CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan prosecutors said on Wednesday they have indicted two opposition activists on money laundering charges, a move slammed by government adversaries who say the two are being targeted for seeking a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro.
Prosecutors said Francisco Marquez, 30, and Gabriel San Miguel, 24, were arrested on Sunday after being stopped on a highway in eastern Venezuela carrying pamphlets and 2.9 million bolivars, equivalent to less than $3,000 on the black market.
Socialist Party leader Erika Farias on Tuesday tweeted that the two “were busted with money and payrolls to pay mercenaries of destabilization,” echoing government claims that opposition leaders are to blame for recent looting at supermarkets.
Opposition mayor David Smolansky of the Caracas district of El Hatillo, where Marquez works, insisted the two were coordinating a signature validation campaign to seek a recall of Maduro, who is facing public anger over triple-digit inflation and Soviet-style product shortages.
Smolansky said the funds were donations from opposition sympathizers and were being used to pay for food, water, tents and transportation of citizens.
He accused the country’s electoral council of intentionally setting up a limited number of sites for the validation process, which required the opposition to move voters long distances to validate their signatures.
“Given that the National Elections Council has put up every possible barrier to this process ... we evidently had to seek donations to be able to transport these people,” Smolansky said in a press conference on Tuesday.
The charges against the two also include “public instigation.” The state prosecutors’ office did not answer calls seeking additional details.
Marquez is a dual Venezuelan-U.S. citizen and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, while San Miguel has Venezuelan and Spanish nationality, Marquez’s brother said by phone.
Venezuela is facing daily food riots, chronic shortages of staple products and soaring prices as a result of a decaying socialist economic model and the collapse of the price of oil, which provides almost all of the OPEC country’s hard currency.
The opposition accuses authorities of stalling the referendum at the behest of Maduro by arbitrarily changing criteria needed to trigger the vote. They say dozens of opposition activists, including former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, remain behind bars for protesting against Maduro’s government.
Maduro calls the opposition’s recall campaign a fraud meant to destabilize the country and says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by business leaders with the support of Washington.
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alan Crosby