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Lopez ’93 a leader since Kenyon days

Lopez ’93 a leader since Kenyon days

By Madeleine Thompson

In 1990, Leopoldo López ’93 and a group of his friends pulled the fire alarms of several Kenyon residence halls to protest the United States’ invasion of Kuwait. It would not be his last act of opposition.

López is an integral leader of the opposition movement against Venezuelan socialist president Nicolás Maduro, and has been in jail since last week on charges of inciting violence during protests. A sociology major at Kenyon and graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, López’s professors and friends remember him primarily as an outspoken and positive presence on the Hill.

Even at Kenyon, tumult in López’s home country was a part of his life. “It was the first day that campus opened after Spring Break, the day before everyone came back,” Claire Tisne ’93, a close friend of his, said. “I was in Peirce Hall having lunch or something and he came in and sat down with me. … I was telling him about my mundane Spring Break and then it sort of occurs to me to ask how his break was. He told me that he had been hiding under his parents’ bed in their living room pretty much the entire two weeks because the government was under some violent protest and he was absolutely terrified. … It was just so wild that we had had such emphatically different experiences.”

Tisne has kept in touch with López since they graduated, becoming better friends with him after Kenyon. López has visited her in New York before and Tisne has travelled to Venezuela to visit him in Caracas, where he lives with his wife and two children.

At Kenyon, López took classes in economics, political science and the Integrated Program in Humane Studies (IPHS) in addition to sociology.

Though he was put on academic probation during his first year, he graduated with the George Herbert Mead sociology and Richard F. Hettlinger IPHS awards. In 2007 he was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Kenyon.

Professor of Religious Studies Royal Rhodes, along with Professor of Sociology George McCarthy, taught López in a class called Ethics and Social Justice. “He was an outstanding student,” Rhodes said, describing López’s intensity and passion in the classroom.McCarthy was López’s faculty advisor and taught him in several classes.

“[López] saw himself as really politically following the middle path of moderation,” McCarthy said. “He saw himself blending [sociology and political science] together, searching for some kind of moderate means.”

At Kenyon, López founded a club called Activist Students Helping Earth Survive (ASHES) and drove to Canada to pick up a four-man rowing boat in order to start a crew team. He was also involved with the Peeps O’Kenyon and Adelante. During his senior year he was one of 40 people invited to the presidential palace of then-president Ramón Velásquez to discuss the need for democracy in Venezuela following an attempted coup in the country.

Rhodes said the López had an interest in the religious side of social movements.

“He’s a real firebrand,” said Sarah Gimbel ’93, a friend of López’s and a clinical assistant professor of global health at the University of Washington. “He’s extremely charismatic, [a] thoughtful guy but also really passionate about politics,” Gimbel said. “It’s just kind of disheartening to hear … so many people refer to him as ultra right-wing.”

López’s troubles have “galvanized a lot of the alums,” McCarthy said. “One even said … maybe we could talk to the contacts at the State Department. … That’s the real positive side of all this negative nonsense.”

A distant relative of Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolivar, López comes from a wealthy family in Caracas, where he was born, and had politics in his blood. “I had no idea, at least initially when he was a student, his kind of background and connections,” Rhodes said.

López’s penchant for leadership emerged early. Even before Kenyon, at the Hun School, in Princeton, N.J., López’s penchant for leadership was noticed early on.

López was elected student body president a mere few months after arriving in the U.S., before he spoke much English. “Being away from home created an awakening of the responsibility I have towards the people of my country,” López said in a 1989 interview for the Hun School’s newspaper. “I belong to one percent of the privileged people, and achieving a good education will hopefully enable me to do something to help my country.”

Despite his background, Tisne and Gimbel remember him as unpretentious. “He was never a snob,” Tisne said. “Although he certainly travelled in the more popular circles, he was always very open.”

Rhodes said he is confident in López’s purpose and abilities despite the criticisms that have dogged him since he came to prominence. “When I see some reports that are critical of him, saying, you know, ‘He’s an elitist’ or [that talk about] his background as an oligarch, I just laugh because they don’t know Leo,” Rhodes said. “They put him in this kind of frame and that’s not who he is. It was always about the people of Venezuela.”

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