by Alvaro Vargas Llosa
After several days in hiding, Leopoldo López, one of the leaders of Venezuela’s resistance movement, turned himself in at a massive protest rally and proclaimed: “If my imprisonment serves to wake up people…it will have been worth it.”
The Chavista dictatorship headed by Nicolás Maduro has charged him with acts of violence related to recent protests. Actually, as multiple testimonies and large amounts of graphic evidence demonstrate, the violence has been perpetrated by the paramilitary groups, known as “colectivos”, that the government has armed and eulogized as protectors of the Bolivarian revolution.
These militias are similar to the ones the Cuban government routinely employs against its critics. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Cuba is closely involved with the Venezuelan regime and has played a key role in the design and operation of the security apparatus. Maduro’s ties to Havana go back to the 1980s, when he was trained at the infamous Escuela Superior del Partido Comunista, also known as “Ñico López.” Defectors from the intelligence services have stated that he has had close connections with Castro’s America Department, charged with spreading the revolution across Latin America.
Why is Leopoldo López so dangerous? For several reasons.
1. He is fearless. The world has recently discovered this, but Venezuelans have known it for quite some time.
2. Although his lineage goes back to Bolivar’s independence struggle, he has no connection to the four decades that anteceded Chavez´s coming to power—known as “puntofijismo” after the Punto Fijo Pact signed in 1958 by the mainstream political parties and associated in the minds of government supporters with corruption and a deep social chasm. The Chavez regime has built its revolutionary legitimacy on the demonization of the democratic period, the “ancient régime” that Venezuela was supposed to leave behind. But López, who is only 42, rose to prominence together with other young leaders, including Henrique Capriles—the man who led the opposition in last year’s rigged elections—as a member of Primer Justicia, a new political organization around the time when the late Chávez rose to power.
3. For several years, López was more popular than Chávez even though he was the mayor of a small Caracas municipality. Fearing him as a potential contender, the government barred him from holding political office. The vaccum in the opposition was eventually filled by Capriles. But López was Capriles before Capriles.
4. López is a survivor, a condition uncommon in a man of his social roots if you see the world through the lens of class warfare. Although the Chavista machinery was able to push the Harvard-trained opponent aside by taking away his rights, to Maduro’s astonishment López is still going, now turned into an icon of the resistance movement from his Ramo Verde military prison.
5. He has shown a sense of the epic, a political quality more usually associated with the left in Latin America. There is no successful resistance movement without an epic narrative. López is writing it.
6. He also has a sense of political aesthetics. Walter Benjamin spoke of the aestheticization of politics in a different context. The sequence that started with the protests of February 14 and ended with the moving images of López turning himself in will be the stuff of legend. Dressed in white, holding a flag and some flowers, the hero, a father of two little children, kissed his wife goodbye amid a sea of supporters and subsequently turned himself in to the National Guard thugs, who brutally shoved him into an armored vehicle.
For Venezuelan freedom lovers, those images will be the equivalent of the day, in 1992, when an unknown lieutenant colonel, Hugo Chávez, appeared on TV following his failed coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez and announced that his objectives has not been achieved “for the moment.”
7. López has understood that pressure in the streets, peaceful civil resistance, is indispensable in the struggle against tyranny. Which is why, together with Congresswoman María Corina Machado and the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, he has embarked on what he calls “The Way Out” in order to force a transition to the rule of law. For Maduro and his Cuban backers this is a major problem. It threatens their strategy, designed to perpetuate the regime by taking all hope of change away from the millions of victims after fifteen long years of authoritarian populism. They want Venezuelan critics to become what Cuban dissidents are today—an immensely heroic but politically impotent group of people that the government has no trouble overwhelming when they make too much noise.
Maduro and the Cubans are right: López is a dangerous guy.
[For background on the political unrest in Venezuela, see the author’s award-winning book, Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression.]