiroga and Colombia’s Andres Pastrana, from visiting Lopez, who is in a military prison.
Opposition activists craving more international pressure on Maduro welcomed the Spaniard’s visit.
Some moderate Venezuelan activists, however, fret such visits by ex-leaders, as well as the hunger strikes, risk distracting and dividing the opposition when it should focus on recouping the National Assembly.
Some also say the high-profile trips eclipse the hardships of Venezuelans, including severe crime, steep inflation and shortages of products ranging from medicines to diapers.
“As a form of support, it’s good,” said Irma Ochoa, 63, an administrative worker and opposition supporter.
“But Gonzalez can’t do anything here. And my criticism toward the opposition is that they should be focused on pressuring the electoral board.”
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Sarah Morris in Madrid; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker