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15 July, 2017

The violent past of Leopoldo Lopez, poster boy for the Venezuelan opposition

This week saw Leopoldo Lopez, a so-called “revolutionary” and major figure in Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, released from prison to house arrest due to “health concerns.” Though celebrated by foreign media, Lopez has a history of inciting fatally violent protests.

by Whitney Webb

Part 3 - The dark side of the Venezuelan opposition

In the years following the coup attempt against Chavez, López began to meet with various right-wing figures who were well-known throughout Latin America, including numerous meetings with Colombia’s infamous former president Alvaro Uribe, who was known for his ties to Colombia’s murderous paramilitary factions.

Soon after, López began to support violent tactics like those used in the 2002 coup attempt and assumed his role as leader of the most extreme faction of Venezuela’s right wing. As a result, he quickly became an incredibly divisive figure within the Venezuelan opposition.

According to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable, Mary Ponte of the Primero Justicia party that López co-founded stated that “For the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez. The only difference between the two is that López is a lot better looking.” In the same cable, U.S. State Department officials referred to López as a “divisive figure within the opposition […] often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry – but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma and talent as an organizer.

López’s ability to generate support among radical right-wing youth both in Venezuela and abroad has been key to the Venezuelan opposition’s efforts. In 2013, López was joined by several other key figures in the opposition who began to call for the “exit” of the elected government, particularly after the opposition’s crushing electoral defeat that year, which saw socialist candidates take 75 percent of mayoralties.

Also in 2013, a leaked conversation involving López’s greatest political ally, Maria Corina Machado, was made public. The conversation described what Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the chairman of the opposition umbrella group Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, told Undersecretary for Latin American Affairs Roberta Jacobsen, whom he had recently met in Washington.

She stated:

I found out that Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the State Department that the only way to resolve this (salir de esto) is by provoking and accentuating a crisis, a coup or a self-coup. Or a process of tightening the screws and domesticating to generate a system of total social control.

The following year, López and Machado led the effort to opportunistically take advantage of student marches commemorating Venezuela’s National Youth Day by fomenting violent protests among the youth opposition, over whom López holds considerable sway.

What was originally a peaceful march devolved into chaos when youth opposition members led a parallel march that turned violent as protesters destroyed public buildings, including the Attorney General’s office, and used Molotov cocktails to burn property and block roads.

The clashes claimed three lives, but 40 more would soon lose their lives as López – following the initial event – called for more “resistance” in the streets. This resistance took the form of violent street barricades called guarimbas that continue to remain a popular tactic among opposition protesters. Despite the mounting death toll, López continued to push for more violent protests and was later arrested for his role in inciting and allegedly planning the events.

López’s arrest made him a rallying point for the violent protests that have followed, particularly in the Chacao district he once governed, which has been a focal point of the recent unrest. From behind bars, López has continued to call for violent resistance to the current government, even urging the nation’s armed forces to “rebel” against President Maduro last month.

According to TeleSur, Venezuelan officials hope that placing López under house arrest will lead the opposition – protesters and leaders alike – to heed calls for peace and dialogue. Given López’s background, however, this seems highly unlikely.

López’s role in the violence, as well as the violence of extremist factions of the Venezuelan opposition, has largely been ignored by the mainstream press, as such inconvenient truths do not fit U.S. interests. U.S. politicians and media are eager to treat López as a heroic political prisoner while declining to acknowledge atrocities committed by facets of the opposition that idolize him as a leader.

For instance, media coverage of the torching of 21-year-old Orlando Figuera was minimal. In May, Figuera was attacked after violent protesters assumed he was a Maduro supporter due to his skin color. He was beaten, stabbed, and set aflame – later dying from his wounds. Opposition protesters have set numerous people on fire over the course of the 2017 protests.

Among the independent journalists who have reported on the ground from Caracas, the violence used by opposition groups – largely concentrated in wealthy pockets of Caracas – has been obvious and even life-threatening. Independent U.S. journalist Abby Martin traveled to Caracas to interview opposition members and government supporters but quickly found herself, along with her producer Mike Prysner, the subject of death threats after Venezuelan opposition leadership accused them of being “infiltrators.”

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