Venezuela’s most high profile political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, would be held under house arrest after spending more than three years in a military prison, the Supreme Court ruled today before dawn. Lopez was arrested in February 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term in 2015 for allegedly inciting violence during anti-government demonstations, officially known as “La Salida”. In this short analysis, I focus on one of the -at least- six reasons behind the measure.
A quid pro quo. There is something certain about the news, it deals another major political blow to the government after three months of unrest that have left more than 100 repression-related casualties and deepened the crisis in a country with the worst performing economy in the world, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
The ruling elite, who had provided systematic declarations rejecting “mercy” petitions for this opposition hardliner, is taking one important step back in an attempt to move forward with its overall goal of remaining in power indefinitely. How? July is the sort of D-Day for the Venezuelan democracy. The political events that are expected to take place this month- including potential elections of members of a fraudulent constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution under more favorable terms for the government (see my analysis on this issue here)- will shape Venezuela’s political landscape for the rest of the year –and,–perhaps, beyond 2017…
It is, therefore, natural that the regime wants to deescalate political instability through this bold move. On one hand, the government may want local and international public opinion to believe that it is not a unilateral act but a mutually agreed condition, as part of a new stage of the so-called “dialogue” that took place in 2016 and neutralized streets protests against the government until last March. Whether the government would succeed by implying that the opposition sold the people out and secretly negotiated co-optation and Lopez’s personal liberty at the expense of collective poverty is an open question.
On the other hand, there is a risk that Lopez’s political radicalization and potential popularity boost may fill the leadership gap that currently affects the opposition and help moralize their supporters in the wake of critical street events that have been scheduled within the forthcoming weeks.
Other variables explaining the government’s behavior may include the recent attack against Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, the desire to work on its undemocratic image at the local and international levels, its efforts to legitimize the government-controlled Supreme Court, a campaign to weaken Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz –who prosecuted Lopez as part of a political vendetta and now is challenging the regime – and an attempt to divide power-hungry opposition leaders.
The outcome of this episode will depend on the actions of each camp to gain leverage. Soon we will be able to observe whether the regime dug its own grave or was actually burying current opposition leaders.
Claudio J. Sandoval (Twitter / Linkedin / Instagram: @Claudiopedia), lawyer and political analyst.