Leo Lopez: Kenyon grad, Venezuelan politician
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2007
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
We all know that that an American president attended Kenyon, but who knew about a Venezuelan mayor? Leo Lopez, '93 returned to campus last Tuesday, and Honors Day hasn't been so exciting since class got shortened. A great-great-grandson of Venezuela's first president as well as a descendant of South American liberator Simon Bolivar, Lopez spent nine years in the United States before he returned to Venezuela to become one of its youngest and most influential politicians, as well as one of Kenyon's sexiest and most accomplished graduates.
Lopez earned a master's degree at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government after graduating from the College with honors in sociology and a concentration in IPHS. After graduate school, he worked as an economic consultant to a Venezuelan oil company and as an economics professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello. In 1999, he had the opportunity to join a constituent assembly to reshape the institutional framework of Venezuela. The very next year, he was elected mayor of the city of Chacao in 2000 and won a landslide re-election in 2004.
"I decided between a stable job and politics," recalled Lopez. "And I chose politics. It was an irrational idea driven by faith." Currently, Lopez leads Un Nuevo Tiempo, a political party in opposition to the government of Hugo Chavez. His campaigns for reform have already resulted in three attempts on his life and being barred from re-election until 2012.
"My best friend died in my arms during one of the assassination attempts," Lopez said. "The government basically told me, 'Oppose me, and there will be consequences.' An authoritarian government attacks you in three ways: legally, using processes without justice; physically, using murder and kidnap; and morally, by controlling all the television, newspaper and radio stations. They have used all three to try and stop my efforts," said Lopez, who holds his current position as mayor until 2008. "But politics is about hope, not about holding elected office." This has not stopped him from using his elected office to its full potential to help reform the most violent city in the Americas.
"Forty percent of Chacao men between the ages of 14 and 30 usually die by fighting in the streets. Seventeen thousand are murdered per year," he said. But he said he sees even this as an opportunity for reform. "We need to develop programs for these men, providing sports and culture to eliminate the violence," he said. "You must recognize the need for organization, that these things will not happen by the Holy Spirit."
Lopez advocates a reform that uses social capital, which builds trust by developing the well-being of the community through interactions between its members. "I'm permanently promoting more social interaction. Organizing people is giving people tools for social change," said Lopez. "I even organized the elderly and asked what they wanted to be called, other than 'senior citizens.' They decided to define themselves as the 'prolonged youth.' It's giving the people tools to feel more included in the community."
"First semester [at Kenyon] I went a little crazy," said Lopez. "I pledged a fraternity for about two days then decided that it wasn't for me. But then the sociology department and especially Professor [of Sociology George] McCarthy helped me buckle down. I founded a group called ASHES: Active Students Helping the Earth Survive. I am still trying to implement some of these ideas of sustainability today in my country. At Kenyon, ideas actually matter. They encourage you to engage in a dialogue with what you're learning," he said.
Lopez said he never doubted that he would return to Venezuela. "It's not for everyone," Lopez said. "My sister stayed here and is now happily married in San Francisco, doing great altruistic work there, but I needed to go home to make the changes."
"Don't be rational about choices," advises Lopez. "Just the strategies you use to get them. Irrational faith is more important than rationalizing what you're doing."