The Poster Boy

Can Leopoldo López unite Venezuela's fractious opposition and exorcise the ghost of Hugo Chávez?


CARACAS — Before his arrest last week, Leopoldo López was part of the second tier of Venezuelan opposition leaders, less well known and far less influential than leading lights like Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski — who lost last year’s hotly contested presidential election to Nicolas Maduro — and Lara State Governor Henry Falcon.

But after attaching his political fortunes to his country’s suddenly revived and student-led protest movement, López, 42, has charged to the forefront of the country’s fractured opposition movement. And thanks to his dramatic arrest last week, López has become the poster boy for Venezuela’s street protests and a hero for opposing President Nicolás Maduro.

López is now playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the government. Arrested last Tuesday and confined to a military prison outside Caracas, López is awaiting the results of a police investigation into his role in deadly clashes on Feb. 12 that left three people dead. His arrest and persecution have made him arguably the country’s most prominent political prisoner. On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters turned out at an opposition rally in Caracas to demand his release. Speaker after speaker demanded López’s freedom, accompanied by thunderous applause.

Like Hugo Chávez, the recently departed strongman whose shadow still looms over Venezuelan politics, López has a good sense of theater, and his arrest last week was a perfect piece of political performance art. After eluding the police for nearly a week, the charismatic López walked into a square full of supporters, scaled a large statue of Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti, and addressed the crowd with a megaphone. "If my imprisonment serves as a wakeup call for Venezuelans who want a change, then it’s well worth it," López said. "I had the option of leaving, but I never will leave Venezuela. The other option was to hide clandestinely, but we have nothing to hide." As he spoke, one member of the National Guard held his P.A. system, while another sought to restrain him. "I am innocent, I have done nothing wrong,” López said repeatedly. "I haven’t committed any crime."

It was all broadcast live on television. When López was done, he walked to a line of National Guardsmen and turned himself in.

For the next six weeks, while he awaits the results of the investigation into the Feb. 12 clashes, López will be held in a stark prison cell at a military base outside Caracas, the capital. If he is convicted, those six weeks could stretch to 10 years. If found innocent and freed, he will likely be the opposition’s presidential candidate in 2019. But for López, his incarceration is just the latest twist in a political career that has been defined by his opposition to first the late Chávez and now Maduro, his hand-picked successor.

The demonstrations to which López has hitched has political future have rocked Venezuela and presented Maduro with the sternest challenge to his authority since he was elected president in April 2013. Since the start of February, at least 13 people have died in violent clashes between students, police, and Maduro supporters. Hundreds have been arrested, scores wounded. The government announced last week that it would send army troops to the southwestern state of Tachira to help regain control of the state capital San Cristóbal — a stark admission that police and National Guard were unable to suppress the protests.

López has denied all wrongdoing, saying that the government is trying to use him as a scapegoat for its own shortcomings. Although Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, it has been slow to develop them. Production of oil, which accounts for about 95 percent of the country’s hard currency, has actually declined by a quarter during the 15 years Chávez and Maduro have run the country. Food shortages are rampant and growing. Venezuelans now spend hours each day looking for staples such as milk, corn meal, cooking oil, rice, and poultry. Shortages have been accompanied by soaring prices. Last year, Venezuela’s inflation rate was 56 percent, the highest in the world. Meanwhile, crime continues to increase, and Venezuela has the third-highest murder rate in the region. Corruption is rife.

In other countries of the world, López would be regarded as slightly left of center. López, who rejects the socialism of Chávez and Maduro, supports a more market-oriented approach to the economy, which would roll back many of the current administration’s policies and largely eliminate any government control. He would likely privatize some, if not all, of the companies, nationalized under the banner of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution.

Moreover, López criticizes Cuba’s influence in Venezuelan politics, which he says has resulted in a curtailment of political rights. He is a defender of strict freedom of the press and assembly and argues that the courts, the national electoral body, and the state attorney general’s offices have all become appendages of Maduro’s political party. With their autonomy eroded, López accuses Maduro and his cronies of attempting to set up a one-party state.

"López represents the future of our country,” says Roberto López, a 24-year-old university student in Caracas. "He has a vision for a better Venezuela. And he isn’t afraid to take to the streets to fight for it." 

Unsurprisingly, Maduro disagrees. In a nationally televised speech on Wednesday night, he called López a fascist and a right-wing hate monger."Leopoldo López isn’t going to be the person to save the country," Maduro said. The president added that the government had learned of a plot by some of López’s associates to assassinate Maduro in the hope of provoking a civil war.

Maduro has refused to accept any responsibility for the chronic problems that plague Venezuelan society and, taking a page out of the Chávez handbook, has consistently blamed others for his country’s woes. These purported villains include the Venezuelan fascist right-wing, the entrenched bourgeoisie, and foreign powers such as the United States and Colombia. He has repeatedly said that his enemies are scheming to kill him. (He has presented little proof to back up those allegations.)

That paranoia may be an expression of weakness as much as anything else. "Maduro doesn’t seem to be in full control of the government and its various parts,” says Caracas-based historian Margarita López Maya. "He says one thing, and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello says another. Maduro ordered the secret police to their barracks but then they disobeyed him. It’s difficult to say what is going on." Cabello is a member of Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela but is also seen as the president’s chief rival for power.

