CARACAS, Venezuela — Leading Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez appeared before prosecutors in Caracas on Thursday to answer charges of influence peddling while he was a state oil company employee in 1998, an accusation he described as “political persecution.”
Lopez, a strong critic of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez and cofounder of the center-right Justice First party, is accused of funneling $120,000 in donations to his party from the state-owned oil monopoly PDVSA while he was a top-level employee there in the late 1990s.
His supporters say Chavistas have it in for the 41-year old Harvard graduate and former mayor of a borough in Caracas because he led anti-Chavez demonstrations prior to the April 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez. Lopez was part of group that made a “citizens arrest” of then-Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin during the disturbances.
Lopez has always denied taking part in the coup and insists he and others were only protecting Chacin from an angry mob. But in 2006, while he was still mayor of Chacao district, Lopez was disqualified by the controller general from running for any political office until 2017.
A supporter of Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, Lopez has been the object of a number of physical attacks and threats. One of his bodyguards was shot to death in 2006 as he sat in Lopez’s car.
In charges made public Thursday morning prior to Lopez’s court appearance, the politician was accused in an official communique of “influence trafficking” in connection with political donations that PDVSA, or Petroleum of Venezuela, made to Justice First. Lopez’s mother, Antonietta Mendoza de Lopez, also a PDVSA executive at the time, faces similar charges.
After exiting the prosecutor’s office, Lopez told reporters he has been unfairly persecuted by the Chavez government for 10 years and that the charges were a “cowardly” act of political sabotage by Vice President Nicolas Maduro in an effort to neutralize him as an opposition voice.
“I don’t believe in these prosecutors nor in [their] justice, but I am here to give witness that I have no fear of putting myself in the lion’s den because nothing on my conscience makes me afraid to face Venezuelan injustice,” Lopez said, adding he will vigorously defend himself against the accusations.
If found guilty, Lopez could face two to four years in prison, according to prosecutors’ official statement issued Thursday.
Meanwhile, the health of Chavez, who has not been seen or heard from publicly since December, remains a mystery. He arrived home Feb. 18 from Cuba, where he underwent his fourth surgery on Dec. 11, and admitted to a military hospital in western Caracas. He suffers from an unspecified abdominal cancer.
Officials have said Chavez remains on a respirator to combat weak breathing. On a visit last week to Caracas, Bolivian President Evo Morales was not allowed to see the ailing leader though the two men are allies. Critics have demanded that an independent commission be formed to ascertain that Chavez is alive and fit to govern.
A former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States, Guillermo Cochez, said this week that Chavez has been brain-dead since December, citing unnamed sources close to the government. Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello on Monday said Chavez is alive and recovering, and that he presided over a five-hour meeting with ministers.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Tuesday that Chavez himself will decide how much time he needs to recover and when to be sworn into office for a third term, a ceremony originally scheduled for Jan. 10 that he missed.
“The right-wingers are trying to generate pressure for the president to appear and to take the oath,” Jaua said in an interview on state-run television. “It’s the purpose of those who don’t want to see the president get better. Those of us who do want to see him recover completely have the patience to wait.”
Special correspondents Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia, and Mogollon from Caracas.