A closer look at the democratic bona fides of the rock star of Venezuela’s opposition.
- By Roberto LovatoRoberto Lovato is a writer and visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research.
CARACAS — In the nearly year and a half since street protests rocked Caracas, the U.S. press has been kind to Leopoldo López, the 44-year-old jailed leader of Venezuela’s radical opposition. He has been painted as a combination of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and his distant grand uncle, Simón Bolívar, for his magnetic brand of in-your-face politics. Newsweek wrote of his “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones” and called López a “revolutionary who has it all.” The New York Times published a photo of him, jaw out, fist in the air, in front of a crowd of screaming protesters and gave him a platform on its op-ed page. In New York, when the United Nations met last September, protestors rallied to show support for López, and President Barack Obama listed him among a group of political prisoners from repressive countries such as China and Egypt who “deserve to be free.” López, who has done interviews shirtless, came to embody freedom and democracy for audiences across the globe, with stars from Kevin Spacey to Cher rallying to his cause, while the hashtag #freeleopoldo rocketed across Twitter.
But in Venezuela the picture is far more complicated. López has been in jail since February 2014 on charges of arson, public incitement, and conspiracy related to the first big anti-government protest that year, on Feb. 12, 2014, which left three protesters dead and kicked off weeks of rallies, street blockades, vandalism, and violence. The charges against him, which Amnesty International has called “politically motivated,” could carry a prison sentence of 10 years. Outside the courtroom, the public debate continues to swirl between those who believe López is a freedom fighter facing trumped-up charges and those who believe he is the violent “fascista” the government of President Nicolás Maduro claims.
Compared to that wave of street protests — which ultimately left a total of 43 anti-government protesters, government supporters, and national guardsmen dead — López’s trial has proceeded largely without fanfare. The judge has been far from friendly to López’s defense, rejecting all but one of the 65 witnesses his attorneys sought to call, while admitting 108 witnesses for the prosecution. “This isn’t a trial,” López wrote from jail last summer. “It’s a firing squad.” Last September, by means of his official Twitter handle, he claimed that Maduro and his interior minister were “the ones truly responsible for the violent acts.” Still, when proceedings resumed this February, Venezuelan media barely took note.
López’s court dates in Caracas have generally attracted only small groups of supporters outside the courthouse, led by Lilian Tintori, López’s wife. Other key opposition leaders have stayed away, though they routinely voice support for López’s release. A recent campaign by his party, Voluntad Popular, to convene an assembly to rewrite the constitution and reorganize the government attracted criticism, with the leader of a rival opposition party calling for “responsibility and maturity” and one opposition governor calling for an end to “anarchy or guarimbas,” the street barricades that were the preferred tactic of López’s youthful followers.
During visits to Venezuela last year, it was clear that López remained a rock star among young opposition activists, even after his arrest. “Leopoldo is a person of extremely high democratic and Catholic values,” Alejandro Aguirre, a member of JAVU (United Activist Youth of Venezuela), one of the main student groups behind the February protests, told me. “He’s also an athlete,” added Aguirre, who I met at a May 7 opposition forum called “Thinking Differently Is Not a Crime” that was hosted at El Nacional, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “Athletes are morally clean, unblemished, [and] more mentally sharp than other people.” He also talked about López being a good family man. “Leopoldo,” he said, “is an example for youth.”
Later that day, the telegenic Tintori, a former model, kite-surfing champion, and reality show star, appeared at a rally for political prisoners held in Chacao, the Caracas district where her husband once served as mayor and which has been a center of anti-government opposition. It also happens to be one of the wealthiest localities in all of Venezuela. Vibrant in a bright orange windbreaker, with her flawless smile and long blonde hair, Tintori’s strengths as standard-bearer for her jailed husband’s message were on full display.
“They want to imprison our dream!” she shouted, posed next to one of the life-sized cardboard figures of her husband that had become ubiquitous in the opposition strongholds of wealthy eastern Caracas. She praised her husband’s record as mayor, mentioning a Chacao health clinic where doctors “treat you with love, as if you were someone special.” She continued, “This is what we Venezuelans are all like, all equal, rights for all people without distinction and without privileges! Today, the struggle of one is the struggle of all!”
