A Lightning Rod for Venezuela's Political Strife
Chris KraulLos Angeles TimesJuly 19, 2006CARACAS, Venezuela - Wherever politician Leopoldo Lopez goes these days, a crime wave seems to follow. He's been shot at several times, thrown to the ground and spit on. In February, armed thugs invaded a university auditorium where he was speaking and held him hostage for six hours. In March, one of his bodyguards was killed - shot six times as he sat in the passenger seat normally occupied by Lopez. The turmoil surrounding the 35-year-old mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest of the five districts that make up metropolitan Caracas, reflects the polarization and violence that permeate this country's politics. It also shows how scores are still being settled, sometimes violently, in the wake of the failed 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez. Though Lopez, a movie-star-handsome Harvard graduate, says he didn't participate in the short-lived coup, he did help lead demonstrations against the fiery leftist president in the preceding days. He also was a driving force in the post-coup general strike that almost brought the Venezuelan economy to a halt. But Lopez figures his real offense is that he poses an electoral threat as a fiscally conservative alternative to the socialist, anti-American "Bolivarian Revolution" espoused by Chavez. A child of privilege whose upbringing couldn't be more different from that of Chavez and the president's core supporters, Lopez is also a social activist who, after getting his master's degree at Harvard's school of public policy, worked for grass-roots judicial reform in Chacao. Depending how the coup is perceived, Lopez either fully exercised his right to protest or crossed the line into insurrection by trying to bring down a democratically elected president. Although Chavez opponents say all dissidents are being targeted, Lopez seems to be the object of a full-out campaign. The government has filed 26 criminal charges against him going back to 1998, with counts including illegal campaign financing and violation of building codes. Conviction on any one of them could result in a jail term. Lopez denies the charges, one of which is related to the coup. The latest example of what Lopez says is political aggression may put his political career on ice. Last month, the controller general disqualified him from running for any office until 2017. Lopez, one of the leading lights in Primero Justicia, an anti-Chavez opposition party, says he will fight the ruling.Immensely popular in his district and reelected in 2004 with more than 80% of the vote, Lopez says he fears for his life, and that the killing of his bodyguard was meant to send a message. "It's that we can kill you any time we want, in your own car, in your own municipality," he said. Critics say Lopez and other leaders of the opposition bear responsibility for helping foment the bitterness that prevails in the political arena. Many are still angry with him for taking part in the citizens arrest of Chavez's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, during the coup. And they say he has helped divide Venezuela by allowing his district's upscale Plaza Francia to become a base for dissident military officers and supporters of the post-coup strike. Lopez distances himself from the coup organizers and says he refused to sign the decree by coup leader Pedro Carmona that in effect canceled Venezuela's Constitution. As for Chacin's arrest, Lopez insists that he and several of his police officers were invited by a neighboring mayor to take custody of the minister to protect him from an angry crowd that had surrounded the building where he was in hiding. Dan Hellinger, a Venezuela expert and political science professor at Webster University in Missouri, called Lopez's claim that he acted to help the minister "disingenuous." Miguel Tinker Salas, a native Venezuelan and professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in Claremont, said it was wrong to make opposition leaders out to be "martyrs for democracy." "Among the opposition there seems to be the idea you can conduct these acts with impunity and without political consequences," Tinker Salas said. "In any other country - here in the United States, for example - the admirals and the generals would be in jail." Carlos Escarra, a powerful pro-Chavez deputy in the National Assembly, denied that Lopez was being politically targeted, though he acknowledged that he thought all coup and strike leaders should be in jail. He said rule of law was allowing Lopez to continue serving as mayor despite criminal charges that, under other circumstances, might disqualify him. "Leopoldo Lopez has had all the guarantees to respond to the judicial and administrative cases that involve him," Escarra said. "Here in Venezuela, there is no political persecution." Chavez has disavowed the violent methods of his supporters, such as the physical harassment of U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield on several occasions this year. But one well-known rights proponent in Caracas who requested anonymity said the campaign against Lopez showed the "militarization" of Venezuelan politics, dating to Chavez's inauguration in 1999. "It's the military concept of a revolutionary takeover of government in which you don't leave any piece of territory to the enemy," the rights specialist said. "That territory is political power, and in a revolution you don't negotiate the sharing of it." Militarization is sometimes more than a figure of speech, and Lopez's administration at times has seemed under siege. In October, 40 officers with the pro-Chavez metropolitan police force took over the Chacao police station. Brandishing pistols and at least one machine gun, they freed a man the local force had arrested on arms possession charges. Judging from the video recording of the bizarre invasion, a shootout among the rival forces was narrowly averted. Those on Chavez's side note the irony of coup supporters accusing the president of being militaristic. Lopez comes from the elite social class, where politics is a tradition. His grandfather was exiled in the 1920s under dictator Juan Vicente Gomez and later became agriculture secretary. Lopez was a co-founder of Primero Justicia, which started in 1993 as a civic action group to promote new methods of local conflict resolution through the establishment of justices of the peace. The group became a political party in 2000 to oppose Chavez. Asked whether he sees a chance for political reconciliation in Venezuela, Lopez says it's up to Chavez. "He is the only one who doesn't want to reconcile. But he needs enemies, external enemies, internal enemies. Why me? Because I've won elections, I have the votes. I represent the future, an alternative." * Special correspondent Mery Mogollon contributed to this report.