Published Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 | 9:01 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 | 9:02 p.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Moments before his dramatic arrest, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez told a sea of white-shirted supporters that he doesn't fear years behind bars if that's what it takes to open eyes to the damage done to Venezuela by 15 years of socialist rule.
"If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice" by President Nicolas Maduro, a defiant Lopez shouted through a megaphone Tuesday from atop a statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in a Caracas plaza.
He then pushed his way through the crowd, waving a flower over his head, to a police line a few feet away and turned himself in to face charges blaming him for violence between opposition activists and pro-government forces last week. He was driven away in an armored vehicle, and a judge later ordered him held in jail before a court appearance Wednesday.
Friends and allies say the steely resolve exhibited at the rally is often seen in the man who competes in triathlons, is addicted to extreme sports and once escaped from the clutches of gun-firing bandits while stumping for votes in a pro-government slum. The trait has been evident in recent months as he emerged as head of an increasingly powerful opposition faction that is pushing for a stronger, but non-violent confrontation with the government.
Lopez, 42, surrendered to authorities after a weeklong manhunt to face charges including terrorism and murder stemming from the unrest that erupted after a big anti-government protest he led Feb. 12. Most demonstrators had gone home before the deadly clashes began.
After a week marked by nightly clashes between police and students, dozens of detentions and the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats, the threat of more violence hung over Lopez's public surrender in front of thousands of supporters at the same time government backers held a rival march organized by Maduro to denounce a "fascist" conspiracy to topple him.
But Lopez's repeated appeals for restraint and a strong police presence calmed emotions and there were no reports of major violence in Caracas.
An outburst did occur in Valencia, the country's third largest city where 11 people were reported injured as opposition demonstrators clashed with National Guard troops. Enzo Scrano, a mayor of one Valencia district and an opposition member, said at least three were shot by unknown gunmen on motorcycles.
While opposition leaders have complained for years about a government crackdown on dissent, foreign governments have shown scant interest in pressing Maduro since he was elected 10 months ago to succeed the late Hugo Chavez. Arresting Lopez could change that, bringing international pressure comparable to the rebuke Russian President Vladimir Putin suffered after jailing activist punk rockers Pussy Riot, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Human rights group have condemned the charges against Lopez as being based on political conspiracy theories and not criminal evidence, while Secretary of State John Kerry warned that arresting the opposition firebrand would have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected as "baseless" Maduro's claim that U.S. Embassy officials were infiltrating universities to stir unrest, saying it was another attempt by Venezuela's government "to distract from its own actions by blaming the U.S."
The protests have come against the backdrop of increasing hardships in Venezuela, including rampant violent crime, spiraling 56 percent inflation, frequent failures of the electric grid and shortages of many basic goods — all for which the opposition blames the government.
Reacting to the arrest order, some Venezuelans say becoming a cause celebre was Lopez's plan all along, with the charismatic, Harvard-educated leader seeking to catapult past the opposition's two-time losing presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, and lead an angry charge against the government.
Lopez draws inspiration from what he claims is a family history of dissent. He says he's a distant relative of independence hero Simon Bolivar, whose reputation as a renegade earned him as much mistrust as acclaim in his day but was an idol of Chavez, Maduro's mentor. Lopez's great-grandfather was jailed for 14 years for opposing the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez, and other family members were forced into exile.
"I come from a family in which persecution in one form or another has been part of our history," he told The Associated Press in an interview last March. "I'm ready to let history say that I stayed loyal to that conviction of fighting for the Venezuela that I believe in."
Critics say he's putting personal ambitions and the lives of others ahead of opposition unity after years of hard-fought electoral gains.
His fiery rhetoric and elite background — he studied economics in the U.S. on a swimming scholarship and speaks fluent English — make him an improbable figure to build bridges with the poor Venezuelans who elected Maduro and who, while increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the economy, jealously guard their social gains under Chavez.
"The middle-class (protesters) on the street don't represent the masses," said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at Central University of Venezuela.
Lopez debuted in politics at age 29, when he was elected mayor of the Chacao district in Caracas, a wealthy opposition stronghold that's the epicenter of the past week's violent clashes between students and police.
When he left office in 2008 with sky-high popularity ratings, he set his sight on higher office, but the government banned him from running on charges of influence peddling that he says were trumped up. He successfully challenged that order before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but Venezuela's government has not reinstated his political rights.
After switching parties several times, Lopez backed Capriles' first presidential run in 2012 and again in the snap election last year to pick Chavez's successor.
But after opposition candidates fared worse than expected in December's mayoral elections, Lopez and his Popular Will party have taken the lead of a splinter faction that accuses Capriles of meek leadership. Its slogan: "The Exit," for the hashtag used on Twitter that has allowed it to mobilize tens of thousands of protesters nationwide in the face of scant coverage by Venezuela's increasingly state-dominated media.
Having shaken Maduro's government like never before, Lopez now faces his biggest test yet. If convicted, he could face years in jail.
Giving up his freedom is a price he said he's willing to pay so his two young children will grow up in a more democratic Venezuela.
"In the innocent eyes of my children, who still don't know what really is happening in this country, I've found the strength I need to fight for a Venezuela that will be much better for them and for all the children," Lopez said in a video recorded on the eve of his arrest and posted online Tuesday night.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report