The day’s events offered a glimpse of the media-powered populism that has helped López and his political party gain traction where Venezuela’s established opposition, led by a coalition called the MUD, or Democratic Unity Roundtable, has failed. The opposition lost big in 18 of the 19 national and regional elections and referenda held since former President Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1998. Though rarely noted in the U.S. media, the deep-seated rifts between the MUD and its leader, Henrique Capriles, and the younger, more radical flank of the Venezuelan opposition led by López are reported on with the excitement of a soap opera in Venezuelan media. “For the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez,” Mary Ponte, a leading member of the center-right Primero Justicia opposition party, once said, according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable. “The only difference between the two is that López is a lot better looking.” In a section of the same U.S. embassy cable titled “The Lopez ‘Problem,’” U.S. State Department officials described López as a “divisive figure within the opposition” who is “often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry — but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer.” Certainly no previous Venezuelan opposition leader has succeeded in projecting himself onto the international stage like López has.
But the international embrace of López has depended heavily on his image as a stalwart defender of democracy — someone at a safe distance from the highly unpopular coup attempt of April 2002, in which elements of the military and business leaders ousted President Chávez for 47 hours. A July 2014 white paper about his trial authored by two attorneys who have represented him and his family — Jared Genser and José Antonio Maes — asserts that “López was not a supporter of the coup and he did not sign the Act Constituting the Government of Democratic Transition and National Unity (‘Carmona Decree’), the document that attempted to oust Chávez and dissolve the National Assembly and Supreme Court … nor was he allied with the business leaders who led it.” López himself often points to his loyalty to the constitution, as in the New York Times op-ed which appeared in March 2014, in which he wrote, “A change in leadership can be accomplished entirely within a constitutional and legal framework.”
But interviews with key figures in the 2002 coup, a look at López’s close associates, and a review of Venezuelan press accounts, videotaped events, and U.S. government documents paint a more complex picture about these claims.
Leopoldo López was born in 1971 to one of Venezuela’s most elite families, a direct descendent of both 19th-century revolutionary leader Simón Bolivar and Venezuela’s first president, Cristóbal Mendoza. His mother, Antonieta Mendoza de López, is a top executive at the Cisneros Group, a global media conglomerate. His father, Leopoldo López Gil, is a restaurateur and businessman who sits on the editorial board of El Nacional.
“I belong to one percent of the privileged people,” López said as a teenager, long before the Occupy movement popularized the term, during an interview with a student newspaper at the Hun School of Princeton, an elite private boarding school in New Jersey. It was at Hun, whose alumni roster includes Saudi princes, the child of a U.S. president, and the child of a Fortune 500 CEO, that López said he experienced “an awakening of the responsibility I have towards the people of my country.”
López went on from Hun to Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, where he developed relationships that would serve him to this day. It was a former classmate and political consultant, Rob Gluck, who led the effort to set up Friends of a Free Venezuela, the media-centered advocacy group behind a high-profile U.S. campaign for López’s release. As a testament to the “powerful impact [López] has had on people,” Gluck, a spokesperson for the group, told me, “within days of the arrest, really within hours,” friends from Kenyon in influential positions in journalism, communications, advocacy, and government were “emailing, connecting, volunteering, [and] asking what could we do.”
Some of these classmates went on to found the Free Leopoldo campaign, a well-connected advocacy group that has run a vibrant PR and social media campaign on López’s behalf. Among the Kenyon classmates helping to power Free Leopoldo in the United States is Republican Party operative Leonardo Alcivar, who ran communications strategies for the Romney campaign and the 2004 Republican National Convention and now works at a communications firm that advises companies on their online strategy. No other element of the Venezuelan opposition has anything resembling the U.S. media operation that López has through Free Leopoldo.
Gluck is himself also a former Republican strategist who worked on Lamar Alexander’s presidential campaign and the successful campaign to recall California Governor Gray Davis, which resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is currently a managing partner at High Lantern Group, a Pasadena-based communications strategy firm. He said López has “always been progressive,” and if measured on the U.S. political spectrum, he’d be “left of center.” Gluck runs Friends of a Free Venezuela pro bono — “personal time, passion, and connections” drive the work, he said — but his communications firm has also been retained by López’s family, he said, to “get the message out about [López’s] situation.”
After Kenyon, López went to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he met another influential figure who would become a key supporter — Venezuelan national Pedro Burelli, a former JP Morgan executive and pre-Chávez-era member of the board of directors of PDVSA, Venezuela’s national petroleum firm, which controls the world’s largest crude reserves. The two first met, Burelli said, during a recruiting trip at Harvard while Burelli was still at JP Morgan. “Someone called my attention to this young Venezuelan who was at the Kennedy School where I had graduated many years before,” said Burelli, who is now a corporate consultant with B+V Advisors, “and I connected him.”* López went to work at PDVSA in 1996 and stayed there as an analyst for three years. In 1994, López’s mother joined PDVSA as well, becoming vice president of corporate affairs in 1998, after a long career at PDVSA subsidiaries.**
Burelli considers himself a “very good friend” of López, and said he has provided informal advice to the opposition leader through his many contentious political transitions, from López’s time at PDVSA through the early months of 2014.*** Burelli explained that while he was at PDVSA, López helped found a group called Primero Justicia — which led, in 2000, to the formation of an opposition party of the same name. In 2005, a comptroller general investigation found that López’s mother had in 1998 channeled $120,000 in corporate donations from PDVSA to Primero Justicia while she and López were at the firm, in violation of anti-corruption laws. López’s attorneys point out that Primero Justicia was a nonprofit at the time, not yet a party, and López never stood trial on the charges. The comptroller general nevertheless barred López from holding office from 2005-2008. A separate investigation into another matter barred López from holding office through 2014.**** The Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case brought by López, found that his administrative conviction and disqualification from running for political office was unlawful and in violation of his right to freedom of political participation and due process of law. But the Supreme Court of Venezuela refused to abide by that order.*****
López left Primero Justicia in 2007 over disputes with other party members and then leapt from one political party to another, leading up to his quixotic run for president in 2012 on the ticket of his current party, Voluntad Popular. He was also, during these years, playing a pivotal role in Venezuela’s rising student opposition movement. A leaked State Department cable from 2007 reads, in part, “the young, dynamic opposition mayor of Chacao Municipality in Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez, addressed students during early demonstrations in his jurisdiction, and he is actively advising them behind-the-scenes”; another describes López as “the best channel to the student movement.” Some JAVU leaders, including one mentioned in the cables, went on to become active in Voluntad Popular, the party that fueled López’s rise to national prominence.
While López was honing his political skills and building his base, he stayed in the shadow of his former ally in the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, who remained the leader of Primero Justicia, running for president twice. But Capriles lost badly to Chávez, by more than 1 million votes, in 2012, contributing to catastrophic losses by the opposition coalition in governors’ races later that year. In 2013, Capriles lost again to Maduro, albeit in a tighter race. These losses created new divisions among the opposition and — combined with Venezuela’s economic downturn and the long wait until Maduro’s term expires in 2019 — sparked López and his student allies to take to the streets in February of last year, where they clamored for “Libertad!” and “Democracia!” They also began to call for the “salida,” or exit, of Maduro, a cry that was used widely against Chávez in 2002.
Democracy is at the heart of the new, more radical movement’s claim to legitimacy. And central to that claim is the ability of their charismatic leader to distance himself from Venezuela’s brief 2002 coup attempt, which remains an open political wound.
In mid-April 2002, in the midst of an opposition-led general strike against PDVSA and mass protests against (and in support of) President Hugo Chávez, a group of military and business leaders took Chávez into custody and appointed an interim president, Pedro Carmona, then-president of Venezuela’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce. The key document in which the plotters announced their new government was signed at Miraflores, the presidential palace, on April 12, 2002, the day Chávez was arrested and Carmona assumed power. Known as the “Carmona Decree,” the document dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, effectively nullifying the country’s 1999 constitution. The fate of the coup attempt hinged on the events that unfolded over the surrounding days, as the opposition movement mounted a general strike, mass protests, and a media campaign to bolster the legitimacy of the Carmona government at home and abroad. While the attempt was denounced by governments across the globe, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration declined to do so, putting wind in Carmona’s sails. For days, military leaders had been pressuring Chávez to willingly step down, and coup leaders then claimed, falsely, that he had done so. Meanwhile, pro-Chávez forces organized mass demonstrations of their own; riding that wave, pro-Chávez military officers threatened to remove Carmona, at which point he resigned, and Chávez was airlifted back to the presidential palace.
