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Leopoldo López flees Venezuela vowing to continue fighting Maduro regime

The prominent opposition activist Leopoldo López has abandoned the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas and left Venezuela after years of frustrated efforts to oust the nation’s socialist president, his party has said.

The 49-year-old former Caracas area mayor had been holed up at the ambassador’s residence since a failed military uprising he led in April 2019 aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro. He has been jailed, under house arrest or in a foreign embassy refuge for nearly seven years.

“We won’t rest and we’ll continue working day and night to attain the freedom that we Venezuelans all deserve,” López wrote late on Saturday. He said the decision to leave had not been simple and that more details on plans for democratic change in Venezuela would be announced in coming days.

In a statement from Popular Will, the party López founded, leaders confirmed he had left the country to continue his work from abroad in a decision they deemed “best for the country and the fight for Venezuela’s freedom”.

“After seven years of persecution and unjust imprisonment inside Venezuela, Leopoldo López is still not totally free, like all Venezuelans, so long as there exists a dictatorship that violates the human rights of the people,” the party said.

It is unclear how López left the ambassador’s residence, given the heavy state security presence permanently stationed outside. Travel by land has grown increasingly difficult because of widespread fuel shortages. Filling up a vehicle can take hours if not days and checkpoints manned by security forces have proliferated across the country.

In a message directed to Maduro on Twitter, the US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó said his political mentor had gotten out of Venezuela by “evading your repressive apparatus”.

He added that López’s efforts to remove Maduro would continue from abroad as part of the opposition strategy to garner international support.

There was no immediate reaction from Venezuelan authorities.

López was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison after being convicted of inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded. He was released from prison and placed under house arrest after more than three years in a military jail.

Even from his confines, López has remained an influential figure in Venezuela’s opposition, advising Guaidó, who claims he is the country’s interim president because Maduro’s 2018 re-election was not legitimate.

But after drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets last year, the opposition has struggled to regain momentum. Maduro remains firmly in control of the nation’s military and nearly all other government institutions.

López’s flight is likely to be held up by the government as a trophy as it prepares to retake control of the National Assembly in December legislative elections that Guaidó has vowed to boycott. López had long stubbornly refused to leave, even when his wife and children fled to Spain last year.

He now joins dozens of anti-government politicians who have fled Venezuela over recent years, many leaving covertly to avoid potential persecution or jail time.

“It’s probably the clearest sign that the continued opposition effort to unseat Maduro has floundered that a committed stay-in-Venezuela leader like López has chosen to finally leave,” said Raul Gallegos, a Colombia-based analyst at Control Risks consultancy.

López pursued a strategy in 2014 known as “The Exit,” consisting of street protests months after Maduro was elected. The strategy failed and ultimately divided the opposition.

He sought allies among his former jailers in the military and in 2019 reappeared on a highway overpass with a small band of national guardsmen calling for an uprising against Maduro. The putsch was easily quashed and López took refuge in the ambassador’s residence.

His departure comes just days after Spain’s ambassador Jesus Silva – who has been the dean of Caracas’ dwindling diplomatic community and a firm backer of López – was recalled by Spain’s leftist government to Madrid after serving for four years.

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