Venezuela already has two presidents. Now Leopoldo López is back in the mix too
The beloved opposition leader is out of jail and could replace Juan Guaido
Venezuela's self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó attended a protest against the other president — Nicolás Maduro — on Tuesday with a surprise guest in tow.
Standing next to Guaidó as he addressed crowds from the top of a highway overpass was Leopoldo López, the country's most famous political prisoner.
López was once the popular mayor of a borough in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. In 2014, he ran for president against Maduro, but didn't make it onto the ballot.
The Maduro government charged López that same year with arson and criminal incitement, and he turned himself over to police while his supporters looked on. He said he was freed this week by soldiers, but the Venezuelan top court has called for his arrest.
Marco Aponte-Moreno told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho what López's surprise appearance means for Venezuela, and why he — not Guaidó — maybe the more appealing president for the Venezuelan opposition.
Let's begin with Leopoldo López. He's been described as Guaidó's ally [and] his mentor. How would you describe him?
He's definitely his mentor. I think he created Guaidó. I describe him as a very charismatic leader, somebody who enjoys a lot of support in Venezuela.
He's the candidate that many people would like to see as the president of the country, because he's so popular and has always been so popular. The government — First [Hugo] Chávez and then Maduro —they've been quite antagonistic towards him.
López was actually under house arrest because of the Maduro government for two years and then this week we saw him emerge in public right next to Guaidó. How did you react to that?
It was almost like seeing a ghost, to be honest. People were very, very surprised. Since Guaidó appeared in January of this year, the face of the fight has been Guaidó. So, for us to see Leopoldo again, it was a big surprise.
Why was it important to see Guaidó and López side-by-side?
I mean, Guaidó has always said that he is here just for the transition. And as popular as he is — because he is very popular — he has clearly and openly said that he is kind of opening the way for the future.
And, the future is and always has been, within the Venezuelan opposition, Leopoldo López.
But meanwhile Leopoldo López has been under house arrest. Did that stop him from influencing Venezuelan politics?
Well, actually, no. Yes, he's been out of public view. Before being in house arrest, he was actually in prison. So during all that time, the government said that he could not take any political stance in public.
However, we know that, for example, Guaidó is definitely his product in a way. He's the architect of what Juan Guaidó is today.
And this is no secret. I mean seeing him in the back, on Tuesday, in that video behind Guaidó and next to the army soldiers kind of confirmed that he's always been the man behind efforts in Venezuela to go through a transition and get a democratic regime.
That's one of those photographic moments you know you're going to remember when you look back on this period in Venezuelan history. When you looked at that, did you say, "OK, Leopoldo López himself has aspirations here to be the president of Venezuela?"
Yes. He has aspirations and he always has had them. And I think in his party, which is again Guaidó's party, it's a pretty clear scenario for them.
I believe that everything that happens at this moment ... is to some extent orchestrated from the United States.- Marco Aponte-Moreno
But you have Guaidó, who the people have come to see as the alternative to Maduro, and then there's Leopoldo López in the picture. Do you think Guaidó's supporters will readily back López after this?
That is a great question actually. I think maybe what Leopoldo López wasn't expecting is that Guaidó was going to be this charismatic and this popular.
So yeah, it is true that for many people it's going to be difficult to move from Guaidó to Leopoldo. But I think Guaidó is going to make that switch easier for people.
We know he's very young; he's at least 10 years younger than Leopoldo. So there will be time for him in the future to be president. I think that's what he's going to do.
And meanwhile López himself comes from a lot of wealth and privilege. How do you think that affects his presidential ambitions?
I think it is a weakness for him. In Venezuela, the people who [have] become president in the past have been people who can connect with the majority of the population through rhetoric, of course, but also through their humble backgrounds.
In general they don't come from Caracas. They come from somewhere in the middle of the country. This is something that Guaidó has — he's not from Caracas and he comes across as a pretty humble, everyday guy. But yes, Leopoldo, it's pretty clear to everyone that he is part of an elite in Venezuela.
It's going to be very interesting to see how that unfolds between Guaidó and López in the future. If we turn back to this week at this moment in Venezuelan politics, Guaidó and López both have significant power and esteem in Venezuela. Do you think that the two of them together really will manage to oust Maduro?
I think it's going to be very difficult because they still need the support of the army, in particular of those high ranking officers who are supporting Maduro.
Just on Thursday morning, we saw Maduro on television giving a speech in front of 450 army soldiers saying that, "We are united; we have to show the world that we're united." Then they marched through Caracas. So I think it's going to be difficult.
How influential is the military in this dispute?
It's very, very influential. As a matter of fact, the strategy from the United States since the very beginning — and when I say the beginning, I mean January of this year ... has been to try to convince the officers, the generals, to abandon Maduro.
In particular, the sanctions at the beginning were individual sanctions towards them ... and it hasn't worked.
As the situation unfolds, when you look towards the future, what do you expect the next steps are going to be?
I think the United States will continue the pressure. I believe that everything that happens at this moment ... is to some extent orchestrated from the United States.
It's very clear when the moment something happens, which is quite surprising, and then you have key officers in the U.S. tweeting about it very quickly. So it's almost like they knew what was going to happen.
So they will continue pressure and Maduro still has the support of the Cubans and some people in the U.S. have been talking about the support of Russia. So they're not going to go anywhere unless the pressure continues.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Marco Aponte-Moreno, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.