This Political Prisoner Is Calling the Shots in Venezuela’s Uprising

(Bloomberg) -- In two weeks, Juan Guaido has become the international symbol of Venezuelan revolt, projecting the image of a steely and unflappable operator.

But his out-of-nowhere rise is due in large part to his mentor, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who from his living room has unified and orchestrated the movement despite a house arrest that bars him from politics.

“At this point, I don’t think you can separate the two; they’re the same,’’ said Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis.

This Political Prisoner Is Calling the Shots in Venezuela’s Uprising

Intelligence police monitor Lopez’s home around the clock, a tracking device is attached to his ankle and he’s prohibited from talking to reporters. Allies and members of his inner circle say the 47-year-old former presidential candidate nonetheless holds planning meetings and directs activists. His work assured Guaido’s ascent from little-known congressman to foil of authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro. Lopez has stayed in constant contact as Guaido has rekindled street protests and rallied international allies, they say.

The emergence of Guaido at the head of an organized coalition is vindication for Lopez, a long-time activist who stayed in Venezuela when he might have fled -- and spent more than three years in a military prison for his pains. More importantly, Lopez’s counsel has helped Guaido not only elude arrest by a socialist regime notorious for imprisonment and torture, but also to become Maduro’s instant nemesis.

To bolster Guaido, Lopez has used Skype calls, encrypted messages and face-to-face meetings in his home in Caracas’s wealthy Chacao section, where he once served as mayor.

This Political Prisoner Is Calling the Shots in Venezuela’s Uprising

It’s a constrained existence for the scion of a family that dates to the country’s founding, went to Harvard University and is blessed with matinee-idol looks and vaulting ambition. His more-fervent fans have described him as a South American cross between John Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. His critics call him a blue-blood bent on power. He has clashed not only with the regime, but also allies he deems wobbly.

Nerve Center

In 2015, after years of strident opposition, Lopez was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison on charges including inciting violence. He was released to house arrest in July 2017 under orders to keep quiet.

But as his once-rich country spiraled into misery and starvation, Lopez kept his finger on its pulse. Though he’s prevented from leaving his property, those close to him say Lopez is in regular contact with heads of state, members of his Popular Will party and activists.

This Political Prisoner Is Calling the Shots in Venezuela’s Uprising

“At home, he works with all of the opposition, everyone,” his wife, Lilian Tintori, said in an interview this week while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his face. “He speaks with Juan Guaido, who’s now president, and all of the members of Popular Will, and members of all the parties -- the big ones and the little ones. He’s taken charge of uniting the opposition.”

Lopez took Guaido under his wing more than a decade ago during protests against Hugo Chavez after the late president silenced critics by refusing to renew the license of Venezuela’s most-popular television channel. In 2009, the men formed Popular Will, which was known for hard-line tactics, refusing to compromise or negotiate with the government and calling supporters into the streets.

Fortuitous Rotation

In recent months, this relationship was pivotal when Guaido became head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Thanks to a years-old power-sharing deal among the body’s four major parties, Popular Will was allowed to name its head. Lopez gave Guaido his blessing. (Other candidates were few, having been forced into exile or imprisoned.)

Days later, Guaido said a constitutional provision made him the nation’s acting head of state because Maduro stole his re-election. In the weeks since, the U.S. and Latin American neighbors have recognized him as Venezuela’s leader and made him the center of a concerted effort to oust Maduro.

Guaido said Wednesday that he and Lopez are in constant contact.

This Political Prisoner Is Calling the Shots in Venezuela’s Uprising

“We’re always trying to find the mechanism to keep in touch, because he’s not allowed to receive visitors and that complicates communication,” Guaido said. “But we are always in contact and always see eye to eye.”

Behind bars, and often in solitary confinement, Lopez never relinquished control of his party. He worked through his family and lawyers -- sending messages written on scraps of paper and even scrawled directly on Tintori’s body.

Spousal Emissary

Lopez became a cause celebre for rights groups and foreign governments that have long criticized the Maduro administration for silencing critics. Tintori traveled the world meeting with leaders including Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Luis Almargo, secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

Last year, Tintori was prohibited from leaving the country, but she says she still keeps in regular contact with many officials, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican.

“The fact that Juan has spoken with about 20 heads of state in 20 days is due to more than just the work of Juan,” said Congressman Juan Andres Mejia, a member of Popular Will. “It’s due to the relationships that Leopoldo and Lilian made over time.”

Mejia said Lopez has had to become hard and wily.

“Leopoldo was never a political operator,” Mejia said. “He was a candidate known for hugging old ladies and kissing babies. Now he’s had to adapt.’’

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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