López, ‘the problem child’
US Embassy’s opinion on Venezuela’s opposition leader
Barack Obama’s government yesterday ordered three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the country in reprisal for President Nicolás Maduro’s expulsion of three US Embassy staff, accused of fomenting unrest in the Latin American country. It was yet another chapter in the tough relationship which started in 1998 when Hugo Chávez was elected president.
The well-known script reads thus: Washington believes there is not a democracy in Venezuela, and Caracas alleges conspiracy from the White House against their elected authorities.
But less publicized details of this troubled relationship surfaced when US State Department cables were released by WikiLeaks in 2010. Seventy-seven of the leaked cables revealing opinions, dialogues and strategies in reference to opposition leader Leopoldo López, who currently remains in jail, accused by President Maduro of partaking in “conspiracy” and “terrorism.”
Even though a certain fluency can be seen in López’s talks with the US Embassy, it doesn’t appear to show evidence of a funding request by him to Washington, unlike notorious opposition figure María Corina Machado, media moguls such as El Nacional’s owner Miguel H. Otero and left-wing deputies split from Chavism, who did ask the US for help.
Facing mid-term and local elections in 2010, US Charge d’Affair in Caracas John Claufield analyzed “the López ‘problem’” in a cable entitled: “What’s wrong with the opposition?” (November 3, 2009).
His sources were both prominent opposition leaders and unnamed Chavist figures: “Former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López has become a divisive figure within the opposition, particularly since his very public split with Un Nuevo Tiempo in September. He is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry — but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer.”
In talks with TV channel Venevisión (Grupo Cisneros) Vice-President María Antonieta de López (Leopoldo’s mother) seemed to have been even murkier, according to the leak: “Tough talk, brave faces and self-censorship in Venezuelan media” (March 21, 2005).
Venevisión had been a key player in the 2002 coup d’etat, when all Venezuela’s TV channels supported Chavez’s downfall. The first military manifesto starting the coup had been released from the home of a prominent Venevisión star, as he happily admitted in his programme the day after the coup.
The embassy also questioned Venevisión executives for allegedly having negotiated a truce with the government.
Leopoldo López’s mother answered in 2005: “We are a business and have to survive. It is better to stay out of trouble for now, to not allow ourselves to be taken-over by the government or a private front operation, and to remain alive and here for the day we are needed. And we will be here.”
As a matter of fact, she wasn’t wrong. Two years later, as Chávez ordered that the licence of the one-sided TV channel RCTV not be renewed, he also agreed to Venevisión’s continuity, which left the station without a clear competitor. The cost of this operation was to soften Cisneros’ bias, for instance, erasing from their grid journalists who had emphatically celebrated the coup in 2002.
The Embassy remarked more than once on López’s “self-reliance” strategy, a perception opposition leaders shared, while the former Chacao mayor has confesed to his own strategy of disregarding agreements reached by parties.
Cables also revealed that Spain’s Partido Popular and Mexico’s Acción Nacional lobbied López to maintain unity, highlighting differences not only in strategies but also in substance. For instance, López (the “UNT’s problem child” according to the Embassy) supported a privatization of state-run oil company PDVSA against the opinions of his colleagues. (“Primero Justicia struggling to stay together,” February 2, 2006, and “Lopez’s Split from UNT highlights continuing opposition disunity,” September 2, 2009.)