Reassessing the Leopoldo López trial of 2014-15

One of the reasons people may get duped into seeing Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López as a victim is his trial which began in 2014, when he finally went to jail after supporting a fourth US-backed attempt to violently overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected government. Overthrowing the late Hugo Chavez (who was first elected in 1998 and died in 2013) and his elected successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been an obvious US objective since at least 2002.

Soon after being imprisoned in 2014, López was recognized as a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International – a designation the human rights group denied to Nelson Mandela, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. How could López, a guy who kidnapped a Chavez government official for the short-lived Carmona dictatorship in 2002, get that status?

In addition to ignorance of López’s track record prior to 2014, one reason people may see López as a victim is that a few of the prosecutors who put López behind bars later said the case they made against him was a sham. One of those prosecutors was the long time Chavista Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz. In 2015, she had been threatened with US sanctions, said she was preparing to sue the US government, but in 2017 flipped openly to the side of the US-backed opposition. She would eventually even disparage Hugo Chavez whom she had always lavishly praised.

It is important to recall that in 2011, documentary filmmaker Eduard Ellis called out corruption within the ranks of Chavismo, and specifically its public prosecutors, as being the key reason for impunity of wealthy land owners who hired assassins to kill Chavista activists.

Ignacio Ramirez Romero, a Venezuelan lawyer who runs the Venezuelan human rights group National Federation for the Defense of Human Rights (FENADDEH), told me he did not foresee Luisa Ortega’s eventual betrayal of Chavismo, but he never believed she was very capable: “I was very surprised when she was appointed Attorney General because she did not inspire confidence.” [1]

When Leopoldo López was arrested in 2014, Ramirez sent a message to Ortega. He told her that the prosecution should focus on “the ongoing and permanent conspiracy since Chávez had become President.” It was common sense. There was a crystal-clear pattern established of López trying to overthrow the government since 2002, when he was mayor of the wealthy Chacao municipality of East Caracas. Any calls he made for protests in 2014—which he openly said were aimed at ousting the government—should have been considered in light of that pattern.

Did the amnesty that Chávez granted López and many others in December, 2007 for the first two coup attempts prevent prosecutors from bringing that up? No, Ramirez said. In fact, he added that a judge would be justified in punishing a person more severely if they received amnesty for a crime and then went on to perpetrate a very similar one.

Lopez was charged with public incitement, criminal conspiracy and a few other offences.

In US law (which I’ll mention since the US selectively punishes alleged “authoritarianism” around the world) the Brandenburg Test establishes two conditions that establish “when inflammatory speech intending to advocate illegal action can be restricted” [2]

  1. The speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” AND

  2. The speech is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Lopez had been involved with efforts to oust the government since 2002 which led to scores of government supporters and security forces being killed, the brief overthrow of the government, and several billion dollars in economic damage. In 2013, when he was an even more prominent figure than he was in 2002, he told Venezuelan economist Juan Nagel that defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles should have kept calling people into the streets (never mind that his supporters had killed people) until Maduro was ousted.[3]

Would any US judge or prosecutor ignore a track record like that in determining what Lopez’s calls for protests really conveyed to his supporters or were “likely to produce” in 2014?  The answer is obviously no. Regardless, this is a wildly hypothetical scenario. In the US, involvement in one coup attempt that had any chance of succeeding would have gotten Lopez assassinated with no trial. For much less than that, the US government under Obama assassinated US citizen Anwar alAwlaki.[4]

But instead of arguing in the straightforward way that Ignacio Ramirez advocated, Ortega’s prosecutors disregarded his track record since 2002 and used weird arguments based on “subliminal messages” and the testimony of semiotic experts.[5]  That approach, combined with inexcusable delays in charging him, left the government open to ridicule. It also bolstered the allegation that Lopez was being arbitrarily detained, and gave Amnesty International an excuse, however absurd, to label him a “Prisoner of Conscience”.

Clearly, Lopez was not convicted because of the shoddy case the prosecutors presented, but because of his track record which the prosecutors ignored. If that was unfair procedurally, so was the fact that Lopez had managed to stay out of jail until 2014 – thanks to an amnesty he should never have received from Chavez.

One of the prosecutors in Lopez’s case, Franklin Nieves, fled to Miami in 2015 claiming that Lopez had been subjected to “show trial”.  At the time, Ortega publicly dismissed Nieves saying “He never denounced any irregularity throughout the investigation… an authentic and full act of conscience has to be carried out in the moment…during that year and eight months is when he had to come forward with this”.[6]

A few years later she was also proclaiming Lopez innocent, and boasting that she had resisted “pressures” to charge him with terrorism.[7]

According to Ignacio Ramirez, the amnesty that Chavez granted Lopez and others at the end of 2007 was in part driven by the lethargy and corruption of the legal system that Chavez had failed to reform.  To an extent, it was Chavez throwing in the towel on the legal front against his enemies.[8]

Capriles and Lopez, for example, should have been the easiest people in the world to speedily convict after the coup in April 2002. It should have been especially easy for a supposedly “authoritarian government” unconstrained by judicial independence. There was no need to resort to using public incitement laws. Abundant video evidence showed Capriles and Lopez leading the illegal “arrest” of a Chavez government minister. They had not covered their tracks because they were certain that Chavez was finished. But Lopez never served any time in jail for it and Capriles, who also participated in a siege on the Cuban embassy, served only a few months two years later.

I don’t believe that Maduro’s government suddenly discovered Ortega and other prosecutors were corrupt after they turned against the government, or that Maduro’s government (or any other in the world) is now corruption free.  Since its earliest years, Chavismo had been hit with high level defections. One objective of US aggression is to provoke splits and betrayals within the targeted government. It therefore produces incentives for the targeted government to ignore corruption, negligence and incompetence among its own officials until – as in the case of Ortega and others – they turn against it.


[1] Remarks from Ignacio Ramirez come from taped conversation with Ramirez on August 18, 2019.

[2] Blandenburg Test, Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute,  https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/brandenburg_test .Accessed September 11, 2019

[3] Lopez said that to Venezuela opposition writer Juan Nagel. In the same interview, Lopez said he firmly supported convening a Constituent Assembly, but when Maduro called for one in 2017 it became the pretext for a fifth major US-backed coup attempt since 2002 – the violent protests of April 4 – July 31, 2017


[4] Obama Killed a 16-Year-Old American in Yemen. Trump Just Killed His 8-Year-Old Sister, Glenn Greenwald, January 30, 2017


[5] I examined a 283 page sentencing document provided to me by a professional journalist who had been based in Caracas.  He apparently obtained it from a member of Lopez’s legal team. The document extensively quoted the arguments of the prosecutors and defense lawyers.

[6]  Venezuelan Public Prosecution: Rogue Attorney Caved to International Pressure, October 28, 2015


[7] “Diosdado me presionó para inculpar a Leopoldo López”: Luisa Ortega, Daniel Armirola R, February 15, 2018,   https://www.elcolombiano.com/internacional/venezuela/exfiscal-de-venezuela-luisa-ortega-dice-que-fue-presionada-para-inculpar-a-leopoldo-lopez-DK8194335

[8] There were also strategic arguments for giving the amnesty in order to encourage the US-backed opposition to renounce violence.  History has not been kind to those arguments.

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