'Volcano of energy' Lopez roils Venezuela

Jailed opposition leader's strategy is confrontational

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CARACAS, Venezuela — What stuck most in Timothy Towell's memory was the car. When the former U.S. diplomat met with Leopoldo Lopez in September 2006, the Venezuelan opposition leader showed up in an SUV riddled with bullet holes.

"The car had been machine-gunned, with a dozen holes going right up the side, and all the old senior American diplomats and their wives were looking at it and sticking their fingers in the bullet holes," said Towell, who was in Caracas on a trip organized by the Council of American Ambassadors. He said Lopez blamed backers of then-President Hugo Chavez for the gunshots, which killed his bodyguard.

This week, Lopez, 42, found himself in another SUV. He was shoved into a police vehicle and hauled to Ramo Verde, a military prison two hours away from Caracas. The former mayor of a Caracas municipality and founder of two political parties was accused of arson and inciting crimes for his role in protests that started Feb. 12 and led to at least five deaths. He can face 10 years in jail, according to Bernardo Pulido, his lawyer.

Caracas was rocked by protests on Feb. 19 as Lopez was arraigned in a closed hearing at Ramo Verde.

"Don't surrender. I won't," Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, posted on her husband's Twitter feed on his behalf. "I don't negotiate with dictatorships."

Earlier in the night, gunshots were heard, tear gas was fired and streets were blocked by burning tires in the eighth day of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's 10-month administration, which says Lopez has plunged Venezuela into turmoil.

"You are either for the constitution or you are for violence," Maduro said Thursday in a televised speech. "Unfortunately, Leopoldo Lopez took the path of violence and immersed the country in problems."

Lopez has opted for a confrontational strategy. He refused to cancel a Feb. 18 march even when Maduro summoned his allies to also take to the streets, in a move that could have resulted in bloodshed.

Lopez became the public face of the push against the government when discontent with the fastest inflation in the world and shortages of everything from food to medicine spilled into the streets this month.

Lopez attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and received a degree in public policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. At Kenyon, he would wake up at 5 a.m. to run, said Jay Sullivan, his roommate in freshman and sophomore years.

"Leo was just a volcano of energy," Sullivan, a lawyer, said in a phone interview. "He knew everyone on the campus within a week, not only the kids but the professors, the priests, the people who worked in the dining halls, the men and women who cleaned the dorm rooms."