The change now has a date” announced Venezuela’s young, charismatic leader, Leopold López, from prison as he stopped his 30-day hunger strike recently. The decision to end his protest — in which he was joined by 100 fellow strikers — was in response to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s statesman-like move to set the date of December 6, for parliamentary elections and to release several political prisoners.
Maduro considered his action as part of his efforts to engage with the U.S. government and the Vatican rather than a result of pressure from López and others.
Because of López’s courageous act, a virtuous cycle out of the desperate and dangerous pit into which Venezuela has fallen may begin. If Maduro is to pull his country back from the abyss of national collapse he needs to begin a new democratic process. That requires agreeing to a fair and honest test at the polls in December to allow for an open vote for or against constructive change.
In 2016 a newly elected democratic national assembly could begin a process of change, and the international community — including the banks — could begin to help restore Venezuela’s economic and social health.
For now, unfortunately, that virtuous cycle does not appear the most likely scenario. But as the late hero-philosopher President of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel said, “The only lost cause is the one we give up before we enter the struggle.”
The vicious cycle seems more likely. Should the government decide to keep Leopoldo and his political followers in prison; refuse to permit international observers at the election; and seek to assure the government’s continued domination of the national assembly, the country’s catastrophic downward spiral will continue. Venezuela would become even more of a pariah state and the drug cartels and criminal elements embedded in the state would continue to prosper
Leopoldo López seeks a peaceful transition. His dramatic 30-day hunger strike has increased global awareness of his decade-long democratic struggle and more-than-15 months in prison. He is idealistic, educated, determined, and stubborn in his commitment to find a way to find that peaceful transition. And yet he is humble.
As a courageous patriot and a direct descendant of Bolivar, López’s humility and personal strength remind us of Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela, both of whom we knew as we have known Leopoldo. The legendary strength of character and humility of Mandela and Havel steeled by years in prison gave them the personal stature to become democratically elected presidents in their troubled nations.
Both Havel and Mandela came from privileged backgrounds and remained singularly focused on the highest ideals for their nation. They came to office in part because the president in each of their countries concluded reluctantly that their nations were asking for change. And their decisions to accept a transition secured their place in their nation’s history.
Venezuelans can now dream again. Their history has been marked by dreams that are squandered by their leaders, from legendary Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar whose dreams were dashed by a series of repressive caudillos to Romulo Betancourt’s democratic efforts of the 1960s to establish Venezuela as the leading (and a model) democratic republic in South America. Don Romulo witnessed the gradual unraveling of his dream because of the incompetence and greed of its leaders.
Former President Hugo Chávez too dreamt of a populist government that would distribute Venezuela’s enormous riches to its poor masses. His promises gave new hope to millions of poor Venezuelans, yet Chávez’s agenda trashed the economy, increased corruption, stimulated street violence, and created a government that cannot provide even the people’s basic needs.
Venezuela has found ways to pass from one dream to the next without bloodshed.
The next few months will reveal whether Venezuela will be able to follow the high road of peaceful transition. López’s non-violent protests have demonstrated that he does not seek an overthrow of the government.
Will Maduro and his government take the necessary steps to pull his country back from the brink of political and economic disaster to restore it to the international community and to seek the support and understanding of the international community?
One of Latin America’s most heroic figures, Jose Martí, when threatened in his efforts to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule, said. “May they not bury me in darkness to die like a traitor? I am good and as a good man I will die facing the sun.” In his statement after ending his hunger strike last week, Leopoldo López said “We assumed this protest not to die but so that all Venezuelans can live in dignity.”
Venezuela is poised to begin the long process toward peaceful change. President Maduro will be the leader who makes that decision. There are other voices waiting to play a constructive moderate role, from ex-presidents of Latin America and Pope Francis to U.S. President Barack Obama. But there is one voice more eager than any other: the Venezuelan people. Is Maduro listening?
William Luers is a former American Ambassador to Venezuela and Wendy Luers is the Founder and Vice Chairman of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.