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The Making of Leopoldo López: An Investigation into Venezuela’s Most Prominent Opposition Figure

StoryAugust 05, 2015
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“The Making of Leopoldo López: A Closer Look at the Democratic Bona Fides of the Rock Star of Venezuela’s Opposition.” That’s the headline to a new investigation into Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader who has been jailed since February 2014. President Nicolás Maduro dismisses him as a criminal. But López’s supporters call him a political prisoner and accuse Maduro of silencing a dissenting voice. We speak with Roberto Lovato about his new piece in Foreign Policy. Lovato is a writer and visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a major investigation into the jailed leader of Venezuela’s opposition movement, Leopoldo López. Last February, López turned himself in to authorities after they issued a warrant for his arrest for inciting violent anti-government protests that left more than 40 people dead. President Nicolás Maduro dismisses him as a criminal. But López’s supporters call him a political prisoner and accuse Maduro is silencing a voice of dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: In a new report in Foreign Policy, journalist Roberto Lovato draws on interviews, U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, archived video to profile López. His article is titled “The Making of Leopoldo López: A Closer Look at the Democratic Bona Fides of the Rock Star of Venezuela’s Opposition.” Roberto Lovato will join us in a minute, but first to a clip of Leopoldo López speaking in 2004, two years after the 2002 coup, which briefly ousted President Hugo Chávez from power.

LEOPOLDO LÓPEZ: [translated] We should be proud of April 11th. I don’t know if there’s someone who is not proud about April 11th, when we overthrew Chávez with a march. Now, on April 12th, it happened, and the history is there, and we will criticize, and we will see. But April 11 doesn’t put them in the swamp. We have to claim the 11th, the march of the 11th, the power of the people from the 11th, and that the man resigned on the 11th. He put his tail between his legs and left, and that is the reality.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Leopoldo López speaking in 2004.

For more, we go to San Francisco, California, to be joined by Roberto Lovato, author of this new profile of López. Roberto is a writer and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Roberto. Tell us why Leopoldo López is so significant.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, glad to be on the show again, Amy.

Leopoldo López is a unique phenomenon, I think, in Latin American political—recent Latin American political history, in terms of being someone who, on the one hand, Newsweek calls a “revolutionary who has it all” and, quote, someone who has, quote, “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes.” I’ve never seen in all my time covering social movements and revolutionary movements in Latin America—seen this kind of attention paid to a figure of an opposition movement in Latin America, a Latin America that, remember, has turned away from U.S. policy and from the U.S. And so, you have someone who’s called a revolutionary by Newsweek, who at the same time is unlike—you know, his movement, unlike most Latin American movements, is opposed to U.S. policy—is supported by U.S. policy, as versus opposed to it. The opposition in Venezuela gets U.S. funding, instead of being opposed by U.S. funding.

So, you know, last year, we saw a lot of violence. We also saw people killed. And one of the reasons that I undertook this story was that I noticed that there was a difference between what we saw last year, in terms of the immense awakening in Hollywood suddenly to Venezuela, from Jared Leto, Madonna, Cher tweeting and talking about the opposition and López, and what was actually on the streets, which was that there were 43 people killed. But you didn’t hear about the people that were Chavistas that were killed, people like a young man named Elvis Duran, 29-year-old cyclist, motorcyclist, who was beheaded by barbed wire put out by the opposition in Venezuela. So, I decided I wanted to look at the opposition. And I thought, “Well, what better way to look at the opposition than to look at one of its rising stars, its leader, Leopoldo López?”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Roberto, give us a thumbnail sketch. Who is Leopoldo López? Especially what are his family and—who is he descended from?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Leopoldo López is descended from Simón Bolívar through his mom, who has a line that runs to Simón Bolívar’s sister. And he’s been compared to Gandhi and Mandela and other prominent figures in global human rights. And he, by his own admission, comes out of the 1 percent. He did an interview with his high school newspaper, at Hun High School, which was a high school where Saudi princes have gone, where the children of CEOs, Fortune 500 CEOs, and the son of a president have gone. So, by his own admission, he comes from the 1 percent and has risen to where he is now because he comes from a prominent family and because he’s a capable organizer, according to U.S. State Department cables. You know, what’s interesting about López, if you look at those cables, is that at the same time that the—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Roberto, just to get back to that for a second, though, his mother, as you say in your article, is from the—is one of the executives of the Cisneros Group, which is probably the largest media company in South America, certainly?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world is the Cisneros Group, with stations and networks all over the world. His mother is a senior executive. It’s interesting. He has a lot of family connections that are in media. His mother is with the Cisneros Group, this large conglomerate. His father is on the editorial board, according to El Espectador in Colombia, of El Nacional newspaper. His wife is a reality show star, TV—former TV host and radio jock. And he’s also very connected to people here in the U.S., like former Republican operatives like Robert Gluck, who runs a PR firm and previously was working on Lamar Alexander and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign, for example, to get Gray Davis out of office. And he also has connections to people like a gentleman named Leonardo Alcivar, who did communications for the Romney administration and—for the Romney—I’m sorry, for the Romney campaign, and worked with the Bush administration.

