Lightning Rod For Tumult

Charismatic but controversial, Leopoldo Lopez '93 emerges as a rising star of Venezuela's opposition movement.

About ten years ago--before mayoral elections, a short-lived coup, street clashes, and three assassination attempts--Leopoldo Lopez took a few weeks and traveled to Peru.

There he embarked on a three-week expedition that culminated in an ascent of Alpamayo mountain. He passed through four camps on the way, stopping to adjust to the thin air, and then hiked on.

"When I was going up I was thinking, 'This is cold. I'm not having a good time. My muscles hurt,'" recalled Lopez, tossing a hacky sack between his hands as he sat in his spacious office in Venezuela's bustling capital city of Caracas. He reached Alpamayo's icy pinnacle, at 19,511 feet, around dawn--a mammoth task, to step onto a summit that is barely three feet wide.

"It's not about the summit," said Lopez, reciting a common refrain among climbers. "It's about having hard times, and getting there."

As a rising star of Venezuela's opposition movement, Lopez has reason to hope that his embrace of treacherous conditions may serve him well. His country's firebrand leader, socialist President Hugo Chávez, won a landslide re-election victory in December, securing a six-year term. Venezuela's controller general, meanwhile, has banned Lopez from running for office for nine years after ruling he mismanaged funds and accepted improper donations--charges Lopez says are politically contrived.

Perhaps the steepest challenge of all: Lopez's broader political future, analysts say, will depend on overcoming a preconception that as a son of privilege, he belongs to the same political class that ignored Venezuela's poor for decades, even as the country's oil wealth ran thick and sweet.

"I cannot negate where I come from," said Lopez, thirty-six, who graduated from Kenyon in 1993 and returned this spring to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree at the Honors Day Convocation. "I was born with a lot of privilege in a country with a lot of inequality." On the opposition's struggle to chip away at Chávez's broad and devoted support base, he added, "We cannot promote an alternative that doesn't face, eye-to-eye, the exclusion, poverty, and inequality in Venezuela."

Hardworking and unpretentious, Lopez has movie-star good looks and a gentle way with people that has made him extremely popular in Chacao, the most affluent of Caracas's five municipalities, where he is serving his second term as mayor. He won re-election in 2004 with 81 percent of the vote.

But the jury is still out on whether Lopez and other opposition leaders can find support outside well-heeled communities like Chacao. In the cinderblock barrios that spill down the hillsides outside Caracas, for example, Chávez loyalists dominate. And while the city center brings slick whiskey ads and American-style malls, most Venezuelans live in, or close to, poverty, playing baseball on potholed streets.

Lopez contends that the portrayal of Venezuela's political conflicts as a struggle between social classes is part of Chávez's "propaganda machine," and he believes that the best way to dispel doubts about the opposition is to show the results of good governance, even if it means spending money from the municipal budget on state-run institutions. He points out that in 2006, Chacao was ranked as the most "transparent" municipality in the country by the Venezuelan branch of Transparency International, a group that combats government corruption worldwide.

On a recent morning, he arrived at the state's Libertador grade school, where his office had helped expand and modernize a cafeteria. He arrived on foot, emerging from a crosswalk like a parent about to pick up a child. Girls and boys in ribbons and pressed pants performed a traditional dance, and when they'd finished, Lopez leaned down to speak to them, putting his arm around the neck of the shortest and chubbiest boy in the group. As he toured the school, other students swarmed around and reached for his hands.

Later, a small band of musicians played joropos, the folksy, harp-laden music of Venezuela's prairies and cattle farms. Under Chávez, radio stations must insert folk music into all their music programs. Lopez is more of a hip-hop fan.

The young mayor gave a short speech promoting a level playing field for all children, regardless of whether they attended private or public schools, then mingled with more students and teachers and strolled back to the street. There he climbed onto a motorcycle brought for him by a bodyguard. Lopez is a motorcycle fanatic; he once crossed the United States on a bike. Friends from Kenyon remember he also drove it down the hallway of his freshman dorm. More recently, he entered a weekend motocross race on a lark--a twelve-hour endurance contest--and won.

"That was like a teenager fantasy," he said.

Some 150,000 people reside in Chacao, a municipality that houses the city's financial district along with sunny plazas. When Lopez became mayor in 2001, it was already well managed and prosperous. He added free health clinics, legal aid offices, and several sports complexes where children enroll for gym and karate classes, also free. These projects have won him praise at all levels.

"Leopoldo Lopez is a good kid. With time he could be a good president," said Antonio Munoz, fifty-eight, an ice-cream vendor in worn shoes. Munoz said he voted for Chávez in his first election in 1998, but not in last year's race, when Chávez ran against Manuel Rosales of the New Era party. Lopez defected from his own conservative Justice First party, which he helped found, to join New Era.

"I changed my opinion, because the country has gone backwards," Munoz said of his decision to flip his vote. "It's less safe, there's less work, less housing." If Lopez were to run for president, he added, "I'd vote for him."

