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Challenging Chavez is a tough proposition

Leopoldo Lopez rallies supporters of his new social and political movement, called the “People’s Will,” which is an effort to break the decade-long hold Hugo Chavez has had on Venezuelan politics.

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Leopoldo Lopez rallies supporters of his new social and political movement, called the “People’s Will,” which is an effort to break the decade-long hold Hugo Chavez has had on Venezuelan politics.

VALENCIA, Venezuela — They range from wealthy businessmen to boisterous students and poor single mothers, jammed together 10,000 strong in a stadium, chanting "change is possible!" and shoving forward to greet the man who is challenging President Hugo Chavez's grip on power.

There's a problem, however: Leopoldo Lopez can't run for office.

Like many of Chavez's opponents, some of whom are in jail or have fled the country, Lopez is barred as a candidate because of a government corruption probe against him.

It's a tactic critics say Chavez uses to put his opponents' political ambitions on indefinite hold as he heads into next year's congressional elections and his own re-election campaign in 2012.

Chavez insists he is simply enforcing the law, and corruption in Venezuela is widespread.

Lopez, a former Caracas district mayor, says that if he can't run, he'll recruit those who can.

To unseat Chavez is a task widely seen as futile at present. But the mere fact that Lopez's efforts are resonating with ordinary Venezuelans shows that the democratic spirit still burns in the nation of 28 million.

Lopez, 38, is crisscrossing the country wooing students, trade unionists and others with promising leadership skills. He hopes to mold them into a political movement for Venezuelans who are disenchanted with Chavez's decade-long rule, as well as with the elite who governed the country before him.

While Chavez's appeal is in his embrace of the poor, Lopez wants to capitalize on the growing frustration that an oil-rich country, busy taunting the United States and making alliances with Iran and Russia, can't tame inflation and crime or deliver uninterrupted water and electricity.

"What we want is to build a new majority from the bottom up — not just through negotiations and agreements between elites," Lopez said. "It's a longer road, but for us, it's the only road that gives us possibilities of winning."

By "elites," he means the wealthy but fragmented — and increasingly gray-haired — opposition. But he too could be called elite, coming from a wealthy Caracas family, educated at Kenyon and Harvard in the American "empire" that Chavez reviles.

Chavez supporters dismiss him as a self-interested rich kid seeking to recover what the country's wealthy "oligarchy" has lost to Chavez's socialist measures. But his supporters love his charisma, his message of change, and his blond wife, Lilian Tintori.

Lopez knows political success won't come easily.

Despite recent dips in the polls, Chavez remains the country's most popular politician. But Lopez has made inroads with former Chavistas such as Rosmely Quiroz, 45, a single mother of two who says inflation makes it impossible to live on her minimum-wage salary — $445 a month.

Lopez "is different from the rest," Quiroz said, chanting with the crowd at a recent rally in Valencia, an industrial city where Lopez kicked off the movement he calls Voluntad Popular (Popular Will).

Chavez, a former military officer known to supporters as El Comandante, rose to power on the votes of Venezuelans disaffected with the old parties which they viewed as corrupt and detached from the poor. The opposition then made two critical mistakes: It tried to depose Chavez in a coup in 2002, then boycotted congressional elections in 2005, handing Chavez a majority in congress.

But in elections last year, anti-Chavez candidates rebounded, capturing the Caracas mayoralty and five of the 24 states, including three of Venezuela's most populous. The pro-Chavez congress struck back by removing power and budgets from local and state officials.

Many opposition politicians, labor leaders and university students have been charged with criminal offenses over the past year that have landed them in prison or forced them to leave the country.

Lopez, who had won a landslide victory to become mayor of Chacao, one of the capital's wealthiest districts, was barred from seeking re-election because of the corruption probe. The case is still open two years later, even though no charges have been filed.

"That's the strategy: They shelve my case indefinitely, trying to end my political career," Lopez said.

Suppression or order?

Measures which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's opponents claim are meant to stifle political opposition, and which Chavez insists are meant only to uphold the law:

• Chavez has refused to renew the broadcast licenses of dozens of critical radio stations and television's fiercest antigovernment channel, RCTV.

• After opposition candidates captured five governorships and Venezuela's two biggest cities in elections, the pro-Chavez National Assembly slashed their budgets.

• Nearly 400 politicians, including many Chavez foes, are barred from running for office because they are under investigation for corruption. In some cases, these probes can go on for years without charges being brought against suspects.

• More than 2,200 people have been indicted on criminal charges, mostly misdemeanors, stemming from their participation in protests over the last four years, according to local human rights groups. None has been tried.

Challenging Chavez is a tough proposition 12/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 9:39pm]

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