Leopoldo López was convicted of inciting violence and now faces over 13 years in prison. Originally I had thought Nicolás Maduro was making a mistake by transforming López into a martyr. I've been reconsidering that. It is entirely possible that he wants López to be a martyr because Maduro figures he is incapable of uniting the opposition. As I wrote back in February 2014:
It may well be that López would like to become a martyr, but acting like a teenaged bully is not a good way to achieve that.
If the opposition is focused on López then it will not be doing the more difficult business of unifying, coming up with a coherent strategy and tactics, etc. A #LaSalida approach is very unlikely to convince a majority of Venezuelans. You might be concerned about inflation and insecurity but even more concerned about increased political instability or even a coup.
I'm not convinced, then, of the notion that Maduro is afraid of López. Some of the arguments in that regard, in fact, really miss a key point. For example:
Though López and Maduro are both politicians, the contrast between the two could not be starker. López is fit, handsome, clean-shaven, relatively young at 43-years-old, and comes from one of Venezuela’s blue-blooded families. Maduro is stout, lumbering, mustachioed, nine years older, and is the son of a Leftist union leader. López attended Kenyon College and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master’s degree in public policy. Maduro never graduated from high school.
I'd argue that this contrast works very much against López because of the clear elitism that undergirds it. López is the sort of person many Venezuelans were chafing to be free from. How many? News stories toss around 50% approval, Even if that's roughly accurate, it's different from being a unifier, which is what the opposition needs.
Of course, this is a very cold discussion, divorced from whether López should be in jail. The answer is no, and the whole thing stinks. This is politics playing out at a brutal level. The political question is why Maduro has decided to go this route.
How does the U.S. play into this? Roberta Jacobson said this:
The Obama administration is in a tough spot because over-reaction will work in Maduro's favor. There has been some quiet diplomacy going on, which I suppose will freeze. There are already calls for more sanctions, and they might succeed, but they won't help the opposition. I'm not sure who can.
Update: here is the statement from John Kerry:
The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The decision by the court raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics.
Since Mr. Lopez’s arrest and imprisonment in February of 2014, we have underscored our concern with the charges brought against Mr. Lopez—which we consider illegitimate—and we have repeatedly called for his release and for the release of all Venezuelans who are imprisoned for political reasons. We call on the Government of Venezuela to respect the rights of all political prisoners; and to guarantee fair and transparent public trial, consistent with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Venezuela’s Constitution.