Dubai — Venezuela’s most high-profile opposition figures were seized from their homes by security forces, according to people close to them, in what appeared to be a crackdown on officials challenging the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was taken from his home at gunpoint, his wife said, just weeks after he had been transferred from a military prison to house arrest after three years behind bars. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was also seized, according to his wife. Videos of the detentions were posted on Twitter.
“They’ve just taken Leopoldo from the house,” Lilian Tintori, his wife, said on Twitter.
“We don’t know where he is or where they are taking him.”
Lopez has become a symbol for rights groups and foreign governments, who have said his detention — including stints in solitary confinement — was clear evidence that Maduro was willing to trample basic rights to safeguard his power.
As Venezuelans suffer food shortages and as street violence escalates, Maduro is seeking to rewrite the constitution after a referendum on Sunday that the opposition and many foreign governments refused to recognise. Opponents regard the push to overhaul the charter as a power grab by an increasingly autocratic leader.
“If something happens to him, Maduro will be held responsible,” Tintori said. She released footage from a security camera that appeared to show armed security forces putting Lopez into a car marked with the seal of the intelligence police, known as Sebin.
Bloomberg could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the videos. Calls to the Venezuelan embassies in Madrid and London for comment were not answered.
Ledezma, who opposes Maduro, was also taken from his home and was sent back to the Ramo Verde prison, according to his wife, Mitzy Capriles. A video shows him being taken out of his building in blue pyjamas.
“It’s obvious this is retaliation after Sunday’s bad result; the government didn’t get the votes it wanted,” Capriles said at a media conference in Madrid.
“Maduro is a dictator. If you go against the president, you go to prison.”
On Monday, the Trump administration sanctioned Maduro — who has led Venezuela since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013 — accusing his government of undermining democracy.
He becomes the fourth head of state sanctioned by the US, joining North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Bets on a Venezuelan default are climbing and the implied possibility of a missed payment in the course of the next year has risen to 64%. The extra yield investors demand to hold Venezuelan debt over US Treasuries widened 118 basis points to 30.95 percentage points, according to JPMorgan Chase data. The government’s $3bn of bonds due in 2022 plunged to a 15-month low on Tuesday, pushing the yield up to 39%.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis and a very sad situation,” Mark Dowding, a London-based money manager at BlueBay Asset Management, said in an interview with Bloomberg Surveillance. For the markets, “a five-year bond trading at 44c on the dollar is pretty much telling you that investors don’t expect to get paid back in full”, he said.
Maduro, described by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as a dictator, has presided over an increasingly autocratic regime that has imperilled the country’s six-decade democracy and left its society in shambles. The crisis has brought soldiers onto the streets and forced Venezuelans to stockpile food and water.
The constituent assembly will meet as soon as this week to discuss changing the charter rewritten under Chavez, who is still revered as the inspiration for the revolution Maduro claims to lead. The opposition says rewriting the constitution is meant to silence government critics in congress and delay general elections.