On the day of his 43rd birthday, Leopoldo López was not allowed to see his family. The popular opposition leader has been imprisoned in Venezuela since February under trumped-up government charges that he is leading a violent movement against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.
López is the face of the “Voluntad Popular” party, which has inspired mass demonstrations, mostly with university students who are frustrated by the disastrous economic policies that have bankrupted the once-wealthy country. Tragically, the protests have turned violent as Maduro’s forces try to coerce and disband the unarmed protesters.
Officially, 42 have been killed and 800 injured. More than 2,000 students have been illegally detained. Human Rights Watch has denounced the systematic repression of the protesters and found evidence that many students were physically and psychologically abused — and in some cases tortured.
Still, the students are not cowed, and neither is Leopoldo López, according to his wife, Lilian Tintori. “Leopoldo has been unjustly imprisoned in a military jail for raising his voice, for dreaming of a different Venezuela, a country where people’s needs are met and problems solved,” says Tintori. “That is the only reason that he is jailed.”
López has done that and more. He has shown that Maduro is a clumsy and incompetent dictator incapable of managing the country’s basic needs. Food shortages, spiraling inflation and violence are the norm in this once self-sufficient country.
For López, that is unacceptable. He challenges Venezuelans to be true to their values and rich history by rejecting the status quo and restoring the true rule of law. He knew he would be arrested for that, but rather than flee, as many do, López turned himself in. It is a huge political gamble that could cost him dearly.
“Leopoldo is convinced that the steps he took were necessary to wake up Venezuelans who had grown disillusioned and resigned to a country where the needs of the people do not matter, the crime and violence is rampant and the economy is in shambles,” says Tintori. “The university students who are peacefully protesting deserve a country with a strong economy that creates jobs.”
Despite the fact that he is in solitary confinement and not allowed to receive visitors and mail — or even mingle with other prisoners — his spirits are strong, Tintori assured me.
“Leopoldo is very strong spiritually, physically and mentally. He spends most of his time reading philosophy, economics, the history of Venezuela and liturgical readings from El Pan de la Palabra Diaria.” Although they are a faithful family, it is clear to them that the sacrifices they endure and the injustices they suffer are not unique: Many Venezuelan families face similar situations.
“The problem of one is the problem of all,” says Tintori. “Someone is killed in Venezuela every 20 minutes. Sadly, life in my country is not valued.” She says that she speaks on behalf of all Venezuelan women who wish for a peaceful and prosperous country where one does not live in fear.
“What is at stake in Venezuela is democracy versus dictatorship,” she says. “People need to know what is happening in Venezuela because it can happen to anywhere in the world.”
But that does not mean she is looking for international intervention in her country, even though Cuba has, for all practical purposes, annexed Venezuela. What pro-democracy groups in Venezuela need is international support to give them the overwhelming moral and political strength to go forward.
So far, they are receiving bipartisan support from the U.S. Senate. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee in that chamber, said that “the government of Venezuela is hiding behind executive and judicial authority to repress political opposition and justice is denied to the innocent victims of the violence.” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for the Obama administration to impose sanctions against government officials responsible for the abuse.
It’s a start, but time is of the essence.
Tintori says: “The government is afraid because we represent the truth, we stand on what Leopoldo calls the right side of history, we dream of a better country where peace and progress work hand in hand.”
Although she tells me she is not a politician, Tintori says that she is finding her political voice. Fortunately, it is being heard loud and clear.