Leopoldo Lopez with a dash of Bolivar

I wrote this article for the Latin American Herald Tribune three years ago, give or take. It ran, but not in this version. Now that President Barack Obama has asked that Leopoldo Lopez be freed, I think it is pertinent to republish this version, warts and all. Enjoy!

Imagine if John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been a descendant of George Washington. Now meet Leopoldo Lopez: A patrician, marathon-running, early-forties “Caraqueño”, a Harvard-educated philosopher and economist who is married to a former (and gorgeous) professional athlete/media personality and who, to top it all off, is also related to Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Venezuela, the Liberator of Colombia, the personal idol of President Hugo Chávez (who renamed Venezuela into “The Bolivarian Republic of…”) the freedom fighter after whom they named a country (Bolivia). Yes, Lopez is the Venezuelan version of a George Washington-related JFK.

Lopez is getting ready to challenge Hugo Chavez for the Venezuelan Presidency come October 7, 2012. For three years Lopez was barred from seeking elected office on charges of corruption, but only last week the Inter American Human Rights Court ordered Venezuela to lift the ban. Now Lopez is free to run more than just marathons.

The Latin American Herald Tribune managed to get a sit-down, face to face interview with Lopez in his Caracas office, to talk about street crime (Lopez said it will be his first priority), but also about increasing oil production (using a remarkably different approach to the one being implemented by Chavez), his relation to Simon Bolivar and how being barred from seeking a mayor’s office in 2008 has now resulted in a viable Presidential bid.

– Latin American Herald Tribune: Well, the Inter American court said days ago that you can run for office in Venezuela. What is now the next step for you?

– Leopoldo Lopez: The next step is to win the primary elections. And the next after that is to beat Chavez. I have been legally enabled by the Inter American Human Rights Court, which is the highest ranking court in the continent, after exhausting every instance in Venezuela.

– LAHT: Would you say barring you from seeking office in 2008 was a strategy that backfired for the Chavez administration?

– LL:  Well, I just wanted to be the mayor of Caracas, you know? To do for Caracas what I did for Chacao (Lopez is a former mayor of Chacao, an affluent Caracas borough).

– LAHT: But the government prevented you from running and now you are here…

– LL: But yes, they were afraid of an electoral victory, since in 2008 I had 70% popularity. So, instead, I ended up travelling all over Venezuela, articulating a fresh political party that is Voluntad Popular. (In January, Venezuela’s electoral authority CNE recognized Voluntad Popular as a political party).

– LAHT: And do you think the Chavez administration will just take that sitting down?

– LL: Well, the only thing the government can do is comply.

– LAHT: What is your relation to Simon Bolivar, Liberator of Venezuela?

– LL: Well, it is a known fact that the Libertador did not have any sons, at least they haven’t been recorded in history, but I am related on the side of Juana de Bolivar, one of the Liberator’s sisters, I am seventh generation.

– LAHT: In the primary elections, scheduled for February 12, 2012, a single opposition candidate will be chosen to run against Chavez, so, you will be competing against six other candidates. Let’s say you win the primary elections. Then what?

– LL: If I win the primary elections I will assemble a team that will take us to victory come October 7, 2012, in the Presidential elections. And once we win on October 7, we will assume the citizenry’s safety as our first priority.

– LAHT: So, fighting crime is the priority for Leopoldo Lopez

– LL: That is the priority for all Venezuelans, everybody is saying it but the government does not listen.

– LAHT: Murders shot up from some 4,000 in 1998 to more than 19,000 last year…

– LL: And that’s a tragedy for Venezuelans, it is something that has taken away their hope and their capacity to dream. And the government is responsible for the explosion in violence of the last few years. ¿How can I not say that , if the government has generated a violent discourse and has not developed a public safety policy?

– LAHT: The incoming government will have to deal with 26 arbitration procedures against Venezuela, the most prominent of which have been caused by nationalizations in the oil industry.

– LL: Yes, well, we need to generate trust, and that can only happen if the rule of law is fully observed. For instance, we have the aim of doubling oil production over a six year period. And what we need to increase production is trust, which will allow us to seek out the best societies, national and international, to develop the oil potential. Trust means to democratize opportunities inside the oil industry and to end uncertainty in oil contracts.

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Sex and violence: Venezuelan women take point in anti-Maduro protests

By Carlos Camacho

Caracas.- This happened on Monday, during a violent protest against the government of Nicolas Maduro in “La Isabelica”, a middle-class neighborhood in the Central Venezuela city of Valencia: A body-armor clad member of the National Guard wrestled a protester to the ground, then proceeded to administer a beating that included using a helmet like it was a mallet.

Par for the course, one would think, after three weeks of violent protests that have left 50 dead (government figures), 731 arrested (opposition figures) and dozens injured, right? Well, here’s the kicker: both the Guard and the demonstrator were women. After beating her opponent, Marvinia, badly in the face, the Guard woman, who answered to the name Josneidy, dragged by the hair to jail, where Marvinia was kept incommunicado for two days .

