Above: Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks at the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum organized by his first cousin, Thor Halvorssen
It is hard to argue that many of those involved in anti-government protests in Venezuela don’t have legitimate grievances — widespread insecurity and media repression cannot be ignored — or that the government’s charges against opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, including “terrorism,” have been filed with sufficient substantiation.
But who is Lopez, and is there any evidence that his own methods are more democratic than those of the government he paints as corrupt and aims to topple through extra-constitutional means?
So far, US and international media has generally portrayed Lopez as an outspoken “maverick,” alluding only in passing to his oligarchic pedigree and hardline right-wing politics. Lopez has been involved in coup attempts that aimed to oust Hugo Chavez since the late president was first elected. Lopez’s leadership of the current round of protests after a hard fought election won by Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, appears to be an extension of those efforts.
I wrote about Lopez in my investigation of Thor Halvorssen and his Potemkin Village-like Human Rights Foundation. Halvorssen is a former right-wing campus activist who has leveraged his fortune to establish a political empire advancing a transparently neoconservative agenda behind the patina of human rights.
Among Halvorssen’s main PR megaphones is Buzzfeed, whose correspondent Rosie Gray flew to Oslo in 2013 to write a fawning profile of him and his Oslo Freedom Forum. (Gray has not disclosed whether Halvorssen covered her travel expenses or provided her with resources like food and lodging). Michael Moynihan, another writer who was flown to Oslo to participate in Halvorssen’s confab, published an editorial in the Daily Beast this week praising “the handsome, telegenic, and Harvard-trained Leopoldo Lopez” and slamming President Nicolas Maduro as “Mussolini-on-the-piazza.” The Daily Beast followed up with a translated version of the dramatic and carefully staged speech Lopez delivered before he turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities, which Halvorssen promptly promoted on Twitter.
Besides being the son of a CIA asset who channeled money from Venezuelan oligarchs to the Nicaraguan Contras, Halvorssen happens to be Lopez’s first cousin — Leopoldo is the son of Thor’s oil executive aunt. Through his human rights apparatus, he has played a critical role in marketing Lopez to an international audience.
In 2009, Halvorssen showcased Lopez at his Oslo Freedom Forum, presenting him beside figures like Elie Wiesel and Vaclav Havel as a “human rights leader.” I wrote about the unusual spectacle for Electronic Intifada:
In 2010, Halvorssen invited his first cousin, the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Lopez, the Harvard-educated mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, was among the politicians who signed as witnesses in the new government after Chavez was briefly ousted in the failed US-backed coup in 2002.
Lopez is the son of a former oil executive — Halvorssen’s aunt — who allegedly funnelled profits from the state-run oil company into his new political party, leading to corruption charges that placed his political ambitions in peril, as the Associated Press reported in February (“Leopoldo Lopez, Opponent Of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Faces Corruption Charges In Venezuela”).
Described by the US embassy in Venezuela as “vindictive, and power-hungry” but also as “a necessity,” Lopez received large sums of financial support from the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy.
At the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum, Lopez was a presented as a “human rights leader,”appearing at an event that had been graced by Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel and Nobel nominee Vaclav Havel. He stirred his audience with lofty rhetoric about peace, democracy and the coming wave of freedom, casting the Venezuelan opposition as “David against Goliath.” “We know that we will overcome,” Lopez proclaimed, “we know that change will come in Venezuela.”
Noting that Lopez’s appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum was covered far more heavily in Venezuelan media than in Oslo, where it was virtually ignored, Manifestaccused Halvorssen of using his human rights confab for the purpose of “whitewashing Leopoldo Lopez … to establish a real contender for the Venezuelan presidency.”
The magazine described the Oslo Freedom Forum as a cleverly crafted “Washing Machine.”