Leopoldo López is a rock star among Venezuelans in South Florida. But in west Caracas he's the rich guy. And those contrasting images could affect the outcome of street protests playing out in Venezuela right now.
But first the obvious: This week’s arbitrary arrest of López, a top Venezuela opposition leader, is a reminder that President Nicolás Maduro’s already scant credibility is evaporating during the anti-government demonstrations that have swept his country since Feb. 12.
Maduro can rant all day about “fascists” and “coups,” but the largely student protests that began in a number of cities last week are about one thing: the astonishingly incompetent and authoritarian response of his socialist administration to a raft of social and economic crises that are rocking the western hemisphere's most oil-rich nation. Those include, to name just a few, hyperinflation, chronic shortages of goods and South America’s worst violent crime.
As of Wednesday night, five people had been killed in the unrest, among them a 22-year-old beauty-pageant queen in Valencia who was shot in the head. In almost every case, those responsible have not been identified; but brutality by government security forces and thuggery by pro-government citizen militias known as colectivos have come under heavy scrutiny, as have the actions of more radical protesters.
And yet Maduro, a masterful if delusional scapegoater, decided López is among the killers. Seriously. Because López backed the protests. So he had López arrested for murder and terrorism on Tuesday in a move that was kangaroo even for Venezuela’s judicial system. (The murder charges were finally dropped on Thursday.)
World leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama have since called on Maduro to release López. But the more important question isn’t whether Obama is defending López. It's whether enough Venezuelans are. Although López said as he was being hauled away that he hoped his arrest would “wake up a people,” a larger groundswell of Venezuelans hasn't seemed to rally around him. And therein lies a big problem for the opposition if not the protests.
López, fairly or not, has his own image problem – that of a sifrino, or yuppie. The Harvard-educated former mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district is certainly popular and passionate. But his appeal fails to reach far enough beyond well-heeled turf like Chacao. He isn't widely embraced in the kind of working-class strongholds – Maduro’s base – that the opposition needs to win over if it’s going to alter Venezuela’s starkly divided political math. That's especially true because the military appears to have Maduro's back.
“These protests are important for getting the regime to face Venezuela’s crises, but they’re not going to provoke the overthrow of that regime,” says Carlos Romero, an independent political analyst at the Central University of Caracas. “López is well known and well supported by the middle class, but people refuse to follow him on the poor side of town.”
And that in turn is a big reason Venezuela’s opposition parties have balked at making López their standard bearer. They did not select him as their unity candidate in 2012 against then-President Hugo Chávez, the socialist firebrand who died last year, or against Maduro in the special 2013 election to succeed Chávez.
They chose instead Henrique Capriles, who as governor of Miranda state had demonstrated more talent at poaching votes from Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV, a.k.a the Chavistas). And it seemed to pay off in the special election, which Capriles just narrowly lost.
Since then, Maduro has poured out populist largesse – including a decree to slash prices on consumer goods just before last December’s local elections – to regain his and the Chavistas’ political footing. So López decided the opposition needed a more confrontational tack than Capriles has been willing to pursue.
No one is denying López’s brass, although even U.S. diplomats have complained that he can be a bit of an egotistical maverick. But when I called opposition leaders in Caracas’ poorer barrios this week, I asked them why López’s bogus arrest hasn’t resulted in an even larger anti-government backlash.
Saverio Vivas, an erstwhile socialist turned opposition coordinator in Catia – a cradle of Chavismo – said he too is outraged by the López travesty. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d have a hard time calling even opposition supporters into Catia’s streets to rally around López.
Said Vivas, who is a Capriles supporter: “This is where you see the gap between the east side of Caracas,” including affluent districts like Chacao, “and the west side,” or poorer zones like Catia. “It’s hard for people here to identify with Leopoldo.”
If so, the best that voters on the east side can hope for is that Venezuela's epic mess eventually makes it harder for voters on the west side to identify with Nicolás.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.