A Bol__var ready to fight

HUGO CH_VEZ, president of Venezuela, has made Sim__n Bol__var, the 19th-century aristocrat who liberated much of Sout...

HUGO CH_VEZ, president of Venezuela, has made Sim__n Bol__var, the 19th-century aristocrat who liberated much of South America from Spain, the central figure in a _Bolivarian_ state ideology, invoking his spirit, exhuming his sarcophagus, even starting the construction of a new mausoleum resembling a ship for his hero this year.

But in a turn in the contact sport that is Venezuelan politics, one of the strongest challengers in the quest to unseat Mr. Ch__vez in a presidential election next year is an activist with actual Bol__var blood in his veins: Leopoldo L__pez, an aristocratic, Harvard-educated economist who is a descendant of the liberator_s sister, Juana.

The campaign by Mr. L__pez was made possible here by a ruling in September by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which said that Venezuela_s government must lift a disqualification that had prevented Mr. L__pez from running for public office.

Mr. L__pez had argued that the disqualification amounted to political discrimination; it had been imposed by pro-Ch__vez officials because of legal claims against him from his time as a member of a nonprofit group and as mayor of Chacao, a municipality in Caracas.

To be sure, there was a catch once Mr. Ch__vez_s governing institutions reacted to the decision by the Inter-American Court, a judicial entity of the Organization of American States. In its own ruling this week, Venezuela_s Supreme Court appeared to uphold Mr. L__pez_s disqualification from holding office.

The Supreme Court, controlled by judges loyal to Mr. Ch__vez, called the Inter-American court_s decision _not executable._ But Luisa Estella Morales, the president of the Venezuelan court, also said that Mr. L__pez _can freely sign up and participate in elections,_ including next year_s race, although she refrained from saying whether he could serve if elected president.

Mr. L__pez, 40, is no stranger to operating within the gray areas of politics in Venezuela, a country where elections are held and public criticism is leveled at Mr. Ch__vez, but also where bureaucrats hound opposition leaders with legal threats and regulators fine independent news organizations, evidenced by a $2 million penalty imposed this week against the television network Globovisi__n for reporting on deadly prison riots.

_The state seeks to disqualify those seeking an alternative with relentless character assassination,_ Mr. L__pez said in an interview. _They are afraid of me because I can win._

Since the Inter-American Court_s ruling, Mr. L__pez, whose thinking falls within the center-left range of Latin America_s political spectrum, has been the recipient of new bursts of criticism from Mr. Ch__vez_s government.

For instance, one article this week on the Web site of Radio Nacional de Venezuela, the state-controlled radio network, called him a _right-wing extremist,_ and claimed he was _constantly committing outrages against the stability of the Bolivarian revolution._

The article went further, asserting that Mr. L__pez was _helped by the empire_ _ the fashionable catchall phrase for the United States used in Venezuela _ and calling him a _manipulating character._ Then, reflecting the doublespeak honed here in recent years, the article used the phrasing of Carlos Escarr__, Mr. Ch__vez_s attorney general, who had called Mr. L__pez_s disqualification _administrative and not political._

MR. L_PEZ, a product of Venezuela_s Americanized elite, graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio and earned a master_s degree in public policy from Harvard University. Married to Lilian Tintori, a former television host and kite-surfing champion, his privileged background stands in sharp contrast with that of Mr. Ch__vez, a former army officer who rose from poverty to forge a political movement chafing at American influence in Latin America.

But Mr. L__pez also seems to have picked up some strategies from Mr. Ch__vez, who cobbled together a grass-roots political movement in the 1990s after he oversaw a failed 1992 coup. Mr. L__pez has traveled far and wide outside the capital, Caracas, assembling a national movement called Voluntad Popular, or Popular Will, which has congealed into a centrist political party.

Mr. L__pez, who rarely advertises his family ties to Bol__var, gained national prominence during his eight years as the mayor of Chacao, a relatively prosperous municipality in Caracas; he was re-elected to a second term in 2004 with 80 percent of the vote, after he focused on reforming Chacao_s schools and its public transportation system.

During a chaotic coup in 2002, which briefly removed Mr. Ch__vez from office, Mr. L__pez drew the ire of Ch__vez supporters by taking part in the arrest of Ram__n Rodr__guez Chac__n, who was then the interior minister. Later, in 2006, gunmen shot dead one of Mr. L__pez_s bodyguards while he sat in Mr. L__pez_s car, an episode that he said was meant to send a chilling message of intimidation.

The government_s attempts to disqualify Mr. L__pez from running for office stem from his time as mayor of Chacao, when the authorities accused him of improperly moving money in 2003 from one part of the municipality_s budget to another.

Mr. L__pez said he was _completely innocent,_ contending that the legal claim involved meeting salary obligations to teachers that had been promoted by Mr. Ch__vez himself. While officials have also disqualified dozens of other people from running for office, Mr. L__pez has pointed out that no Venezuelan court had convicted him of any wrongdoing.

After the Inter-American Court_s ruling, an umbrella organization of Venezuela_s opposition parties welcomed Mr. L__pez_s plan to run in a primary planned for February. In recent polls, he has vied with Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of Miranda State, as the leading opposition candidate.

Whoever wins the primary is expected to find himself in an election unlike any in Venezuela_s recent history. While Mr. Ch__vez has dominated the political scene for more than 12 years and his supporters control the National Assembly, Supreme Court and the national oil company, his struggle with cancer has exposed a vulnerability.

STILL, it remains unclear how Mr. Ch__vez_s illness will influence the race. His approval ratings have actually climbed in the months since he revealed his condition, and no other candidate controls the oil-financed resources or the state propaganda apparatus that he has at his command. The president said this week that he had beaten his cancer, the specifics of which have not been disclosed, and renewed taunts of his opponents.

Meanwhile, Mr. L__pez_s uncertain candidacy will depend in part on institutions controlled by Mr. Ch__vez_s supporters. A senior government prosecutor said this week that officials would _opportunely_ disclose the results of criminal inquiries against Mr. L__pez. After the Supreme Court disregarded the Inter-American Court_s binding decision, Human Rights Watch called the rebuff a _blow to the rule of law._

Nonetheless, Mr. L__pez_s multiyear effort to have his name removed from the government_s electoral blacklist may be gaining traction. The National Electoral Council, which is also controlled by Ch__vez supporters, agreed on Thursday to allow Mr. L__pez to run for office.

_It_s not an easy fight,_ Mr. L__pez said. _But like David against Goliath, we have perseverance, faith and we know where to aim._

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/22/world/americas/leopoldo-lopez-prepares-to-challenge-chavez-for-venezuelan-presidency.html?pagewanted=2&ref=americas

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