Opposition activist leaves embassy haven to flee Venezuela


One of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition activists has abandoned the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas and is leaving the country, two people familiar with the situation said Saturday

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to The Associated Press so as not to interfere with Leopoldo López’s plans, but said he was crossing into Colombia and would likely fly to the capital in the coming hours.

The 49-year-old former Caracas-area mayor has been holed up at the ambassador’s residence since a failed military uprising he led in April 2019 against the government of socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

He was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison after being convicted of inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded. He was released from prison and placed under house arrest after more than three years in a military jail.

The Trump administration has thrown its support behind a disciple of López, Juan Guidó, who claims he is the country’s interim president because Maduro’s 2018 reelection was not legitimate. But Maduro remains firmly in control of the nation’s military and nearly all other government institutions.

Dozens of anti-government politicians have fled Venezuela over recent years, many leaving covertly to avoid potential persecution or jail time.

“It’s probably the clearest sign that the continued opposition effort to unseat Maduro has floundered that a committed stay-in-Venezuela leader like Lopez has chosen to finally leave,” said Raul Gallegos, a Colombia-based analyst at Control Risks consultancy.

López pursued a strategy in 2014 known as “The Exit,” consisting of street protests months after Maduro was elected. The strategy failed and ultimately divided the opposition. That combativeness led to his arrest and conviction on insurrection charges branded a sham by human rights groups.

López’s hardline stance, backed by Washington, would ultimately come to dominate the fractious opposition, which rallied behind Guaidó. A follower of López, he had become congressional president and is now recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

The years López spent at a military prison, during which he read the works of Nelson Mandela and kept up a rigorous exercise regimen, solidified his image as a man willing to risk his own skin to rid the country of Maduro.

He sought allies among his former jailers in the military and in 2019 reappeared on a highway overpass with a small band of national guardsmen calling for an uprising against Maduro. The putsch was easily quashed and López took refuge in the ambassador’s residence.

Since then, López has struggled to maintain the same leadership. While Guaidó named him his cabinet chief, many in the opposition coalition, envious of his influence in Washington, sought to quietly undermine him, accusing him of having a messiah complex and failing to build consensus.

The two sources who provided AP with information on López’s whereabouts said he may travel to the United States — where he attended university — in the coming days though there are no confirmed plans.

His departure comes just days after Spain’s Ambassador Jesus Silva—who has been the dean of Caracas’ dwindling diplomatic community—was recalled by Spain’s leftist government to Madrid after serving for four years.

Silva, a career diplomat, was a firm backer of López. But as a holdover from previous Spanish administrations who was once expelled by Maduro, he was less effective an interlocutor when Spain’s socialist government took power.

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