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Venezuelans celebrated the release of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez after more than 100 days of bloody protests

Venezuelans celebrated the release of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez after more than 100 days of violent protests

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The unexpected release of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez from Ramo Verde military prison to house arrest last weekend marked a milestone in the country's ongoing power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro's government and opposition forces. The 46-year-old's release surfaced one day before thousands flooded the streets of Caracas and celebrated 100 days of consecutive protests--protests that have left more than 90 dead and 1,500 injured.

As the symbol of the resistance movement, Lopez's release signals a possible change in government strategy to handle political opposition. His release was long awaited, with thousands of supporters gathering near his home to celebrate his newfound freedom. Lopez didn't address the crowd about the specifics of his release, but his mere presence became the rallying cry of supporters as he defiantly waved a Venezuelan flag outside his residence.

Americas director of Human Rights Watch José Miguel Vicanco described Lopez's release as a "major capitulation by Venezuela's government."

He continued, "It’s a sign that the massive street protests – plus the calls by democratic leaders throughout Latin America to end the repression – are having an impact. But make no mistake: Leopoldo López is still not free. He remains under house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. Leaders around the world should increase their calls for the unconditional release of all political prisoners and a restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela.”

Lopez's imprisonment sparked international condemnation, particularly from the United States. In February, President Trump met with Lopez's wife at the White House. The discussion of that meeting was echoed by the State Department, which subsequently released a statement pressuring the Venezuelan government to release all political prisoners.

Besides issuing public statements, the Trump administration has also placed additional pressure on Maduro's government to address the continuous strife in the country by imposing sanctions on officials. In May, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of eight members of Venezuela's Supreme Court as punishment for annulling the nation's democratically-elected National Assembly in March.

"The Venezuelan people are suffering from a collapsing economy brought about by their government's mismanagement and corruption. Members of the country's Supreme Court of Justice have exacerbated the situation by consistently interfering with the legislative branch's authority. By imposing these targeted sanctions, the United States is supporting the Venezuelan people in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance in their country."
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Circulating media reports point to Venezuela's increasingly dire situation, with soaring inflation and chronic shortages of medicine and food. According to the International Monetary Fund's economic forecasts for Venezuela, inflation is expected to top 700 this year and on track to soar past 2,000 in 2018. The prevalence of malnutrition in the country even gained the attention of Father Jose Palmer--a priest and outspoken critic of Maduro. On social media, he urged residents to label discarded waste so that others can rummage through the trash more easily and "with dignity."

“Try to preserve food waste so that people who eat out of garbage cans can praise the Lord,” he wrote.

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According to a 2016 survey, 75 percent of the country's population lost an average of 18 pounds due to food shortages.

Despite Lopez's release, Maduro's government continues to face an uphill battle. On July 30, a special election will be held to elect a "constituent assembly" in which its members will have the powers to rewrite the constitution. But opposition leaders remain unsatisfied, claiming that the election is based on a complex set of local and group-based vote that favor the ruling Socialist Party, Reuters reported.

Read related Circa stories:
Protesters stormed Venezuela’s National Assembly, hurting several lawmakers
Trump slapped sanctions on Venezuela's vice president for drug trafficking
Venezuela seized GM's plant amid protests targeting Nicolas Maduro's government

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