Hunting the dissident: The case of Leopoldo López

Maryhen Jiménez Morales examines the use of state power to silence dissent in modern Venezuela.

Josef K. from Kafka’s The Trial and Venezuela’s opposition leader, Leopoldo López, have something in common. A remote and shady authority found them guilty for a crime that was never made public. Yet, both stories differ on a fundamental detail: While Josef K.’s surrender is fiction, Lopéz’s surrender is factual. Unlike that of K., López’s arrest was not a surprise. In Venezuela, Leopoldo López is a symbol of rebellion and resilience. He represents a new generation of political leadership in a country that has been dominated by an electoral authoritarian and populist regime since 1999. Given his potential to unify Venezuelans against the government, the regime has opted to isolate him behind bars.

Who is Leopoldo López? The 45-year-old López was born as a descendant of Simón Bolívar. For a country that claims to be Latin America’s symbol of rebellion and freedom as a result of Bolívar’s independence wars, this heritage would seem important, especially for someone with political aspirations. Undoubtedly, López belongs to a small political elite that received an elite education in the United States – a BA at Kenyon College and a Master of Public Policy at Harvard University. At the age of 29, he was elected mayor of Chacao, an upscale municipality of Caracas. While holding office, he was honoured twice with the Transparency International award for the most transparent administration of Venezuela. The City Mayors Foundation bestowed an award on López for being the third best mayor in 2008.

This is not the first time López has been isolated in prison for political isolation reasons. In 2008, the year he was running for the mayor’s office of Caracas, he was disqualified from holding office for six years. López’s ambition of becoming Caracas’s mayor in 2008 – for which he had 65% of popular support– was crushed by a state who feared his rising leadership. This time, he did not face a trial. Instead, it was the country’s Comptroller’s Office which imposed ‘administrative sanctions’ for alleged corruption and misappropriation of funds with the long-term goal of shutting him out of the political arena. López sued the state at the Inter-American System of Human Rights, whose Court unanimously decided that Venezuela had violated López’s rights to due process, amongst other rights. Although, the Venezuelan constitution accords the rulings of the Inter-American Court constitutional ranking, meaning that the state is obliged to incorporate the Court’s jurisprudence on national level,  the country’s supreme court ignored the verdict. A few years later, in 2011, López contested the primary elections of the opposition that sought to elect the candidate, who would thereafter oppose Hugo Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections. However, the regime signalled that it would not let him compete as the opposition’s candidate since the administrative sanctions were still in place. Thus, López aligned with Henrique Capriles, who subsequently won the primary elections.

In February 2014, when López became a highly visible symbol of rebellion against the government, political persecution increased and his trial commenced. After facing years of a worrying political and socio-economic crisis, including political polarisation, shortages, the world’s highest inflations rates and the second highest homicide rates in Latin America – Maria Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López called for a movement referred to as “La Salida” (the Exit). Thousands of Venezuelans followed their call to the streets and although the protests began peacefully, three people eventually lost their lives. On the night of this protest, López received an arrest warrant on charges of arson, public incitement and conspiracy. After hiding for five days, he surrendered.

Between February 2014 and September 2015, when the verdict was published, López was held in solitary confinement in Ramo Verde, a military detention centre, where he is to serve his entire sentence. According to former prosecutor Franklin Nieves, the trial was biased and fabricated to politically disqualify López. For instance, López’s defense was refused all but one of the 65 witnesses his attorneys sought to call, while conceding 108 witnesses for the prosecution. Additionally, the judge rejected 30 proposed exhibits, according to the defence. During the trial, López repeatedly denied calling for barricades and the destruction of government property that followed during the mass protests throughout the country, and which resulted in the deaths of 43 people over a period of several months. Although none of the prosecution’s witnesses could prove López’s guilt, judge Susanna Barreiros sentenced the politician to 13 years and nine months in prison.

The trial against López is a trial against free speech in Venezuela. His alleged crime was to call for protests against a government that was – and still is – driving Venezuela into a socio-economic and political catastrophe. While there can be a debate about whether López’s political and economic agenda is viable for Venezuelans, there can be no debate about the the merits of being allowed to protest. It is part of the political game to criticise adversaries, even if using strong words or proposals. Tolerance, pluralism, and openness go hand in hand with freedom of speech.

Similarly to K., who constantly questioned the grounds for his trial and the authority’s integrity, López fought a trial that was not only exhausting and secretive but also fabricated. Unlike K., who in the end does not resist to his imprisonment by the authorities, López continues to challenge the regime from behind the bars. His political party, Voluntad Popular, and the opposition umbrella organization MUD, already passed an amnesty law to free all political prisoners in Venezuela. However, President Nicolás Maduro refused to sign the law and passed it to the country’s supreme court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia), which declared it unconstitutional. López’s political fight is also a fight for free speech, not only for Venezuelans but also for the region and today’s world. Political leaders and international institutions have acknowledged the severity of this case and have therefore publicly advocated for his release. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions have asked the Venezuelan authorities several times to release López. The United States, the European Union and some Latin American countries have also joined this cause. According to this website, free speech is the freedom on which all other freedoms depend. People have fought for these rights for generations, and we should not abandon them in the 21st Century.

Maryhen Jiménez Morales is a DPhil student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations. Her research looks at opposition parties under electoral authoritarian regimes in Latin America. She did an MPhil in Latin American Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Maryhen holds a BA in Political Science from the Goethe University Frankfurt and has worked for the German development cooperation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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