CARACAS, Venezuela – A prominent anti-government activist was barred from leaving Venezuela on Saturday for planned meetings with European leaders, dealing a setback to opposition attempts to rally international pressure on President Nicolas Maduro.
Lilian Tintori posted a photo on Twitter of herself at Caracas’ international airport holding a document signed by immigration officials ordering the seizure of her passport as she was preparing to board an afternoon flight. Tintori said she had a meeting planned for Monday in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.
No explanation for the travel ban was given, but the move came a day after she was ordered to appear before a judge Tuesday to answer questions about a large sum of cash found in her vehicle.
Tintori, the wife of the nation’s most-prominent detained activist, Leopoldo Lopez, said she was also scheduled to meet with the leaders of Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
“The evidence is clear why the dictatorship is stirring the pot against me,” Tintori tweeted. “They want to keep me from talking about the humanitarian crisis we are living in Venezuela.”
On Friday, Tintori received notice that she was being investigated after authorities discovered in her car some 200 million bolivars, around $60,000 at the nation’s weakest official exchange rate or $10,000 at the widely used black market rate.
Such a large sum of cash is rare in Venezuela, more so because like many goods in the country currency bills are in short supply. Most people have trouble withdrawing even the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage – 250,000 bolivars or around $15 at the black market rate – from banks, the reason why even taxi drivers and newspaper kiosks now accept payment in plastic or electronic transfers.
Tintori denounced the probe as politically motivated, pointing out in a video that it’s not a crime to have cash in one’s possession. She said the money, found in her car as it was parked at her mother-in-law’s home, was to pay for family emergencies including the hospitalization of her 100-year-old grandmother.
Tintori said she kept such a large sum in cash because of spiraling triple-digit inflation that has pulverized the value of Venezuela’s currency and because no local bank would open an account or give a credit card to such an outspoken critic of the government.
While it’s not clear what possible crime Tintori is being investigated for, some government supporters have accused her of using the funds to finance “terrorism” – a term they frequently use to describe violent protests that have rocked Venezuela – although they have presented no evidence.
Tarek William Saab, whom the pro-government constitutional assembly appointed to replace Venezuela’s outspoken chief prosecutor after she was ousted recently, said Thursday that her case was under investigation but without providing details.
Saab’s office said it was also investigating two executives at local Banco Occidental de Descuento in connection with the case for allegedly diverting funds from the bank to benefit themselves and third parties.
Tintori suggested that other members of Venezuela’s opposition would take her place at the meetings. Julio Borges, the opposition head of congress, said on Twitter Saturday that in the “coming days” he will meet with Macron, German’s Angela Merkel, the United Kingdom’s Theresa May and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy.
“They cannot silence the voice of 30 million Venezuelans,” Tintori said at a news conference. “Not even jail will stop our denunciation. … They cannot hide the crisis our country is living through.”
Lopez served three years of a 14-year sentence for leading violent anti-government demonstrations in 2014 before being released from a military prison and placed under house arrest in July amid destabilizing protests against Maduro. Lopez’s trial and conviction were marred by irregularities and have been condemned by numerous foreign governments and the United Nations.
Pressure is building on Europe’s leaders to join Washington in slapping sanctions on Maduro’s government and top officials as they move forward with plans to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution and consolidate power.
More than 120 people were killed in four months of protests in Venezuela, with the majority of the deaths caused by security forces and pro-government groups, according to the United Nations.
Macron, who expressed concern this week over what he called the “dictatorship” in Venezuela, said Saturday on Twitter: “We are waiting for Lilian Tintori in Europe. The Venezuelan opposition must remain free.”
Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, whose public schedule for Tuesday lists a meeting with Tintori and Borges, called the travel ban “sad.”
“They can lock up people but not their ideals,” Rajoy said on Twitter.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza later tweeted in response: “President of the Spanish Government, in your obsession against Venezuela you protect grave crimes of corruption and question our judicial system.”
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