The U.S. government joined other voices of protest on Friday in denouncing the arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who claimed the mayor was working with Americans on a plot to overthrow the government.
“Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalizing legitimate, democratic dissent,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday. “The Venezuelan government should release those it has unjustly jailed and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
Ledezma is one of the leading opponents of the president, and the incident has sparked a series of protests across the country. His supporters claim the incident was a kidnapping, according to the New York Times.
“We are witnessing a pathetic show of weakness that the Venezuelan government has presented in the face of the erosion [of its popularity],” Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba, leader of the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable, told local news agency Noticias 24.
Maduro maintains that Ledezma was involved in a plot to take him out of office, a plot supposedly masterminded by the United States.
“Their coup d’etat failed,” Maduro said in a televised address, in which he referred to Ledezma as a “vampire,” adding that “every fascist gets found out.”
The U.S. State Department noted that the recent arrest was an attempt to distract from Venezuela’s dire economic situation that has sent the price of consumer goods skyrocketing and created a cash shortage. In January, Maduro laid out his plans for economic reform, which weren’t well received.
“Rather than imprisoning and intimidating its critics, the Venezuelan government should focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue,” the State Department said, adding that it
“calls on other countries, leaders and organizations to urge the Venezuelan government to cease these efforts to silence the political opposition and further weaken democratic institutions.”
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch along with other advocacy groups also demanded Ledezma’s release. Many took to social media using hashtags such as #LibrenAledezma and #VzlaExigeRespeto.