Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been thrust onto the international stage during the past week of protests in Venezuela and his arrest on February 21. López is mentioned at least 77 times in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Many of the cables focus on internal disputes within the opposition, with Lopez often in conflict with others both within his party and others in the opposition. Given this history, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the current protests that he has been leading, calling for “la salida” – the exit – of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro have also caused internal divisions within the opposition. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America wrote last week:
While Capriles shook hands with Maduro in January, signifying not only a more conciliatory stance but tacitly recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado have both taken a harder line and are working outside of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD).
Without a doubt, in immediate political terms the biggest beneficiary of yesterday’s [Feb.12] violence was López.
This week, Smilde added in a quote to USA Today, "Before this happened, Lopez was playing second fiddle to Capriles… I think his goal is to try and leapfrog over Capriles. The student protests have put him in the spotlight."
The Wikileaks Cables show an interesting history of Lopez’s rise to leadership and also show some of the divisions within the opposition. Below, one party leader is quoted as saying that “for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez, joking that ‘the only difference between the two is that Lopez is a lot better looking.’” And also, “During a party event December 6, Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary-General Tomas Guanipa called on Lopez to respect the unity table and its agreements and consensus. Guanipa urged Lopez to ‘not continue dividing us, we should not go through life like crashing cars, fighting with the whole world.’”
The U.S. government has been funding the Venezuelan opposition for at least 12 years, including, as the State Department has acknowledged, some of the people and organizations involved in the 2002 military coup. Their goal has always been to get rid of the Chávez government and replace it with something more to their liking. However, their funding is probably not their most important contribution in Venezuela, since the Venezuelan opposition has most of the wealth and income of the country. A more important role is the outside pressure for unity, which, as these cables and the history of the past 15 years show, has been a serious problem for the Venezuelan opposition. The cables also show that this is a serious concern for the U.S. government.
Below are relevant cables, in chronological order:
February 2, 2006: “On January 27, poloff [the U.S. Embassy Political Officer] met with Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary General Gerardo Blyde to discuss rumors that an ongoing power struggle among PJ leaders--Blyde and Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez against party president and presidential candidate Julio Borges and Baruta Mayor Henrique Caprilles--may lead to a split in the party (refs a and b).”
December 8, 2006: The cable reports on “winners” and “losers” from the 2006 presidential election. One of the “winners” is López. “Thirty-five year-old Leopoldo Lopez, the Primero Justicia Mayor of the Chacao Burrough of Caracas, distinguished himself on the Rosales campaign. He played a big role in organizing Rosales' three successful mass rallies in Caracas, including the enormous November 25 rally on the Francisco Fajardo highway. Rosales won 76 percent of the vote in Chacao and won big in adjoining upper middle class neighborhoods.” Chacao has been the center of the current protests.
June 8, 2007: During a period of large student demonstrations, the cables states, “Political parties, however, are eager to try to co-opt the [student] movement. The young, dynamic opposition mayor of Chacao Municipality in Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez, addressed students during early demonstrations in his jurisdiction, and he is actively advising them behind-the-scenes (Ref A).
December 6, 2007: From the cable: “Despite Chavez' continued opposition-bashing, Arreaza [Chief of Staff to former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel] said the Venezuelan president has asked former VP Rangel to reach out to the opposition. Arreaza said Rangel this week met with Primero Justicia leader Julio Borges, and Un Nuevo Tiempo leaders, including Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez. The government sees Lopez as the best channel to the student movement, added Arreaza.”
March 28, 2008: The cable reports on a meeting between U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D – OR) and López, noting that “The Senator and his staff discussed possible media strategies with Lopez and methods for getting his positive message to audiences in the U.S.”
April 11, 2008: The U.S. embassy met with a legal advisor to López, who outlined his legal strategy in fighting his ban from political office. She noted that she “believes making Lopez a victim of the BRV's machinations is making him a more popular candidate.”
