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The Rival Chávez Won't Permit

Leopoldo López, center, mayor of the central Caracas district of Chacao, at Mother's Day celebrations in Caracas in May.
Leopoldo López, center, mayor of the central Caracas district of Chacao, at Mother's Day celebrations in Caracas in May. (By Fernando Llano -- Associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 30, 2008

Defenders of Hugo Chávez like to argue that there is no alternative to the Venezuelan caudillo other than the feckless and unpopular politicians who preceded him in the 1990s. The simple refutation of that canard is Leopoldo López, the 37-year-old mayor of central Caracas, whose boyish good looks only underscore the fact that he represents a fresh generation.

López, a hyperarticulate graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard, is a pragmatic center-leftist, like most of the presidents elected in South America since the turn of the century. He won his last election in the Caracas district of Chacao with 80 percent of the vote. An opinion poll taken this year showed his popularity rating at 65 percent in greater Caracas, compared with 39 percent for Chávez; nationally, he beat Chávez 42 percent to 41. In the upcoming election for mayor of the capital district -- the most important elected post in the country after the presidency -- López leads the Chávez-backed candidate by 30 points.

"Change is coming," promise the blue posters with López's smiling face that are up around Caracas. Only maybe it isn't. Two weeks ago, Venezuela's national electoral council, dominated by Chávez's followers, moved to ban López and 371 other candidates from the November state and local elections, which are shaping up as the most important since Chávez was first elected nine years ago. This broad exclusion was based entirely on the finding of another Chávez appointee, who ruled that each of the candidates was guilty of an administrative or legal offense, though none has been judged in court.

Like the rulers of Iran, with whom he has cultivated a close alliance, Chávez has adopted the tactic of rigging an election by excluding his most formidable opponents in advance. This straightforwardly violates the Venezuelan constitution as well as the Inter-American Democratic Charter; both say a citizen cannot be stripped of political rights unless he is convicted of a crime and sentenced by a judge. The charges against López, never tested in court, are a blatantly bogus concoction. One concerns a supposedly improper contribution he made to a judicial advocacy organization nine years ago, before he was elected.

But the law doesn't matter much in Venezuela these days. Chávez also controls the Supreme Court, and it appears unlikely even to respond to appeals of the ban before the August deadline for registering candidates for the ballot. Opponents of the blacklist have staged one mass demonstration in Caracas, and a poll out last week showed that 80 percent of Venezuelans oppose it. But Chávez isn't backing down, and for good reason: An opposition victory in Caracas and other big states would virtually ensure that his project to convert Venezuela to Cuban-style socialism would collapse.

So López was in the United States last week, making his case before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington and attending a meeting of mayors in Miami -- where he was briefly able to tell his story to Barack Obama. His point is simple: "We are being obstructed because we can win. We have the votes and the government knows that. If it allows us in the race the myth that Chávez is the sole representative of the poor masses of Venezuela will be destroyed. So they are trying to force me out."

López has been a target for government hardball for some time. In 2006, armed pro-government thugs held him hostage for six hours. The same year one of his bodyguards was fatally shot as he sat in the passenger seat of a car normally used by the mayor. Last week, when he returned to Caracas from Washington, López was detained and assaulted by a squad from the state intelligence service. Government media, meanwhile, shrieked with outrage about his meeting with Obama. The reaction was revealing: Chávez is clearly worried about the possibility of a new American president who, unlike George W. Bush, would be broadly popular in Latin America and might press for democracy in Venezuela.

That, of course, is exactly what López hopes for. "Venezuela has been very focused and disciplined about pursuing influence in the rest of the hemisphere, but there hasn't been a clear alternative," he told me. "What's important is that the United States advances an agenda that makes a priority of democracy and human rights, as well as poverty alleviation and addressing inequality. Chávez has no answer to that."

López has proved that point in Caracas. That's why he, unlike Obama, is unlikely to have a crack at voters this November.


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