In Venezuela, top Chávez rival sounds confident note after key court victory
Photo: Girish Gupta

In Venezuela, top Chávez rival sounds confident note after key court victory

| Sept. 18, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Christian Science Monitor

Photo: Girish Gupta

Venezuela's fiery leftist President Hugo Chávez is laughing off an international court's decision to clear opposition leader Leopoldo López's bid for the presidency next year.

“One of my haircuts is worth more than this court,” Mr. Chávez joked Saturday, playing on the fact that the Spanish “corte” means both “court” and “cut.”

Venezuela’s government insists that the Friday decision was politically motivated and is attacking the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) for its association with the Organization of American States (OAS), which it has accused of being a tool of US hegemony in the region.

IACHR decisions are supposed to be binding and the court is unlikely to reverse its decision in favor of Mr. Lopez, a charismatic leader and former mayor who was banned – along with hundreds of others – from standing for public office based mostly on what the opposition claims are trumped up corruption charges.

Whether Chávez's government maintains the ban on Lopez in spite of the IACHR ruling will be a test of Venezuela's commitment to democracy, experts say.

It's a test López believes Venezuela will pass, and – bouyed by the court's ruling – the top opposition leader is sounding increasingly confident heading into the 2012 election season.

“The government has no option. They must follow what the constitution says,” says López. “Not accepting the decision by the court [is] a sign of weakness by the government and Chávez himself…. Why not accept the ruling? It’s a sign of a weak, authoritarian regime.”

López confident of victory over Chávez

The former mayor of Chacao, a wealthy neighborhood in Caracas, insists that he will take the opposition to victory against Chávez on Oct. 7, 2012, the date set last week for the presidential election.

The allegations against López stem from the late 1990s, when his mother was in charge of state oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela’s (PDVSA) public affairs office. Part of her job was to authorize donations to charities and civic groups. One of these grants went to Primero Justicia (Justice First), a judicial reform advocacy group and political movement to which her son belonged.

PDVSA was – and still is – widely known for its corruption. While López’s case was never brought to trial, popular opinion may associate him with the old guard of Venezuelan politics.

Verdict's wider impact

The verdict may have wider ramifications. Venezuela is not the only Latin American nation with similar laws that bar citizens from standing for office without granting them fair trial.

“There are eight [countries] on the continent that have disqualification as part of their legal framework so a decision in our favor will have an impact in the continent,” López says.

One of these nations is Colombia, where nearly 500 candidates that were hoping to run in this month’s municipal elections have been banned from doing so, many without fair trial.

López believes next year’s elections could be a turning point in Venezuela, not just a change of government but the dawn of a new era, a succession of governments that will improve his country.

“We need to be capable of building up … the pillars of that new era of Venezuela,” López says.

López criticizes Chávez's 12 years in power, focusing on rhetoric that has failed, he claims, to deliver.

“This was a period of lost opportunities and a great capacity of creating hope,” he says. “The next period will be the period of creating and making a reality of those opportunities and delivering results. The great contrast will be that between promise and results.”

Background as mayor, focus on crime

López is familiar with the city’s problems with crime and was on the cusp of winning the mayoralty of it in 2008, before his disqualification. One of his primary policies is to cut the crime rate. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, more than 10 people are killed every day in Caracas.

“All Venezuelans live under fear,” says López, who wants to halve the number of homicides in the next four years. “If we are capable of changing that, we will have great stability for years to come.”

Allowing López to stand could benefit Chávez politically, however. The move could split opposition support between López and is charismatic state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, the first Venezuelan politician to rival Chávez in the polls.

The president announced that he was being treated for cancer on June 30 and is about to enter his fourth round of chemotherapy, hoping it will be the last allowing him to prepare for October’s vote.

López believes that this has, for the first time, forced Venezuelans to think about a future without Chávez, who, says López, is no longer unbeatable.

“The challenge now is to draw that future with certainty for Venezuelans,” he says.