The attempted coup remains very unpopular in Venezuela, in no small part because of Carmona’s decision to throw out the constitution, a document that just three years earlier had been approved by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans, including many opposition sympathizers. A September 2003 poll by Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most prominent polling firms, found that more than 90 percent of respondents preferred that the country’s political crisis be resolved by legal, democratic, and peaceful means. The unpopularity of the coup was further confirmed by Chávez’s resounding victory in a 2004 recall election. And those two days in 2002 remain a “delicate” subject among the opposition, according to Datanálisis’s president, Luis Vicente León. “They did something they’ve tried to forget,” he said, “and they want to keep it that way.”
López and his allies on the radical flank of the opposition have long tried to distance themselves from its memory. Over the years, López has emphasized that he did not sign Carmona’s decree — no evidence indicates that he did — and that he had no role in organizing the coup attempt. “At no point was López ever a proponent of the coup, nor was he allied with the business leaders who led it,” the white paper by his attorneys reads. The paper was released on July 21, 2014, at a National Press Club press conference that featured an emotional appeal by Tintori for “solidarity” and for her husband’s release from jail. “It breaks my heart,” she told the gathering of journalists and supporters, “having to explain to my daughter after every visit why her daddy can’t come home.”
But news reports, parliamentary records, U.S. government documents, video recordings, and interviews show that López was not quite as remote from the coup attempt and its plotters as he and his representatives claim. Coup leaders and Carmona signatories included figures who were at the time, or are now, members of López’s inner circle. Harvard-educated Leopoldo Martínez, for several years an opposition leader in parliament, led Primero Justicia with López; he was designated finance minister of the short-lived Carmona government. Maria Corina Machado, López’s closest ally, who joined him in calling for last February’s protests, was a signatory; as was Manuel Rosales, a former leader of Un Nuevo Tiempo, a party that López joined and helped build in 2007 (and was expelled from in 2009). Also among the roughly 400 business, military, media, and political figures to sign the decree during a raucous ceremony in April 2002 at Miraflores — while Chávez was being held, not far away, at a military installation — was Leopoldo López Gil, López’s father.
Last May, at the rally for political prisoners in Caracas, I approached López Sr. to ask about his decision to sign. “I didn’t, none of us who were there, signed any ‘decree,’” he said. “What they passed around was an attendance sheet that later was misrepresented. How were we going to sign something we hadn’t even seen?” But video of the Carmona signing on April 12, which only came to light in recent years, speaks to a different reality: A crowded room of men in suits cheer as the parts of the decree dissolving all branches of government are read to thundering applause by Daniel Romero, Carmona’s attorney general designate. The video also shows Carmona being sworn in as president, and Romero inviting the attendees to “sign the decree that was just read, in support of the process.”
At the time of the coup attempt, the younger López, then 30, was mayor of Chacao, a Caracas subdivision. He supported both the general strike of April 9-10 and the massive opposition march on April 11 that immediately preceded Chávez’s removal. Both events were pivotal to the coup’s brief success, and López and Primero Justicia offered its leaders both legitimacy and a crucial base of popular support.
At parliamentary hearings on the coup, convened in June of that year, video from a broadcast of 24 Horas, a news show on Venevision, was shown, in which the younger López seems to be celebrating Chávez’s removal. (Venevision said that it could not locate any footage from 2002.) “That day, for me, from the beginning was a day of not turning back,” he says, according to the official parliamentary transcript. “That was a day where we said, here is where the mask of the dictatorship fell, and we bet it all.” (A member of López’s legal team, asked to respond to these lines, said by email, “There is nothing in what Leopoldo said that indicates his support for a coup…. He never called for the removal or overthrow of President Chavez.” He added, “And you definitely cannot rely on what the Government of Venezuela has said he said.”)
Other contemporaneous video evidence seems to indicate enormous enthusiasm by López for Chávez’s ouster. In one news broadcast of the pivotal PDVSA protest rally in Caracas on April 9, 2002, a baseball-capped López steps onto the stage to lead the crowd of tens of thousands in a chorus of “Not one step backwards!” At the top of his voice, he yells: “We’ll be here all night and tomorrow all day until the president leaves!” (“The protests and march,” said López’s attorney, “were not an attempted coup — they only were transformed into that later, and not by him.”) In a video communiqué from Primero Justicia released as the coup was unfolding on April 11, López and other party leaders flank their spokesperson, opposition parliament member Julio Borges, who says he and other MPs are ready to resign their positions and demand that Supreme Court, the president, and his cabinet “resign” their posts as well, a tactic to legitimize the dissolution of the Chávez government. López repeatedly uses the same word, renuncia, or resignation, as well as salida, the favored terms of the coup leaders, during an April 11 interview on Venevision’s popular Napoleon Bravo morning talk show. According to available video excerpts from that interview, López also briefly describes what a “transition government” might look like and proposes only two ways out of the political crisis: a coup or the dissolution of the government. “What are the possibilities we have in Venezuela?” he asks rhetorically. “Either we will have a coup, quick and dry, or another kind, or the proposal we’re making [for the Chávez government to step down]. There’s no other way to get past the deadlock being played out here in Venezuela.” Of course, Chávez never did resign. He was arrested instead.
In his book chronicling the events of April 2002, My Testimony Before History, Carmona indicates that the April 11 march was originally headed to PDVSA headquarters but was rerouted to the presidential palace, where pro-Chávez protesters had already gathered. When the two sides met near the palace, the conflict turned deadly, with 19 protesters — from both sides — shot and killed. Carmona writes that he “consulted with” López and that the protest’s fatal route change was “authorized by Mayor Leopoldo López.”
Yet a month and a half after that violent confrontation, during testimony before the parliamentary commission investigating the overthrow attempt, López insisted that “at no moment did we have any contact with spokespeople of the transition government … the decisions we made were totally and absolutely autonomous.”
López’s most controversial episode remains the April 12 arrest and detention of then-Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín. López, mayor of Chacao at the time, and Capriles, then-mayor of Baruta (another Caracas municipality), saying they had been tipped off by neighbors, showed up at a house where Chacín was staying, unguarded, to personally charge him with responsibility for the 19 shooting deaths that had taken place the previous day. As opposition supporters and media gathered outside the house in Baruta, the two mayors took him into custody. (The deaths remain unresolved; both sides maintain the other was responsible.) López told reporters at the time that he and Capriles had obtained a search warrant of the house and had coordinated with the Baruta police on Chacín’s arrest. Moments after Chacín was taken away, news video captures López telling a reporter that “President Carmona knows of the arrest,” another possible indication of coordination with the coup’s leader, something that López has denied in general terms many times since. (After Chávez was returned to power, Capriles and López were indicted for illegal detention in conjunction with the incident, but they were later pardoned as part of a far-reaching and controversial amnesty. Questioned on a pro-government talk show in 2012, López conceded that the arrest had been an error.)
In March 2014, I sat down with Chacín, now governor of the state of Guárico, to discuss that day’s events. “I had recently met with Carmona in his home, trying to negotiate with him to figure out how to reach an agreement to bring peace to the country,” he said. The arrest, just a week later, took him by surprise.
“Leopoldo López began rallying the neighbors with his megaphone, saying I was a murderer, that I was responsible for the killings,” said Chacín. “He was gathering them in, telling them I would be brought to justice for the murders of the past few days.” A news clip of the incident shows Chacín being beaten by the crowd. But according to the transcript of those June 2002 parliamentary hearings about the coup, other news video from that day quotes López claiming that the Chávez government is “in hiding, but here, justice will be imposed, because what Venezuela is calling for right now is justice.”
Chacín continued, “They said they were going to detain me and that they were going to do it anyway because ‘this is a coup d’état, and Chávez had resigned.’ I told them, ‘No. Chávez did not resign.’”
López has never been formally charged with plotting a coup. But the fact that he played some role in the contentious events of 2002 is widely known in his home country and has likely colored how many Venezuelans view his role in the protests that erupted in Caracas last February. Last March, with the guarimbas, or street barricades, still in place in the city’s elite opposition strongholds, I spoke with Hermann Escarrá, a constitutional attorney and former opposition activist, who was one of the principal architects of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. Though Escarrá is reviled by some Chavistas for his opposition to President Chávez and his supporters over their plan in 2009 to extend the president’s term indefinitely, Escarrá calls the events of 2002 a “rupture of the constitutional order.”
Escarrá said he respects López personally but does not share what he calls López’s disregard for the constitution. He sat next to López at an opposition gathering in February 2004, an event captured on videotape, as the young politician declared, “We should feel proud of April 11, when we toppled Chávez with a march! … The man resigned on the 11th, he put his tail between his legs and he left” — a striking assertion, nearly two years after the coup, when it was no longer plausible to claim that Chávez had ever resigned.