July 17, 2008: The U.S. agrees with the analysis of the legal advisor, writing, “Interestingly, the disqualifications appear to be turning Leopoldo Lopez into a national opposition figure, rather than just a rising star in Caracas.”
July 18, 2008: “There is widespread concern within the opposition that a growing rivalry between Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales and Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez is futher [sic] undermining opposition unity.”
July 31, 2008: “Increased international interest this week on the ineligibles' cause suggests that Lopez and other opposition leaders have had some success is rallying support on the international scene, maybe even more so than at home.”
March 28, 2009: “UNT activists report that there was increasing friction between Maracaibo mayor Manuel Rosales and former Chacao mayor Leopoldo Lopez over leadership of the party. She complained that the older politicians in control of UNT -- namely Rosales -- are only interested in claiming power for themselves, rather than grooming rising stars in the party who may generate broader public appeal.”
June 10, 2009: “Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) activist Yenny De Freitas told Poloffs June 8 that the party continues to suffer from a major schism between its self-exiled leader, Manuel Rosales, and Leopoldo Lopez. She said that Lopez, who is currently in charge of UNT's outreach, is scheming to create his own opposition "movement" outside of the current party system -- likely taking advantage of the networks he has developed in his current role and his personal popularity within Caracas.” The cable added, “The absence of the more popular younger generation of opposition leaders almost certainly will feed speculation that all is not well within the parties, and that disgruntled figures like Leopoldo Lopez may be preparing to launch their own self-serving "movement" at the expense of whatever cohesion the current opposition parties are able to achieve.”
September 2, 2009: “Lopez announced September 1, however, that he had in fact been ejected from UNT due to "differences" with party officials over how to proceed in advance of National Assembly (AN) and municipal council elections expected in 2010. Conversations with party rank and file indicate that Lopez, who headed UNT's grassroots "popular networks" outreach initiative, may attract a broad following to his "movement of movements" -- likely creating yet another obstacle to the opposition's limping attempts to achieve electoral unity. Lopez seems to be saying that he has a better idea of what it will take to beat Chavez and is willing to break with his party to get his way.”
September 2, 2009: “Lopez's much-publicized rebelliousness is likely to complicate the opposition's efforts to create a unity slate of candidates for elections in 2010. Lopez seems to believe he knows better how to beat Chavez and will not hesitate to break with his opposition colleagues to get his way.”
October 15, 2009: “[Pollster Luis Vicente] Leon emphasized that the opposition lacks a unifying leader who can transmit its message to the Venezuelan people. He assessed that Leopoldo Lopez was probably hoping to catapult himself into that type of leadership role with his "popular networks" ("redes populares") initiative.”
November 3, 2009: “Former Mayor of Chacao Leopoldo Lopez, who split with UNT over his support for a "unity ticket," told [the Political Counselor, “Polcouns”] October 16 that the parties are too comfortable with the status quo to take risks. He also rejected the idea that there were "major parties," arguing that within the opposition, "all the parties are small parties.”
“Former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez has become a divisive figure within the opposition, particularly since his very public split with UNT in September. He is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry -- but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer. PJ's Ponte said she had worked for Lopez when he was mayor and was impressed by his ability to organize his staff and effectively implement programs. Nevertheless, she said he summarily fired her when her husband opposed Lopez during an internal party conflict while he was still a member of PJ. (Note: Lopez co-founded PJ but left the party to join UNT in 2007. End Note.)”
November 3, 2009: “While the parties need Lopez's following to expand their narrow electoral base, they appear frustrated with his uncompromising approach and do not trust his motives. Ponte said that for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez, joking that "the only difference between the two is that Lopez is a lot better looking." PJ's Caldera minimized Lopez's "social networks" as "political proselytizing" and his projects as no different than those often carried out by opposition parties trying to build public support.”
December 22, 2009: “During a party event December 6, Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary-General Tomas Guanipa called on Lopez to respect the unity table and its agreements and consensus. Guanipa urged Lopez to "not continue dividing us, we should not go through life like crashing cars, fighting with the whole world. It is not good for the country that you are hoping for something different than us."”