President Donald Trump is advocating for the immediate release of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, who has been labeled a “rock star” of that country’s opposition.
However, on May 3, Senator Marco Rubio reported that Lopez was seriously ill in a military hospital.
Trump shared a photo of himself with Lopez’ wife, Lilian Tintori, on Twitter on February 15 and wrote, “Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately.”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – a primary opponent of the president – and Vice President Mike Pence were also featured in the photograph.
Who is Leopoldo Lopez, and why would the president seek his release in such a high profile way? According to his website, Lopez is “the founder and National Coordinator of Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a social movement and political party composed of thousands of activists and community, labor and youth leaders from all regions of Venezuela.”
Foreign Policy once wrote: “He has been painted as a combination of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and his distant grand uncle, Simón Bolívar, for his magnetic brand of in-your-face politics.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Lopez Is In Jail For ‘Inciting Violence During Mass Protests’
According to the BBC, Lopez has been in jail in Venezuela since 2014 for “inciting violence during mass protests.”
He received a 14-year sentence. BBC reports that, in 2002, “parts of the opposition, backed by elite businessmen and some military leaders, briefly removed then President Hugo Chavez – Nicolas Maduro’s late predecessor – from power.” The government dubbed Lopez a “coup leader” because of the role he played, and his reputation grew, the BBC reported. He ended up in jail after a series of 2014 protests that turned violent.
However, Foreign Policy reports: “López wasn’t even physically present on Feb. 12, 2014” where an alleged arson and property damage unfolded and “where Venezuelan security forces opened fire on a few dozen people, killing three. Instead, the government claims that López used ‘subliminal messages’ to inspire people to violence.” Earlier in the day, he had advocated non-violence, the site reported.
Newsweek reports of the violence that sent Lopez to jail: “…as the demonstration was winding down, youths began throwing rocks at police and torching their vehicles. Three people, including a government supporter, were killed. Shortly after, (Venezuelan President) Maduro issued an arrest warrant, accusing López of inciting unrest, homicide and terrorism.”
Foreign Policy also reported of Lopez’ trial that “not one witness put López at the scene of the alleged crimes. Of his proposed defense witnesses, 59 of the 60 were rejected by the court and the other refused to appear. López had three hours to present his defense, no witnesses could appear in his defense, and more than 30 proposed exhibits were rejected by the court.”
2. Lopez Says He’s Seeking ‘Democratic and Peaceful Change’ in Venezuela
On the website devoted to his cause, “Free Leopoldo,” Lopez writes: “Two years ago I was imprisoned for calling for a constitutional, democratic and peaceful change in the Venezuelan government. Our plan was called La Salida, ‘the exit.'”
The website continues, “Not everyone agreed with our approach, and some called it radical. Today, the consensus is much stronger — President Nicolás Maduro must step down to save Venezuela from one of the greatest calamities in our history.”
The above photo appears on Lopez’ wife’s Twitter page. It reads: “I got married to the love of my life and Venezuela! Today, it would do a thousand times more! I love you, Leo! We will soon be together in freedom.”
Newsweek once wrote of him: “With twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones, López seems to have it all: an attractive and supportive wife, two children who get along with each other and impossibly adorable Labrador puppies.”
3. Once an Elected Mayor, Lopez Was Barred From Running for Office Again
According to BBC, Lopez was mayor of a district in Caracas from 2000 to 2008, until he was “barred from running for re-election in the 2008 polls for allegedly misusing public funds.” However, the network says he was not convicted or tried on the allegations.
Lopez’ website says, “In 2008 Leopoldo led all polls in the election for mayor of the city of Caracas, the second largest political office after the Presidency of the Republic. Despite support from more than 65% of the residents, Leopoldo was unconstitutionally disqualified from running for any elective office, based on a decree from the ruling government that was never tried in a court of law.”
Lopez’ wife wrote on the above photo, “This family tree was a task of my daughter Manuela. She didn’t want to cut out the photo but leave it attached as our family love you!”
4. Lopez Studied in the United States
According to the Free Leopoldo website, Lopez “has a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (1994-1996), and graduated Cum Laude from Kenyon College in 1993 where he later received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the recognition of his work as a young political leader in Venezuela.”
Marco Rubio also tweeted about Lopez.
The Hill reported of Lopez that he is “a 45-year-old U.S.-educated economist and opposition leader” who was accused of “inciting violence at anti-government protests in 2014 and is serving a 14-year prison sentence.”
5. Venezuela’s President Has Called Lopez ‘Messianic’
According to Foreign Policy, President Nicholas Maduro said on national television of López: “He has … quite a crazy messianic vision … that … alienates and poisons people, making them crazy.”
The site notes that President Barack Obama also called for Lopez’ release, as have many human rights organizations. A former staffer for Obama even praised Trump:
A 2014 Newsweek article says of Lopez that he drove “thousands of Venezuelans into the streets to protest against food shortages, a stagnant economy, widespread crime and an increasingly encroaching socialist government.”