Leopoldo Lopez: Venezuela blueblood, ardent Maduro foe

Patricia CLAREMBAUX
Leopoldo Lopez (C), an ardent opponent of Venezuela's socialist government, is surrounded by supporters during a demonstration before turning himself in to authorities, in Caracas, on February 18, 2014

Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza, a Harvard-trained politician and ardent opponent of Venezuela's socialist government, is seen by enemies and supporters alike as the face of recent street protests against the regime.

A former mayor of the wealthy Chacao borough of Caracas, Lopez has been targeted as public enemy number one by the government as it hits back against the latest round of high- stakes protests called for Tuesday.

Blessed with matinee-idol good looks and an easy smile, Lopez, 42, has a strong following in parts of Venezuela, winning his past elections by comfortable, and even overwhelming margins.

He has a long history of activism in the country's anti-socialist opposition, having been at the forefront of demonstrators in April 2002 that led to the coup that briefly ousted then President Hugo Chavez from power.

A child of privilege, Lopez was schooled largely in the United States, first at the elite Kenyon College in Ohio, before getting a master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

A political blue-blood, he is said to trace his lineage back to the country's first president Cristobal Mendoza, and reportedly also boasts blood lines to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Mendoza is known as being impulsive and ambitious -- a dangerous combination of personal attributes for the current charisma-challenged President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor.

The Maduro government is grappling with angry student protests orchestrated by Lopez that began in the interior of the oil-rich country and boiled over last week in street clashes in Caracas that left three dead.

Maduro's regime has issued a warrant for his arrest, but Lopez -- who has been underground for the past several days -- emerged, undaunted, at Tuesday's demonstration to cheers of protesters.

Lopez issued a statement on Sunday, all but encouraging authorities to apprehend him at the demonstration.

"I have nothing to fear," he said. "I've done nothing wrong," he wrote, taunting the government on Twitter.

"If there is some decision to illegally jail me, I will be there to assume that persecution," he said.

His staunch opposition to the government dates back to the regime of late firebrand president Hugo Chavez, who in 2011 barred him from holding political office for three years.

It was the second period of political banishment for Lopez: The government also accused him of influence peddling while working in 1998 as a manager at the Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) state oil company, and in 2008 barred him from holding public office for one year.

Lopez served two terms as mayor of Chacao from 2000 to 2008. During that time he was dogged by corruption allegations and charges that he had misappropriated public funds. He has rejected all the charges against him as political persecution by the Chavez regime.

After being expelled as leader of the "Un Nuevo Tiempo" party ("A New Time") which he had joined in 2007, Lopez in 2009 he created his center-right Voluntad Popular or People's Will party.

The party has been front and center in leading the demonstrations that have roiled this oil-rich nation, which has been deeply divided in the aftermath of Chavez's death and the unsteady stewardship of the economy by Maduro.

The demonstrations have sprung up amid growing public discontent over rising crime and a worsening economy, despite having the world's biggest proven oil reserves.

Maduro has accused "right wing fascists" -- of whom he considers Lopez the ringleader -- for the recent unrest.

Lopez and two other opposition leaders -- deputy Maria Corina Machado and the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledezma -- advocate using street protests to force Maduro from office.

The strategy, which they dub "the exit," is controversial even within the opposition.

The country's other leading opposition figure, Henrique Capriles -- a candidate in Venezuela's last two presidential elections -- has warned that conditions are yet not ripe for a change of government. But Capriles said he would join Tuesday's march in solidarity with Lopez.

The protests flared on February 4, when students at a university in the western state of Tachira staged a demonstration against rampant crime after a student was raped.

Violence after an anti-government rally last Wednesday left three people dead.

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