Opposition Leadership Amidst Venezuelan Crisis

Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, left, and Henrique Capriles Radonski acknowledge supporters at a news conference in Car
Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, left, and Henrique Capriles Radonski acknowledge supporters at a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday Jan 24, 2012. Lopez bowed out of Venezuela's presidential race on Tuesday, saying he will support front-runner Capriles. The announcement gives a significant boost to Capriles, who has a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the Feb. 12 opposition primary, which will choose a single challenger to face President Hugo Chavez in the Oct. 7 presidential election. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Leopoldo Lopez turned himself over to the authorities on February 18 during a massive protest called by the Student Movement. Lopez, one of many opposition leaders in Venezuela, emerged from the crowd and boarded a National Guard vehicle that would take him to court. Thousands swarmed around the truck. Lopez was allowed to give a brief speech to calm the protesters. Cameras and smartphones flashed and framed the epic scene. It was a distorted flashback to that day in 2002, when one triumphant Hugo Chávez returned to Office on the shoulders of his supporters, after being overthrown for three days. That moment rebooted President Chavez's leadership, as this may have for Lopez. In Venezuela, leadership goes hand in hand with messianism. This sudden rise of Leopoldo Lopez, and his strong views on the conflict that Venezuela is undergoing, have generated a leadership crisis within opposition lines which has confronted him with ex-contender to the Presidency and current Governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles.

As Lopez sits in the Ramo Verde prison, waiting to be processed, Capriles has been left in a tight spot. Thanks to Lopez's imprisonment and the government's brutal repression of the demonstrators, protests have escalated all over the country. At this point, the opposition has little control over them. Capriles, who still has a large following, has to balance his own criteria with Lopez's view (which has been more appealing to the Student Movement), to regroup the opposition. Capriles knows the stakes are high. If the protests don't accomplish palpable goals, the ground the opposition has won in recent years can be lost.

After the December elections -- where the Venezuelan opposition did not obtain the expected nationwide majority -- Lopez, Maria Corina Machado (opposition leader and congresswoman), and Antonio Ledezma (Metropolitan Mayor), distanced themselves from MUD, the movement that unites all opposition parties and had been effective in gathering followers which (can be said) represent half of the voting population in Venezuela. Their initiative, deemed #LaSalida (the Exit), proposed an immediate change of government by gathering citizen Assemblies and protesting in the streets until President Nicolas Maduro was removed from office by legal means -- mainly, having him resign.

In early February, students took to the streets to protest against the high levels of violence, rising crime rates, corruption and failed economic policies that have the country sitting on the verge of an economic crisis that will spare no one. These protests, which started in the state of Tachira, were repelled violently by the National Guard and resulted in several students injured and imprisoned. As a response to these aggressions by public forces, on February 12, #LaSalida backed the Student Movement in organizing a larger demonstration to present a document before the Attorney General's office in Caracas, requesting the release of their fellow students. The results of the event headlined all over the world. Two students were killed in the demonstrations, as well as a member of a colectivo, an urban paramilitary group openly supported by the government -- all of them shot in the head. Lopez, who gave several speeches at the demonstrations, was held responsible for these crimes by the government, and Nicolas Maduro, on national television, ordered for his arrest. (There is extensive footage showing the armed colectivos and the special police forces (SEBIN) shooting towards the students.)

As spontaneous protests and mayhem took over Caracas, that night, the government blocked images on Twitter and disconnected a Colombian news channel -- that was reporting on the events -- from the Venezuelan cable grid. Local TV channels showed an official act celebrating Youth Day.

Capriles and Lopez are from the same generation of politicians. Newcomers when Chavez rose to power 15 years ago, they have been seated on different sides of the opposition's spectrum before. Lopez, who has a Master's degree in Public Policy from Harvard, is considered to be a charismatic doer with a bit of a hothead; whereas Capriles has won credibility as a selfless man. The latter's take on #LaSalida has been that it lacks the strength to activate a change of government because it does not summon the lower classes. Under his view, demonstrations should not target Nicolas Maduro's immediate resignation, but to put pressure on him to address Venezuela's real problems. Lopez has been critical towards Capriles's peaceful position regarding the conflict.

Capriles is spot-on in saying that these protests will not have a positive outcome without the support of the underprivileged. Although the demonstrations have been sprouting all over the country and seem to gather more people each day, they involve mostly the middle class.

Lopez's sudden peak in popularity has been useful to hold those with a more radical approach within opposition ranks. Still jailed, he remains a symbol to many, but the escalation of violence and the lack of visibility of a clear path to the end of the conflict has been leading the moderate crowd back to their former champion. In the end, it's been a tag team effort.

Henrique Capriles is well known for his game-changing speeches and good timing. He gave a speech at a demonstration in Caracas on February 22, where he set an agenda for the protests. Also, he included the Student Movement's requests, and managed to bring Lopez to relevance by demanding his release and asking people to stay in the streets protesting peacefully. He has set clear objectives for the protesters -- the first step toward accomplishing these objectives and holding the opposition together.

The Venezuelan opposition stands on brittle ice. Their following, once united under MUD's umbrella and carried on Capriles's back, may find itself disbanded if the protests end without any results. As things are right now, they have enough power to call protesters for specific demonstrations and set some ground rules, but not enough to make them stop. Accusations of rape, torture and murder by the hands of government agents and colectivos, far from discouraging the demonstrators, have enraged them.

Meanwhile, a colossal economic crisis lurks around the corner.