Democracy behind bars in Venezuela? Who is Leopoldo Lopez?

One wonders how many mistakes, glaring omissions and biased statements can one fit in just two paragraphs of just 88 words. When it comes to Venezuela, the answer is, a lot. On Friday, 27 of March, the Guardian published a piece called Democracy behind bars: 11 opposition leaders facing jail or death”, which was “sponsored by Crown Agents”. First in the list of 11 “democratic opposition leaders” facing jail or death around the world is Venezuela’s Leopoldo Lopez.

Facing death?Facing death?Immediately below the headline “opposition leaders facing jail or death” there is a big picture of Leopoldo López. This gives the impression that he himself is potentially facing a death sentence. The writer probably is unaware that Venezuela was the first country in the world still in existence to abolish the death penalty, back in 1863! In contrast, in Britain it was not fully abolished until 1998 and of course in the US is still widely used. But, as they say, why let the facts get in the way of a striking headline

The section on Leopoldo López opens with a quote by himself regarding his political disqualification. This is unrelated to the reasons why he is currently in jail. López is disqualified from standing for public office for his role in two separate corruption scandals. The first goes back to 1998, when he worked as an analyst at the state-owned oil company PDVSA and his mother, a PDVSA manager, signed a donation to the Primero Justicia NGO, which Leopoldo López was a member of (and which later became the Primero Justicia political party, of which Lopez was one of the main leaders). The second corruption scandal is related to irregular use of funds when he was Mayor of Chacao. All that the first paragraph of the Guardian article proves, therefore, is that Leopoldo Lopez was involved in two corruption scandals and as a result is barred from standing for public office until 2017.

Violent arrest of ChacínViolent arrest of ChacínIn the second paragraph, Lopez is described as “founder of the opposition Popular Will party.” While this is true, it leaves out an important part of the story, as Lopez is well known in Venezuela for his active participation in the April 2002 coup against the democratically elected president Hugo Chávez. During the coup, using his authority as Mayor of Chacao, he led the illegal arrest of Minister of Justice Ramón Rodríguez Chacín (report, videos and pictures). Hardly the conduct of a democrat! Charges against him for these events were dismissed by an amnesty decreed by president Hugo Chávez in December 2007.

The author of the article, Lauren Razavi continues by saying that Lopez was arrested after calling for citizens to protest against the government. Of course, the timeline is correct, in the sense that one thing happened after the other, but the information is not complete. He did not call “for citizens to protest”, but rather called for citizens to forcefully oust the democratically elected government through street protests and barricades which saw whole communities left without access to food, water or gas, and even emergency services refused access.

In a joint appeal with Maria Corina Machado, López called on citizens to join his “La Salida” campaign (“The Way Out”), described the government as a “dictatorship” and called on Venezuelans to “rise up” emulating the example of January 23, 1958 (when a popular uprising overthrew the Perez Jimenez dictatorship). The message was clear: Venezuela was a dictatorship, the government had to be overthrown by force.

Arson attack on Ministry of HousingArson attack on Ministry of HousingAs a result of this appeal there were violent protests by their supporters, including arson attacks against public buildings, health care centres, university campuses, the use of sharp shooters to kill police officers, national guard officers and Bolivarian supporters who were removing road blockades. Opposition violence instigated by Machado and López included the setting of steel wire traps above roads which was aimed at, and succeeded in, decapitating a number of motorbike riders. A total of 43 people were killed in the riots, a majority of them as a result of the action of violent opposition protesters (see full analysis by Ewan Robertson). The violent protests, involving paid thugs and criminal elements, managed to alienate the majority of the population, including many of the opposition’s own supporters. It is for his responsibility in these events that López is in jail pending trial.

Razavi says Nicolas Maduro’s leadership has “seen Venezuela pushed into the top 10 countries in the world for corruption and homicide”. The only source she provides for this is assertion is a link to an article signed by Rory Carroll, notorious for his bias against the Bolivarian revolution.

Amazingly though, on closer inspection, Carroll’s article does not even make the claim which Razavi attributes to him. The result? A totally fabricated statistic.

Corruption is certainly a serious problem in Venezuela, but according to the most recent report by Transparency International, Venezuela does not figure amongst the 10 most corrupt countries in the world.. As for the homicide rate, the source which is most commonly used is the Global Study on Homicide by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The last time this study was published was in 2013 with data from 2012. No one would deny crime is a problem in Venezuela, but President Maduro was inaugurated in April 2013, so he can hardly be blamed for figures collected the previous year.

Two final notes on this short piece. The hook for the article is a report by Freedom House a US based government funded organisation whose current director is a former head of Bureau at the US State Department. Past board members include Otto Reich, Paul Wolfowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Donald Rumsfeld and other outspoken advocates of US imperialist aggression. In other words, the type of “freedom” this house advocates is the freedom of the US to interfere in other country’s affairs.

On the other hand, the organisation “sponsoring” the article is Crown Agents. It describes its own history thus: “Our story begins in the 1700s, when colonial administrations employed agents to recruit people and procure and ship supplies to the colonies”. In other words, this is an organisation dedicated to promoting the interests of British colonialism. A perspective which is shamelessly manifest in the article itself, which cites jailed opposition leaders in Ethiopia, Tanzania , Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but which fails to mention political prisoners in Europe or the Unites States. For example Basque, opposition leader Arnaldo OtegiOtegi (in jail for his political ideas), or the countless political activists and whistleblowers languishing in US jails for their political ideas and defence of democracy (from Mummia Abu Jamal to Chelsea Manning).

It is beyond doubt that Crown Agents would not have sponsored an article about the achievements of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the fields of education, healthcare, housing, political empowerment, workers’ and gender rights and others.

The Bolivarian revolution has won 18 out of 19 democratic elections and referenda held in the country since 1998, this, it seems, will not stop Western mass media from presenting it as an “authoritarian regime”.

Letter to the Guardian:

I was disappointed to see a piece in the Guardian (Democracy behind bars: 11 opposition leaders facing jail or death) mentioning Venezuelan Leopoldo López at the top of a list of democratic opposition leaders jailed by what the article presents as authoritarian regimes. López has been disqualified to stand for public office for misuse of public funds twice. He played an important role in the 2002 coup against the democratically elected government of president Chávez, during which he led the illegal and violent arrest of the then Minister of Justice Chacín.

The reason he is in jail pending trial today, is because of his call for an uprising against the democratically elected government of president Maduro last year. His appeal directly led to violence on the part of his supporters leaving 43 people dead. Most of those were killed by the actions of violent supporters of Mr López which used arson attacks, sharpshooters and steel wires to decapitate motorbike riders.

Venezuela has had 19 democratic elections and referendums with full participation of opposition forces since 1998. All bar one have been won by the Bolivarian revolution. Democratic opposition is not a problem, attempts to overthrow a democratically elected government is a different matter.

Jorge Martin

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