RIO DE JANEIRO – Deporting immigrants at rifle point, reigniting long-settled claims to a neighbor’s oil reserves, sending soldiers instead of groceries to depleted supermarkets — just when you’d think Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro could go no further to turn his country into an outlaw state, the leader of the Bolivarian Republic has trumped himself — criminalizing dissent.
On Sept. 10, a circuit court condemned Leopoldo Lopez, the Maduro regime’s most charismatic critic, to nearly 14 years imprisonment for inciting violence during last year’s street demonstrations.
Technically speaking, Judge Susana Barreiros’s ruling was the act of the independent Venezuelan judiciary. Yet during the lengthy trial, Lopez, a 44-year-old Harvard-trained economist and former Venezuelan mayor, was barred from presenting physical evidence and allowed to call only two defense witnesses — direct violations of Venezuelan due process — and the media was locked out of the courtroom.
The prosecution, on the other hand, summoned more than 100 witnesses, and though none placed Lopez at the scene when violence flared, Barreiros gave him the maximum sentence.
The trial was described as “a travesty,” by Human Rights Watch, a “political lynching,” by former diplomat Diego Arria and a “farce” by Lopez’s attorneys, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry worried aloud over the apparent “use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics.”
Take your pick; the Lopez conviction was anything but a surprise. In the revolution Hugo Chavez built, nearly 70 percent of judges hold temporary posts, meaning essentially they serve at the pleasure of the country’s political bosses.
Fealty starts at the top. The 32 justices of the Supreme Court are elected by the Venezuelan National Assembly, where, thanks to a decade and a half of gerrymandering, the governing United Socialist Party rules. A study published last year showed that in more than 45,000 sentences handed down by the Supreme Court from 2004 to 2014, the government never lost a case.
Judges defy the Palacio Miraflores at their own risk. Consider Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who presided over the case of Eligio Cedeno, a prominent banker who was accused of corruption by Chavista prosecutors and jailed in 2009.
The United Nations human rights commission called his imprisonment arbitrary. Afiuni agreed and ordered Cedeno released, whereupon she was promptly jailed, allegedly tortured and sent to trial, which is still ongoing.
So perhaps it’s no mystery that Barreiros — a junior judge handpicked to replace Afiuni in the 28th circuit — chose to ignore the international cry to free Lopez, lock down the courthouse and dispatch the regime’s most caustic critic to a military prison until 2029. Her 40-page verdict was ready in less than two hours.
What other way to go when Venezuela’s second-most powerful leader, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, had already given his verdict? “I don’t agree with just 11 years,” Cabello declared on nationwide television, on the eve of the Lopez verdict. The final sentence? Thirteen years, nine months, seven days and 12 hours.
Clearly, the harsh sentence was calculated to intimidate the government’s fiercest rivals — those Maduro hasn’t already arrested or banished from politics, that is — ahead of the crucial Dec. 6 parliamentary elections.
But with Maduro’s approval ratings scraping bottom, he risks looking less fearsome than desperate.
Just two years ago, Lopez was a compelling but hardly unifying figure, viewed with envy and distrust among the fractious opposition. “Arrogant, vindictive and power hungry,” a U.S. diplomat reported in 2009, in a secret cable released last year by WikiLeaks.
Last year Ramon Jose Medina, then deputy leader of the main opposition bloc, the Democratic Union Roundtable, accused Lopez of provoking his own arrest to gain notoriety, though he later apologized.
Lopez’s cachet soared when he led the largest anti-government demonstrations Venezuela had seen in a decade. By jailing him, Maduro converted the official “monster” into a martyr. Now public outrage over the sham trial stands to convert him into a national lightning rod.
Never has Chavismo looked so vulnerable. Whether Venezuela’s sniping opposition leaders can holster their differences and ride the prevailing anger to victory at the ballot box is a separate question. Keep your eyes on the Venezuelan street, where more protests are in the offing.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor in Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”