Opposition Leader Flees Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Photo: miguel gutierrez/Shutterstock

BOGOTA, Colombia—Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, a former political prisoner and prominent leader in the movement to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime, has fled Venezuela, top officials in the opposition said Saturday.

The 49-year-old, a mentor to U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó and a conduit to U.S. officials seeking to remove Mr. Maduro from power, had been holed up in the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas since fleeing house arrest during a failed military uprising in April 2019.

“He’s out and he’s safe,” one person close to Mr. López said.

Described as athletic and audacious by those who know him, Mr. López left the rambling house in a quiet, affluent neighborhood in the eastern end of the city and made his way to the island of Aruba, said another person close to Mr. López and familiar with his departure.

“He is in Aruba and in transit. I don’t know where he goes next but the final destination is Spain,” said the person in an interview with The Wall Street Journal about noon Saturday. Mr. López’s family—including his father, a member of the European parliament—live in Madrid, and Spain is a hotbed of opposition intrigue.

Guards outside the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas on Saturday, where Leopoldo López had been holed up.

Photo: Matias Delacroix/Associated Press

“It’s an operation that has been in place for months,” the person said about how Mr. López abandoned the residence, “and yesterday the execution of the plan began.”

Other people close to the opposition leader couldn’t confirm that he had gone to Aruba but said that he was on his way to Spain. But questions remained about his departure, and three figures in the opposition movement who live abroad said the departure came after a negotiation between Spain’s socialist government and the Maduro regime.

The residence is tightly guarded, with the agents from Mr. Maduro’s secret police, the Sebin, regularly questioning visitors on their way out of the mansion. “They got there too late!” Mr. Guaidó’s communications chief, Alberto Federico Ravell, said via his Twitter account.

In Washington, the Trump administration took notice of the departure of Mr. López, who has had close ties with Republicans influential in shaping Venezuela policy, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and officials at the National Security Council.

“Leopoldo López is a democratic political leader who was deprived of his freedom for almost seven years by this illegitimate regime,“ said Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson. ”He has now escaped from Venezuela to continue the struggle for freedom, and we are sure he will continue to make an important contribution.”

Mr. López’s exit from Venezuela was seen by some in the opposition as a way to inject energy into an opposition movement that has been beaten down by Mr. Maduro’s repressive policies, including arrests and torture of opposition figures, and its own internal squabbling over how to weaken the regime. At the residence, Mr. López could speak regularly to Mr. Guaidó and other members of the opposition but not offer public comments or address the party he led, Popular Will.

In recent months, moderate leaders in the opposition have called for a shift away from Mr. López’s strategy of direct confrontation with the regime. Some of them favor working with international brokers such as Josep Borrell, foreign policy chief of the European Union, to negotiate in the hope of convincing Mr. Maduro to hold free and fair elections.

Now free, Mr. López is expected to ratchet up lobbying efforts to make sure that international pressure against Mr. Maduro does not ease, said Pedro Burelli, a longtime friend and advocate of Mr. López.

“Leopoldo leaving shakes up the tree in every sense,” said Mr. Burelli. “He is a force of nature. He will be exposed as a free man to the back and forth of real politics.”

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Guaidó ridiculed Mr. Maduro, noting that Mr. López’s exit underscored the regime’s diminishing grip on the country. “Maduro you control nothing,” read Mr. Guaidó’s post.

There was no immediate response from the Maduro administration. A spokesman for Spain’s embassy in Colombia declined to comment.

Mr. López’s departure from Venezuela comes in the wake of a feverish 22-month effort of protests and uprisings—including a failed seaborne raid in May that Mr. Maduro’s security forces quickly squelched—designed to topple the leftist regime.

The U.S. has strongly supported Mr. López—his wife, Lilian Tintori, even met President Trump in the White House in February 2017—and Mr. Guaidó. That support has increasingly rankled other prominent opposition figures, as well as foreign diplomats who believe the mix of protests and U.S. sanctions against Mr. Maduro have failed and that regime foes need a new strategy.

Mr. López, who comes from one of Venezuela’s most prominent families, has long been an unwavering opponent of a regime accused of widespread rights abuses and election rigging. In January 2019, he had his greatest success when the U.S. and dozens of other countries declared that they recognized his protégé, Mr. Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, a Venezuela’s legitimate president, and not Mr. Maduro.

But despite U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, Mr. Maduro has clung to power with the help of the country’s allies, namely Russia, China and Iran.

Once a mayor of an important district of Caracas, Mr. López became a target of the regime under Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, whose government barred him from holding public office. In 2014, he led a movement he called “The Exit,” which tried to unseat Mr. Maduro through large protests.

He was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison on terrorism and sedition charges after a trial that human-rights organizations and foreign governments called a sham. His lawyers were prohibited from calling witnesses in his defense.

Still, Mr. López had played a hands-on role in the opposition movement, from jail and later from his home, where he had been under house arrest until April 2019, when he moved to the Spanish ambassador’s residence. He led strategy meetings on matters ranging from regime change to oil-industry reform with other dissident activists via the video chat app Zoom, according to opposition figures.

Earlier this year, more than a dozen opposition sources, including several close aides of Mr. López, told The Wall Street Journal that Mr. López had been involved in the planning of a botched effort in May by a small group of Venezuelan military defectors and two former American soldiers to invade Venezuela and trigger an uprising against the Maduro regime.

The plan failed, with the security forces killing a handful of invaders and arresting the rest. Mr. López denied having any role in the coup.

Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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