Is Leopoldo Lopez A Political Prisoner Or A Dangerous Inciter Of Venezuela’s Opposition?

Internationally, Leopoldo Lopez is the face of Venezuela’s opposition to Chavismo, even thought it’s currently only through the tweets he sends from his jail cell. Although Hugo Chavez passed away more than two years ago, the legacy of his 14-year rule carries on with current president Nicolas Maduro — as well as across Latin America.

Leopoldo Lopez jailed for opposition
Leopoldo Lopez battled against the legacy of Hugo Chavez, a president larger than life in Venezuela. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

That’s why the case of Lopez goes beyond what is happening in the economically troubled country of Venezuela. When Argentina’s president elect Mauricio Macri beat out the Chavez-mentored Cristina Kirchner’s ruling party in elections last month, he immediately made a call for Venezuela to be booted from South America’s continental trade union Mercosur. That request was based on what he called “political prisoners,” such as the emblematic Leopoldo, who he says are an example of human rights abuses tarnishing the oil-rich nation.

Right-wing governments aren’t the only ones taking up the cause of freeing Lopez. Just days before Venezuela’s parliamentary elections, NGO Human Rights Watch published a takedown of the case, which landed Leopoldo a 14-year jail sentence. The organization reviewed court documents alongside Franklin Nieves, who prosecuted against Lopez in the trial, who claimed that the case was largely political and lacked legal basis.

Essentially, Leopoldo was convicted for inciting violence through the use of political rhetoric. Some of these charges related to specific actions — like arson for a firebomb flung into the Attorney General’s Office that never actually went off — while others were based off of “subliminal” messages that Lopez had presented in speeches and on social media. HRW believes that these documents provide substantial evidence of the prosecutor’s “account of a blatantly political prosecution.”

“What we learned from Nieves and the trial documents was that the charges were chosen and the case shaped to ensure that [Leopoldo] would spend the maximum time in prison. Subtract the odd ‘belonging to an organized crime group’ conviction, and Lopez could have served fewer than nine years. Subtract the bizarre ‘arson’ conviction, as well, and his sentence could have dropped below five years—in which case, under Venezuelan law, [Leopoldo] would have been eligible for alternatives to prison.”

Not everyone is so convinced of Lopez’s innocence. Supporters of Maduro say that Leopoldo was attempting a coup d’état that had to be blocked in order to preserve the democratically elected government’s rule. Left-leaning news site Venezuela Analysis recently argued that the international media has unfairly characterized the Lopez trail as unfounded, noting that the historical context of anti-Chavismo is telling of the jailed revolutionary’s true intentions.

“[Venezuelans] saw how [Leopoldo] co-opted the language of emancipatory popular politics to carry out a rightwing populist attempt to physically force the retreat of politics itself through oppressive means. They saw how he said on national television that it would only come to an end once the government was removed from power. There was nothing subliminal about his intentions; this is terrorism by any other name.”

elections with Leopoldo Lopez in Venezuela
In Leopoldo Lopez's absence, his wife Lilian Tintori has continued to speak out against his imprisonment and echo his sentiments leading into Venezuela's elections, appearing around the continent with Latin American leaders sympathetic to her cause. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Other more mainstream media outlets have also been skeptical of Leopoldo’s victimhood. This July, Foreign Policy wrote a piece criticizing the way that Lopez has become a “darling” of the United States for his good looks and hard stance against the anti-American Chavismo. After all, FP argued, there’s substantial evidence that Lopez was involved in the 2002 attempted overthrow of Chavez. Another piece from The Nation went as far as to call him “Ted Cruz with a mob.”

Leopoldo Lopez’s team rejected FP‘s article, saying that it severely underestimated support for the jailed activist in Venezuela and repeatedly sought to undermine his political ideas by reducing his appeal to the physical attractiveness of his wife and himself. On Sunday, Venezuelans go to the polls for the closest thing to a head count for support of the opposition that the public is likely to see, but, as usual with politics, the single result is likely to yield disparate interpretations.

[Image via AP Photo/Martin Mejia]