One of Venezuela's youngest politicians, Lopez has also become a lightning rod for the country's political tumult. He's survived three attacks by armed gunmen, including an assault that killed one of his bodyguards. Last year, hooded thugs burst into a university auditorium where he was speaking and held him hostage for several hours.

For Lopez's supporters, the attacks, along with twenty-nine criminal cases pending against him in state courts, are proof positive that Chávez hardliners see him as a threat. Chávez and his allies control the national assembly and the Supreme Court, as well as the state-owned oil company. In August, Chávez introduced constitutional amendments--including one that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely--that critics said would tighten his grip on power and undermine democracy.

"The government sees us as enemies, not as political adversaries," Lopez said. The Chávez government, he added, "practices rule by decree" and tries to "criminalize the opposition."

For critics, Lopez is marked by his involvement in the street protests that led up to a short-lived coup against Chávez in April 2002. Chávez returned to power forty-eight hours later and now charges that the opposition colluded with the CIA to depose him. Referring to his political enemies as oligarchs and "squalid ones," the president points to the episode as an example of how opposition leaders were prepared to throw out a democratically elected leader to get their way.

Some observers see Lopez in just this light. "Here's someone who wants to promote himself as having democratic credentials, when in fact he supported undemocratic actions," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a political science professor from Venezuela and professor of Latin American history at Pomona College.
Salas also doubted whether the opposition was truly interested in helping Venezuela's poor, given the country's deep economic and racial divides. "I think that's part of the rhetoric," he said. "They understand to beat Chávez they have to go to his terms."

Lopez says he didn't participate in the coup against Chávez, and he insists the protests leading up to the overthrow were peaceful and lawful. Of the opposition in general, he acknowledges that it had made mistakes. "I believe the premise today is that we are not a majority," he said. "So we need to build a majority, and we need to incorporate many people. It's not about taking Chávez out of office, it's about what you do the next day."

Newly married, Lopez lives with his wife, a former kite-surf champion named Lilian Tintori, in a quirky one-bedroom apartment converted from an attic. The ceiling of the dining area is so low that visitors must duck into it. Ducking out the other side, onto a broad terrace, Tintori pointed out Chacao's tallest building, which she once rappelled down as the host of a television show on extreme sports. The apartment is uncluttered apart from a large skateboard that pokes out of a basket, an eight-month-old Labrador, and a shelf full of running shoes. Tintori and Lopez have completed six marathons each. An avid athlete, Lopez also leads police cadets on weekly six-mile runs through the neighborhoods they will later patrol.

Shortly before she got married to Lopez in the spring, Tintori had a tattoo inked on the inside of her left wrist. In sloping cursive, it reads: "Venezuela."

"My friends say I'm paying a penance," she said with a smirk. Many of Venezuela's wealthier families chose to leave the country, taking their assets with them, rather than live under Chávez's tightening grip on government. "But I say, 'No, it's my country.'"

Lopez views his work in a context that goes beyond Chacao. One of his initiatives as mayor is a "beautification" campaign inspired by similar projects in Bogotá, Colombia. He widened sidewalks, added street lamps, planted trees, and dotted the roads with trash cans. His office put in handicapped ramps and built barriers to stop people dashing in front of traffic.

Detractors shrug off the improvements as easy wins in an upscale community like Chacao. But Lopez notes Venezuela is wealthy too, swimming in petrodollars as one of the world's largest crude suppliers.

"We are not more wealthy than the central government," he said. "What we're doing here could be done all over Venezuela."

What most impresses many residents, though, is Chacao's low crime rate. "There's a saying here. If you're going to crash your car, crash in Chacao," a photographer, Fernando Llano, said. "The police come. They are efficient. They are pleasant."

He motioned to the clogged traffic and city hustle outside. "Chacao is a micro-climate."

Lopez's allies say his unbuttoned-down style could help him outside this micro-climate, navigating Venezuela's highly polarized political landscape. For one thing, they note that his youthful, open manner sets him apart from a traditional political class that voters rejected by electing, and re-electing, Chávez.
Carmen Elisa Hernandez, a party official at New Era, described the old guard as an exclusive men's club, where political deals were cut in the back of restaurants, "over a bottle of whiskey."

"When you contrast this with a young guy who does motocross, and he's also a workhorse, it's pretty interesting," she said. "Chávez is a phenomenon that came about because people felt abandoned. Chávez connected with people. Maybe he doesn't solve their problem today, but he looks them in the eye and says, 'I'm with you.'" She added, "I think the person in the opposition who most makes this kind of connection is Leopoldo Lopez."

Lopez made his political debut in another uphill battle, when he ran for student body president at the Hun School of Princeton in Princeton, New Jersey. He had arrived from Caracas just a few months earlier, half way through junior year, and he didn't know too many people or even speak English very well.

