Why Does the Government Keep López in Jail?

[The original title to this piece got some friendly pushback from people who said “domestic benefits” sounded like I was talking about a positive new initiative like, say, a new school lunch program. Actually my intention is to lay out the incentive structure affecting the government and point out how it differs nationally and internationally.]

David Smilde

Leopoldo López’s hunger strike is over, but he is still in jail. Why does the government keep him there?

Both sides have ready-made answers. The government suggests that López attempted to overthrow the government through his 2014 #LaSalida movement and blames him for the violence that followed. And for opposition radicals, López is a political threat the government seeks to contain.

Of course really knowing why the government does what it does is like Cold War Kremlinology. But looking at the characteristics of the situation we can develop a portrait of the incentives bearing upon government actions.

It seems unlikely that the government is afraid of López’s mobilizing capacity. He is indeed the most popular politician in Venezuela. But this is in a context of across-the-board disillusionment with Venezuela’s political class. Datanálisis’s most recent poll put López’ approval at 40% while his disapproval was at 48%.

This is better than Henrique Capriles (+37.5%, -52.2%) and much better than Nicolas Maduro (+26%, -69%), but still leaves him with net negative numbers and approximately half of the population disapproving of him. López’s numbers do not seem particularly threatening.

But there are more complex incentives to keep López in jail. As is well known, the opposition is split among those who favor an electoral solution to the Venezuelan crisis and those who favor more radical solutions. The latest Datanálisis poll asked people what they think the opposition should prioritize. Among those who identify with the opposition, only 56% said the opposition should get organized for the legislative elections. Incredibly, 43% said the opposition should carryout street mobilizations that could obligate Maduro to step down.

From a strategic perspective, if the government can pique and strengthen the significant minority that favor radical solutions, it could weaken the unity of the opposition and complicate its efforts to mobilize for the legislative elections. And indeed, while the opposition is far ahead in terms of voter intention, it is neck-and-neck with Chavismo in terms of electoral mobilization.

The same Datanalisis poll shows that while almost twice as many people identify with the opposition (42%) than Chavismo (22%), approximately the same percentage identifies with opposition parties (21%) as with the PSUV (20%). This type of “party articulation” is key for turning intended votes into actual votes through voter mobilization, and in protecting votes by getting witnesses to electoral centers.

The opposition also lacks a message, at least so far. Keeping López in jail keeps the opposition focused on issues of liberty, which fail to engage broader sectors of society. Of course López would do this if he were free as well. But his existence as a marquee prisoner of conscience makes those opposition leaders who focus on anything other than liberty seem cold, calculating and insensitive.

In sum, Chavismo’s best chance for dodging the bullet of the December legislative elections is to keep the opposition off message and off balance. Having López in jail does both.

The real costs of López’s imprisonment for the government are international. It is important to remember that the Chavista government envisions itself as a gregarious and heroic regional leader, as a continuation of Bolívar’s project of continental unity and regional autonomy. And indeed, regional support has been an important resource for Maduro over the past two years.

However, maintaining López, Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma in jail has had serious international costs.

Earlier this month Maduro cancelled a trip to the Vatican to speak with Pope Francis, apparently because he had a “cold.” Getting a photograph with Pope Francis would have been an important victory for Maduro and suggest there maybe some truth to rumors he knew he was going to get reprimanded regarding the issue of political prisoners.

The trips of Lilian Tintori and Mitzy Capriles, López and Ledezma´s wives, throughout the hemisphere have also had an important cost.

In May the National Endowment for Democracy gave Tintori and Capriles the Democracy Award on behalf of López and other political prisoners. While this award had little resonance in Venezuela, in Washington the ceremony brought Democrats to join hands with Republicans in the Capital Building to “honor the brave struggle of Venezuela’s Political Prisoners.”

Earlier this month, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez came to Venezuela in June to take part in the defense of Leopoldo López but was not allowed to see him.

Shortly thereafter, a delegation of Brazilian Senators who were impeded from reaching Caracas by pro-government activists. This of course was followed this week by another delegation that was more friendly to the Maduro government and more even-handed in its agenda. But it was a delegation nonetheless and in and of itself signified concern.

And of course there was the meeting between Diosdado Cabello and US diplomat Thomas Shannon in Haiti. While in Venezuela this was interpreted as a surprising foreign policy victory for the Maduro government, the word in Washington is that the US met with Cabello to suggest that further advancement in the normalization of US-Venezuela relations would depend on progress regarding political prisoners, most specifically in the case of López.

We can add to this the fact that in July Venezuela will be subject to examination by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights. This review will be problematic for Venezuela no matter what. But having a high profile political prisoner will not help.

In sum the domestic benefits of having López in jail are still in effect for the Maduro government–and indeed keeping the opposition distracted is emerging as the key government campaign strategy. But the international costs are mounting (as they should be) and could mean that at some point it will be in the government’s interests to release him and others.