With the Venezuelan tricolor flag draped around his suntanned neck, opposition leader Leopoldo López, 42, stood atop the statue of José Martí in the Chacaíto neighborhood of eastern Caracas, finishing his seven-minute speech to a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering supporters. After reminding them that they are fighting for “the young, the students … the entire people of Venezuela” and calling for a “nonviolent struggle of the masses,” he took his leave, shouting into a handheld mic, “Very soon, we will have a free and democratic Venezuela! God bless you!”
His wife, Lilian Tintori, placed a crucifix around his neck. He climbed down into a crowd gone wild with chants of ¡Sí, se puede! (Yes, we can!) and proceeded to turn himself over to the authorities, who may charge him with murder and terrorism for the deaths of two people six days before, when a demonstration turned violent. López says he committed no crime and is being detained unjustly. As of press time, a judicial hearing to decide charges against López had not concluded.
With his movie-star good looks and his impassioned, inspiring rhetoric, it’s easy to see why the late President Hugo Chávez had him banned in 2008 from holding public office. (Chávez accused López of abusing public funds, but his true offense seems to have been the threat he presented to Chávez’s popularity.) López had by then served eight years as the well-liked mayor of Chacao, a prosperous commercial district in eastern Caracas—the sort of place where Chávez had no support to lose. Chávez’s bastion was always the poor; López is the hope of the beleaguered opposition, which is strongest among the middle and upper classes.
The government of Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s successor, has accused him of plotting a coup and branded him “the face of fascism”—the sort of thing it says about almost any serious rival. In 2009 a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, Robin Meyer, noted (in a cable revealed by WikiLeaks) that López had been called, by some in the opposition, “divisive … arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry.” Meyer said her sources also described López’s “enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer.”
López differs in every respect from the mostly working-class Chávistas he hopes to oust. He was born in Caracas to a well-to-do family tied to the petroleum industry and other businesses, with a bloodline extending to Venezuela’s founder, Simón Bolívar, according to the official website of the Chacao district. He graduated cum laude from Kenyon College and went on to receive a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He worked for a while at the state oil company, PDVSA, and taught at the prestigious (and private) Andrés Bello Catholic University. Following in the footsteps of Bolívar and another ancestor, Cristóbal Mendoza, Venezuela’s first president, he entered politics, co-founding the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party in 2000. Before the failed coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, López called for opposition street protests. He now heads Voluntad Popular (Popular Will).
Hoping to square off with Chávez in the 2012 election, López ran against Henrique Capriles as a candidate for the opposition. He pulled out of the primary before the vote and threw his support to Capriles, who lost by 11 points to Chávez—the opposition’s best national showing to that time.
López has since emerged as the head of Venezuela’s opposition, and this time his chances of success may be better than they were in 2012. His combative streak, well expressed in his Twitter feed, shows his willingness to go up against Maduro. That suits the mood of the day, when everyone, including the poor, is suffering from worsening shortages. The middle class has been increasingly infuriated by the Maduro regime’s violent silencing of its critics; the dialogue with the regime that Capriles has advocated has not gone down well, especially with anti-Maduro student activists.
Maduro himself is turning out to be his own worst enemy. He squandered his double-digit lead over Capriles in the April 2013 presidential elections, squeaking into office with 50.6 percent of the vote. According to a local pollster, Maduro’s approval rating was 40 percent in November. If Maduro ran against Capriles now, he would almost certainly lose, even if the former retains some support among the poor—still a majority of the country’s population.
Before arresting officers took away his phone, López tweeted a simple farewell: “I’m going as a prisoner to [the military prison of] Ramo Verde. I’m leaving you a message I’ve taped because I will continue to fight the dictatorship.”
The video message that follows shows López seated on a sofa with his hand on his wife’s knee. Dressed in a pressed white shirt, he notes he may well be under arrest by the time the video comes out. Then he urges Venezuelans to rise to the occasion, and fight nonviolently. He lambastes those in the government who, he says, have robbed Venezuelans of their hard-currency reserves (“the people’s money”) and of their security and rights. He and his wife then embrace, and the screen goes dark.