- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

VALENCIA, Venezuela

They range from wealthy businessmen to boisterous students and poor single mothers, jammed together 10,000 strong in a stadium, chanting “change is possible!” and shoving forward to greet the man who is challenging President Hugo Chavez’s grip on power.

There’s a problem, however: Leopoldo Lopez can’t run for office.

Like many of Mr. Chavez’s opponents, some of whom are in jail or have fled the country, Mr. Lopez is barred as a candidate because of a government corruption probe against him.

It’s a tactic critics say Mr. Chavez uses to put his opponents’ political ambitions on indefinite hold as he heads into next year’s congressional elections and his own re-election campaign in 2012.

Mr. Chavez insists he is simply enforcing the law, and corruption in Venezuela is widespread.

Mr. Lopez, a former Caracas district mayor, says that if he can’t run, he’ll recruit those who can.

To unseat Mr. Chavez is a task widely seen as futile at the present time. But the mere fact that Mr. Lopez’s efforts are resonating with ordinary Venezuelans shows that the democratic spirit still burns in the nation of 28 million.

Mr. Lopez, a youthful-looking 38, is crisscrossing the country wooing students, trade unionists and others with promising leadership skills. He hopes to mold them into a political movement for Venezuelans who are disenchanted with Mr. Chavez’s decade-long rule, as well as with the elite who governed the country before him.

While Mr. Chavez’s appeal is in his embrace of the poor, Mr. Lopez wants to capitalize on the growing frustration that an oil-rich country, busy taunting the U.S. and making far-reaching alliances with Iran and Russia, can’t tame inflation and crime or deliver uninterrupted water and electricity.

“What we want is to build a new majority from the bottom up - not just through negotiations and agreements between elites,” Mr. Lopez told the Associated Press. “It’s a longer road, but for us, it’s the only road that gives us possibilities of winning.”

By “elites,” he means the wealthy but fragmented - and increasingly gray-haired - opposition. But he too could be called elite, coming from a wealthy Caracas family, educated at Kenyon and Harvard in the American “empire” that Mr. Chavez reviles.

Chavez supporters dismiss him as a self-interested rich kid seeking to recover what the country’s wealthy “oligarchy” has lost to Mr. Chavez’s socialist measures. But his supporters love his charisma, his message of change, and his blonde wife, Lilian Tintori, a champion kite-surfer.

Mr. Lopez knows political success won’t come easily.

Despite recent dips in the polls, Mr. Chavez remains the country’s most popular politician. But Mr. Lopez has made inroads with former Chavistas such as Rosmely Quiroz, 45, a single mother of two who says double-digit inflation makes it impossible to live on her minimum-wage salary - $445 a month.

Mr. Lopez “is different from the rest,” Ms. Quiroz said, chanting with the crowd at this month’s rally in Valencia, an industrial city where Mr. Lopez kicked off the movement he calls “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) with women blowing kisses and students high-fiving him with chants of “Leopoldo! Leopoldo!”

“He’s extending a hand to those of us who want to get involved in politics - not for personal gain, but to solve our problems,” Ms. Quiroz said.

Mr. Chavez, a former military officer known to his supporters as “El Comandante,” rose to power on the votes of Venezuelans disaffected with the old parties that they viewed as corrupt and detached from the poor. The opposition then made two critical mistakes: It tried to depose Mr. Chavez in a coup in 2002, then boycotted congressional elections in 2005, handing Mr. Chavez a majority.

But in elections last year, anti-Chavez candidates rebounded, capturing the Caracas mayoralty and five of the 24 states, including three of Venezuela’s most populous. The pro-Chavez congress struck back by removing power and budgets from local and state officials.

Many opposition politicians, labor leaders and university students have been charged with criminal offenses over the last year that have landed them in prison or forced them to leave the country.

About a half dozen, led by former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, are in Peru, where they meet in coffee shops to talk baseball and grouse about Mr. Chavez.

“Too often, depression takes control of one’s time here,” said Oscar Perez, a tireless organizer of street demonstrations who faces charges of inciting violence. “It’s difficult to watch what’s happening in Venezuela, seeing Chavez taking his adversaries out of the game and knowing that nobody can do anything about it,” he told the AP by phone from Lima.

Mr. Lopez, who had won a landslide victory to become mayor of Chacao, one of the capital’s wealthiest districts, was barred from seeking re-election because of the corruption probe. The case is still open two years later, even though no charges have been filed.

“That’s the strategy: They shelve my case indefinitely, trying to end my political career,” Mr. Lopez said.

Mr. Chavez vehemently denies crushing dissent. “I don’t persecute anybody,” he said in a recent speech.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, have alienated voters with their cronyism and infighting.

“Many Venezuelans may have increasing doubts about Chavez, but they don’t want to go back to politics as usual, pre-Chavez,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “If the parties don’t open up, they will never be energized and renewed, and potential supporters won’t get onboard.”

Mr. Lopez says he has nothing against the opposition leaders, but says they need to unite and admit “fresh faces.”

“The same people have been candidates for the last 10 years,” he says.

Though Mr. Chavez’s support remains strong, he takes nothing for granted.

His opponents, he recently told his supporters, “are getting into the barrios.”

“They are trying to organize coordinated movements, and they are going to try to win a majority in the National Assembly,” he said.

Mr. Chavez sees something sinister in that.

“The devil never sleeps,” he said.

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