I asked him to reflect on the protests that were then still roiling the city and on the government’s allegations that López was responsible for some of the violence. Escarrá wouldn’t comment on the current charges against López, saying he wasn’t familiar enough with the details of the case, and he defended the opposition’s right to peaceful protest. But he expressed grave concern about the recent opposition protests that had turned lawless and violent. “In the United States, what’s happening now in Venezuela would not have happened and won’t happen. No one would think to burn cars or tires, set fire to a street leading up to the White House, because the punishment would be truly serious,” Escarrá said. “Here, there are barricades called guarimbas where they’ve found armaments for war, where they’ve found Molotov cocktails.”
Over the past year, a series of fresh government allegations have begun to take the shine off 2014’s wave of protests. It began with a thinly sourced government report, issued in May of last year. Called “Coup d’état and Assassination Plan Unveiled in Venezuela,” the report places the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, and two close López allies — María Corina Machado, now leader of the Vente Venezuela party, and López’s old friend and mentor from Harvard, Pedro Burelli — as part of a conspiracy to “annihilate” Maduro and overthrow the government. The plot, according to then-Justice Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, included political, business, and military leaders, who, he claimed, were the true forces behind the February 2014 street protests.******
To back its claims, the government released emails between the alleged plotters, as well as recorded conversations involving Burelli, who currently lives in McLean, Virginia. Burelli denies all charges and hired forensic investigators who say that the emails were forged and that Google has no record of them having been sent. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called the allegations against Whitaker “false accusations in a long line of baseless allegations against U.S. diplomats by the Venezuelan government.” Machado has dismissed the charges as “a fantasy.”
But Burelli has not denied the authenticity of the voice recordings of his conversations released by two local elected officials, who say they took place between Feb. 20 and March 14 of last year, in the middle of the wave of protests that launched López onto the international stage.
“What’s happened? I keep seeing lots of protests, lots of people in the streets. What’s happening inside your colectivo?” Burelli asks in one conversation with an unidentified military officer, using a term often used to refer to a political cell.******* (Burelli, when interviewed in 2014, declined to name the officer but said he was retired. He has since identified the retired officer as Lt. Col. Jose Gustavo Arocha Perez. Burelli also said that he was using the term “colectivo” to refer to the armed forces.) “I think the world is extremely activated,” Burelli tells the officer in a voicemail. “All that’s missing is for this part of the military to make the decisions it needs to make.”
“I think that there’s another Leopoldo López in the armed forces who understands that the time has come to clean the scum of Chavismo, the scum of complicity, the scum of corruption,” Burelli continues. “Any group that stands up and says this now will generate a crisis, I guarantee it. But it must be linked to the struggle of the people, to Leo’s struggle and in solidarity with Leo…. This is the moment. There’s no risk if it’s done right.”
When I asked Burelli about the recordings, he said, “Those are my recordings, but those recordings do not prove anything…. People who’ve read the whole thing say this is a conversation one could have with anybody.”
By September 2014, Lorent Saleh, a founder of JAVU, one of the student groups most closely identified with last year’s protests, was also facing charges. Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice arrested Saleh, accusing him of terrorism, and released videos in which Saleh can be seen talking about bombing discos and liquor stores, burning buildings, and bringing in snipers to kill grassroots leaders. Though barely reported in the U.S. media, last year’s protests were marked by several such incidents, including the firebombing of government ministries, child care centers, city buses, and television stations and the fatal shootings of security forces and Chavista sympathizers.
Finally, in February of this year, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was, along with López and Machado, one of the three leading figures behind the previous February’s upheavals, was arrested on charges of sedition and conspiracy as part of yet another alleged coup attempt. Both Saleh and Ledezma deny all of the charges; the latter’s attorney said the charges against Ledezma are “based on falsifications [and] evidence tampering.” (The two figures are linked by Saleh, who says, in one of the videos, “Ledezma is key…. The politician who has most supported the resistance has always been Ledezma.”)
The allegations against Saleh and Ledezma rattled the opposition. Both its moderate and radical wings closed ranks in defending Ledezma, whose arrest drew international attention and renewed calls for López’s release. But Saleh’s case was more divisive, with some of López’s closest allies in Voluntad Popular expressing concerns about the “violation of [Saleh’s] human rights” and others rapidly distancing themselves, saying Saleh “owes the country an explanation.” (When asked about López’s links to Burelli, Saleh, and Ledezma, the López attorney said, “There is every reason to have serious questions about the authenticity of these claims.”)
