Venezuela's Golden Boy Plots to Save Country From His Jail Cell

Leopoldo Lopez

Lopez, left, being transferred from an armored vehicle to a black SUV by police during a march in Caracas in 2014.

Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
  • Leopoldo Lopez used international stature to push elections
  • He has star appeal but can he lead a fractured opposition?

When the Venezuelan government threw Leopoldo Lopez into prison two years ago, it sought to silence a charismatic opponent in an increasingly irate country.

It didn’t work. 

A rebel with street skills and foreign admirers, Lopez turned out to be just as formidable behind bars. A 30-day hunger strike helped force the ruling socialists into holding legislative elections that have created a huge anti-government majority. And he has kept up his organizing skills. One day this month, his lawyer said, guards ordered Lopez to stop talking politics after he gave an emotional reading of the psalm of the day, which referred to “rising up in the assembly.”

“When he wants to send a message," the lawyer, Gustavo Velazquez, said, "he’s full of energy and force.”

Rebel or Leader?

Few question that. What Venezuelans do fear is that Lopez is a better insurgent than consensus builder. The 44-year-old scion of a family that goes back to the country’s founding, equipped with an elite U.S. education, movie-star looks and untethered ambition, he is sometimes described as a cross between John Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. But with the new congress hoping to free him soon, the question on many minds is: Can Lopez, whose popularity is growing rapidly, organize a political drive to remove President Nicolas Maduro and stabilize a country ravaged by hyperinflation and violence?

Some are skeptical, saying that the dozen-odd parties gathered into the opposition, from Marxist to the center-right, require a unifier, not a visionary or symbol as their leader.

"He’s a warrior and, God-willing, he will be freed," said Liliana Hernandez, a former opposition congresswoman, who worked closely with Lopez. "But he is his own hierarchy. He has no concept of collective decision making."

In a 2009 cable released by Wikileaks, U.S. diplomats noted, “He is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry.”

Aristocratic Origins

Many of the country’s poor, long the bedrock of the ruling socialists, mistrust him for his wealthy, aristocratic origins. “He never won over the people,” said Roque Valera, 51 a community organizer. “He’s only been interested in power.”

But those closest to Lopez say these views fail to account for a profound change he has undergone in prison. One of his lawyers, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, said that rubbing elbows with criminals and underpaid soldiers has changed Lopez, making him calmer, more philosophical, more focused. He said Lopez told him more than once that if it weren’t for the suffering of his family, he would be happy about the experience.

He and others who have visited him say Lopez has grown more policy-oriented over the past two years, expressing the desire to build a political coalition rather than lead a popular movement. They have seen him poring over reports on agriculture and oil, the country’s top export. And he has written policy papers.

A widely-circulated letter Lopez wrote in November urged Venezuelans to use the recent elections to seek regime change, even though Maduro is not up for elections for three more years.

Can’t Wait

“We can’t wait years, we can’t wait until presidential elections,” said the letter spread through social media before the stunning December defeat of Maduro’s party in congress. “The political change in Venezuela has a date, and it’s the first half of 2016.”

Lopez got his way. The opposition won an overwhelming victory in congress last month, gaining wide-reaching powers to challenge Maduro, who took over in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, the leader of the leftist revolution that started with his 1998 election. But the government has challenged the legitimacy of three of those legislative victories, casting doubt on the supermajority that can upend the country’s power balance. 

As with a number of other countries that rely on oil, Venezuela has had a disastrous year, its national budget and subsidies under severe strain. The country’s problems are even more profound as violent crime and endless lines for basic goods have drained the society of its faith in its rulers. Even though the opposition has been divided and vague about the way forward, voters turned to it in droves. By all accounts, if Lopez is released he should be able to turn this moment into his own.

As early as next week, the newly-installed congress plans to introduce an amnesty law for Lopez and dozens of other political prisoners. An embattled Maduro has vowed to block the bill, setting the stage for a confrontation.

Condemned Abroad

Lopez, who is being held in a military prison outside Caracas, was sentenced to nearly 14 years at a trial widely condemned abroad. Both the U.S. and the United Nations have called for his immediate release; a lead prosecutor, who fled the country, said the evidence was fabricated.

A co-founder of the Justice First party, Lopez first rose to prominence when he was elected mayor of Chacao, an upscale section of Caracas, at age 29. His ambition was evident early. His mother, Antonieta Mendoza, recounted that friends tell a story about when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Policeman? Doctor? Fireman? "He would say no, I want to be president of the republic," she said in an interview.

He is married to Lilian Tintori, a former television host and kite-surfing champion, who has been the public face of the free-Lopez campaign for the past two years and standard bearer of his politics. Lopez got his bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College in Ohio before earning a master’s from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

“He’s incredibly energetic; he slept maybe four hours a night,” said Jay Sullivan, Lopez’s college roommate. Lopez’s relatives include former ministers, a president and the sister of the South American independence hero, Simon Bolivar. His mother said that his grandparents were resistance fighters against the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez; he grew up hearing dramatic stories of exile and struggle.

Failed Coup

In 2002, there was a failed coup attempt against Chavez. Lopez with his longtime rival, Henrique Capriles -- then mayor of a neighboring Caracas district -- took part in a televised arrest of one of Chavez’s cabinet members, an event that haunts Lopez with claims he long sought to topple the government.

Reelected by a landslide in 2004, Lopez was later considered a shoo-in for metropolitan mayor of Caracas. But a 2008 decision by the comptroller banned him from holding office on allegations of graft. The ruling was overturned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights -- a judicial arm of the Organization of American States.

Lopez clashed with party leaders and broke with Justice First, the organization he helped found. After a stint at another break-away party, Lopez created Popular Will, a center-left movement. But after failing to unseat both Chavez and then Maduro, Lopez broke again with the leadership when the opposition failed to deliver a decisive victory in municipal elections in 2013.

Tapping into popular unrest, Lopez ignited a wave of country-wide protests, known as “The Exit,” aimed at pressuring Maduro to resign. While it began as a peaceful protest, demonstrations dragged on for months after Lopez’s arrest, claimed dozens of lives and sparked a government crackdown.

Reckless?

Political moderates called the movement reckless and blamed Lopez. He countered that the methods were necessary to draw international attention to the government’s increasing authoritarianism.

In a way, that disagreement is at the heart of the increasingly urgent debate over Lopez. His political heat excites. As Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis, put it, Lopez knows that “it’s his irreverence and his distinctiveness that may be his most appealing traits.” But as Venezuela tries to pull itself out of its economic and political chaos, are those the qualities most needed by its next leader?

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