Who is Leopoldo López, the newly freed opposition leader behind Venezuela’s uprising?

Venezuela’s crisis has escalated to new levels.

In the early morning hours of April 30, Juan Guaidó – the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who swore himself in as interim president in January – called for an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government.

In a video posted on social media, Guaidó, flanked by soldiers, asked Venezuelans to join him in the streets on May 1 for the final stage of “Operation Freedom.” This mass protest and military uprising would be “the beginning of the end” of a regime Guaidó and over 50 countries including the United States consider illegitimate.

In the background of the video, standing resolutely alongside Guaidó and rebel soldiers, was a figure stunning to see: Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner.

Uprising in Caracas

Under President Maduro, who took office in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has faltered, then collapsed. Food, medicine and electricity are scarce. Maduro has refused to budge, claiming the country’s economic troubles and popular unrest are a U.S. plot against him.

Maduro with cabinet members, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez and army commander Remigio Ceballos, at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, April 30, 2019. Handout, Miraflores Palace via Reuters
López, a former mayor and presidential candidate, was a leading figure in the powerful protest movement against Maduro that began in 2014.

After one major anti-Maduro march in Caracas grew violent, the popular politician was charged with “arson and criminal incitement.” The moment López waded through crying supporters to turn himself into police on May 18, 2014, he became the face of Venezuela’s fight for freedom and democracy.

Supporters saw him as a martyr who confronted the dictatorship rather than going into exile, as so many Venezuelan dissidents have. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

López’s face was printed on T-shirts, posters and flags that flew across the country. A website, FreeLeopoldo.com, called for “the immediate release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was illegally imprisoned in an attempt to silence dissent and free speech.” #FreeLeopoldo spread his cause across worldwide.

After three years, the Maduro government in 2017 conceded to intense political pressure and released López to house arrest in the swanky Los Palos Grandes neighborhood. López, caged, was the embodiment of Venezuela’s vanquished opposition.

Then, three months ago, Juan Guaidó reinvigorated the resistance movement by waging a full frontal assault on Maduro. And López, who was freed from house arrest by the soldiers guarding his home, who were acting on Guaidó’s orders, has rejoined the resistance.

Seeing Leopoldo López standing with Guaidó on that video, as a free man, openly calling for an uprising, was a potent signal for Venezuelans after years of bloody protest and multiple thwarted coup attempts.