He studied sociology at Kenyon College and public policy at Harvard; after returning home to Venezuela, he was elected mayor of Chacao, one of the five political subdivisions of the city of Caracas. Twice during his eight-year tenure (2000-2008), Transparency International gave him awards for presiding over an honest and efficient municipal administration in a country otherwise rife with corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency. The City Mayors Foundation awarded him third place in its international World Mayors Commendation, calling him “a hands-on mayor as well as a national politician fighting for democratic openness and fairness in Venezuela.” When he completed his two terms as mayor, he had a 92% approval rating.
What stopped Leopoldo López from going on to a third term? Hugo Chávez. In 2008, citing manifestly trumped-up corruption charges, the government denied López and a number of other opposition politicians the right to run for office. Human Rights Watch, the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) all took López’s side, calling his treatment undemocratic, but the chavistas held firm: they knew a serious threat to their rotten-to-the-core regime when they saw one.
López – young, handsome, passionate, eloquent, charismatic, and sharp as a tack – went on to become not just a leader but a symbol of his country’s democratic opposition. On February 18 of last year, after organizing and participating in a mass protest against the Chávez government, he was arrested on charges of “terrorism, murder, grievous bodily harm, public incitement, arson, damage to property, and conspiracy to commit crimes.” The charges were as patently illegitimate as the charge of corruption that kept him from running for elective office, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights demanded his immediate release – to no avail.
He has been in prison ever since. During his incarceration, he has been showered with honors. Harvard gave him an award. So did the National Endowment for Democracy. In Spain, he won the Cádiz Cortes Ibero-American Freedom Prize. This June, Foreign Policy – which had already named him one of its “Leading Global Thinkers of 2014” – ran an article hailing him as “Venezuela’s Last Hope” and said he embodied “the change his country needs.” Polls show that in an electoral face-off for the presidency between López and the incumbent, Chávez protégé Nicolás Maduro, the vote would be 72% to 28%.
(Meanwhile The Nation, the flagship weekly of America’s far left and home base for the nation’s most egregious useful stooges, exhibited its usual contempt for freedom by deferentially interviewing a longtime chavista who was allowed to smear López in its pages as an “extreme right-winger,” “fanatical fascist,” and “ultra-super-reactionary.”)
The latest outrage came two days ago, on September 10. After a closed-door trial, López was sentenced to thirteen years and nine months in prison. Erika Guevara-Ross, Americas Director at Amnesty International, made her organization’s position clear: López, she said, is being punished for leading “an opposition party….He should have never been arbitrarily arrested or tried in the first place. He is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally.” José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, called the case “a complete travesty of justice.” The Washington Post noted that in recent months U.S. diplomat Thomas A. Shannon Jr. had met with Maduro and other officials “to convey U.S. concern about the outcome of the López trial,” but obviously to no avail.
Innumerable Americans and Europeans root reflexively for Venezuelan socialism, having been beguiled into thinking that it embodies “liberal” or “progressive” values. If they had any decency, this latest cruel and cynical move against the ruling party’s #1 opponent would awaken them to the truth about Maduro’s monstrous regime. But don’t count on it. As history shows, useful stooges have a remarkable gift for preserving their own self-delusion.