The political use of Leopoldo López’s sentence

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 22, 2015


The timid reaction of Latin American governments to the 13-year jail sentence against Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López reflects the shortcomings of human rights protection in the region.

Yet, the way the Venezuelan opposition has sought to transform the incarceration of López and other political prisoners into an electoral campaign issue ahead of the December 6th legislative election makes it difficult for governments in the region to denounce human rights violations in Venezuela without getting directly involved in another country’s domestic politics.


The judicial case against Leopoldo López, an opposition leader who was arrested 19 months ago for his alleged responsibility in the violence that took place in an opposition-convened protest on February 2014, stands no scrutiny. Amnesty International has denounced that the charges were politically motivated. After several months of dragging its feet, the Venezuelan judicial system recently sentenced López to 13 years in prison.


Though the Venezuelan judiciary is formally independent, there are well-grounded suspicions that the case against López was orchestrated by President Nicolás Maduro. The government sought to target López precisely because he represents the more radical opposition. The moderate opposition, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, constituted a bigger threat against the government in early 2014 as Capriles attracted support from dissatisfied former Maduro supporters. The move to divide the opposition worked as the jailing of López radicalized many in the opposition. The moderate opposition lost electoral and political ground. After he narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 election—held shortly after the death of President Hugo Chávez—Henrique Capriles has now lost the position of the best ranked opposition leader to the less moderate Leopoldo López.


Having mismanaged the economy — inflation is out of control and the falling price of oil has limited the government’s capacity to fund its ambitious social spending scheme — the government is seeking to further polarize public opinion ahead of the December election. Though the electoral system is tailored to make it easier for the government to win a majority of seats in the unicameral congress even if the opposition wins a majority of votes, most polls indicate that the government will suffer a severe setback if turnout is sufficiently high. Maduro’s presidential approval is in the low 20s, but many disenchanted Venezuelans could opt to abstain, making it easier for the government to mobilize sufficient votes to retain a majority of seats in the legislature.


The opposition has put its bets on winning a majority of votes and seats on December 6 and then, controlling the National Assembly, it will pass an amnesty law to free López and other political prisoners. Moreover, some in the opposition believe that, if Maduro loses, he will be forced to resign by his own United Socialist Party. While many Venezuelans still hold late President Chávez in high regard, Maduro lacks the charisma, political skills and convenient price of oil to match his predecessor’s leadership. The December 6 election is poised to be a referendum on Maduro. Precisely for that reason, the Maduro administration is trying to turn it into a referendum on the radical opposition. Maduro knows he cannot win on his merits alone, but he hopes he can convince a majority Venezuelans that a López-led opposition would represent a return to the old unpopular pre-Chávez regime.


The judicial sentence against López was severely criticized by former democratically elected Latin American presidents, the US government, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. However, for the most part, Latin American governments chose to avoid the subject or stopped short of denouncing the Maduro administration.


The timid defence of human rights on the part of Latin American governments is, in part, a response to the political capital that the opposition is trying to make of the López sentence. For the opposition, defending human rights equates with electoral support. Because Latin American democratically elected governments cannot take sides on the internal political affairs of a neighbouring democracy (even if that democracy does not function at all well), they choose not to get involved in the scandalous and unacceptable sentence against López.


The Venezuelan opposition is using an ill-conceived strategy. Latin American governments should be pressured to speak up in defence of human rights. It is a disgrace that most governments in the region have not been decisive in standing up for the defence of human rights in Venezuela. However, when the opposition associates the demands to free López and other political prisoners with a vote against the government on December 6, democratic leaders in Latin American find the perfect excuse not to get involved. The defence of human rights should be a priority for governments regardless of who wins. In international forums, the opposition should refrain from mixing its demands to release López and other political prisoners with the December 6 election. In doing so, the opposition would eliminate the most powerful excuse that democratic governments in Latin America are using to avoid speaking up demanding the release of López.