Venezuela's opposition braces for crackdown as blame traded for deadly protests

The Associated Press

A student from Alejandro Humboldt University holds up a sign that reads in Spanish "And who has the weapons?" as she shouts slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and protests yesterday's killing of student Bassil Da Costa, at the Alejandro Humboldt University where he studied in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. Da Costa died Wednesday when armed people arrived and began shooting at opposition demonstrators who had been sparring with security forces at the end of heated but otherwise peaceful protests. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

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Lopez's allies blamed the violence on the government, charging that security forces acting on the president's orders stood by Wednesday while pro-government militia members roared up on motorcycles and attacked the small group of student protesters that lingered downtown after the biggest-ever rally against Maduro disbanded peacefully.

Lopez is the leader of a splinter faction of the opposition alliance challenging what it considers the meek leadership of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

"We chose this path which could be long but it's safe," Capriles said in comments Thursday in which he condemned the government's strong-armed tactics but also distanced himself from those within his own camp trying to stir violence.

Analysts also questioned whether Lopez's strategy, known as "The Exit," for the hashtag used on social media to mobilize the more than 10,000 people who turned out for Wednesday's protest, could end up strengthening Maduro's hand and undermine two years of hard-fought electoral gains by the opposition.

While Venezuela's economy is sinking deeper every day, the moment hasn't arrived for a Ukraine-like standoff on the streets, said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela.

Maduro has done a skillful job ensuring the loyalty of the military, traditionally the arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, and foreign governments are hesitant to exert too much pressure on the president, Romero said.

At the same time, after a string of exhausting elections following Chavez's death last March, most Venezuelans are focused on the more immediate task of putting food on the table amid record shortages, 56 percent inflation and a weakening currency.

"The Venezuelan people want peace and stability right now, not political war," said Romero, who is an adviser to the opposition alliance. "The middle class that took to the streets are the same ones who've always supported the opposition. They aren't the ones who will deliver regime change."

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Associated Press writers Andrew Rosati, Fabiola Sanchez, Ricardo Nunes and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report. Luis Alonso Lugo contributed from Washington.

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