For his campaign poster, he turned to Bob Marley's Uprising album, poking his head through a volcano of dreadlocks. At the time, he held a minimum wage job washing dishes with Colombian immigrants. He became known as the dishwasher who was running for president, and was elected.

At Kenyon, Lopez landed on academic probation his freshman year, then emerged as an intense and engaging student who graduated with honors in sociology. He won the George Herbert Mead Award in that discipline, as well as the Richard F. Hettlinger Award for excellence in the Integrated Program in Humane Studies. His professors remember him as a free spirit with a huge appetite for political and economic theory and a knack for carrying debate into pragmatic concerns.

"He began to choose courses very carefully, systematically. He knew what he wanted," said Professor of Sociology George McCarthy, who was Lopez's faculty advisor. McCarthy, whose teaching focuses on European social and political theory, said he was pleased to see Lopez taking classes with conservative and liberal professors alike. "He wanted to learn the full range of views out there and I was impressed with that," he said.

McCarthy also remembered that Lopez "just talked a lot . . . he didn't shrink from responding, but he never condescended or was phony." He added: "I thought he'd go into politics."

Lopez says that his Kenyon courses instilled in him an abiding interest in the tension between social justice and individual rights. During his college years, he also became a big believer in the power of protest. He was one of the founders of Activist Students Helping Earth Survive, known as ASHES, and organized a protest of the U.S. invasion of Kuwait by pulling all the school's fire alarms simultaneously at 1:50 a.m., the hour the invasion began. A friend accidentally left his ID card at one alarm, and ASHES was sanctioned. Lopez was suspended for two weeks.

"It was quite a striking protest," he said.

At Kenyon, Lopez also started a crew team, driving up to Canada with friends to buy a four-man boat, which they strapped to Lopez's van.

"He was a little bit of a hippie," said Claire Tisne '93, a college friend who now works as an executive and editor at Random House, where one of her projects was the American edition of a critical biography of Hugo Chávez. Having visited Lopez in Caracas, she acknowledged some Venezuelans might see him as "a preppy ex-pat" with U.S. credentials. "Obviously he's not a hippie in a t-shirt with a van anymore," she said, "but I think he very much does still have his eye on those on the lower rungs."

From Kenyon, Lopez went on to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he earned a master in public policy degree in 1996. Returning to Venezuela, he worked for Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company, for three years. He also taught at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, a Jesuit university. He won his first term as mayor of Chacao in 2000. His re-election in 2004 keeps him in office until 2008.

His prospects beyond that depend in part on the fate of the Venezuelan opposition nationally. President Chávez's decision earlier this year to close Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a popular private channel, seems to have given the opposition movement an adrenaline boost. Chávez refused to renew the station's license in May, arguing it was pumping capitalist and consumerist poison into Venezuela's veins.

The station had joined others in actively supporting rallies against Chávez in 2002, and again during a 2004 referendum, and the shutdown was seen as a political reckoning. International rights groups condemned the move as a violation of press freedom. But, more to the point, said pollster and political scientist John Magdeleno, six out of ten Chávez supporters also disagreed with closing the channel.

"I think it's time for Venezuela to confront myths," said Magdeleno, who has worked as a consultant for Lopez. Where Chávez portrays two Venezuelas, the haves and the have-nots, Magdeleno insists that a third group--of swing voters--hovers in the middle.

"I see Lopez as very dedicated to this third way," he said.

Just a few days before RCTV went off the air, the channel's supporters sat beneath shade trees in the Altamira Plaza, waiting for a march to begin. Loudspeakers blared salsa tunes from the back of a pick-up truck nearby, and a couple unfurled a banner reading: "My life for my children's freedom."

Television personalities from the station's soap operas and game shows began to arrive. A few blocks up the road, a stout Ali Arias stopped his sputtering moped on the corner, overloaded with sacks of t-shirts to sell. He said he'd voted for Chávez but that he didn't agree with the decision to close RCTV.

"I understand he wants programs for the people. But it would be better to stand back and pause," said Arias. Soon after RCTV went off the air, state programmers played the national anthem, followed by a documentary on independence hero Simon Bolivar. "It's like a household where we are all fighting," Arias said. "We want a pause."

Asked about the odds he might one day play a bigger role in his country's political future, Lopez recalled his first mayoral campaign in 2000, when he entered the race as a virtual unknown. One pollster calculated his chances for success at "mathematically impossible."

"He said, 'I would not invest one Bolivar in your campaign,'" recalled Lopez, referring to the Venezuelan currency. It takes more than 2,000 Bolivares to make a dollar. Lopez won with 51 percent of the vote.

"Rationally, you'd say it's impossible to be about change," he said of Venezuela's current political climate. "The government has all the money, and hegemony in different areas."

He added: "I believe you have to be irrational about where you want to go, and you have to be rational about how you get there."

A journalist who has worked extensively in South America, Ruth Morris currently reports on immigration issues for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

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