So, you know, I looked into statements by different figures. I interviewed members of his family. I interviewed his allies. And I had people like Gluck, Robert Gluck, tell me that he was—you know, that they have this volunteer effort called Friends for a Free Venezuela. And when I asked Gluck if he was being paid for his—for what he did, he stalled, and then he said, “Yes,” and told me that he was being paid by Leopoldo López’s family. So—and this is the gentleman who said in the news—and I quote—that to call Leopoldo López right-wing is the, quote, “ultimate in Orwellian doublespeak.”

So, Leopoldo López comes from a very wealthy, influential, well-connected family that I think serves him in his rise to power through, first, Primero Justicia party, up to now, his party, Voluntad Popular. And throughout, you see a figure that’s also been very divisive. If you look at State Department cables that say that he is, quote, “power-hungry and vindictive,” quote-unquote, and at the same time describing him as a good organizer.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about his circumstances today. Why is he in jail?

ROBERTO LOVATO: He’s accused of, you know, arson and incitement in last year’s upheavals that we saw in Venezuela. And he had a lot of other charges against him, but those were dropped. And, you know, his trial has had these fits and starts, and it’s been going on for quite some times. And he is—you know, according to a pollster, being in—according to one of the preeminent pollsters of Venezuela, Vicente León, Luis Vicente León, he’s actually—his time in jail is benefiting his political career, because he’s perceived as a political prisoner. That’s surely the case in the international arena, although in Venezuela the opinion about Leopoldo López is divided, as is public opinion generally. And that’s not really come out in our media, just like those Chavista dead that I mentioned early up front, that you don’t hear about the beheaded—the people that were beheaded by the opposition. You don’t hear about the Chavista dead. You heard about the people that the Chavistas killed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Roberto, shortly after Leopoldo López’s arrest last year, his opposition Popular Will party released a video of him speaking before he surrendered to government troops. This is part of what he said.

LEOPOLDO LÓPEZ: [translated] I would like to tell all Venezuelans that I do not regret what we have done thus far, like the call we put out for the protest, which is what we’ve been doing for some time. But on the 12th of February, on the Day of Youth, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Venezuela, not only in Caracas like in the past, but in all of Venezuela. In the cities and in the towns, there were 10 or 50 or a thousand or 10,000, or even 70,000, but the people came out. The people woke up. Venezuela today, more than ever, needs you who are watching this, and that each one of us takes on the commitment to want change. But that commitment cannot be passive. That commitment has to be active.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Leopoldo López last year. So, Roberto, we only have about a minute. In terms of his role in achieving greater or less democracy in Venezuela, what do you—how do you judge that?

ROBERTO LOVATO: I think you look at the constitution and the way that people around López, as I document in my article, are or aren’t committed, or in López himself, are committed to democracy in terms of the constitution, and the constitution that was shredded by something called the Carmona Decree and the coup. López and his lawyers, Jared Genser and José Maes, make statements denying that he had any role, when in fact, if you look at my article, López was involved in activities like a PDVSA general strike and a protest, and has made statements like on your early tape where he’s clearly supporting the coup, even though he was not a signator to the document, the Carmona accord, that his own father, who I interviewed also, signed. I interviewed López’s father, not López, and his father told me that he had signed not a—not the Carmona accord, but—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

ROBERTO LOVATO: He signed—he told me he signed an attendance sheet, when, you know, you can see videos that there was a call to sign the accord.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’re going to link to your article in Foreign Policy called “The Making of Leopoldo López: A Closer Look at the Democratic Bona Fides of the Rock Star of Venezuela’s Opposition.”

That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Manhasset, New York at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock tomorrow night, Thursday night, for the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. And next week at the Venice Biennale, we’ll be broadcasting from Venice, Italy.

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