CARACAS, Venezuela — The wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez rushed to Caracas' military hospital late Wednesday seeking information on her husband after a report on social media said he had been taken there with a medical emergency — a scare that proved to be wrong.
"Please, can you inform us if anyone brought Leopoldo here? Did he enter or not?" Lilian Tintori could be heard pleading tearfully through the metal bars at the hospital's entrance.
Within hours, the leader of Venezuela's ruling socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, deflated the frenzied rumours by showing on state television a 20-second video in which Lopez appears in good health and says he is speaking at "May 3 at 9 p.m."
"I don't understand why they want me to send a proof of life," Lopez says, looking muscular in a white tank top and standing with arms crossed in front of prison bars. "I'm sending this message to my family, to my kids, to say I'm fine." The video cuts off abruptly.
A scramble to find out about Lopez's status was set off by a tweet from one of Venezuela's most-prominent journalists, Leopoldo Castillo, who said the politician had been taken from the military jail outside Caracas to the hospital without vital signs for what the government believed was an "intoxication."
"My account hasn't been hacked, I'm sorry to share this information," the now Miami-based journalist said in a later tweet responding to a firestorm on social media seeking to confirm the information.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who accompanied Tintori at a White House meeting with President Donald Trump in February, seemed to validate the rumour , saying in a series of tweets that he had confirmed the jailed activist was in a "grave condition."
The uproar came as Venezuela is being roiled by almost-daily protests that have shaken President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power and left more than 30 people dead. The crackdown by security forces is the bloodiest since Lopez led weeks of protests in 2014, for which he was jailed and later sentenced to nearly 14 years for what are widely seen as trumped-up charges of inciting violence.
Cabello, even before showing the proof of life video, seemed to relish the desperation felt by his political enemies, accusing them of trying to stage a political "show" over Lopez.
"He's there in his cave, stuck there for the next 13 years like he should be for being an assassin," Cabello said on his weekly TV program.
Just before midnight, Tintori and Lopez's mother attempted to reach Ramo Verde demanding to see Lopez, who they said had been barred from receiving visitors the past month. Standing next to a line of riot police blocking their access, they accused Cabello and the government of "kidnapping" Lopez to silence Maduro's opponents.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.
Jorge Rueda And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press