This week Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez spent his 43rd birthday in prison; next week a judge will decide if he is to stand trial for crimes ranging from arson to treason.
Lopez is the leader of the movement whose mass demonstrations, which started in February, have turned into a fixture of daily life in Venezuela. Every day there are protesters in the streets. Every night there are new threats from government officials warning the opposition that their days are numbered, despite their numbers.
If Lopez is found guilty, he could spend 14 years locked away. According to his father, also named Leopoldo Lopez, he’s grown a beard. He starts his days at 5 a.m., reads the Bible, exercises, reads Venezuelan politics in the morning and international politics in the afternoon. Sometimes he’s allowed out on the patio. At night he continues reading until 2 a.m. As a high-profile prisoner, Lopez is always kept alone.
But there’s hope for him yet.
“The only way to fight barbarians is with the law,” said Lopez Sr.
There is a way for Lopez to regain his voice in politics and leave prison in one fell swoop. His father explained that his son can run for office from jail as long as he hasn’t been found guilty of his crimes. If he runs, he’ll likely win. If he wins, he’ll be free.
Normally, a trial like the one Leopoldo Lopez faces could take two years to make its way through Venezuela’s court system, but this case is unlike any other. He is the first opposition figure to lead a massive movement in the country since the late-Hugo Chavez took power in the late ’90s. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, has the courts in his pockets. He may very well speed up Lopez’s case.
All of this makes Lopez’s decision to turn himself in back in February seem like a serious gamble. It was.
“Leopoldo forced people to see that the government can’t be just,” said his father. “It’s a great sacrifice.”
But it is a sacrifice the Lopez’s knew they would have to make. They are a family of technocrats and exiles going back three generations. Lopez Sr. founded a Venezuelan scholarship program back in the 1970s. During the Chavez years, he was banned from leaving the country at one point.
Even as a young man, his son had always shown an interest in politics.
“In theory you are prepared, but when it happens it’s very, very hard,” said Lopez Sr.
Hard means watching your 9-year-old granddaughter write letters that might never be read, as they will be confiscated by prison guards. Hard is watching President Maduro claim the map of Venezuela you sent your son was sent to him by terrorists.
“I am that terrorist,” Lopez said with wry humour, “If that is a terrorist map you must confiscate all the maps in the libraries in Venezuela.”
Meanwhile the people tire of their government. Reports that $1.6 million worth of imported food was found spoiling at a Venezuelan port especially frustrated the population now accustomed to food shortages. The economy worsens and the Maduro administration does not have answers.
“We are now being governed by the mouse, not the lion,” said Lopez Sr. “When you have a dictatorship, they don’t listen to people. They don’t listen to realities.”
NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.