And Cabello isn’t Maduro’s only threat. On Monday, Tachira State Governor Jose Vielma Mora called on Maduro to release López and rein in the police and security forces, saying they had used excessive force. Vielma Mora is the first member of Maduro’s party to break ranks with the president.

López has been quick to capitalize not only on these divisions in the government but also cracks among the opposition. Hours before the Feb. 12 protests, Capriles, who narrowly lost the April presidential election to Maduro amid widespread allegations of fraud and vote rigging, questioned the students’ wisdom by going to the streets. "Given the current situation in Venezuela and the chaos in which we live, what we are striving for can’t be more chaos."Capriles said in an interview with Union Radio.

While Capriles preached caution when the protests began, López enthusiastically joined the students as their demonstrations gained momentum. He took a prominent role in the Feb. 12 protests, which coincided with the country’s Youth Day celebrations. López has now succeeded in dragging the mainstream opposition — largely against their will — into the streets.

Whereas Capriles has bet on building up grassroots support with an eye to the 2015 congressional elections, López has been brasher. He united with Maria Corina Machado, a member of the National Assembly, to form campaign called "The Exit," the main goal of which is to force Maduro from office by hammering him on issues like inflation and crime.

Many analysts believe that López’s ultimate goal may be to sideswipe Capriles and assume his role as the country’s foremost opposition leader. "López wants to step over Capriles and this has put him in the spotlight,” says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. But by fomenting unrest and giving Maduro an excuse to crack down on the protest movement, López may also be playing into the president’s hands, Yorde says.

López has a reputation as an ambitious maverick, one who prefers to lead than to follow. Disliked by many in the Venezuelan opposition, López has a record of jumping from party to party as it suits his interest. A co-founder of the Primero Justicia party in 2000, López subsequently jumped to Un Nuevo Tiempo in 2007, where he seemingly broke a pledge to support a unity candidate for his old post and subsequently backed one of his own followers. "López likes to be in undisputed control in any of the parties he belongs to,” says López Maya, the historian.

Under López’s leadership, Voluntad Popular moved to erode support for Chávez among the working class neighborhoods that were the late president’s stronghold. Voluntad Popular initiated various outreach programs by stressing that community residents should solve their own problems without interference from the government.

Gladys Castillo remembers when she would accompany López on his trips into the slums in the hills around Caracas. Chávez supporters often threatened them when they made these forays. "They threw rocks and bottles at us,” says Castillo, a community activist who has known López for 14 years. "We were nearly kidnapped. But Leopoldo saw with his own eyes how people lived, and what their needs were. He has that understanding. That has made him who he is."

With degrees from Ohio’s Kenyon College and Harvard University, López worked briefly as an advisor at the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA before entering politics. In 2000, at the age of 28, he succeeded former Miss Universe Irene Saez as mayor of the upscale Chacao district in the greater Caracas area. He served two four-year terms from 2000 to 2008.

Seen as an efficient and hardworking mayor, he was singled out by Chávez and his government, which banned him from running in the 2008 mayoral election after smearing him with corruption allegations, none of which have been proven. About 400 other Venezuelans were eventually put on the same list and prohibited from seeking public office.

Unlike many others, López challenged the ruling and filed suit with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2011, the court found in his favor. But López has remained inhabilitado, or unable to run, following a Supreme Court decision that upheld his ban from political office. Despite that ban, López’s party, Voluntad Popular, had a strong showing in December’s mayoral elections, winning more city seats than any other opposition party. That, in turn, strengthened López’s position.

That dogged refusal to fold in the face of government pressure has landed him squarely in Caracas’ cross-hairs.  "Leopoldo’s weakness is that he doesn’t back down,” Castillo says. "And he is stubborn." Maduro argues that López is guilty of conspiracy and planning riots and has said that he will have to face the consequences of his actions. Under strict security, López’s preliminary court hearing was held at 10 p.m. last Tuesday at the army base outside Caracas where he is being detained.

López had a most unusual ride to the facility: He was personally driven by Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly and a man rumored to have once been in line to succeed Chávez. 

But why did the head of the National Assembly drive López to the army base? (The rough American equivalent would be House Speaker John Boehner giving Julian Assange a ride to his court hearing.) It’s a question on everyone’s mind in Venezuela, but one currently without a clear answer. Maduro said last week that it was Cabello who persuaded López to surrender and who brokered his detention. López’s father has denied that account, saying that the meetings took place after his son surrendered and only then to discuss safeguarding López’s security. Now, rumors are flying in Venezuela that Cabello had tried to persuade López to leave the country and seek asylum elsewhere.

But if Cabello genuinely thinks he can persuade López to go into exile, he may have underestimated his opponent. After all, López surrendered voluntarily and made a spectacular scene of it. "He allowed himself to be taken into custody, and to be a martyr for the cause,” Neumann says. "In that, he is following the example of Chávez who also did prison time [after his abortive 1992 coup]. And look what that did for him."

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