Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza comes from one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families and is known for his “good-boy” looks and extreme right-wing agenda. Lopez has been an anti-Chavez media favorite for his “heroic” negation of a decision by Venezuela’s Comptroller General barring him from holding office until 2014 for acts of corruption committed while he was mayor of Caracas municipality Chacao and during his time as a state employee of PDVSA.
The former Mayor of the wealthy eastern Caracas neighborhood of Chacao (2000-2008 is campaigning on promises of “security, well-being, and progress” as well as claims he is “feared” by Venezuela’s pro-Chavez majority because of his “winning capacity”. He runs third in the opposition primary polls behind Henrique Capriles Radonski and Pablo Perez.
As a young adult, Lopez receivedhis higher education in the United States. Starting out at Ohio’s Kenyon College, where he studied economics, the opposition candidate went on to obtain a Master’s in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government. Upon returning to Venezuela, Lopez spent three years (1996-1999) working at state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), at which time he is said to have “stolen money and trafficked influences” in order to finance a right-wing startup political party named Primero Justicia or Justice First.
Role in the coup
Mayor of Chacao during the April 2002 coup d’etat against democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez, Lopez played a key role instigating opposition demonstrators into taking an illegal march route towards the presidential palace, where snipers fired on protesters as part of the opposition’s plan to justify the coup. This violence was later manipulated by private media networks and military officials to launch the short-lived coup against President Chavez.
Celebrating their violent takeover of the Venezuelan presidency, Lopez and others in the Venezuelan opposition went on to sign the “Carmona Decree”, dissolving all of the country’s democratic institutions including its National Assembly, Supreme
Court, Attorney General, and Public Defender.
Fortunately for Venezuelan democracy, mass demonstrations on behalf of President Chavez brought an end to the coup less than 48-hours after it began. According to investigative journalist Eva Golinger, Lopez is one of several Primero Justicia members who “made frequent trips to Washington during the pre-coup period to visit IRI(International Republican Institute) headquarters and meet with officials in the Bush administration”. IRI, with funding from the US State Department, became a principal financier and advisor to Lopez’s party and the coup planners.
A few years after the failed 2002 coup, infighting between members of Primero Justicia led Lopez to break ranks and join Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), or A New Time, another party heavily funded by US government agencies. Finding it difficult to predominate in UNT, Lopez chose to split and formed his own political organization named Voluntad Popular, or Popular Will. On January 11, 2011, Lopez announced his “movement” had transformed into a political party, allowing him to run in the opposition’s pre-presidential primaries.
A “victim” of justice
Back in 1998, as he was beginning his career in opposition politics, Lopez used his position at PDVSA to solicit, receive, and accept an illegal donation needed to finance the birth of the opposition’s Primero Justicia. “Putting it simply,” explained Attorney General Carlos Escarra, “this man violated the law”.
After uncovering the illegal donation, worth $160,000, Venezuela’s Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russian (2000-2011) prohibited Lopez from holding public office through 2014. Apart from the illegality of accepting the money from his employer (PDVSA), Lopez also violated the law by accepting the donation, in the form of a check, by his mother, who also worked for PDVSA at that time in the office in charge of donations.
Anti-corruption laws in Venezuela strictly prohibit any donation by the publicly-owned oil company to employees or public officials, to direct family members of employees, or to foundations or entities related totally or partially to any of the said parties. Lopez was also investigated and found guilty in an administrative ruling for mishandling funds during his term as Mayor of Chacao. Together, these acts of corruption led the Comptroller General’s office to impose the ban from holding and electoral office until 2014.
Lopez has made repeated claims that the sanction is rooted in Chavez administration “fears” towards his candidacy in the 2012 election and went as far as to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
After IACHR judges expressed their “concern” that anti-corruption laws in Venezuela might limit Lopez’s political positioning, Venezuela’s representative to the IACHR responded by explaining that Lopez “can still freely exercise his political rights”.
“What he can’t do is hold public office because he is sanctioned for acts of corruption”, said Venezuela’s IACHR rep German Saltron.
Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights stipulates that all citizens of signatory countries have the right to political participation, to vote and be elected, and to access public services. Signatory states, however, “may regulate the exercise of these rights and opportunities” on a number of bases, including the “sentencing by a competent court in criminal proceedings”.
Lopez a “divisive figure” says US embassy
According to documents released by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, staff at the US embassy in Caracas considered Lopez “a divisive figure of the opposition” because he is openly “arrogant, vengeful, and thirsty for power”.
The US embassy in Caracas noted that while his personal characteristics make him a barrier to “unity” within the Venezuelan opposition, the “social networks” of anti-Chavez voters Lopez has successfully organized using Voluntad Popular, “convert him into both a necessity and a threat to the opposition”.
Voluntad Popular’s so-called “social networks” are an attempt at community organizing in which active members of the anti-Chavez minority, “promote social and political participation” to “solve problems in the community”. In reality, these networks seek to establish parallel communitybased organizations that can slow efforts of the Revolution’s Communal Councils and take votes away from the Chavez camp.
Voluntad Popular has received substantial funding from US agencies, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to set up these networks.