World

Venezuela opposition leader urges public, army, on strike

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called on Venezuelans to support a 48-hour general strike beginning Wednesday in protest of government plans to rewrite the constitution, in his first direct public message since being released from prison to house arrest.

The 46-year-old former Caracas-area mayor, who was sentenced to 14 years in 2015 after being convicted of inciting violence during a previous spate of protests, also appealed to the military not to deploy for Sunday's election of a constituent assembly tasked with overhauling the embattled nation's charter.

"We are on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend," Lopez said in a 15-minute video message. "I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic."

Streets were quiet Wednesday morning in much of the capital, Caracas, as many residents stayed home in observance of the strike.

President Nicolas Maduro is promoting the constitution rewrite as a means of resolving Venezuela's political standoff and economic crisis, but opposition leaders are boycotting it. The assembly could dramatically reshape government and help Maduro further consolidate his power.

Three days of protests are planned leading up to Sunday's vote, starting with the strike and culminating Friday with a demonstration billed as a "takeover of Caracas."

"I want to tell the Venezuelan people that in mind, spirit and conviction, I have accompanied you in this fight on the streets," Lopez said from his home, where he is monitored with an electronic bracelet. "And you all know that if I could, I would physically be at the front."

The government-stacked Supreme Court released Lopez in early July, pointing to possible "irregularities" in his case. The release surprised government supporters and foes alike because the high court has not previously shown any misgivings about its rulings.

Human rights organizations and foreign governments criticized Lopez's detention as politically motivated. One of the prosecutors on the case who later sought asylum in the United States said he was ordered by the government to arrest Lopez despite a lack of evidence.

Dressed in white and speaking assertively, Lopez said he did not regret one minute of his three-year imprisonment if it helped "awaken the Venezuelan people." He also vowed to continue speaking out.

"If that represents a risk that they sentence me again to Ramo Verde or any other jail in Venezuela, I am willing to take that risk," Lopez said.

Also Wednesday a top Cuban official said his country has no intention of trying to mediate a solution to Venezuela's crisis, rejecting the idea of what he called "foreign meddling" and voicing full support for Maduro, a key ideological and economic ally.

Speculation that Havana could play a role in potential international mediation had been sparked by a recent visit to the island by President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

But Cuban Communist Party Second Secretary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said "Cuba roundly rejects such insinuations and demands absolute respect for the sovereignty and self-determination" of Venezuela.

"Those who from the outside try to give lessons on democracy and human rights while encouraging coup-mongering violence and terrorism should take their hands off that nation," Machado Ventura said, speaking at a ceremony marking the anniversary of a failed barracks uprising that is considered the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution.

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Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.