Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez faces a new challenge – a charismatic opposition politician who believes he will soon be mayor of Caracas. But can Leopoldo López bring peace to a city where an estimated 52 people are murdered every day?
In eight years of running Chacao, a wealthy municipality of Caracas, 37-year-old Leopoldo López has become one of Venezuela’s most popular mayors. Last November, he led the opposition that stopped President Hugo Chávez changing the constitution, and this November he hopes to be elected to mayor of the whole of Caracas. López claims Chávez’s revolutionary policies – including improving the quality of life of the poor – have failed. But then he would. He is a Harvard-educated member of the white political elite that ran Venezuela until Chávez’s election in 1998. He belongs to the same family that produced the first president. He tells Monocle he has no ambitions to run Venezuela yet – but is convinced he can beat the crime and the potholes of Caracas.
Monocle: What are the biggest problems Caracas faces?
Leopoldo López: The main issue is safety. Caracas has become one of the most violent cities in Latin America [an estimated 6,000 people were killed in Caracas in 2006, but the government stopped giving official figures in 2003]. The most important thing is to offer alternatives, such as sport, education and jobs, to the protagonists of violence.
M: What has Chávez done that has improved the quality of life for poor people?
LL: The most important thing he did for the poor is take them into consideration. The perfect example is a famous programme using Cuban medical doctors in the poor sectors. The idea is good, but execution is inefficient and politicised and four years later, many of the walk-in clinics that were supposed to provide basic health checks have closed. It’s over. Also, if you consider that the price of oil has soared and today it’s well over $100 a barrel, the government is not efficient at addressing issues related to the people. One of our proposals is that Caracas should have access to 1 per cent of oil income. He’s not doing much for transport in Caracas but he did great things for transport in London. He subsidised public transport in London by €20m a year and we’re not investing the same amount in Caracas. [Boris Johnson, London’s new mayor, announced the end of the Chávez deal in May.]
M: Is it safe to oppose Chávez?
LL: I can tell you from my own experience – I’ve had three murder attempts and I’ve been kidnapped once, in 2005. And no one has been prosecuted. Somebody specifically tried to kill me and I am absolutely certain that somebody linked to government is responsible for the planning of this. We need to be organised to stop things getting worse.
M: Would you ultimately want to be the leader of Venezuela?
LL: For now I’m the best qualified [person] to run the city and that’s why I’m running for mayor. Right now, I’m solving the problems of the city. That’s my focus, and one needs to focus.
M: What is your vision for transport in Caracas and Chacao?
LL: Caracas has become a car park – the average speed at peak times is 5km/h. Caracas needs to improve mobility. Caracas is also a very violent city in its relationship between drivers and so we have developed education policies for drivers. And we are creating the infrastructure for more of a pedestrian culture: Caracas has a perfect climate and good topography but nobody thinks of walking. Finally, we need to redevelop the public transport and integrate the poor neighbourhoods so they have access by metro to Caracas.
M: What are the key urban challenges in your municipality?
LL: After crime and roads, it’s waste and the environment. Caracas hasn’t developed effective systems for collecting rubbish. In Chacao, we have found efficient ways of waste disposal and collection. The government has not invested in either vehicles to collect rubbish or places close to the city where it can be sorted and taken elsewhere for disposal.
M: How has Chacao changed in the eight years since you’ve been mayor?
LL: Everywhere else in Caracas, crime is increasing but in Chacao we have managed to bring crime rates down. And we’ve had a profound reform of our municipal police by taking the best experiences of different countries. From Spain, we took the idea of policing through neighbourhood watch; from New York, the emphasis on crime rates developed by former mayor Rudi Guiliani, where we set weekly goals to reduce the crime rate.
M: How else have you increased quality of life in Chacao?
LL: We have started a programme for the elderly called the Prolonged Youth programme. Every morning there are tai chi classes in squares around the city. Thousands of elderly people now do tai chi every day.
Founded as a city: 1567
Population: oil was discovered here in 1914 but Caracas’s population didn’t explode until Venezuela’s oil boom of the 1970s – taking the city’s population from 350,000 to just under five million today.
Average high temp: 27C
Average low temp: 17C
Main industries: petroleum, finance, chemicals, textiles, rubber, cement and steel factories.
Born: Caracas, 1971.
Lineage: great great grandson of Venezuela’s first president, Cristóbal Mendoza and the great nephew (fifth generation) of Simón Bolívar, leader of Venezuela’s battle for liberation from Spanish rule.
Education: economics at Kenyon College, Ohio; Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Master of Public Policy.
Employment: economist at PDVSA (state-owned oil company); professor of economics at Catholic University of Andrés Bello; served on board of directors of opposition political party Justice First; elected mayor of Chacao in 2000.