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By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has started down a well-worn path toward building a profile in this politically volatile country: defying the government and going to jail.
The Harvard-educated, former mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas revived an opposition movement that had stalled, kickstarting anti-government protests that have left at least six dead and landed him behind bars.
After initially accusing Lopez of murder and terrorism, authorities are now charging him on lesser counts of instigating arson, damage and criminal gatherings.
By arresting Lopez, the government had hoped to weaken the protest movement, but a stretch in prison may give Lopez some extra credibility with anti-government groups.
It certainly helped late socialist president Hugo Chavez, who served two years in jail for a failed 1992 coup, and it also helped opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was jailed for four months after being accused of being involved in a siege of the Cuban embassy in Caracas in 2002.
Lopez, who was barred from public office by a national comptroller’s ruling after he was accused of corruption, has won support among hardliners who have said creeping authoritarianism by President Nicolas Maduro has made a democratic change of government impossible.
Lopez’s imprisonment has also helped him overshadow Capriles, who months ago was the opposition’s undisputed standard bearer.
Exhuming the strategy of violent street protests, similar to those of a decade ago that failed to topple Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution, could ultimately lead the opposition down a blind alley.
“Today, more than ever, getting rid of this group of people that have kidnapped the future of Venezuelans is in your hands,” Lopez said in pre-recorded video released after his arrest widely reported, theatrical surrender to security forces in Caracas.
“Join me in the fight. I’ll be fighting as well.”
A slick and image-conscious scion of blue-blood families, Lopez studied in the United States at Kenyon College in central Ohio. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
After returning to Venezuela, he co-founded the political party Justice First, focusing on technocratic public policy in sharp contrast to Chavez’s Cuba-inspired nationalism.
During two terms as mayor of the wealthy eastern Caracas municipality of Chacao, from 2000 to 2008, Lopez helped turn the district into an oasis of order in a country where everything from traffic lights to taxes can be seen as little more than suggestions.
Residents marveled that motorcyclists accustomed to riding without helmets would don them before entering Chacao to avoid being fined.
While Chavez waxed lyrical for years about the teachings of 18th century founding father Simon Bolivar, who inspired his radical leftist project, Lopez quietly reminded Venezuelans that he was a direct descendant of Bolivar’s sister.
In 2007, he married kite-surfing champion Lilian Tintori. She appeared alongside him in a pre-recorded video statement to Venezuela that was released after his arrest on Tuesday.
Lopez was one of the most visible figures of the efforts to unseat Chavez in 2002, which included street protests, a botched coup and a two-month oil industry shutdown.
During the coup, he helped organize the illegal arrest of one of Chavez’s cabinet members, an incident frequently cited by critics as evidence that he has an authoritarian streak.
Lopez was present when police hauled the minister through a mob of angry protestors who beat him as he was ushered from a building into a waiting vehicle.
In 2002, his municipality hosted a demonstration by military officers who defected and then declared the posh Plaza Altamira a “liberated zone”, where they staged a two-month rally calling for military intervention to oust Chavez.
In 2004, before a failed recall referendum against Chavez, Lopez helped lead nearly two weeks of street protests similar to the demonstrations of recent weeks in Caracas.
Those protests helped trigger accusations by the government that the opposition was a group of violent saboteurs. Moderates today question whether the opposition is making the same mistake with the current bout of protests.
Lopez’s competent administration had by 2008 put him on track to become metropolitan mayor of Caracas, a stepping stone to the presidency. But the national comptroller, an ally of Chavez, issued a ruling blocking him from holding office because of graft accusations for which he was never tried.
The action, widely seen as an effort to derail Lopez’s political career, cemented his belief that Chavez, and later Maduro, were willing to bend laws and circumvent democracy to remain in power.
Known for being quick tempered and domineering, Lopez founded the Popular Will party after bickering with and then splitting from the leaders of his own Justice First party.
In 2012, Lopez ran in the opposition primaries to choose a presidential candidate, but he bowed out after a short time in support of Capriles over concern that the courts could prevent him from assuming office even if he won.
Lopez was furious with Capriles for calling off street protests in which nearly a dozen people died after Maduro’s election victory last April. He insisted that Capriles would have won the presidency if the opposition had stayed on the streets fomenting accusations of fraud against Maduro.
As Capriles retreated to his role of Miranda state governor, Lopez’s demands for demonstrations began to strike a chord among frustrated opposition sympathizers who, despite not having a clear strategy, insisted “something must be done.”
When students in the western state of Tachira began sporadic marches in January to protest against widespread crime, Lopez launched a national street mobilization campaign under the banner “The Exit,” referring to ending Maduro’s term in office.
“The right to take to the streets is in the constitution, and it is a historic right of the people,” Lopez said in a recent interview. “People have rebelled against systems of domination since the beginning of history.” (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)