Juan Guaido is building a coalition of citizens and soldiers in his uprising against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. But his most important ally might be Leopoldo Lopez, his mentor, whom he just set free.
Lopez, a former mayor and presidential candidate turned political prisoner, broke his two-year house arrest to join Guaido’s revolt on Tuesday, giving his protégé some significant clout with the country’s desperate population. Lopez has been a major figure in the anti-government movement for years.
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“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: this is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Lopez told Guaido’s supporters on Tuesday.
Lopez was convicted in 2015 of inciting riots against Maduro and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His arrest and trial sparked international condemnation and calls for his release, but he remained in custody until earlier this week.
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Lopez was moved to house arrest in 2017 amid concerns for his health and was guarded under the watchful eye of Venezuela’s feared intelligence agency, SEBIN. However, he remained active in politics throughout his house arrest and is widely seen as the architect of 35-year-old Guaido’s challenge for the presidency.
Lopez walked free on Tuesday after Guaido allegedly ordered the SEBIN to let him go. SEBIN’s director has also publicly thrown his support behind Guaido, who is in a tug of war with Maduro for control of the country’s influential military forces.
“Good morning, Venezuela,” Lopez said to reporters on Tuesday, standing alongside Guaido and dozens of soldiers on an overpass near La Carlota air base.
“To all my brothers in the armed forces, now is the moment.”
Many Venezuelans said they were inspired to see Lopez openly challenging the Maduro regime again.
“When we saw him with Guaido, it filled you with hope, and you left with more strength than ever to end this as soon as possible,” a young protester, who identified himself only as Eduardo, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Felix Garcia, a 30-year-old computer programmer, said he was shocked and inspired to see Lopez in public again.
“Our spirits have been low, but when we saw Leopoldo Lopez out on Caracas’ streets, it was signal to again return to the fight,” he told Reuters.
Guaido freed Lopez as part of the “final phase” of his campaign to oust Maduro from power. However, Guaido’s supporters faced stiff resistance from pro-Maduro forces on Tuesday.
The mentor behind Juan Guaido
Lopez was born to a wealthy and politically connected family, and he graduated from Harvard University in 1996 with a master’s degree in public policy. He served two successful terms as mayor of Chacao, near Caracas, from 2000 to 2008, and left office with an approval rating of over 90 per cent.
However, he also ran afoul of then-president Hugo Chavez, who barred him and dozens of other opposition leaders from running for political office on trumped-up corruption charges. However, he continued to be a thorn in the side of the government and was eventually arrested in 2014 for inciting protests against Chavez’s successor, Maduro.
Guaido was among Lopez’s closest supporters during those 2014 protests.
Lopez, 48, oversaw Guaido’s rise from student leader and remains a key figure in their Popular Will party. He was pulling strings with the party during his house arrest, positioning Guaido, now 35, to assume control of the weakened National Assembly after Maduro’s latest election win. Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela on Jan. 23 in a move that many western nations immediately applauded.
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The U.S., Canada and a coalition of Latin American governments involved Lopez in their secret plans to recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s president, the Associated Press reported in January. Guaido and Lopez have remained close throughout their battle for control of the country, with Guaido reportedly running every one of his speeches past his mentor.
Guaido has rallied elements of Venezuela’s military to his cause, although many remain loyal to Maduro.
Pro-Maduro forces crushed a protest on Tuesday afternoon. A military vehicle plowed into a crowd of Guaido supporters at one pointing, injuring several of them.
WATCH: Military vehicle runs over protesters in Venezuela
Lopez took refuge at the Spanish embassy with his wife and children Tuesday evening.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press