Political activist Leopoldo López sacrificed his freedom to oppose the oppressive Venezuelan regimes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Now in exile, he continues to speak out for democracy worldwide.
The fragile institution of democracy is under threat in many places around the globe. Its grand promises of equal representation in the affairs of nations, along with human and civil rights, freedom of expression and religion, and the protection of the rights of minority voices, are being undermined by so-called populist movements from both the left and right wings of the political spectrum.
From Eastern Europe and Asia to both North and South America, we are witnessing a gradual erosion of democratic norms, even in countries we might have thought to be bulwarks of democracy. As a case in point, consider the situation in Venezuela. An independent nation since 1830, and generally ruled for more than 120 years thereafter by a long series of oligarchies and “strong man” dictators, Venezuela instituted important democratic reforms in the mid-20th century.
As the century neared its end, it seemed the masses of the underclass finally had a champion in populist left-wing candidate Hugo Chávez. When Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, he described himself as “a man of the left” who had come to power to challenge right-wing elites. He pledged to improve – by revolutionary means, if necessary – living standards for the common people of Venezuela, who had suffered under previous governments.
Chavez was successful in the early years of his presidency and was able to transform services to the poor and needy by making access to education, food, and health care more affordable. Largely buoyed by the escalating prices of Venezuela’s prime export, petroleum, he established services that succeeded in narrowing the income gap between rich and poor, improving literacy, and reducing poverty.
However, basic structural problems were caused by a tax structure that advantaged wealthy Venezuelans. When oil prices fell, so did tax revenues, and there was little other income the state had to prop up its economy. Chávez soon canceled his progressive programs. Instead, he began to use his powers in a more authoritarian manner, suppressing press coverage of his presidency and jailing or exiling his political rivals.
For a deeper – and broader – dive into the crisis of contemporary democracy around the world, watch Dismantling Democracy on MagellanTV.
Maduro Assumes Power and the Opposition Gains a Leader
Although his personal popularity among Venezuela’s electorate was sufficient to win re-election three times, Chávez was felled by cancer early in 2013 and was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, his hand-picked vice president. Maduro continued Chávez’s autocratic policies and has been widely perceived as dictatorial in his rule.
The Maduro presidency ushered in a crisis for Venezuela that has been marked by hyperinflation and massive relocation among citizens. Increasing stress has been placed on the country’s borders as millions of refugees seek to leave the country for a better chance at a decent life.
Venezuelan refugees line the streets of border town Cúcuta, Colombia, 2018. (Source: PROVEA, via Wikimedia)
Against the country’s shift from left-wing populist rule into authoritarianism, opposition has risen among factions seeking greater autonomy and freedom for citizens. One notable voice who has worked consistently against the Chávez and Maduro regimes is American-educated politician and opposition party leader Leopoldo López. For watchers of democratic movements internationally, and particularly in South America, López’s story is inspiring.
López Faces Off Against Chavez’s and Maduro’s Administrations
López returned to his native land in 1996 after earning a bachelor’s in Economics and Sociology from Kenyon College followed by a master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2000, he entered public life with a successful run for mayor of Chacao, a municipality within Venezuela’s most populous city, Caracas.
López had caught the attention of the Chávez administration by cofounding and leading the opposition group Primero Justicia (Justice First), a civil association that became a political party, also in 2000. Once he was installed as Chacao’s mayor, he instituted several popular reforms and progressive projects in the municipality. He revitalized the area’s public health system and supported the construction of new public spaces, which ensured his re-election to a second term.
López began to garner attention beyond Chacao during a brief and unsuccessful coup attempt against Chávez in 2002. Although Chávez’s removal from office lasted only two days, during that time López took it upon himself to make a citizen’s arrest of the president’s minister of interior affairs, Ramón Chacin. Later, López distanced himself from that action to avoid reprisals against himself or his family.
But López continued to strongly oppose the Chávez regime, bringing him ongoing public attention as a leader of the pro-democracy movement. He organized demonstrations and skillfully positioned himself as a champion of economic growth and more beneficial services to advance literacy and education, among other issues. But these actions also made him a target.
López Assumes an Activist Role in Opposing Government Policies
After two terms as mayor, López continued as an outspoken public leader, opposing the policies of Chávez and, later, Maduro, and lamenting the mounting crises affecting Venezuela and its people. López was an effective organizer, first heading Primero Justicia, then, after a disagreement about that organization’s center-right direction, separating from the group. In 2009, he founded the activist association Voluntad Popular, which translates as ‘Popular Will’ or ‘Will of the People.’
Leopoldo López imprisoned in Ramo Verde, 2017. (Source: Voice of America, via Wikimedia)
Venezuela’s many problems continued to deepen, and when Nicolás Maduro replaced Chávez in 2013, problems multiplied. The nation’s economy, heavily dependent on oil exports, began a steep decline that was exacerbated by government actions, including a partial nationalization of the country’s largest oil company, stringent price controls, and restrictions on Venezuelans’ ability to access foreign currency. All these factors contributed to extreme hyperinflation in the country.
In addition, the country faced severe shortages of goods, and Venezuelans found it increasingly difficult to purchase food and other essentials. Approximately 90 percent of the population found themselves in poverty. Once so prosperous, the country topped the world’s “misery index,” beginning in 2013 and extending to today.
An impoverished Venezuelan man salvages food from a pile of garbage, 2017. (Source: Voice of America, via Wikimedia)
López blamed the country’s dire conditions on mismanagement at the highest levels of government. In response, Maduro’s administration labeled López an enemy, arresting him in 2009 on sketchy charges and prohibiting him from running for office for six years. López fought the charges and was vindicated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the country refused to abide by that decision.
