Leopoldo López was once touted as a future leader of Venezuela, a young and appealing opposition figure who could have challenged President Hugo Chávez in next year's presidential election. After serving as mayor of Chacao, a major commercial district of the capital, from 2000 to 2008 — he won his 2004 re-election with 81% of the vote — the Harvard-educated López was poised in 2008 to run for mayor of all Caracas, with a 65% lead in the polls. But López was stopped in his tracks when he, together with more than 300 other Venezuelan politicians, were declared "inhabilitados" by Chávez's comptroller general, and disqualified from seeking public office until 2014 because they were supposedly guilty of corruption in their past.
Not surprisingly, say Chávez critics, 80% of those disqualified were opposition politicos. And, like López, most have never been formally charged, let alone convicted of any crime. That prompted López and other inhabilitados to take their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica, arguing that both the Venezuelan Constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights hold that only those who've been formally convicted of crimes can be prevented from running for election. Last week, López, 39, finally got to testify before the IACHR. "This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to present my case in front of impartial judges," he told TIME afterward, insisting that Chávez "has developed a strategy to destroy democracy" by keeping his foes from seeking office.
Chávez supporters say the inhabilitado law is meant to keep Venezuela's former kleptocracy — which had for decades prior to Chávez winning power in 1999 pillaged the wealth of a country with the western hemisphere's largest oil reserves — from returning to power. But the case against López is hardly that clear-cut. It stems from his work at the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), in the late 1990s when López's mother headed PDVSA's public affairs office and often authorized company donations to charities and civic groups. One of those grants went to Primero Justicia (Justice First), a judicial reform advocacy group and political movement to which her son belonged. PDVSA executives in those days had been notorious for enriching relatives and cronies — although critics say under Chávez, it's simply become a political patronage ATM for his supporters. But it's questionable whether the Primero Justicia grant constitutes a criminally corrupt act that merits barring López from elections.
Some 800 Venezuelans have been declared inhabilitados since 2007. One of them, Manuel Rosales, a popular former governor of oil-rich Zulia state who lost to Chávez in the 2006 election, took political asylum in Peru in 2009 to escape corruption charges, claiming there was no chance for a fair trial in his home country. "My case is not isolated," says López. "It represents the reality of hundreds of Venezuelans that have been disqualified without due process."
The inhabilitado scheme may be legally dubious, but Chávez has been able to get away with it politically because many of its targets are associated with the corrupt old guard. In the past few years, however, Chávez's own government has faced increasing corruption accusations — including the so-called suitcase scandal involving $800,000 that a PDVSA-connected entrepreneur was caught ferrying to Argentina in 2007, purportedly as a government political donation to then presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez, who is now President. Chávez's disqualification of opposition pols seems more hypocritical to many Venezuelans as a result.
Either way, the government has said it may not abide by the IACHR's ruling on Venezuela's inhabilitado law, which is not expected for months. Venezuela's representative at the court, Germán Saltron, and Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russian both said recently that the Venezuelan Supreme Court will have the final say and will only apply the IACHR ruling if it's deemed constitutional. If Venezuela rejects a verdict against the inhabilitado process, says Jordy Enrique Moncada, a lawyer for López's political party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), the opposition will then ask the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene.
López can claim blood lineage to Simón Bolivar, Venezuela's and South America's 19th-century independence hero in whose name Chávez claims to wage his revolution. But even if his inhabilitado status were reversed, Venezuela's opposition is not sufficiently unified to make López serious threat in the 2012 presidential election. "López is one of the most important young political leaders in Venezuela today," says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. "However, some parts of the opposition don't like López and would like to see him out of the running. There is not much solidarity."
Indeed, there are at least seven presidential candidates, all embarking on tours of Venezuela and organizing their own campaign teams. With primary elections slated for later this year, they have little time to unite behind an opposition standard-bearer. If they don't, they'll leave Chávez, who despite a limping economy and rampant violent crime is still the most popular political figure in Venezuela today, all but untouchable.