Published by Reuters
* Opposition candidate hails Inter-American court ruling
* Chavez gov't says to send case to Venezuela's high court
* Tight race seen ahead of Chavez's 2012 re-election bid
By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS, Sept 16 (Reuters) - A Venezuelan opposition leader was cleared by an international court on Friday to run against President Hugo Chavez in 2012, a ruling sure to heat up the race to lead Latin America's top oil exporting country.
Centrist candidate Leopoldo Lopez had been banned from campaigning by Venezuelan authorities who accuse him of corruption, but the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor.
"We did it!," Lopez Tweeted. "I am cleared to run. It's a triumph in our struggle, for our rights and for justice."
The court is part of the Organization of American States, or OAS, and its decisions are supposed to be binding. But Venezuela's government said the Lopez ruling was politically motivated and it may still try to keep the Harvard-educated politician out of the presidential campaign.
"We will study the decision," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters.
Lopez, 40, made his name as mayor of the wealthy Chacao district in Caracas. He was favored to go on to win the race for mayor of the whole city in 2008 but he and scores of other politicians—most from the opposition—were blocked by Chavez's comptroller general.
Accused but not tried for corruption, Lopez was officially barred from seeking public office until 2014. He says the accusations are trumped up and called it unconstitutional to suspend him from politics without first giving him a trial.
Maduro has said that Venezuela's Supreme Court—which tends to side with Chavez—will act as final arbiter of the case after it reviews the human rights court ruling.
"These international bodies are characterized by their anti-Venezuela political activism," he said, referring to the rights court and the Washington-based OAS. "It's a bureaucracy politically linked to U.S. foreign policy."
Lopez says human rights are at the heart of his policies.
Polls show him toward the top of an opposition field led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who promises to emulate Brazil's "modern-left" policy model if elected.
The opposition aims to pick a single candidate in a primary vote in February and then unite behind the winner to try to unseat Chavez at the election in October 2012.
Chavez was operated on for cancer in June and is undergoing chemotherapy. He vows to be recovered and ready to take his campaign to the streets early next year. [ID:nN1E75T2BK]
Despite rampant crime, low private investment and one of the world's highest inflation rates, Chavez remains Venezuela's top politician, with approval ratings of about 50 percent.
A former paratrooper, socialist Chavez was jailed for leading a military coup in 1992. He bounced back to win the 1998 presidential election and has dominated politics in the OPEC-member country ever since.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta)