Andres Oppenheimer

Hey, Maduro: Imprisoning opposition leaders will only embolden those who hate dictators

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to imprison opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma will not help his beleaguered regime. On the contrary, it may backfire.

Judging from what I’m hearing from well-placed Latin American and U.S. diplomats, the Maduro regime’s incarceration of the two internationally known politicians — who were under house arrest serving long sentences on phony government charges — has infuriated leaders across the world.

The Aug. 1 arrests, as well as the revelation a day later by the CEO of the Smartmatic voting technology firm that the Venezuelan regime had rigged his company’s count of the government-convened July 30 vote for a Constituent Assembly, is likely to move more countries to take a stronger stand against the Maduro dictatorship.

“It will have an important impact,” Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz told me in a telephone interview, referring to the late-night raids by security forces into the two opposition leaders’ homes, and their return to prison. “This can’t go on. There can’t be more arrests, and violation of the rule of law.”

López, the Harvard-educated leader of the opposition Voluntad Popular party, is Latin America’s best-known political prisoner.

His wife, Lilian Tintori, a former TV anchorwoman, has been leading an international campaign for his release since he was first jailed in 2014. She has met with President Donald Trump and the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Peru and several other countries to share her husband’s story, and to press them for greater pressure for a return to democracy in Venezuela.

It’s hard not to be moved by the López couple’s story. During his three years in a military prison — until he was transferred to house arrest three weeks ago — López was often denied permission to see his children, Manuela, 8, and Leopoldo, 4. In a pre-taped video released by his family after his reincarceration this week, López — holding hands with his wife — announced that the couple is expecting a third child.

Ledezma also is a well-known international figure. He was the democratically elected mayor of Caracas, until the late President Hugo Chávez created a Venezuelan Capital District that cut the mayor’s budget and stripped him of all powers. Ledezma was imprisoned in 2015, and sent home under house arrest for health reasons shortly thereafter.

When the foreign affairs ministers of Latin America’s largest countries meet Aug. 8 in Lima, Peru, to discuss the Venezuelan crisis, they will surely be influenced by the latest developments.

More countries may join Mexico and Panama in following the United States and slap financial and visa sanctions against top Venezuelan officials. Others, like Chile, will continue pressing for a credible mediation in Venezuela’s political crisis, but this time adding — as Muñoz told me — the requirement that any such negotiations be “to permit the return of a democratic order that has been broken.”

Skeptics say that none of this will help bring down the Maduro government, and that the latest moves by Maduro show that the Venezuelan dictator has decided to burn his bridges, and turn the country into a Cuba-style dictatorship.

Maduro surely would want that, but I don’t think he will get away with it. Venezuela is not an island, like Cuba. And this is not 1959, when there was a Soviet Union able to bankroll bankrupt anti-American regimes.

Unlike what happened in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, polls show that about 80 percent of Venezuelans blame Maduro for the near 1,000 percent a year inflation rate, and a more than 30 percent drop in the country’s GDP over the past three years.

And, more importantly, unlike in Cuba, the Venezuelan people’s democratic instincts are very much alive, despite two decades of government propaganda and press censorship. More than 120 people have died in recent street protests, and demonstrators still turn out in massive numbers to participate in opposition demonstrations.

The rearrest of López and Ledezma, and the farce of Maduro’s Constituent Assembly vote, will not help Maduro buy time and weaken the street protests, as he hoped. Anything could happen, but my bet is that it will further enrage the international community, and further encourage Venezuela’s courageous opposition.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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