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The face of Venezuela's opposition

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 3:30 PM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leopoldo Lopez has long been a threat to socialists in Venezuela
  • In 2008, President Hugo Chavez's government banned him from seeking public office
  • Lopez turned him in this week after the government accused of him terrorism, murder
  • Prosecutors formally charged him with arson and conspiracy; dropped more serious charges

Caracas, Venezuela (CNN) -- When Leopoldo Lopez turned himself in to authorities this week, he did it on his terms -- and not before climbing onto a statue of a Cuban national hero to deliver a passionate message to hordes of his supporters gathered at a square in the eastern Caracas neighborhood of Chacaito.

Lopez, 42, a former mayor and presidential candidate, had planned the event in advance, making extensive use of social media to summon his supporters to Brion Square.

He went into hiding last week after the government of President Nicolas Maduro accused him of terrorism and murder and blamed him for inciting anti-government protests throughout Venezuela. The protests have so far left several people dead and countless injured.

Venezuela: What's the crisis about?

After staying in a secret location for days, Lopez announced to Venezuelans, and the world, that after talking it over with his family, he would turn himself in. That announcement came via a YouTube video.

A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials. A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials.
Protests in Venezuela
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Photos: Protests in Venezuela Photos: Protests in Venezuela
What's next for Venezuela's opposition?
Protest leader releases vid to supporters

At the square, Lopez used a megaphone. "The options I had were leave the country, and I will never leave Venezuela!" he said to loud cheers and widespread applause as he stood on the statue of Jose Marti.

Searching for truth in Venezuela

"The other option was to remain in hiding, but that option could've left doubt among some, including some who are here, and we don't have anything to hide."

What you need to know about Venezuela

Later that night, his wife, Lilian Tintori, told CNN that Lopez was in good spirits behind bars. "The last thing he told me was don't forget why this is happening, don't forget why he's going to jail. He's asking for the liberation of political prisoners and students and an end to repression and violence," Tintori said.

Lopez, a fiery speaker and charismatic leader, has long been a threat to the socialists in power in Venezuela. Back in 2008, the government of then-President Hugo Chavez banned him from running for public office, accusing him of corruption and misuse of public funds. Lopez countered that it was all political retribution and that he had nothing to hide. He took his case all the way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where he was cleared three years later.

Political roots

Politics runs in Lopez's veins. He's the great-great-grandson of Venezuela's first President and he also claims to be a descendant of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator who, ironically, is revered by socialists in power, including Maduro.

Lopez was elected mayor of Chacao when he was only 29 years old and was reelected with 81% of the vote four years later. After being cleared of all corruption charges in September 2011, he launched his presidential candidacy. In January of the following year, he chose to forge an alliance to unify the opposition, instead of running. He threw his support behind Henrique Capriles, another popular opposition leader, who narrowly lost to Chavez in October 2012.

Lopez comes from a well-to-do family in Venezuela. He attended The Hun School of Princeton, a private boarding school, and graduated in 1989. He then attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he graduated with honors, receiving a degree in sociology. Lopez completed his education at Harvard University's School of Government and earned a master's degree.

Upon his return to Venezuela, he worked as an economic consultant and an economics professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, before jumping into politics in 1999.

A magnetic personality

HLN Anchor Susan Hendricks, a close friend of Lopez's in high school, says the opposition leader had the kind of personality that drew people to him. "He was a hit with the ladies, but he wouldn't even know (it)," Hendricks said. "He was very modest."

Hendricks says her heart broke when she learned he was in custody, but she is not surprised that he turned himself in. "I've been tweeting and texting with people that are very good friends with him up until this day, have spoken with him about a month ago, and he said, 'I will not leave Venezuela,' " Hendricks said.

In a late-night hearing Wednesday, Venezuelan prosecutors formally charged Lopez with arson and conspiracy but dropped more serious charges of murder and terrorism. Conspiracy charges in Venezuela are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Now the good-looking, easygoing star student is in jail at the military complex known as Ramo Verde in the municipality of Los Teques, Miranda state. Lopez's future seems uncertain at best. But family members say they're standing behind his decision to turn himself in.

"Manuela, my daughter, who's 4 years old, asked me about it," said Tintori, Lopez's wife. "I told her, 'Manuela, he's working for Venezuela.' Because Leopoldo, wherever he is, in jail tonight, he's going to be working for us and thinking of us. He's going to keep on dreaming about a better Venezuela, as he always does."

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