Ex-mayor of Caracas who escaped Venezuela heads to Miami to talk opposition strategy

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in Madrid. Ledezma wants to help renew the Venezuelan opposition.
Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in Madrid. Ledezma wants to help renew the Venezuelan opposition. Courtesy

Former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who escaped from Venezuela two weeks ago after nearly three years in prison and under house arrest, is urging the opposition to find new leaders and cancel negotiations with the government.

In a telephone interview with el Nuevo Herald, Ledezma said reshaping the opposition requires the participation of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who live in exile — many in Miami — and can help their country emerge from one of the darkest chapters of its history.

He’s set to speak Friday afternoon at Florida International University at an event sponsored by the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad.

“We are proposing a process for establishing a true unity. … It is important that we can all organize to establish a single strategy,” Ledezma said earlier this week from Washington, D.C., following an escape that he described as “like in the movies.”

“We have to define an agenda for the struggle, so that everyone abroad, the millions of us living in exile, can become a powerful force that opens the way to freedom for Venezuela,” he said.

Ledezma, 62, met this week with Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro.

He was arrested in February 2015, spent several months in the Ramo Verde military prison on the outskirts of Caracas and was later placed under house arrest.

Mitzy Capriles, center, wife of former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, holding his picture during an anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Aug. 19, 2015. Xinhua TNS

Despite that, Ledezma remained active in the opposition and argued strongly against the controversial negotiations with President Nicolás Maduro's government taking place in the Dominican Republic.

Agreeing to the talks was a grave mistake, he told el Nuevo Herald, and the opposition must now change its leadership to stop repeating the kinds of mistakes that are helping Maduro remain in power.

The negotiations have only helped to distract the opposition and the international community as the Maduro government grows stronger through repression and a dismantling of democracy, Ledezma said.

“The opposition suffers with every step because they are steps toward an abyss, steps that do not lead to an effective solution of the crisis,” he added.

Venezuela's opposition is asking demonstrators to shut down all traffic for two hours Friday to protest the point-blank shooting death by the national guard of a 22-year-old man identified as David Vallenilla on Thursday.

And those missteps are costing lives, he said, as Venezuela grapples with hyperinflation and severe shortages of food and medicine.

“For every minute that parody of a dialogue goes on, one Venezuelan will die from hunger,” he said. “Every minute they spend talking about whether they will use indelible ink and voting machines in rigged elections will mean one human being dead in Venezuela for lack of medicine.”

The negotiations, as currently designed, mean the process is condemned to failure, repeating the previous steps that only served to give Maduro the oxygen he needed to continue maneuvering, the former mayor said.

The opposition's agenda is focused on the conditions for eventual presidential elections, but he said the government is going to win through fraud.

“The only thing that will happen [with the elections] is the tyranny's consolidation of its power,” Ledezma predicted.

Ledezma also spoke at a press conference held at a Doral hotel Friday morning, saying that Maduro has begun an internal political purge to consolidate his power within the regime — reflected in the recent firing and arrest of his oil minister, Eulogio del Pino, and Nelson Martinez, chief of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA.

That opens the door to an internal feud between a group of Maduro loyalists and others who were close to former President Hugo Chávez but have fallen out of favor, he said.

“That is the fight that is taking place right now,” Ledezma told journalists.

He likened the arrests of Del Pino and Martinez to “the purges that Stalin conducted [in the former Soviet Union] to fill the vacuum caused by Lenin’s death,” he added.

Except that there aren’t any traces of ideology in this fight, he said, calling it instead “a clash between criminal gangs, between bandits, that are fighting among themselves over the booty.”

Del Pino and Martínez were arrested Thursday, four days alter being fired by Maduro, who complained of the rampant corruption within the administration.

Ledezma also said in the interview that he considered himself a hostage of the government when he was detained, and decided to escape because of fears that he would be returned to Ramo Verde as he continued his attacks on the negotiations.

He slipped across the border into Colombia and told reporters there that his escape had been like something out of a movie. “We had to pass through 29 checkpoints by the National Guard and police, but God is great,” he said.

A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.

Ledezma told el Nuevo Herald that he knew he was running a huge risk when he planned his escape, but said that's the type of decision-making the opposition needs in times of a dictatorship. Political leaders now “not only need to know how to make a speech and participate in conferences, but they also must have the audacity to do those kinds of thing,” he said.

“You have to risk it, and I risked it,” Ledezma said.

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM

Friday's event at FIU, 11200 SW 8th St., will in building RB 120 at 4 p.m. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. It will be held in Spanish. For more information, call 305-794-9951 or 305-348-2894.