The arrest of Ledezma took place just a week after he, López, and Machado had joined forces to release — on the anniversary of last year’s upheavals — a “Call on Venezuelans for a National Accord for the Transition.” It calls for a “peaceful transition” of the Maduro government, which, the document says, is in its “terminal phase.”
President Maduro responded by releasing, on March 4, what he claims is another opposition document; this one lays out a detailed 100-day transition plan whose blueprint contains echoes of 2002. He claimed, obliquely, that the document had been authored by the “violent ones who are in prison.”
Conspiracy and counter-conspiracy may be a constant in Venezuela today, but these left-right political dramas have been overshadowed by Venezuela’s mounting economic crisis and its pressure cooker effects on Venezuelan politics. On March 9, the Obama administration piled on, declaring the situation in Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” (The administration has since backed away from this statement.)
These winds would seem to favor the Venezuelan opposition. Luis Vicente León, the Datanálisis pollster, told me that recent polls show that the figure paying the biggest political price for the current crisis is Maduro, whose popularity dropped in January to 23 percent, his lowest ever, while, as of March, approval of López and Capriles had each risen to 40 percent. (Maduro’s approval rebounded to 28 percent in March.) The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela remains the best organized, and its support remains strong in Venezuela’s poor communities, a segment that will be key in the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for later this year. But Maduro’s personal unpopularity has eroded the party’s base, which now claims the loyalty of only 17 percent of the electorate (from a high of 42 percent under Chávez), the same as the combined total of those who identify with one of Venezuela’s many opposition parties.
The figure who gained the most from last year’s upheavals, says León, is, without a doubt, Leopoldo López. Jail has boosted López’s public image, León says, with some seeing a “valiant martyr who was unjustly imprisoned, without a doubt unjustly — and without a doubt a political prisoner who generates singular solidarity.”
His rising star, however, may also contribute to a further “fracturing” of the opposition, León says, as López now “shares the stage and popular support on an equal level with Capriles.” Opposition standard-bearer Capriles finds himself struggling to keep his more moderate opposition coalition, the MUD, from fracturing further in the face of the growing influence of López and his radical flank.
Just this past May, these schisms were on full display, following a hunger strike by López and his call for a mass protest. “A year and three months on from our call [to protest], the situation is worse than last year,” said López on May 23 in a video recording released from Ramo Verde prison. “Brother and sister Venezuelans, we want to call on you for a protest, a resounding protest, massive, pacific, without any kind [of] violence, on the streets of Venezuela this Saturday.” The hunger strike, joined by a handful of student supporters, “represents the suffering of all Venezuelans,” declared López’s wife, Lilian. She was joined by Ledezma’s wife for the Caracas protest on May 30, which attracted an estimated 3,000 followers — a sliver of the mass actions last year.
The MUD coalition issued a statement declaring it would not participate (though Capriles tweeted that he would personally attend), even taking a jab at what they called López’s “unilateral” approach: “The best decisions are those that are arrived at together, because unity has no substitute,” the release stated.
What becomes of the Venezuelan opposition may not be determined by the outcome of López’s legal case, which appears to have no end in sight. Much will hinge on Leopoldo López’s credibility: whether the court of national opinion will continue to see López and his flank of the opposition as a serious new voice for democratic change or as a movement marked by unpopular strains of radicalism.
* Clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: Pedro Burelli was not involved in hiring Leopoldo López at PDVSA.
** Clarification, Sept. 3, 2015: Leopoldo López’s mother was originally hired by a subsidiary of PDVSA in 1980, and transferred to the head office in 1994.
*** Clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: Burelli did not specifically advise López on the 2014 clashes with the Venezuelan government.
**** Clarification: Aug. 26, 2015: An editing error in a previous version of this article made unclear the years in which López was banned from running for public office.
***** Update, Aug. 12, 2015: This article has been updated to note the ruling by the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of López.
****** Correction/clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that Burelli was “considered a fugitive from justice by Venezuelan authorities.” In June 2014, the BBC reported that the Venezuelan government would be seeking a Red Notice from Interpol for his arrest. A Red Notice has not been issued.
******* Update, Aug. 17, 2015: This article has been updated to reflect Burelli’s explanation for the meaning of the word “colectivo” and to include the name of the retired officer to whom he was speaking.
Image credit: CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ/AFP/Getty Images