López Is Incarcerated and Continues Protests from Jail
Despite his imperiled position, López maintained his role as a prominent opposition voice, leading protests in Caracas. Risking another arrest, he often appeared in street protests. In response, the government detained him again on specious charges in 2014, and he was sentenced the following year to 14 years in prison.
But imprisonment didn’t silence López. Slipping a handwritten note to his wife, Lilian Tintori, without detection by prison guards, he exhorted his followers to continue the struggle to replace the Maduro regime with a more democratic government. She spread his message widely. He wrote:
I ask you not to give up. I won’t. . . . To the police, soldiers, prosecutors, and judges: do not obey unjust orders, do not become the face of repression. To the youth, to the protesters, I ask you to stay firm against violence and to stay organized and disciplined. This is everyone’s struggle.
International human rights organizations condemned López’s imprisonment. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch characterized the case against López as “an attempt by Maduro to silence a political opponent” and declared him a prisoner of conscience. While jailed in the notorious Ramo Verde military prison, he was able to write an essay that was printed in The New York Times. In the article, titled “Even in Jail, I Will Fight for a Free Venezuela,” López detailed his conditions, including harsh treatment and long stretches in solitary confinement.
He called out the plight of other Venezuelan political prisoners and criticized the government for its many misdeeds, including barring opposition politicians from running for office; the poor performance of the country’s economy; the lack of action to alleviate hyperinflation; and, most of all, Venezuela’s loss of democracy.
López Is Released to House Arrest Yet Continues to Speak Out
With an international spotlight now on his case, and an upwelling of public protests against President Maduro’s anti-democratic policies, the government was forced to release López to house arrest in 2017. But his continued organizing and public calls for reform led the government to return him to prison that year – after raising an immediate public outcry, his stay lasted for less than a week. Back under house arrest, conditions for López became rapidly more restrictive. A squad of secret police continuously patrolled his home, his phone and digital communications were monitored, and he was threatened with yet another return to prison should he speak with any journalist.
In a lengthy essay for The New York Times Magazine, a college friend, Wil S. Hylton, described the subterfuge required for the two to be able to speak directly:
We did what little we could to be discreet. . . . [W]e used an obscure video service, which seemed . . . less likely to be a platform the police had practice hacking. . . . López wore a pair of headphones, so a conventional audio bug would only pick up his side of the conversation, and we adopted the general posture of old friends catching up.
In the article, López is quoted describing his view of a future Venezuela, one in which he could play a public role. He dreamed of stabilizing the country’s currency, the bolivar, and converting the national oil company into a trust that would directly benefit all citizens. But the situation around him continued to deteriorate as opposition parties were banned and their leaders imprisoned. With autocratic countries like Russia, China, and Cuba propping up the dictatorship, change seemed ever more remote.
López has received numerous awards for his pro-democracy activism, including the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2013 Democracy Award, and the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded in 2017 by the European Parliament.
López Manages to Flee into Exile
What Hynton could not mention in his article, if he knew of it at all, was his friend’s next response to the stress and tension of his constant monitoring under house arrest. In late April 2019, López and his family were at last able to secure release from house arrest by dissident members of the armed forces. They immediately fled to the Chilean Embassy in Caracas, where they were given temporary refuge. Soon after, they managed to move undetected from there to the Spanish Embassy, where the Spanish government resisted Venezuela’s attempts to extradite López.
The family stayed in the embassy for more than a year, during which time López conceived of a plan to exit the country. He found his way across the border to Colombia, and from there to Spain, to which his family had already escaped under unclear circumstances. Once safely abroad, López immediately resumed calling for action against the Maduro regime. “We will not rest, and we will continue working day and night to achieve the freedom that all Venezuelans deserve,” he stated.
Aftermath: Maduro Still in Power, and López Still Actively Opposing Him
To this day, Venezuela maintains the position that López illegally escaped from jail, and it has repeatedly petitioned the government of Spain to extradite him to complete his sentence. Spain has consistently rebuffed Venezuela.
López is now able to travel freely (except into his home country) and has given speeches in Europe, the U.K., and throughout the Americas promoting the need for democratic reform in Venezuela. Maduro retains an iron grip over his nation, and conditions are only worsening. The country was hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020; without an effective national health response, death rates due to the disease rose unabated.
Venezuela still suffers from rampant shortages of food and medical supplies, and the refugee crisis at the border with Colombia is heart-rending. In 2018, the Brookings Institute called Venezuela “the poster child for how the combination of corruption, economic mismanagement, and undemocratic governance can lead to widespread suffering, in a spreading humanitarian crisis.”
López Calls for ‘Freedom Alliance’ to Advocate for Democracy Worldwide
López sees the crisis of democracy in Venezuela as connected with – and emblematic of – crises affecting governments around the world. The best response to ongoing situations in Venezuela and elsewhere, he believes, is more international activism to pressure dictatorial leaders into meaningful dialogue with opposition parties, leading to democratic reform.
López has called for a worldwide movement to support democratic institutions wherever they are threatened. In an address at Stanford University in 2022, López said, “We are in a moment where we are obliged to create a freedom alliance that ignites the spirit of idealism.”
Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on various topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and modern history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.
Title Image: Leopoldo López works to get out the vote as national coordinator of Voluntad Popular, 2012. (Source: Danieldominguez19, via Wikimedia)