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Sentencing of Venezuelan opposition leader could signal end of career

Backers of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez gather at the Jose Marti de Chacao square in Caracas on Friday.

Backers of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez gather at the Jose Marti de Chacao square in Caracas on Friday.

(Fabiola Ferrero / EPA)

Will the sentencing of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to a lengthy prison term this week be the final nail in his political coffin or simply the latest detour?

Lopez, sentenced to more than 13 years on a conviction of inciting violence during deadly nationwide protests, never made a secret of his ambition to become Venezuela’s president. With his good looks, Harvard pedigree, vote-grabbing charisma and family connections to wealth, the 44-year old was once an odds-on favorite to realize his dream.

He advanced it considerably by being elected mayor of the wealthy Caracas borough Chacao at the age 29 and winning the hearts and minds of residents there by pushing through a sweeping slate of reforms that helped transform the enclave.

As mayor, Lopez overhauled and modernized the borough police force, reducing the crime rate by 58% during his first term and making it a model for the rest of the country. His administration also built a district-wide mass transit bus system and opened a new civic center and public sports complex.

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His effectiveness earned him reelection as Chacao mayor in 2004 with 80% of the vote.

His path to Venezuela’s top job seemed clear, smoothed by friendships made during his time as an analyst at PDVSA, the state-owned oil company and the country’s prime economic engine.

“Politics is a cycle and someday there will be a change, and that’s what we are building for,” he told The Times in an interview nearly a decade ago.

But Lopez’s pathway to the Miraflores Palace, Venezuela’s White House, has hit a series of speed bumps — if not brick walls — over the years. In 2002 when President Hugo Chavez was briefly overthrown in a military coup, Lopez, while not directly participating, tacitly supported it and even assisted in the citizens’ arrest of Chavez’s interior minister.

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Although he later insisted that he had helped take custody of the minister for his own protection, the action made him a lifelong enemy of Chavez until his death in 2013 and afterward of his successor, President Nicolas Maduro.

Ever since, Lopez has been a special target of Chavez and his allies. In 2006 while still mayor, Lopez was charged with 26 criminal counts, including illegal campaign financing and property damage, allegations he denied. Also that year, he was barred from running for public office until 2017.

Lopez said back then that he had been physically attacked, shot at, spit on and even held hostage by thugs sent by the government. In March 2006, one of his bodyguards was shot six times and killed in the passenger seat of a mayoral vehicle where Lopez normally sat.

Lopez insisted that what really irked Chavez and his followers was that he was a potential political threat.

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“Why me? Because I’ve won elections,” Lopez said in an interview. “I have the votes. I represent the future, an alternative.”

Political scientist Luis Salamanca of Simon Bolivar University in Caracas said the enmity went deeper and has to do with class differences at the root of Chavez’s socialist makeover of Venezuelan politics.

“The regime has wanted to get rid of Lopez for years because he is the son of rich parents, an expression of the capitalist class that they want to do away with,” Salamanca said. “Plus he has shown himself to be disposed to give his all against those in power.”

In any case, Lopez became an increasingly popular figure in the months leading up to his arrest, even outpolling Maduro in some surveys. One reason was his more militant approach compared with 2013 opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

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On Thursday night, Lopez was handed the lengthy sentence, but the verdict had nothing to do with events of 2002. He was convicted of having incited violence during a series of protests across Venezuela in early 2014 that left 43 dead and more than 800 injured.

Lopez led marches but insisted that he never advocated violence during the protests, which paralyzed parts of the country for weeks. In any case, some analysts say he didn’t get a fair trial and the guilty verdict was foretold.

“Chavismo is now at a point where it no longer fears being labeled authoritarian,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “It went ahead with an extreme sentence for an unproven case, despite criticisms from numerous international organizations. “

“The government is saying, ‘We don’t care if you call us autocratic, we will do all we can to block the opposition’s chances of gaining access to office.’ From this point on, we can expect anything from this regime, however arbitrary,” Corrales said.

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Others say the harsh sentence is part of an effort by the government to sew fear among opponents before the National Assembly elections in December when all seats will be up for grabs. Maduro’s plummeting popularity indicates that members of his PSUV party, which now dominates the congress, are vulnerable.

Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor at University of Miami, said the Lopez sentence is “harsh but not surprising” given the Maduro government’s arrests and increasing harassment of opposition leaders, and strict controls on their access to the country’s mass media.

“The Maduro government is losing badly in the polls leading up to the December mid-term election and is likely to suffer a serious electoral setback,” Bagley said. “Maduro wants to minimize the severity of his pending loss and believes that the incarceration of Lopez will help, although I believe that the harshness of the sentence may produce the opposite effect. “

Former Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, who attempted unsuccessfully to visit Lopez in prison this year, was one of many human rights officials who criticized the verdict, saying Venezuela has become a “de facto dictatorship” and that Lopez and other political prisoners have been blamed for “violent acts that are the responsibility of the government.”

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“Today democrats around the world are in mourning for Venezuela” said Garry Kasparov, the Russian former chess grandmaster and now head of Human Rights Foundation. “Lopez’s trial has confirmed that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Venezuelans are currently suspended.”

Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said after the verdict was read in court that her husband turned to her to urge supporters to ‘’maintain calm.”

“He said, ‘Put the handcuffs on me because the judge and the justice system won’t take them off, only the Venezuelan people.”

Special correspondents Kraul and Mogollon reported from Bogota and Caracas respectively.

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