CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition staged small protests in the country’s main cities on Saturday to decry the near 14-year jail sentence handed to politician Leopoldo Lopez and galvanize support for the December parliamentary elections they are forecast to win.
Hardline opposition leader Lopez was convicted on Sept. 10 of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that led to violence and killed 43 people.
Opposition activists rallied in Chacao, an affluent Caracas district where Lopez was once mayor, to denounce what they consider a sham trial and a sentence protestor Beatriz Plana called “wicked.”
Hundreds of activists chanted and waved flags, while some paraded around with a mannequin representing judge Susana Barreiros — who sentenced Lopez — holding a briefcase stuffed with fake dollars.
“This sentence is the most unjust thing that has happened in the country,” said Nancy Suarez, 58, an English teacher who showed cuts and bruises she attributed to being pushed during a clash between Lopez supporters and government activists the day he was sentenced.
“We’re not scared, we want to fight for a free Venezuela. People are sick of queuing up, of brazen theft, of corruption.”
President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, which says Lopez is a U.S.-supported coup-plotter posing as a martyr, is facing increasing discontent over the snowballing economic crisis that has goods including toilet paper and cancer drugs running short.
However, the opposition, fragmented and up against a formidable state propaganda machine, is struggling to fully capitalize on the malaise.
Though admired by some in the opposition, Lopez is seen by wary moderates as an impetuous self-promoter whose 2014 protests backfired. His sentencing, while condemned by the entire opposition, failed to bring masses to the streets.
“Venezuela hasn’t woken up yet, perhaps because of fear,” said Frankys Henriquez, 36, a father of two who had never protested before because he was scared of violence.
“The opposition needs to project itself more strongly, with a better message,” added Henriquez, who makes around 25,000 bolivares a month, or roughly $35 dollars on the black market.
Opposition campaigns have centered on freedom for jailed politicians, rather than daily difficulties that have rendered Venezuela an exhausting, dangerous, and costly place to live.
“What do you achieve with these rallies?” said Esteban Salas, 32, who was walking around Chacao trying to buy scarce international airfare tickets.
“The opposition doesn’t reach people who are in the queues. We have to wake people from their stupor.”
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Franklin Paul