Why Hugo Chávez Should Do the Right – and Smart – Thing and Let Leopoldo López Run

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Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez from the "Voluntad Popular" (Popular Will) party greets supporters during a rally in Caracas, September 16, 2011. (Photo: Jorge Silva / Reuters)

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded this week what just about everyone in the western hemisphere already knew: leading Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López was denied due process of law in 2008, when socialist President Hugo Chávez’s government barred him from running in elections for six years because of an accusation of corruption in his past. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that López should be allowed to challenge Chávez in next year’s presidential race, and Chávez should let it happen – not merely because it’s the right thing to do human rights-wise, but because it may well be the smart thing for him to do politically.

The law that snared López is, admirably, meant to curtail corruption, oil-rich Venezuela’s most chronic plague. But critics say in reality it’s an arbitrary means of keeping opposition candidates off the electoral playing field – especially popular pols like López, 40, the former mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, who represent a threat to Chávez’s bid for indefinite re-election. Since 2007, some 800 Venezuelans have been declared politically “inhabilitado,” or debilitated, and not surprisingly about 80% of them have been opposition figures. More unsettling is that many if not most of those inhabilitados, including López, were never convicted of any crime – which the Inter-American Court said violated López’s rights in his case.

(See “Venezuela’s Exclusion of Anti-Chávez Candidates Faces a Challenge”)

Few legal scholars would disagree. Nor would they be likely to argue that López’s alleged corruption – a civic group he belonged to got a grant from an office at Venezuela’s state-run oil company that was run by his mother – merited banning him from elections until 2014. Chávez will of course be loath to bow to the Inter-American Court (all too predictably he called the ruling a sign the court is influenced by the “imperial power” of his arch-enemy, the U.S.) even though Venezuela has signed on to the American Convention on Human Rights. But he should accept it, and not just because it would help ease growing international concerns about his authoritarian bent.

Chávez, 57, is undergoing chemotherapy after having a cancerous tumor removed over the summer, but he plans to run for a third six-year term in the October 2012 election. If he’s still the shrewd political player he’s been since taking power in 1999 – certainly smarter than his often lame-brained foes – then he realizes that López’s re-entry into the race could throw an already fractured opposition into further disarray. A big knock against Chávez’s opponents is that they rarely seem able to rally around a single candidate – which is all but mandatory given that the populist president, despite mishandling a raft of crises from soaring inflation to harrowing violent crime, still enjoys a voter approval rating of about 50%.

This time around the opposition plans to hold a unifying primary, in February, and it was beginning to look like popular Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles would be the unifying candidate. Throwing the Harvard-educated López back into the mix, no matter who wins in February, could make it harder to throw a cohesive front at Chávez and his United Socialist Party (PSUV). López insists that won’t happen this time; but if the past 12 years in Venezuela are any guide, it very well could.

At the same time, if Chávez rejects the Inter-American Court ruling and keeps López inhabilitado, he risks handing opposition voters an injustice to rally around, which could galvanize them even more strongly behind a candidate like Capriles. For all its fecklessness – for all its nagging inability to forge a platform that challenges Chávez’s bond with the poor, and for all its lingering connections to the old-guard kleptocracy Chávez and his left-wing Bolivarian Revolution toppled in 1998 – the opposition has proved that it can thwart the former army paratrooper officer at the national level. In 2007, led by student marches, it defeated Chávez’s referendum bid to eliminate presidential term limits (although he simply put the issue to a vote again in 2009 and won). And last year it picked up more than 40% of the National Assembly’s seats – and scored more than half the popular vote – in parliamentary elections.

And if Chávez does rehabilitate López, López himself will have to decide what’s best for the opposition’s sake. Does he enter the primary fray and risk making it harder to produce that one consensus challenger, or does he forgo that race and throw his substantial cachet behind someone like Capriles? The Inter-American Court made the right call this week. Whether or not Chávez and López make their own right calls in the coming weeks will have a big impact on who ends up controlling the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves for the rest of this decade.