Venezuelans of both sexes were not surprised by the female-on-female, violence: women here laugh when husbands and boyfriends call them “Cuaima”, a particularly touchy type of poisonous snake, meaning they are jealous and possesive, and have adopted the handle proudly.

Opposition politician María Corina Machado was also assaulted by a pro-government woman. She is a national lawmaker at the National Assembly, the attack happened at work, and the perpetrator was a coworker: a fellow lawmaker from the ruling party. And she is beautiful and fierce, when she talks politics she looks like a “telenovela” (soap opera) protagonist that just had her boyfriend stolen by her nemesis: she blushes, her eyes glint and her nose perks and flares. But she talks dead serious.

“First you have to recognize the contributions of women during these 15 years of anti-Chavez struggle. Women, during protests, offer more of a protective presence The first mass protests this country saw against Chavez, in 2001, were organized by women and labeled “Con mis hijos no te metas” (Don’t mess with my children) and were aimed at stopping the introduction of pro-government political notions in education”, Machado said during a phone interview. Those protests, it must be remembered, resulted in Chavez being relieved of power and placed in prison for three days in 2001. What does it all mean? Machado tries to sum it up: “Women here, we love our children, we love our country”, she muses laconically, suddenly a female version of a Clint Eastwood character.

It will soon be a year from the time of her own assault,  Machado reminisces. She says she has been in touch with Marvinia’s family and that, as soon as she can talk to the victim herlself, she will tell her: “Every second of pain will make you stronger”.

“Cuaimas” and First Combatants

Even embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s wife eschewed the traditional title of “La Primera Dama” (The First Lady) and opted instead to label herself as the more aggressive “La Primera Combatiente”: The First Combatant. And the present protests began largely because of “kitchen” issues: Food shortages. But when push comes to shove, anti-government women take the cake, a veteran observer noted. “Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

However, Machado notes that the government is also putting women on point, from National Guards women to the Attorney General. “That is not casual, they are using women against women”, she says. And then takes a stab at the men in government in this Latin country: “That’s just hiding behind women, they are shielding themselves behing women”.

Victim to activist

More and more, women are at the front of anti-government protests in Venezuela, and they are not always getting beat down by female National Guards. From a political stand point, Marvinia Jimenez (the victim’s full name) emerged as the winner: a throng of reporters was waiting for her at the jail when she emerged from her cell to talk to her family after two days. Pictures of her badly battered, yet still defiant face, quickly became a Twitter staple and even traditional Venezuelan media defied a tacit news blackout surrounding the protest to carry her pictures. The newspaper “Tal Cual” devoted Wednesday’s editorial to her including, yes, pictures of the now famous helmet beating.

The government however, did not try to build the victor, Josneidy, into an icon of anti-fascism (the government claims Marvinia and women like her a part of an ongoing fascist coup): according to local media she was transferred from Valencia to CORE 5, a National Guard regional command several hundred kilometers away, in the capital of Caracas and she has not spoken to the media. A Facebook profile under the name “Josneidy Nayari Castillo Mendoza”, which showed pictures of a woman identical to the one that beat up Marvinia dressed in a National Guard uniform, was shut down on Tuesday. Besides the uniform pictures there were pictures of the same woman, wearing a skimpy top, amplious cleavage and a pendant with the initial “J”, smiling for the camera. In those pictures she did not look like somebody capable of beating another woman in the face with a helmet, she looked like your average dark-skinned Venezuelan beauty queen with a tongue-twister of a name.

“Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

Of late, the mothers and wives had taken a bit of a back seat to students, Machado concedes, but that changed on Monday. “These latest protests were begun by students, but they are a social movement now”, Machado says. “I was at the funeral of Jimmy Vasquez”, Machado says. Vasquez was an opposition demonstrator killed also on Monday in San Cristonal, where the fiercest anti-Maduro clashes have occured so far. “And Carmen, his mother, told me “don’t give me condolences, just keep up the fight”. She made me swear I would not give up the struggle ”. Opposition women, you know how they are, she seems to be saying.

A woman’s touch

On Wednesday, two days after Marvinia was assaulted and still jailed and cut off from her family and the planet, Machado and thousands of other opposition women went to a National Guard headquarter in El Paraiso, a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas not unlike La Isabelica. The march was met with hostility, but no outright violence, as if something had changed after Marvinia’s assault. When Machado and her cohorts arrived, a detachment of guardswomen commanded by a Lieutenant Coronel, last name Capote, was awaiting, but not in riot gear this time: they wore their street uniform, a maroon beret, short-sleeved khaki shirts and green slacks. And instead of giving Machado another beating, they presented her with flowers. “I think I managed to convey to them, that they are mothers too, they have children. So I demanded that they protect our children”, Machado says Thursday, the day after that march.

The women’s demonstration ended well. Even Marivinia was released from jail Thusday, charged with five counts, including robbery, but alive and, according to Machado, a clear leader of the opposition. The sour note however is that, unfortunately, the world now knows that, in Venezuela, a woman’s touch can include being clubbed with a helmet in the face.