Latin America & Caribbean

Leopoldo Lopez: Venezuela's maverick opposition leader

Leopoldo Lopez gets into a National Guard armoured vehicle in Caracas. Photo: February 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Leopoldo Lopez handed himself in to the security forces during a rally on 18 February 2014

Leopoldo Lopez - who has been jailed for nearly 14 years for inciting violence during mass protests in 2014 - is considered a political maverick and has long been a thorn in the side of the government.

Born into a well-off family with links to the business and oil sector, Lopez, now 44, was educated in the United States and has a master's degree from Harvard University.

He came to prominence when he was elected mayor of Caracas's Chacao district, a position he held from 2000 to 2008.

While he was barred from running for re-election in the 2008 polls for allegedly misusing public funds, he did not retire from public life.

His supporters say the charges were politically motivated as he was neither convicted nor put on trial over the allegations.

But the BBC's Irene Caselli says Lopez has long been seen as a "problem" - not only by the government but also by some outside observers.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Some Lopez supporters embraced and cried after hearing the guilty verdict

In a 2009 classified cable published by Wikileaks, the political counsellor of the US embassy in Caracas, Robin D Meyer, wrote that Lopez had become a "divisive figure within the opposition".

"He is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry - but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organiser," the US diplomat wrote.

During the protests in 2014, Lopez used social media to found a movement with the hashtag #lasalida, which in Spanish means both "the exit" and "the solution".

The Venezuelan government has indeed been quick in reminding citizens of the part Lopez played in past unrest.

In 2002, parts of the opposition, backed by elite businessmen and some military leaders, briefly removed then President Hugo Chavez - Nicolas Maduro's late predecessor - from power.

The coup came after street protests, in which Lopez took an active role, prompting the government to label him a "coup leader".

But a large sector of Venezuela's middle class identify with Lopez and his strategy, our correspondent says.

"If Leopoldo [Lopez] is attacked by the government, the people will defend him," student leader Daniel Alvarez said last year.

David Smilde, a Caracas-based senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Lopez was an appealing figure for people to rally around.

"He is visible, attractive and talks well," he said.

But even if anger at Lopez's conviction manages to unify Venezuela's middle class behind him, he will still be faced with the government's wide base of popular support.