Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López seeks refuge with Spain after failed uprising

An arrest warrant has been issued for Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner. Leopoldo López, who was released from house arrest to lead an attempted uprising against President Nicolás Maduro on April 30, has sought refuge at the residency of the Spanish ambassador to Venezuela.

The Spanish government says López cannot be arrested while in the ambassador’s residence and that it will not hand him over to Maduro’s government, which accuses López of violating the terms of his house arrest.

Venezuela’s crisis has escalated to new levels of chaos in recent days, but has not succeeded in dislodging Maduro.

On April 30, Juan Guaidó – the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who swore himself in as interim president in January – called for the Venezuelan people to rise up against Maduro. In an early morning video posted online, Guaidó, flanked by soldiers and backed by the United States, said that “Operation Freedom” would be “the beginning of the end” of a regime Guaidó and over 50 countries consider illegitimate.

Next to Guaidó stood, to Venezuelans’ surprise, Leopoldo López, apparently freed from house arrest by soldiers who supported Guaidó’s uprising.

Uprising in Caracas

López, a popular former mayor and presidential candidate, was a leading figure in the powerful protest movement against Maduro that began in 2014.

Since Maduro took office in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has faltered, then collapsed. Food, medicine and electricity are scarce. Numerous elections, including Maduro’s reelection last year, have been marred by irregularities.

Maduro has resisted the opposition’s calls for new elections. He claims the country’s economic troubles and popular unrest are a U.S. plot against his government.

The April 30 uprising comes after several coup attempts, numerous failed opposition efforts to negotiate Maduro’s exit from office and years of frequent protest.

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
After one major 2014 opposition march in Caracas grew violent, López was charged with “arson and criminal incitement.” The moment he waded through crying supporters to turn himself into police on May 18, 2014, he became the face of Venezuela’s democratic struggle.

Supporters saw López 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.” A hashtag, #FreeLeopoldo, spread his cause worldwide.

After three years, the Maduro government in 2017 conceded to political pressure and released López to house arrest at his home in the swanky Los Palos Grandes neighborhood. By then, the opposition movement had been all but vanquished.

Then, three months ago, Juan Guaidó reinvigorated the resistance movement waging a U.S.-supported “peaceful rebellion” against Maduro. Meanwhile, López says, he was meeting with commanders and generals from Venezuela’s armed forces in his home, while still under house arrest.