Special interview: A driven chat with Leopoldo Lopez

Catching up with Leopoldo Lopez these days may even be more difficult than before his withdrawal. Not only he is campaigning hard for Henrique Capriles hoped for victory, but he must shore up and comfort his party, Voluntad Popular, and campaign for its nominees. And yet, he accepted to grant Venezuelan News and Views an interview, but on his time conditions, that is, whenever possible. The tentative time was set one week ago, Monday night when I was summoned to a street meeting in the Bello Campo neighborhood. And then, at the end, it would happen in a mysterious way, not for secrecy reasons, just for a constantly rearranged schedule.

Grateron's speech
I arrived on time to watch a street gathering which even had chairs provided. It was in Bello Campo, one of the Chacao neighborhoods. The speaker was Emilio Grateron, its current mayor, trying to win over his voters for the February 12 primary where he is strongly challenged by Primero Justicia’s Ramon Muchacho. He must not be happy with the polls because I was impressed by his candid speech where he admitted his errors, gave some very valid explanations to the unfair attacks he is subjected to while managing not to make them sound like excuses. Never mind that a Muchacho truck drove by during the meeting with loud speakers full blast.

Then again his crowd was mostly a middle class crowd in its education and the message seemed to pass well (there is also a barrio nearby who could attend giving the required diversity). Still, Grateron if articulate is not the most exciting of speakers and the meeting closed with a rousing speech of Leopoldo which finished the convincing part. People do indeed remember their mayor of 4 years ago and his popularity is intact, at least in that group, in spite of recent events.

Eventually my contact dragged me to the meeting point, once Leopoldo was done with the hugging part of the meeting. And lo’ and behold, the meeting took place in his car. That is, we climbed on board and his driver took us to Leopoldo's next appointment. Before you think this is weird, remember that Caracas traffic is excruciating (la cola) and that to make the best of it any serious candidate has a driver so s/he can work productively while stuck in some highway. Leopoldo not only uses that “cola” time to work (he has a TV set on Globovision to check out live the competition and an IPad that he uses constantly, including to give the driver directions) but he organizes meetings in the car, or interviews as this case was.
Lopez's supporting

I pulled out my tape recorder and off we went. Before you have any expectations of mysteries revealed, we had agreed beforehand that we would talk Internet and stuff like that: for political news you have the newspapers and gossip columns from Boccaranda to whomever. This is a blog and not a generic newspaper focused on the tit for tat stuff. Besides, I wanted to ask him matters he could answer genuinely, not getting pro forma replies.

My first question was about the role of Internet and social media in his campaign. With 431,000 followers on Twitter Leopoldo Lopez beats any politician of the Unidad. His main contenders are rather far behind, Capriles at 350,000 and Machado at 240,000. The question was whether he felt that Internet is making a difference in Venezuelan politics or if we must still consider valid the aging dictum of “internet no sube cerros” (roughly: Internet does not climb up the hillside shanty towns).

For Leopoldo that perception is dead wrong “internet today has a very high penetration in all social classes […] it has a particularly elevated penetration […] in underprivileged and impoverished youth sectors”. They use this social media popularity in their campaign as “a way to keep always a thermometer on what is thought [by the voters]”. I assume they rely on that maybe more than on polls they cannot afford considering the current situation in Venezuela where political parties are financially squeezed while the regime dips at will in the public treasury for its campaigns.

If they use this to test reactions of voters they are careful to give a just measure to the feedback they get from VP followers and potential voters “It allows [us] to maintain a very clear editorial line” and “[to design our editorial line] autonomously, democratically over the themes in an immediate way”.  Certainly the feed back is essential to make sure the wording of the message is optimum, and certainly a faster way to get it than waiting for polling firms focus group results. And way cheaper.

During public events Leopoldo passes his cellular phone to someone else to tweet it live. I asked how that worked out. Even though there is a team to relay the event, Leopoldo felt strongly that he should do the communications himself as much as possible, and live. His tone really stressed this sentence “I was interested that in real time it would be possible to communicate what we were doing”-

I tried to tweak him a little asking him whether he paid attention to what the other guys did on the web. But he was not going to fall that easily. He does not follow the competition approach to social networking but he makes sure that his team does; and not only the competition, so to speak, but all that is done in the forefront of modern politics. So there it was, the reason why his media approach is perceived as savvier than anyone else in Venezuela: the clear understanding of the modern communication systems. I guess not only Internet “sube cerros” but Lopez tries to find the best way for it to climb the cerros.

After social networking I asked about political web pages considering that he is associated to many, from his own, to Voluntad Popular, etc., pages usually updated frequently since I have been following them, a regular updating which did not appear until recently in other political parties and candidates pages. Interestingly he thinks that web pages should not be measured on hits but on content, that mass communication is better obtained in Facebook and Twitter where numbers do count. Elections for him are not influenced by the classical web but by the rapid fire sites of Social Media. This certainly reflects his very own dynamism, because to tell you the truth he seemed to have at this late hour the energy I would have expected from him, say, at 11 AM…

Web pages for Leopoldo are for those that do research (which I add is not what Venezuelans best like to do, being a more impulsive, present tense oriented society) “Today a web page is a hub [sic] that links you to all the information available. It is not that Twitter is better than a web page or that Facebook is best or that Youtube is … it is a whole that needs to keep integrating with new technologies as they come”.

