In a prerecorded video message released hours after his arrest, López urged Venezuelans to continue a campaign of “resistance” to force the resignation or recall of President Nicolás Maduro, a goal López calls “the Exit.”
Seated on a sofa beside his wife and appealing directly to Venezuelan youth, López told viewers that what the country needed more than ever was for Venezuelans to make “a commitment for change.”
“But that commitment can’t be passive,” he said. “It has to be active.”
It was the kind of passionate, personal appeal and call to action that showed exactly why the Harvard-educated López has been at the center of the most serious challenge yet to the struggling Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chávez.
In a country floating atop the world’s largest oil reserves but facing worsening shortages of milk, medicines, toilet paper and other basic goods, many Venezuelans are angry, and López is their guy.
The handsome 42-year-old former mayor of an upscale Caracas municipality, López doesn’t want to wait for Maduro’s government to wobble until it falls. He wants to push it over.
“We are on the right side of history,” he said in the video. “We are on the side of justice.”
It’s not clear what sort of justice awaits López. Maduro’s government is holding him responsible for the deadly protests last week that ended with three dead, dozens injured and government offices and vehicles set ablaze. He faces a litany of charges ranging from homicide to terrorism to “crimes of public intimidation,” and told his 2 million Twitter followers that he had been taken to Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas.
López’s hearing was transferred to the prison where he is being held. “My hearing in Ramo Verde is due to fear and illegality, not due to security. That’s how dictatorships work,” he tweeted.
U.S. officials have said that López’s arrest would have “a chilling effect” on Venezuelans’ right to free expression. Whatever his legal fate, it will likely be viewed through the country's overheated, hyper-polarized political culture.
Maduro has denounced López as a “coward,” a “fascist” and even a “coward fascist.” The president waves off criticism of economic mismanagement, corruption and soaring crime as the whining complaints of a “parasitic bourgeoisie.”
But López’s direct challenge to Maduro — while insisting on nonviolence — has resonated with Venezuelans unwilling to stomach their discontent until the country's next parliamentary elections in September 2015.
“López is saying, ‘this is intolerable, let's not be resigned to it,’ ” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, who said he has known López since 1999. “He felt this was his moment to act, to take to the streets.”
Shifter and others say that Maduro does not appear to be on the verge of collapse. He retains the support of the military and has placed military commanders in high-level positions in his administration. His United Socialist Party fared well in local elections in December. And Maduro retains broad support among Venezuela’s poor, who have benefitted most from the generous hand of the “Bolivarian” Revolution that Chávez named for 19th century South American liberator Simón Bolivar.
López, meanwhile, is a descendant of Bolivar on his great-great-grandmother’s side. But he has also been easy for the government to typecast. Born to a wealthy family, he attended Kenyon College in Ohio, then Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His gorgeous, blond wife, Lilian Tintori, is a champion kite-surfer.
What's not clear yet, analysts say, is whether the events of the past week have hurdled López to the forefront of the Venezuelan opposition, eclipsing former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is identified with a more patient, less confrontational approach to challenging Maduro. Capriles lost presidential elections to Chávez in October 2012 and to Maduro in April 2013.
“There is a lot of disappointment with Capriles,” said Moisés Naím, a senior associate at the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace and a former Venezuelan official. “A lot of people think Maduro stole the [April 2013] election, and when everyone was ready to take to the streets, Capriles called them off and accepted Maduro’s victory.”
They're in the streets now, though, and while Capriles has defended López, he doesn’t seem to inspire the same fervor as López and his Popular Will party.
“He is the one leading the people,” said university student Sebastian Herrades, 20, speaking at Tuesday’s rally just before López was taken into custody by Venezuela’s National Guard and stuffed into an armored vehicle. Herrades said a group of students were mugged at his university recently and he was fed up.
Still, many in the opposition — especially students — don’t take their cues from López, analysts say, and will likely continue organizing their protests without him.
“The student movement doesn’t obey López’s leadership,” said Caracas political scientist Rafael Romero. “We’re talking about one political actor within the opposition, who represents a segment of the opposition.”
If the government treats him with a heavy hand, López’s detention could serve to unify the anti-Maduro movement, other observers say.
“In that case, the response of the opposition could be to join forces,” said historian Tomás Straka at Caracas’s Catholic University. “We’ll have to see what happens in the next few days, whether they release López or they give him a long prison sentence, as prosecutors appear to be pushing for.”