By Shloka Nath, News Editor, MPP ‘13
In what is likely to be seen as a significant boon for Venezuelan democracy, Leopoldo López – HKS alum, technocrat and former mayor of the affluent Chacao district of Caracas – recently launched his campaign to contest President Hugo Chavez in elections next year. Previously barred from seeking election on corruption charges, Lopez made his decision after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered Venezuela last month to allow him to run.
“Since 2008, he’s been looking for a mechanism to remove me from the political game,” López said in a speech before thousands of supporters in Caracas. “Mr. President, I ask myself: … Are you afraid of me?”
To many, López’s background would appear to be a severe disadvantage in a country like Venezuela, where the government’s poor and working-class constituency is frequently stirred into an agitated fury against the rich, upper classes. Young and photogenic, López, is a sinewy man with a charismatic smile and personality and comes from one of Venezuela’s richest families. López graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 1996 with a Masters in Public Policy. He is related to both Venezuela’s first President, Cristobal Mendoza, and Simón Bolivar, considered the Liberator of both Venezuela and Colombia. In 2007 he married Lilian Tintori, a former professional athlete with whom he has one daughter.
But López has dampened such denigration and grown into an intimidating activist and campaigner, pounding away on issues such as high crime rates, electricity shortages and inflation, all of which he believes affect the poor most severely. According to López, Venezuelans have had enough of what they say is Mr Chavez’s poor economic management and autocratic style. López has also nurtured support among members of the U.S. Congress and in countries that have close ties to Venezuela, such as Spain and Colombia.
Venezuela’s Comptroller General, an ally of Chávez, banned Lopez from running for public office in 2004 over two independent allegations of financial misconduct. López was charged with taking donations between 1998 and 2001 on behalf of an organization he led from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where his mother worked at the time. The comptroller general also accused López in 2004 of supposed indiscretions in the movement of funds from one portion of his local budget to another. Lopez however, insists he is innocent, that the charges are politically motivated and that he has never been tried in court.
López is one of several contenders in primary elections to be held in February when Venezuela’s opposition alliance will nominate a single representative to run against President Chávez in October 2012. The current favorites to win the opposition nomination in February’s primary are the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski, and the governor of Zulia state, Pablo Perez. They are the same age as López (Chávez is 57) and gravitate about the ideological center. Almost all their supporters will back the winner of the primary. But to defeat Chávez, the opposition will still have to widen its appeal. Disappointed and resentful Chávez supporters have in the past, refused to vote rather than vote against him. None of the opposition candidates has framed a message to attract them, although Capriles is likely to incite the most favorable reaction from Chavez supporters.
Chávez has governed Venezuela since 1999, winning every national election over the last decade. The leftist leader is determined to run for a third six-year term, despite undergoing surgery in June for cancer. In 2009 he won a referendum to eliminate term limits, paving the way for him to rule far into the 21st century, were he to keep winning elections. Chávez still is a formidable candidate; he has strong support, particularly among the poor who have benefited most from his socialist policies, which have seen Venezuela’s oil riches spent on services including health and education. He will not be easy to unseat.