Has prison sentence given Venezuela opposition leader López a leg up?

The trial of Leopoldo López is set to kick off again today after multiple delays. The government jailed him nearly six months ago, which had some unexpected benefits.

Alejandro Cegarra/AP
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, dressed in white and holding up a flower stem, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb 18, 2014. Lopez re-emerged from days of hiding to address an antigovernment demonstration and then he turned himself in to authorities Tuesday.

After multiple delays, the trial of opposition leader Leopoldo López is set to resume today. He was arrested nearly six months ago for orchestrating mass antigovernment protests that turned violent, and his closed-door legal proceedings have been decried by the international human rights community.

While the government was roundly criticized for muzzling its critics, the move appears to have worked to its advantage. Mr. López's arrest back in February initially sparked outrage among the nation's mostly student protesters. The demonstrations against high rates of violence, a crumbling economy, and political mismanagement, however, largely fizzled out just three months later. 

But López’s jailing wasn’t helpful only for President Nicolás Maduro. The lengthy legal proceedings and harsh treatment of López have boosted parts of the political opposition, as well.

Because of his arrest, “López and his party have become the principal protagonists within the opposition [coalition], both nationally and internationally,” says Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.

This could mean a stark change in opposition strategy in dealing with the Socialist government, and a turn away from the measured calls for dialogue and cooperation that have defined Henrique Capriles, the de facto coalition leader. While López represents a small sector within the opposition, his hero-like popularity has positioned him as the man best suited to take the reigns of Venezuela's fractured opposition coalition, possibly moving it in a more radical direction.

A history of infighting

Venezuela's political opposition has historically been fraught with infighting. But it banded together under the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) ahead of parliamentary elections in 2010, later presenting Mr. Capriles as its moderate candidate in the 2012 and 2013 presidential contests.

But after repeated defeats, and Capriles's failure to provide a decisive victory in last year's municipal ballot, old tensions are rising. 

López's popularity has been a boon for his more radical sector of the opposition, which prefers street protests and calls for the resignation of President Maduro over dialogue when it comes to changing Venezuela's 15 years of socialist rule. Some hope that once López is released, he will replace Capriles as the party's primary leader. 

According to Consultores 21, a polling firm here, López's popularity has risen above 49 percent, making him the most popular figure in the opposition.

Verdict could take 'years'

López faces an uphill battle to prove his innocence against government charges that include criminal association and damaging public property. He could face up to 12 years in jail. The protests earlier this year claimed at least 43 lives, injured hundreds, and resulted in 87 people being jailed.

According to Juan Carlos Gutierrez, one of the attorneys representing López, only one of 63 witnesses called in his defense has been approved to testify. On the prosecution side, some 80 witnesses have been presented to testify against López in the coming weeks. The majority of the state's witnesses are members of security forces or are government employees, Mr. Gutierrez says. The defense is awaiting decisions today from the trial court and an appellate court on whether the banning of defense evidence is legal.

"He must and will pay, he's already done damage to the country,” Maduro said after the trial began last month. Maduro accused López of sparking protests to topple his government. "Let justice take its course. We [the government] guarantee that he will not do more damage to the country."

Ángel Álvarez, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, says the government may continue to delay the trial to further divide the fragile opposition. 

"As long has he has not been sentenced, [López] is still seen as a viable leader," says Mr. Álvarez. "I would not expect a verdict for years."

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