The Howler

The President that Never Was

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As Venezuela descends into chaos, the most vocal and adored opposition leader is now under house arrest and forbidden to speak out, but he still is speaking and he will never stop. He was the president that was never elected. Leopoldo Lopez wakes up early to get his kids, Manuela and Leopoldo Jr., ready for school. As his wife takes them out of the house he can’t go with them because just outside the house, one street away, are a line of cars from the government’s secret police to make sure that he doesn’t leave the house.

Lopez is one of the most nutritious political prisoners in the modern age. Western head of state all support his release; President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. This is a topic that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump agree on, a rare occasion when it comes to foreign affairs. The only people that want him to be detained are the Venezuelan government.

Lopez grew up in Caracas, Venezuela one of the most affluent cities in the country. It was on a high school trip he went out to a rural oil-producing part of Venezuela. He was shaken to his core by the level of poverty in the barrios in the region. The stark contrast between the comfortable life he grew up with made him realize this was not the case for the majority. This was the fuel to the inferno of change he casted on Venezuelan politics.

Even in the U.S., many believe that the disconnect between them and those who represent them is money. Politicians are disconnected from their constituents because they don’t know the everyday struggles a citizen goes through. Lopez placed himself in the street to actually talk and interact with his people, not to just sit at a desk and dole out laws.

The most important factor concerning Venezuela right now is their oil, it affects everything politically, economically, and even socially. They have the largest proven oil reserves in the world, even larger the Saudi Arabia. Venezuela has wealth potential beyond anyone’s imagination but even under the fragile democracy before Hugo Chavez, there was a split between rich and poor. Wealth was distributed among a very small group of upper-class citizens while poverty was festering through much of the country.

These conditions led to the popularity of Hugo Chavez in the late 90s according to the BBC. He promised, quite aggressively, to redistribute the income from oil and give it back to the people. When he became president, the price of oil shot up and he was showered with money from the state oil companies. He did make good of his promises, distributed the money, causing unemployment to go down, making their income inequality one of the lowest in South America, and the poor drank this up. But, when the price of oil went down, the economic troubles started to creep in with shortages in food and medicine. At the same time, Chavez debilitated democratic institutions; he consolidated power by stacking the courts and empowering paramilitary collective groups who will take action on anyone who threatens Chavez grip on power. Lopez while watching all of this, decides to challenge Chavez for president. Throughout this time, Lopez was criticizing Chavez and the way he was treating his people. Lopez went to Harvard and while he was in America he learned of the effects nonviolence had on bringing change. Lopez than became committed to bring this kind of change to Venezuela. He became mayor of a Chacao, a borough in Caracas, the wealthiest and most prominent one. Leading it is a very prominent stepping stone into higher politics. This placement allowed Lopez to challenge Chavez for presidency.

It is so easy for one who was democratically elected in a country with a weak government to cement their power by just changing the laws to suit themselves. By giving the people what they want on the outside but slowly taking away the citizens rights behind the scenes. With great power comes great responsibility but also this power should be checked by those around him so rulers like Chavez and Hitler don’t come and stay in power. Lopez saw this and wanted to stop it before the country he loved turned into something he didn’t recognize.

Lopez’s term as mayor was the jewel in the eyes of his constituents. He raised taxes to pay for public works and adopted tougher models of law thus lowering the crime rate which made the police love him. He was absurdly popular, being the type of mayor that would show up to a crime scene at the crack of dawn, be the first to plunge his shovel on the construction of a new building, and the one talking to his people on the weekend with a megaphone encouraging nonviolent protest. Lopez’s wife Lillian Tintorri, a Venezuelan athlete and activist, when he proposed to her he told her that if you marry me you are marrying Venezuela. The community that saw them as Venezuela’s future epitomized, when he was in office he had a 92% approval rating and he was ranked the third best mayor in the world according to the International Mayors Association.

But this rising popularity was seen as a threat to Chavez, so they attacked him physically and administratively. Collectivo groups tried to assassinate him three times, once raining bullets into his car and killing his bodyguard. They proceeded to accuse Lopez on his budget, claiming that he unlawfully spent money on a personal item, so the Chavez government banned him from seeking office in the future.

This ban transformed his life, the life that he worked so hard for was taken away in one fell swoop. But it did not stop him, he continued taking to the streets and rallying his supporters through nonviolent demonstrations

On March 5th 2013, Hugo Chavez died and was basically replaced by is chosen successor Nicolas Maduro according to the New York Times. Maduro was closely involved in the Chavez government and was Chavez choice on who should be the next president.  He was chosen to take power but, according to law, he still had to run. Lopez, still banned from running for office, threw his support behind a opponent Henrique Capriles. Capriles lost by just 1%, and the election was essentially stolen in the eyes of many Venezuelans. Sound familiar? Even a small amount of fraud could have tipped the election to Maduro’s side.

February 12th 2014, Lopez led a rally of mainly students of Caracas University, reminding the crowd that it was a peaceful protest. It remained nonviolent while he was there but when he left the student started marching on the steps of the Office of the Attorney General and throwing rocks. The security started shooting into the crowd and two of the protesters were killed. The following day the government announced that Lopez was the cause of all the mayhem and that he was the sole reason for the death of the two students. They persecuted Lopez for murder and terrorism. He went into hiding for several days and during that time he released a video; stating he was innocent and expressing his condolences to the families. He did not believe that the crimes against him were based on fact and still encouraged everyone to remain nonviolent. He asked his followers to come to the downtown plaza in support of him, all dressed in white to watch him turn himself into the government. The morning of the rally, he goes out not really knowing what’s going to happen, he doesn’t know if people will show up out of fear or if they will even wear white. But when he gets closer to the center of town he sees how extensive the crowd is, so large he couldn’t find a way to the center. There are police barricades with many police out looking for him. He couldn’t avoid all of it so he decided to go up to a barricade and take his helmet off relieving himself to the police.  Even though they were supposed to arrest him on site, they salute him and one escorts him to the center of the crowd to join his supporters. Lopez goes towards the statue in the middle of the crowd and climbs on top of it, facing a crowd that is stretched for miles, made of of ten of thousands of people all dressed in white. An estimated 400 thousand people attended according to CNN. He acquired a bullhorn and a Venezuelan flag from the crowd and he made a speech. He spoke about the youth of the country that have no jobs, no future, no freedom. How their so-called “democracy” has failed them and that if he has so go to jail for saying it and speaking the truth that all can see. If it will be enough to awaken Venezuela, then so be it!

Lopez was taken that day by the government and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for “inciting” violence and the deaths of 43 people on both side of political spectrum according to BBC. After two years in prison he was put on house arrest and has been ever since he was returned August 1, 2017. Since then, he hasn’t spoken out due to the threat not only placed on his family but those who follow him. His wife, Lillian Tontori, continues to plead to European and Western leaders to talk about the crisis happening in Venezuela. To plead for freedom and democracy through the legacy and legend that is Lopez.  

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The President that Never Was