By Melanie Batley
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is single-handedly mounting a credible populist challenge to the government of Nicholas Maduro, drawing on his charisma, eloquence, and political popularity.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist is behind the wave of demonstrations that have swept the country over the last three weeks, using stirring rhetoric and calling for a “nonviolent struggle of the masses.”
“Very soon, we will have a free and democratic Venezuela! God bless you,” he said at the end of a rousing seven-minute speech to tens of thousands of supporters earlier this week.
Lopez has been blamed by the regime for the violence that erupted last week during a demonstration that left six dead. He is currently awaiting a court hearing after handing himself over to authorities on Tuesday and could be charged with murder and terrorism.
Lopez served eight years as the mayor of Chacao, a prosperous commercial district in eastern Caracas, where he enjoyed widespread popularity. Former President Hugo Chavez subsequently banned him from holding public office ostensibly for the abuse of public funds, but more likely because his populist rhetoric was presenting a threat to the regime, according to Businessweek.
Maduro, Chavez’s successor, has accused him of plotting a coup and has labeled him “the face of fascism,” another indication that the government believes him to be a credible threat.
Lopez first appeared on the political scene in 2000, as a co-founder of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, and now leads Vountad Popular (Popular Will). Before the failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, Lopez called for opposition street protests.
Today he uses Twitter and social media to help spread his message of peaceful demonstrations. A recent video he recorded with his wife, Lilian Tintori, urges Venezuelans to rise up against a government that he says has robbed them of their hard currency reserves, security, and rights.
The messages appear to be striking a chord with a public weary of shortages and a regime trying to silence dissent.
Lopez was born in Caracas to a well-off family linked in part to the petroleum industry. His bloodline extends to Venezuela’s founder, Simon Bolivar, and Venezuela’s first president is another ancestor, Businessweek reports.
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