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Venezuelan Opposition Politician Lopez Barred for Breaking the Law, Not for Politics

Mérida, October 18th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Yesterday Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) declared a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) “unenforceable”, thereby maintaining the prohibition against opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez from exercising public positions.

Lopez is barred from holding any public positions which involve the administration of public funds until 2014 because he broke the law. The comptroller general found that in 1998 he committed acts of corruption by diverting funds from Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA, to his political party. He still has the right to vote, and to participate in political life, parties, and debates. Mainstream international and national media however have called the TSJ decision “political” and repressive.

Lopez participated in the April 2002 coup against Chavez, signing the Carmona Decree, and is the former mayor of the wealthy Chacao district in Caracas. Today he announced that despite the barring, he will still run in the opposition primaries in February, to select a candidate for next October’s presidential elections.

IACHR ruling

Venezuela’s Supreme Court decided that it couldn’t enforce the IACHR ruling because it contradicts Venezuelan law.

The IACHR decided on 17 September to override a decision by Venezuela’s comptroller and its Supreme Court and issued a ruling ordering the Venezuelan government to lift the 2008 barring of Lopez and allow him to run for president in the up-and-coming 2012 elections.

State attorney Carlos Escarra said, “We [the Venezuelan government and judicial system] are aware of the international treaties and agreements that we have signed... Venezuela is a country that respects these things, but at the same time, there can’t be rulings that go against our constitution”.

He said the IACHR shouldn’t interfere in Venezuelan’s internal issues and usurp the functions of Venezuela’s institutions, such as its independent National Electoral Council (CNE), its National Assembly, or its Supreme Court.

“One of the fundamental principles of our state is ethics when serving the public. Someone [such as Lopez] who has violated ethics while in public administration can’t manage public funds,” Escarra said.

“We can’t leave the vulture looking after the meat,” he added in reference to Lopez.

Further, last month Escarra said that allowing an IACHR decision to override Venezuela’s judicial authorities would “unarm” the country’s fight against corruption.

Various Venezuelan authorities have also complained that the IACHR is biased against the country’s Bolivarian revolution. President Hugo Chavez accused the court of hypocrisy, and highlighted that the body had remained silent during the 2002 coup, and German Saltron, Venezuela’s representative to the IACHR, stated that whereas the Chavez government had received 58 accusations of human rights violations from the IACHR since 1998, only 6 were brought against the Venezuelan state between 1967 and 1998; figures which Saltrón cites as indicative of the international court’s bias.

Lopez’s case

In 2005, 271 Venezuelans, including Lopez, were temporarily banned from holding public office due to charges of corruption or administrative irregularities such as misuse of public funds.

At the time the opposition argued that the list was politically motivated, even though the majority, 236 out of the original 428 on the list, did not sign the 2004 petition for a recall referendum against Chavez, meaning they were likely Chavez supporters. 

Lopez was banned from holding public office for five years after it was revealed that he accepted an illegal donation. Worth around US$120,000 today,  it was made out to Lopez’s Primero Justicia Civil Association by his employer at the time, PDVSA. The donation, a cheque, was signed by Lopez’s mother, who also worked for PDVSA at that time.

Venezuela’s anti-corruption laws prohibit donations from public companies like PDVSA to employees, their families, or their foundations.

Barring of Lopez doesn’t damage opposition cause

Mainstream media have portrayed the TSJ decision as political repression, with Reuters headlining today, “Venezuela blocks Chavez rival’s presidential bid” and Al Jazeera with, “Venezuela court bars Chavez rival from office”.

However, Reuters also quoted Eurasia Group political risk analysts as saying, "The (court) ruling essentially kills Lopez's presidential aspirations, and favours (Henrique Capriles Radonski), who enjoys a substantial lead in the polls... In this sense, it doesn't alter the political outlook substantially”.

Further, the ruling could be beneficial to the opposition, according to one US embassy cable, written in Caracas and released by Wikileaks. It said the US considers Lopez bad for opposition unity and he is "a divisive figure of the opposition" because he is openly "arrogant, vengeful, and thirsty for power".

On the other hand, Venezuelan journalist Miguel Perez wrote last month that “Lopez is a ready-made smokescreen created Washington-style through the use of the Inter-American Court on "Human Rights" (CIDHR) so as to bulk-up the list of arguments against Venezuela in the face of possible diplomatic, military, economic, judicial and or any type of intervention”.

Lopez to run in elections anyway

Lopez announced today to press that he “can and will be a presidential candidate” if he wins the opposition primaries in February. He argued that the “people would decide” and said he would continue his tour around the country, “bringing the proposal of peace, well being, and progress”.

He is able to do so, because while he is barred from exercising public positions he is not barred from running in elections.

Published on Oct 19th 2011 at 8.54am