Students and opposition parties staging the biggest challenge to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro since he took power geared Wednesday for another rally, this time in support of a colleague accused of instigating deadly street violence.
Harvard-educated economist and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, facing an arrest warrant for days, calmly turned himself in to authorities Tuesday as thousands of pro- and anti-government supporters rallied in the capital Caracas.
His surrender marked a dramatic inflection point after two tension-filled weeks of protests in the oil-rich country, led by students also angry over the jailing of demonstrators.
Maduro, the successor of the late Hugo Chavez, is under fire over what protesters say is rampant crime, runaway inflation, high unemployment and other economic problems.
Lopez is accused of homicide in connection with post-demonstration violence last week that left three people dead.
Political scientist Angel Oropeza said the government is walking a tightrope with the arrest of Lopez.
"They may hold him for a few days. If they free him right away, it would be a sign of weakness," said Oropeza a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University.
"But if they hold on to him for a long time it could fuel the protests even more and the government would come under more international pressure," he said.
Oropeza said that with the arrest the only thing the government has achieved is to divert people's attention away from Venezuela's economic woes and "shift debate to an area it has always handled better — that of political confrontation."
On Tuesday Lopez told thousands of his supporters, all clad in white, that he hoped his arrest would highlight the "unjust justice" in Venezuela. He drew an explosion of cheers from the crowds.
Maduro, speaking to pro-government oil workers dressed in red in the western part of the city, countered that Lopez would have to "answer for his calls to sedition."
Defying a ban, thousands of Lopez's supporters turned out dressed in white at the Plaza Brion after he called the march in a video message on Sunday, pledging to turn himself in if the government sought to arrest him.
Lopez, also in white, suddenly emerged in the crowd, climbing a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti with a Venezuelan flag. After delivering a brief message to his cheering supporters, he surrendered to the National Guard.
"I present myself before an unjust justice, before a corrupt justice," said Lopez.
"If my incarceration serves to wake up a people... (it) will have been worth it."
He calmly walked under escort to a National Guard vehicle as his supporters pressed in around the vehicle, blocking its path.
"We are expressing the frustration we feel. The country is in chaos, there are no supplies in the hospitals, we are sick of the insecurity. I want a Venezuela of progress," said Satle Oviedo, a 27-year-old hospital worker.
Maduro's government summoned its followers to rallies of its own in an area of downtown Caracas where the opposition march was to end. But there was no violence.
Oil workers dressed in red marched toward the Miraflores presidential palace to hear Maduro speak. Along the way, they were serenaded with tropical rhythms of musical groups.
The tensions generated by the protests have spilled into the international arena as well.
On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting with student leaders under the guise of offering them visas.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, confirming the expulsion orders, said Tuesday the United States was considering possible action.
"We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela," she said.
Venezuela's relations with Washington, long strained under Chavez, have remained sour and distrustful under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor's socialist policies.
© AFP 2014