To be a political prisoner is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, a family, or even to a larger metaphorical family, a country. However, it is an experience that grants dignity to the person imprisoned and debases those responsible for the injustice; an injustice that inspires indignation in those who were previously indifferent and those who simply looked away.
Every political prisoner in Venezuela pains me. Those who have at some point been denied medical treatment; who are imprisoned because they sent a tweet, or because they used drones during a protest, or who were tortured; those who have not been accused of anything, or are accused of crimes that do not exist; even those who risked their lives to leave the country and who face permanent political persecution wherever they go.
Among these prisoners is one that goes simply by the name of Leopoldo López, but who extraordinarily enough has come to represent them all. His crime was to bring people out to the streets and speak to them, to express the reality of what they already felt and knew to be true. In no other case was so much invested in branding someone as a criminal, so many efforts made to accuse him and denounce him, so many letters and editorials written in the media, so much pressure applied, so much torture carried out to extract confessions that would implicate him, so many international campaigns designed to change the dynamics of accusations and transform the case into something it never was, or so much false evidence used to sentence him.
The 1,000 days of imprisonment of Leopoldo López damage the entire hemisphere. They mean that the region is still not free of arbitrary rule and political persecution, that the struggles of our heroes and liberators are not complete.
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The 1,000 days also imply that the efforts and the historical achievements of our countries in favor of democracy have yet to overcome the dictatorial reflexes of those who try to hold on to power even when the popular tide has rejected them.
The tragedy of Venezuela today has seen many moments of greatness embodied by anonymous people: mothers and fathers who make enormous efforts to feed their children amid excruciating shortages, the sacrifices of the sick to overcome illnesses without medicines, the harrowing stories of those forced into exile.
But unfortunately the examples of public greatness have been scarce. One of the few is that of Leopoldo López. From his imprisonment, in the midst of loneliness, deprivation and abuse, he shows us by example that the human perspective is worth little if it focuses only on selfishness and that personal sacrifice is worthwhile when it is at the service of country, of freedom and of the democratic values that should unite us all.
The rabbi and prophet Hillel once said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Leopoldo López embodies the example of someone who has chosen to look out not only for himself, but to put the freedom of his country before his own.
Given the urgent need to restore rights and democracy in Venezuela, it is up to the government, the political class, the people and the countries of the region to answer the last of these questions: if not now, when? It is time to free Leopoldo.
Luis Almagro is secretary-general of the Organization of American States.