Leopoldo

Tuesday evening brought what may be promising news from Venezuela. The National Assembly, which since January 6 has been dominated by the anti-chavista opposition, passed a law ordering the release of political prisoners. President Maduro vowed to veto. We’ll see what happens. We’ll have to keep an eye on the Venezuelan media, because outlets like the New York Times and CNN can’t always be relied on to pay attention to such developments.

It’s not as if the international news media have entirely ignored what’s been going on in the Bolivarian Republic, but it does seem to us that, with few exceptions, they’ve failed to recognize just how remarkable the current situation is in that tortured country.

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Hugo Chávez

This failure, if that’s the right word, is not entirely a puzzlement, of course, given that many of the aforementioned media were, not so very long ago, eager stooges and vociferous cheerleaders for Hugo Chávez, the father of Venezuelan socialism, otherwise known as chavismo. Chávez, with his brazen and unapologetic anti-Americanism, embodied the hopes of certain Americans and Europeans for a smashingly successful socialist Latin America, led by the example of the fearless Hugo and wonderfully free of the baleful influence of the nefarious norteamericanos.

Instead, Venezuela has turned out to be an extraordinary dramatic – indeed tragic – textbook example of the sheer folly of socialism. The rapidity with which the country’s economy has collapsed, and the terrifying particulars of that collapse, provide – for those too young to remember the Soviet Union and too foolish to recognize that the Castros’ Cuba is not a charming vintage-auto museum or 24/7 salsa party but a well-nigh unlivable everyday reality for 11 million people – a vivid picture of the disaster that is Communism.

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Leopoldo López in prison

That in itself is dramatic enough. But add to that the singular case of Leopoldo López. The chavista regime’s most eloquent critic, the opposition’s most charismatic leader, he has been in prison for over two years now, for no other reason than that he is – quite obviously – by far the most potent threat to the power of Chávez’s hapless, fatuous successor, Nicolás Maduro. López is so manifestly everything that Maduro is not, so completely the Gallant to his Goofus, that it seems almost too tidy a scenario; if this were a film script, the producer would almost certainly order the writer to make the villain at least somewhat less buffoonish and corrupt and the hero somewhat less noble and courageous.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Nicolás Maduro

But on rare occasions, reality is simply better than fiction – and this is, quite simply, one of those times. López – a collateral descendant of Simón Bolívar, the George Washington of South America – studied economics and government at Kenyon College in Ohio and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Elected mayor of Chacao, one of the five administrative districts of Caravas, by a slim margin in 2000, he was re-elected four years later with 81% of the vote.

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With his wife, Lilian Tintori

The glowing success of his mayoral tenure and the thoroughgoing spotlessness of his record were attested to by Transparency International, which gave him its first-prize award in 2007 and again in 2008 for running his country’s most honest and efficient city government. In 2008, he came in third in the World Mayors contest for the planet’s best mayors. He’s a remarkable, almost incredible combination: a learned student of economics and statecraft, a staunch, eloquent defender of human liberty, a highly competent and incorruptible administrator, and an inspired, practical-minded reformer of local government on every level.

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Just a reminder of those empty Venezuelan grocery shelves…

Since his unjust arrest, he has also proven to be a man of extraordinary bravery. Pretty much every major international human-rights group has declared him a political prisoner and called for his immediate and unconditional release. So have the New York Times and Washington Post. Polls show that if he were to run for president today, he would win easily. It’s clear that the main reason he remains behind bars is that Venezuela’s current leader, a grotesquely inept, ill-educated, and economically illiterate former bus driver, knows that Leopoldo is everything he isn’t and that more and more of the Venezuelan people – who are suffering increasingly from the tragic everyday consequences of chavismo – realize that Leopoldo is exactly what they need to pull their country out of its hole.

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…and ridiculously long lines to get into those grocery stores

The present state of affairs, in short, could scarcely be more striking: Venezuela has what may well be the worst government on earth right now, and López, if chosen to replace Maduro, would, upon his installation, immediately become one of the world’s most thoughtful, ethical, and skillful heads of government. Every day that he continues to languish in prison is a lost day for the Venezuelan people, who have waited long enough for rescue. Let’s hope they’re able to finally spring him from the joint – and turn the grim winter of Venezuela’s discontent into a Venezuelan spring.  

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