Venezuela’s crisis has escalated to new levels.
In the early morning hours of April 30, Juan Guaidó – the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who swore himself in as interim president in January – called for an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government.
In a video posted on social media, Guaidó, flanked by soldiers, asked Venezuelans to join him in the streets on May 1 for the final stage of “Operation Freedom.” This mass protest and military uprising would be “the beginning of the end” of a regime Guaidó and over 50 countries including the United States consider illegitimate.
In the background of the video, standing resolutely alongside Guaidó and rebel soldiers, was a figure stunning to see: Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner.
Uprising in Caracas
Under President Maduro, who took office in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has faltered, then collapsed. Food, medicine and electricity are scarce. Maduro has refused to budge, claiming the country’s economic troubles and popular unrest are a U.S. plot against him.
López, a former mayor and presidential candidate, was a leading figure in the powerful protest movement against Maduro that began in 2014.
After one major anti-Maduro march in Caracas grew violent, the popular politician was charged with “arson and criminal incitement.” The moment López waded through crying supporters to turn himself into police on May 18, 2014, he became the face of Venezuela’s fight for freedom and democracy.
Supporters saw him as a martyr who confronted the dictatorship rather than going into exile, as so many Venezuelan dissidents have. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
López’s face was printed on T-shirts, posters and flags that flew across the country. A website, FreeLeopoldo.com, called for “the immediate release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was illegally imprisoned in an attempt to silence dissent and free speech.” #FreeLeopoldo spread his cause worldwide.
After three years, the Maduro government in 2017 conceded to intense political pressure and released López to house arrest in the swanky Los Palos Grandes neighborhood. López, caged, was the embodiment of Venezuela’s vanquished opposition.
Then, three months ago, Juan Guaidó reinvigorated the resistance movement by waging a full frontal assault on Maduro. And López – apparently freed from house arrest by the soldiers guarding his home who were acting on Guaidó’s orders – has rejoined the resistance.
Seeing Leopoldo López standing with Guaidó on that video, as a free man, openly calling for an uprising, was a potent signal for Venezuelans after years of bloody protest and multiple thwarted coup attempts.
Leopoldo López’s political pedigree
López is the great-great-grandson of former Venezuelan president Cristóbal Mendoza and is said to be related to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuela-born general who liberated five South American countries from Spanish rule in the early 19th century.
López studied economics and sociology at Kenyon College in the United States on a swimming scholarship. In 1996, he got a master’s in public policy at Harvard.
He began his political career in 2000, with two four-year terms as the handsome, dynamic and popular mayor of Chacao, an upper middle-class municipality of Caracas. By 2008, the end of his second term, he had a 92% approval rating.
That’s when President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late Socialist leader and Maduro’s mentor, accused López of corruption and banned him from running for office. López was one of many popular Venezuelan politicians to face trumped-up charges that served to stop them from electorally challenging Chávez.
López, who planned to run for president against Chávez representing the Voluntad Popular – a political party that he, Guaidó and other opposition figures founded in 2009 – withdrew his candidacy. Instead, he backed opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Chávez won the 2012 presidential election, then died a few months into his term. Maduro, his vice president, took office in 2013.
López was sentenced to prison a year later. While he was jailed, López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, became a thorn in Maduro’s side. She traveled around the world meeting heads of state and denouncing human rights violations in Venezuela. She met with Latin American presidents, Pope Francis, and in February 2015, Joe Biden.
In February 2017 Tintori traveled to Washington to see U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who have both condemned Maduro and expressed public support for her husband.
After being received as “guests” of the Chilean government at the Chilean Embassy in Caracas, Tintori, López and one of their children are now staying at the residency of the Spanish ambassador to Venezuela. The Spanish government says they have not requested political asylum, but López cannot be arrested while in the ambassador’s residence.
The outcome of Guaidó’s effort to oust Maduro is uncertain. But whenever democracy is restored in Venezuela, López will surely be a presidential candidate to watch.