Who Is Venezuelan Opposition Leader Leopoldo López?

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If you’ve been following the anti-government protests in Venezuela, you’ve heard about 42-year-old opposition leader, Leopoldo López.

When López was arrested by authorities on Tuesday, many people heard his name for the first time. Here’s some quick background on who he is:

1. Family Legacy

López comes from a prominent family in the Venezuelan aristocracy. That’s in steep contrast to current President Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and son of a union leader, or past President Hugo Chávez, raised in a rural village.


López’s great-grandfather spent 14 years in jail for opposing Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, and other relatives have been forced to leave the country for their political views.

Venezuelan authorities arrest López on February 18 (Lilian Tintori/Instagram).

That’s not all: López also says he’s a distant relative of legendary Latin American political leader Simón Bolívar. Some reports say he’s a descendant of the country’s first president, Cristobal Mendoza.


2. Harvard Grad

López was educated in the U.S., “a child of privilege,” in the words of one recent article.


He attended boarding school in Princeton (1989), then earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Kenyon College (1993) and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government (1996).

3. Rise to Prominence

López returned to Venezuela after Harvard and broke into politics at the age of 29, winning an election to become the mayor of Chacao, a relatively wealthy subdivision of Caracas. He kept that job from 2000 to 2008, then set his sights on the presidency.


"He who tires, loses" (Lilian Tintori/Instagram)

That wasn’t going to happen in Chávez’s Venezuela: he was barred from running for higher office on the grounds that he had improperly managed funds during his time as mayor. While he was never convicted of a crime, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the ban.


Chavistas have good reason to dislike, or even fear, López. During a 2002 coup against the Chávez government, he took part in a citizens’ arrest of one of the country’s interior ministers.

A year ago, he was charged with “influence trafficking” related to his time at a state-run oil company in 1998. López said the charges were politically motivated.


4. Power Struggles

López isn’t the only Venezuelan politician seeking to supplant President Nicolás Maduro.


Henrique Capriles, a Venezuelan governor, competed with Chávez in a 2012 presidential election. He was smeared by state-run media outlets during the election, and lost by a 10 percent margin. Capriles got a second chance a year later, in a special election after Chávez’s death, but lost again.

López backed Capriles in those efforts, but some view the current string of protests as way to realign the opposition leadership. The recent demonstrations have certainly brought López media attention.


5. Political Views

We know one thing about López: he opposes Chávez-style socialism. But what does that mean? The details aren’t clear, according to Eric Olson, the associate director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center.


“I’m not aware of a 10-point plan to stop inflation in Venezuela from López,” he said. “It’s more, ‘We’re going to reverse the Chávez socialist agenda.’ But the specifics are quite vague.”


López with his wife Lilian Tintori at a recent protest (Lilian Tintori/Instagram)

In 2011, The New York Times described López’s ideology as “within the center-left range of Latin America’s political spectrum.” That doesn’t tell us much, however.


“One of the dilemmas for the opposition in Venezuela has always been whether they are trying to restore some past order or whether they share, in some general sense, the need for more focused programs to help the poor, but reject the authoritarian policy of the Chávez government,” Olson said.

It’s not clear exactly what López would do to the socialist government if he became president. His family history and experience as mayor of an affluent area suggest he would be a champion for the free market, but that’s just speculation.


“No one has done an objective study,” Olson said.

This piece was updated at 11:15 a.m.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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