Since becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has been busy picking up where Samantha Power left off. In recent months, Haley has taken to Twitter to voice Trump administration positions regarding a variety of foreign governments, particularly those of states considered “unfriendly” to U.S. interests, such as Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Most recently, Haley tweeted regarding the release of Leopoldo López, a prominent figure in the Venezuelan opposition, who was placed under house arrest after three years in prison due to “health concerns.”
López was originally placed under arrest for allegedly planning and promoting violent protests to oust the democratically-elected government led by President Nicolás Maduro that ultimately claimed 43 lives.
Haley wrote, “While we’re glad @leopoldolopez is home with his family, we will continue to call for his & all Venezuelan political prisoners’ full freedom.”
Attached to her tweet was an image of López with the Venezuelan flag with the caption “Democracies don’t imprison their citizens or place them under house arrest for peacefully protesting their government.”
The image’s caption was unusual for two reasons. The first being that peaceful protesters in the U.S. have, in fact, been imprisoned, such as the recent case of Desiree Fairooz, who faces jail time for merely laughing at a member of the Trump administration. The second is its characterization of López as someone who peacefully protests the Venezuelan government, a statement frequently repeated by pro-opposition news outlets, Western media and politicians but one that has little basis in fact.
The Leopoldo López the press doesn’t want you to meet
López often receives praise in the Western press as a “prisoner of conscience” and “fiery leader.” Newsweek once glowingly wrote of his “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones,” calling him a “revolutionary who has it all.” The Spanish newspaper El País has even called him the Venezuelan Nelson Mandela. Many news outlets have called him a likely future president of Venezuela. However, López’s political history suggests that he is hardly the man of the people and political martyr that he is made out to be.
López was born into the upper echelon of the Venezuelan elite. A direct descendant of the 19th-century liberator turned dictator Simón Bolívar and Venezuela’s first president Cristóbal Mendoza, López’s family hails from a long line of Venezuelan political aristocracy.
He was sent to the U.S. to complete his education in elite institutions such as the Hun School of Princeton, a private boarding school whose alumni include Saudi princes, as well as the children of U.S. presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs. From there, he attended Kenyon College in Ohio and then Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Some journalists have asserted that López began a relationship with the CIA while at Kenyon.
Also while studying in the U.S., López co-founded the group Primero Justicia (Justice First) in 1992, which later became a political party of central importance in right-wing Venezuelan politics.
López, upon his return to Venezuela in 1996, did not immediately jump into politics, instead taking a lucrative job as an analyst at the semi-privatized Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), where he worked until 1999. During this time, he and his mother – who also worked at the company – funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to Primero Justicia – an illegal act under Venezuelan corruption laws.
This corruption scandal, however, did not come to light until years later, when a 2007 investigation exposed the wrongdoing and barred López from holding political office for several years.
After leaving his job at PDVSA, López made his entry into Venezuelan politics in 2000 and was elected mayor of Chacao, a Caracas district known to be one of the wealthiest areas in all of Venezuela. Two years later, López began visiting Washington, D.C. rather frequently “to visit the IRI (International Republican Institute) headquarters and meet with officials from the George W. Bush administration,” according to journalist Eva Golinger.
The IRI is one of three foundations comprising the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government-funded NGO linked to countless regime change efforts abroad, including Egypt (2013) and Ukraine (2014). The institute is currently chaired by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ).
The IRI, along with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), has also directly funded the party López began, Primero Justicia, as well as his current political party Voluntad Popular, which López founded in 2010.
In 2002, while still serving as mayor, López participated directly in the U.S.-backed coup attempt aimed at removing democratically elected President Hugo Chávez from power. López specifically participated in the illegal detention of then-Minister of the Interior and Justice Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, as well as violent attacks against Caracas’ Cuban Embassy that saw a group of protesters try to violently enter the building. When they could not force their entry, they cut off water and electricity to the building and smashed windows and vehicles.
Chávez pardoned López for his role in the coup in 2007 and López was only barred from holding political office from 2008 to 2014 following the revelation of his past corrupt dealings at PDVSA, as well as the discovery of his misuse of public funds while mayor.
In the years since, López has tried to distance himself from the 2002 coup attempt, which remains very unpopular with Venezuelans on both sides of the political spectrum. López’s attorneys claimed in 2014 that “at no point was López ever a proponent of the coup, nor was he allied with the business leaders who led it,” despite the fact that there is video evidence showing him participating in the kidnapping of Chacín or the fact that his own father, Leopoldo López Gil, was a business leader who signed a decree suspending the Venezuelan constitution that had been issued by the short-lived coup government.
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.
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.”
Watch | Abby Martin’s documentary on the Venezuelan opposition’s use of violence in Caracas
Lopez receives support from foreign governments and media
Despite his violent tactics and mixed popularity in Venezuela, the U.S. government and international media have rallied behind López. While imprisoned, his wife, former model and television personality Lilian Tintori, met with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump. Rubio recently introduced the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act which, if passed, would funnel as much as $10 million to the Venezuelan opposition.
After the meeting, Trump tweeted that López was a political prisoner who should be freed immediately.
MintPress has reported on several occasions regarding the U.S.’ efforts to destabilize, weaken and overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela. From economic warfare to direct funding of the opposition and “democracy-promoting” NGOs, the U.S. has made its hostile position towards the Chavista government well known, spending over $100 million from just 2002 to 2010 on Venezuelan opposition efforts. The Obama administration pledged approximately $20 million over its eight years in the White House.
This became particularly true after Chávez nationalized the Venezuelan oil industry in 2007, which kicked several powerful U.S. energy corporations out of the country (which has the world’s largest oil reserves) and lost them millions. One of those companies was ExxonMobil, whose CEO at the time was current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This, not surprisingly, explains Tillerson’s personal vendetta against the Chavista regime, one that has influenced his calls for regime change which began just days after Trump took office.
As María Páez Victor, a Venezuelan-born sociologist, wrote in 2014: “The real opposition in Venezuela is the USA, its allies and its agents who feed the illegal pipeline of dollars that pour into bogus NGOs and the opposition parties.” Leopoldo López is not only one of the major beneficiaries of the “real opposition,” he is also its poster boy.
Feature photo | Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez holds a Venezuelan national flag as he greets a group of opposition protesters outside his home in Caracas, Venezuela, July 8, 2017. Fernando Llano | AP