Venezuelan dissident turns to K Street for help

Venezuelan dissident turns to K Street for help
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After Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López was placed under house arrest, he found help from an old friend on K Street.

López is one of the most high profile critics of the Venezuelan government, but less well known outside of his country.

High Lantern Group, founded by Rob Gluck, a former Walt Disney executive, is working with López’s family to change that with a new campaign to raise the profile of the opposition leader.

“I’m helping his family advocate [for] his full freedom,” Gluck, who went to college with López and calls him a “close friend,” told The Hill.

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A letter addressed to López’s mother, Antonieta López, a media executive, and filed with the Justice Department, details the campaign, likening the younger López to Nelson Mandela, who fought apartheid and became South Africa’s first black president.

“To date, Leopoldo has been known as a world class leader of protest - but is not fully appreciated as a substantive leader who can unite and rebuild the country,” the engagement letter to Antonieta López says.

López was convicted on public incitement, corruption and other charges, which his supporters said were drummed up by the government. In 2015, he was sentenced to almost 14 years and immediately imprisoned, sparking protests in the country.

A member of a prominent family with roots in media and the oil industry, the Harvard-educated López is the great-great grandson of the country’s first president and served four terms as mayor of Chacao in Caracas.

While imprisoned, he’s continued to oppose the government, drawing the ire of Venezuela’s leaders.

The engagement letter says it intends to target “key opinion leaders” and portray López as a “uniter.”

“Like Mandela, he is about reconciliation, bringing all Venezuelans to a shared resolution,” it reads.

Riordan Roett, the director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said López is one of the most famous political leaders in Venezuela.

“He is an activist, a social media maven. He’s very much a person who takes to the street,” Roett says. “He is a confrontational person and does so with great success. He is very strong and has a popular following.”

Officials allowed López briefly to leave prison for house arrest for health reasons. But in August, officials returned him to prison for opposing a referendum held by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Critics say Maduro is using the referendum to rewrite the Constitution and tighten his hold on power.

Supporters gathered outside López’s home, as authorities agreed to let him return to house arrest on Aug. 5 and shouted, “Yes, we can!”

“He has all the credentials for a young brave opponent of what is a tired, thuggish government,” said Roett.

The contract says the effort will also portray López as “substantive… centered… [and] a leader the world can count on.”

The contract, which the firm says would normally come with a price tag of between $30,000 to $60,000 per month for the same kind of work, has instead been discounted by 80 percent. 

The work also includes creating a website and social media presence for López and his cause at FreeLeopoldo.com, and a weekly newsletter with updates to “keep Leopoldo front and center in the minds of the most important influencers.”

It’s an awareness campaign that could grab hold in the United States, Roett says.

“It can’t hurt, particularly in Washington where things are moving so fast that it’s very easy for something like this to drop off the radar screen, and in the context of his political future – and frankly, his safety – for his name to be out there.” 

The K Street contract comes as Maduro’s government is under increasing scrutiny from the Trump administration. The U.S. recently slapped additional sanctions on individuals and corporations in the country following the constitutional referendum.

Experts like Roett say that more could be coming and that López could find himself in the spotlight.

“Mexico gets much more attention than Venezuela does” in regards to political corruption, Roett says.

“Having done this for so many years, people get tired of some of these stories, so any new angle is good.

 

— This story was updated at 6:47 p.m.