This being said we moved on to the second theme I was interested in, about Venezuelans living overseas. After all, even though most of this blog is written in San Felipe, most of my Venezuelan readers are overseas and I owe it to them.

Voluntad Popular has a structure that tries to reach out, and is already succeeding in 20 cities. In fact they elected their head folks for international sections of VP through an Internet voting that they set up. The gratifying result for Leopoldo was “blood and flesh people elected for specific functions in our organization” which may suggest that the ultimate goal of internet in Lopez mind is for people to meet at some point, something scary for me who has a hard time handling my mere near 400 followers……

I asked whether they were planning to use Twitter to coordinate polling stations witness, a discrete way to ask how the Unidad was preparing itself for the challenges of a possible electoral fraud in October. Yes, they are thinking about it. And I think he means business because he noted that “many of the activists that are today in Voluntad Popular came via Twitter”.

He also revealed that in case Capriles is the February 12 winner one of the main responsibility Lopez will have in the following campaign is to insure that electoral witnesses and assorted helpers are well trained and can reach every voting station no matter how remote it is.  This is according to most analysts the only way to stop Chavez potential electoral fraud next October.

To close the interview, since we had not talked politics (deliberately from me) I did offer him free microphone for any message he cared to share for people outside of Venezuela. “To those who are outside Venezuela I am telling you that right now Venezuela is about to start a new era, it is not the substitution of a government but the beginning of a new era”. Followed by some ritornello of the campaign which somewhat did ring true to my very skeptic ears when politics are involved. This is maybe the most disconcerting thing about Leopoldo Lopez, a sincerity that he manages to project at all times which is quite an asset in a country plagued by 13 years of lies from all sides.

Still, the answer made me ask a trick question which I offered Leopoldo not to reply (yes, I can be sneaky too). The thing is that in my blog we have discussed so often right versus left, liberal or socialist, etc. that I wanted to ask him if he dared to give his new alliance with Capriles a foreign label. This of course was prefaced that non-Venezuelan readers have a hard time to figure out what is what in the "tierra de gracia". Well, he had no problem in replying: they both identify with the Brazilian governments of Cardoso and Lula even if both were from different orientation. What he meant was the idea of consistent state policies that can be embraced by all, even though they allowed for variations depending on the color of the president. I wanted to ask whether he was Cardoso or Lula but I did not want to overstay my welcome so I am limiting myself to quote his words on his alliance: “It is an alliance that places itself with progressive [values] all the rights for all”.

We discussed some more other political examples but at the end he summarized his position quite clearly beyond any labels one could seek: “the axis that is the focus today in Venezuela is the one of progress o regression” which sounded much better in Spanish.

Even though it was rather diplomatically said it confirmed to me all that I wanted to know, that Leopoldo Lopez is exquisitely aware of what lies ahead of us even if the campaign trail does not allow for explicitness.  Capriles and his campaign definitely needs him.

And with this it was a wrap as we had reached destination. Lopez still managed an extra minute to ask me my opinion about what was going on in Yaracuy (he had asked me earlier what I thought of his withdrawal and took my honest opinion well).

I need, for full disclosure, to state that last year I was offered an interview and I declined as I did not want to appear partial: had I the certainty to interview at least a couple of the other candidates I would have done so but it seems that Leopoldo’s team is the only one truly aware of the influence of Internet. Also, I thought my blog was not the best way to gain voters in Venezuela, nor should it be used for that unless I decided to endorse someone. But now that Leopoldo Lopez is out of the race I was interested.  To my surprise they agreed to organize a meeting. I was interested now because great men are measured in their hour of trouble and as far as I could see Monday night Leopoldo Lopez is measuring up and has what it takes to build his political future.

I am putting below in Spanish the quotes from the interview that I used, as they appear in the text, in the native Spanish. In case someone disagrees with my translations. Those are the benefits of a blog over a newspaper, in addition of the length of the interview I may want to publish.

“internet hoy tiene una altísima penetración en todas las clases sociales”.

“tiene una penetración especialmente elevada [ ] en los sectores más populares y empobrecidos en los jóvenes”

“una manera de mantener siempre un termómetro de que se está pensando”

“permite mantener una línea editorial muy clara,”

“autónoma, democrática sobre los temas de una forma inmediata”

“me interesaba que en tiempo real se pudiese comunicar lo que estábamos haciendo nosotros”.

“Hoy, la pagina web es un “hub” que te vincula con todas las informaciones que se tiene. No es que twitter sea mejor que la pagina, o el facebook mejor, o que el youtube sea … es un todo que tiene que ir integrándose con las nuevas tecnologías que vayan viniendo”

“gente de carne y hueso electa para funciones concretas en nuestra organización”

“muchos de los activistas que están hoy en día en voluntad popular llegaron por la vía twitter”

“a los que están fuera de Venezuela les digo que en este momento Venezuela está a un paso de comenzar una nueva etapa, no es la substitución de un gobierno por gobierno sino el inicio de una nueva etapa.”

“es una alianza que se ubica claramente en el progresismo [---]todos los derechos para todos”

“el eje que está planteado actualmente en Venezuela es el del progreso o del retroceso”

PS: the interview is published later than expected because I have been waiting for a "special picture" . Since it was night and we were in his car it was not a suitable scenery.  But Lopez has been out of Caracas everyday and my contact simply could manage it.  I will post it when I get it.  You'll see, hopefully.