Venezuela’s Golden Boy Is Out of Jail. That May Be a Problem

  • The nation’s biggest question is what Leopoldo Lopez does next
  • Former mayor has a reputation as the opposition’s lone wolf

Leopoldo Lopez’s abrupt transfer to house arrest after three years in military prison was cause for celebration in certain quarters of Venezuela’s bitter political landscape.

President Nicolas Maduro washed his hands of a man who symbolized human-rights abuses. Lopez’s followers hailed his return as a victory against an authoritarian regime. But the fractious opposition coalition, which for months has maintained a unified voice, was shaken as the charismatic former mayor’s reappearance raised the risk that old divisions will be reopened.

Leopoldo Lopez raises a fist as he arrives home after being released from jail in Caracas on July 8.

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

“He blows up the opposition at a crucial time,” says Angel Alvarez, a political consultant. “His release creates a new obstacle for their political agenda.”

Those trying to unseat Maduro gained strength while Lopez was imprisoned. They spread their reach into Caracas neighborhoods once supportive of the president and his predecessor Hugo Chavez. Even dissident Chavistas have said the movement was betrayed. Now the opposition must reintegrate a leader who made a career out of his go-it-alone style, even as it tries to thwart Maduro’s effort to consolidate power and overhaul the constitution.

Since his predawn transfer, Lopez has been with his family in an upscale section of Caracas where he once served as mayor. Days after his homecoming, small groups have lingered in front of the gated residence, cheering and tacking posters and messages of support on the walls. Venezuela’s intelligence police now patrol the area. On Saturday, Lopez said in an open letter that he would continue his opposition and spoke of “my conviction to fight for true peace, coexistence, change and freedom.”

While he is prevented from speaking with the press, his mother, Antonieta Mendoza, told a Peruvian newspaper that he has been seeing doctors, spending time with his children and meeting members of his Popular Will party.

Playing Nice

Lopez must decide how to navigate a political landscape in which at least 90 people have died this year, including a 16-year-old boy killed Monday as demonstrators tried to block streets.

All major opposition players have pushed for street demonstrations. Yet members of Popular Will have long been considered hardliners, who scoff at negotiating with the government. Last year, they stayed out of Vatican-mediated dialogues as many members, including Lopez, remained behind bars.

On Sunday, the opposition will hold an unofficial plebiscite on the Maduro’s efforts to rewrite the constitution, an act of civil disobedience where they hope to draw out millions. But in the build up to the vote, old divisions seem to be resurfacing. Following Lopez’s release, members of Popular Will were heckled when they tried to shorten a scheduled protest to two hours. They quickly walked the move back, but not without drawing fire from their own allies.

Henrique Capriles

Photographer: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

“Tomorrow you protest for as long as you want!” tweeted Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate and long-time rival of Lopez. He later said in a statement that there was no rivalry within the opposition alliance, rather “sincerity,” and that any potential change “must be built from truth.”

Reaching Rapport

The delicate and changeable treatment reflects fears that Lopez’s ambitions may take precedence over collective efforts.

“I thought that he had learned, but he continues to play the role of the Lone Ranger,” said Alvarez.

And the circumstances surrounding his release gave fresh reason for opposition leaders to look askance at him: Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, publically thanked two key members of the Maduro administration for reuniting her family.

“We have to work together to come to an understanding,” Tintori said at a rally following her husband’s transfer, singling out the efforts of siblings Delcy and Jorge Rodriguez -- the former foreign minister and the current mayor of Caracas. “You can count on me.”

The comments blindsided many within opposition circles as Tintori repeatedly said her husband, who was jailed after accusations that he incited violence, would refuse any deal as long as hundreds of other activists and politicians remain behind bars.

David Smilde, a sociologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, described Lopez as a “disruptive force” that could upend uneasy alliances within the opposition. “Unity has always been their weakest point -- there is no clear leader,” Smilde said.

One of the Venezuelan government’s most strident critics, Lopez spearheaded a wave of unrest in 2014 aimed at pressuring Maduro to resign. While it began as peacefully, demonstrations dragged on for months after Lopez’s arrest, claiming dozens of lives and sparking a government crackdown on dissent. Lopez received an almost 14-year sentence, while political opponents and moderates within the opposition criticized his effort as reckless.

Harvard-educated, and boasting bloodlines that run back to Venezuela’s independence in 1811, Lopez has long had a reputation for clashing with political leaders rather than building consensus. He broke with two opposition parties (including one he helped found) until ultimately starting Popular Will in 2009.

In prison, he became a cause celebre for rights groups and foreign governments who have long criticized the Maduro administration for silencing critics to ensure its hold on power.

Rumors of Lopez’s ailing health and torture allegations swirled as his lawyers and family were often prevented from seeing him for weeks at a time. In May, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio caused an international uproar after tweeting the jailed politician had been hospitalized and was in “serious condition,” reports the government later denied.

Still, Venezuela’s top court cited health considerations in its order to transfer him home, while Lopez’s family says he lost almost 10 pounds and suffered a general infection while in prison.

Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, says his release was the result of growing fear of additional rebukes from the international community.

“The government is conscious it has a very bad reputation in terms of human rights,” Romero said. Civilian factions within government “feared things could get out of hand while he remained in military prison.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto

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