Roberto Lovato has just published a great investigative essay in Foreign Policy on Leopoldo López, the jailed darling of Venezuela’s opposition. López is celebrated in the US press as a cross between Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He is handsome, like King, and, like Gandhi, occasionally shirtless. Newsweek blushes over López’s “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones.” He is, apparently, a “revolutionary who has it all”: an “attractive and supportive wife, two children who get along with each other and impossibly adorable Labrador puppies.” Everything except a revolution.
Drawing on WikiLeaked cables, Lovato reveals how López over the years has been handled by the US embassy in Caracas. (Roberto told me that 15 minutes after a colleague of his posted the FP article on social media, someone from the US embassy e-mailed and said, “You should really come to me when it comes to Venezuela.”) Despite this support, though, López remains a divisive figure within Venezuela, and Lovato’s piece helps explain why the opposition can’t get its act together, despite opportunities offered by serious economic problems and rampant corruption.
A few years ago, not long after Hugo Chávez’s March 2013 death and the razor-thin election of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, López was at the center of a middle-class putsch attempt, protests that resulted in numerous deaths. It was as if all the rich, white gentry from LA’s Beverly Park started building barricades and stringing steel wire from lamppost to lamppost to decapitate motorcycle taxi drivers (as what happened to Venezuelan Elvis Durán), with the US media reporting on events as if it were Selma 1965.
Following these protests, López was arrested “on charges of arson, public incitement, and conspiracy.” His arrest got international attention, but, Lovato writes, “López’s trial has proceeded largely without fanfare…. 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.”
López’s claim to lead the Venezuelan opposition rests on his insistence that he had nothing to do with the failed April 2002 coup against Chávez. But Lovato nicely shows this insistence to be a lie. Then mayor of a rich Caracas municipality, López was everywhere those April days, rallying crowds, appearing on TV. His “most controversial episode,” as Lovato describes it, was leading a crowd to surround the house where a Chávez minister was laying low, picking up a megaphone to charge the minister with murder: “Justice will be imposed,” López said. López’s anti-Chavistas beat the minister in the street and then kidnapped him. López, in other words, is a thug. Ted Cruz with a mob.