Once Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, he is best known for escaping from house arrest and appearing outside a Caracas military base in an attempt to start an uprising against the country’s leftist president, Nicolás Maduro.
But the 2019 rebellion failed and Leopoldo López was forced into exile in Madrid. Now the regime critic is trying to rally a divided and demoralised Venezuelan opposition ahead of internationally brokered negotiations with Maduro’s envoys in Mexico; a preliminary round of talks is expected to begin this week.
The opposition hopes to agree to the restoration of free and fair elections in Venezuela ahead of municipal and regional votes due in November, but in a telephone interview López played down the talks’ chances of success.
“There have been many episodes of negotiations frustrated by the intransigence of the dictatorship,” he told the Financial Times. But the Mexico talks presented a “narrow” opportunity to agree an agenda for dealing with Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency and an electoral timetable, López said.
Maduro has presided over a collapse of about three-quarters of Venezuelan gross domestic product since taking power in 2013. More than 5m people have fled the country, creating the worst refugee crisis in the Americas, and criminal gangs control increasing swaths of Venezuela’s territory.
But the opposition has struggled to unseat the president, who has muzzled the press, taken over opposition parties and jailed activists. Meanwhile, the fractured opposition disagreed over participating in congressional polls earlier this year and is struggling to reach a position ahead of the Mexico talks.
In his youth, López’s charisma and film star looks had him hailed as a future president. At the age of 29, he was elected mayor of a Caracas neighbourhood and co-founded a centre-right party. As his popularity soared, Venezuela’s ruling socialists moved to squash him. He was arrested In 2014 and sentenced to more than 13 years in jail for incitement to violence, a charge the EU and human rights organisations said was politically motivated.
Now 50, López bemoans the global rise of authoritarianism and laments that the global spread of free markets and democracy, about which he was so excited when studying in Harvard in the 1990s, “didn’t happen”.
“Many people ask why Maduro and the dictatorship have lasted so long,” he said. “One is that the structure of the dictatorship is one of organised crime . . . another reason . . . is that [it receives] very important support from powerful countries — China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Cuba”.
Moscow and Beijing have made loans to the Maduro regime. China, Russia and Iran have invested in the country’s oil industry. Turkey is a conduit for gold sales and Cuba provides intelligence advisers.
The opposition had received “significant support but nothing comparable with what Maduro has received”, López said.
The US, EU and most Latin American nations recognised López’s protégé Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader in 2019, hoping to send a message that Maduro’s 2018 election was seen as rigged and trigger regime change.
But this year the EU and some Latin American nations backed away from that recognition. Instead, they are pushing the opposition to meet Maduro’s government for the Mexico talks. On Sunday the Venezuelan president said that while he expected talks to go ahead, their starting date and location were being finalised.
At those talks, López, Guaidó and their Popular Will party want to focus on a timetable for presidential, parliamentary and regional elections.
“Some diplomats have said that we have a maximalist position,” López said. “But telling us from Europe that we are maximalist because we want freedom is a colonialist comment . . . that we should renounce our dream of freedom when you already have it.”
The opposition’s failure to topple Maduro has taken a toll on its credibility, however. Luis Vicente León, a pollster in Caracas, said that fewer than one in five Venezuelans believe a change of government is imminent, from almost two-thirds in 2019.
López’s popularity rating was 14.8 per cent in June, while Maduro managed 15.4 per cent and Guaidó managed 21.6 per cent. “All political leaders in Venezuela are very damaged,” León said. “The whole country feels disconnected from [them].”
Maduro’s political resilience has forced what remains of Venezuela’s business community to seek a truce. In July Delcy Rodríguez, vice-president, was the invited guest of honour at the annual meeting of Fedecámeras, the main business association — a grouping previously described by the government as the “parasitic bourgeoisie”.
“They betrayed the country,” López said of Fedecámeras. “One of those businesspeople said the other day: ‘If you can’t leave the cage, what you should do is improve the conditions in the cell’. That’s very easy for someone to say who wasn’t a prisoner but I was a prisoner . . . and I know that any benefit they give you in conditions of blackmail, they take away the next day and you end up as the . . . plaything of the dictatorship.”
López’s reputation took a knock last year when the Maduro government foiled what it said was a plot by Silvercorp, a Florida-based private security company, to land mercenaries in two boats and seize an airport in a bid to oust the president, which was supposedly organised by the opposition. López, who denies involvement, said the whole operation was a fake set up by the regime to smear the opposition. Now he faces arrest if he returns to his homeland and the Maduro government has sought his extradition from Spain three times.
Despite the setbacks, López remains optimistic. The opposition would unite and win free elections, he said. US support for Guaidó was solid and tough sanctions on the Maduro government from the era of Donald Trump remained under Joe Biden. But he is no longer making predictions about Maduro’s longevity.
“An error we made in the past was to give dates,” he said.