LEOPOLDO LOPEZ

Don’t forget us, Venezuela’s exiled opposition leader tells the world

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The exiled leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Leopoldo Lopez, has issued a call to the democratic world not to forget the plight of his country. In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, the former mayor of Chacao in Caracas and until recently the most famous political prisoner in Latin America – who will be in Athens this week speaking at the Symi Symposium as a guest of former Greek prime minister and president of Socialist International George Papandreou – says that “the situation in Venezuela is getting worse every day.”

“Thousands of people are fleeing every day,” he tells Kathimerini. “Almost 7 million Venezuelans have been forced to emigrate. It is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America.”

Venezuela “has collapsed,” he explains, “not because of war or natural disaster, but because of a man-made catastrophe, a political model based on state control and corruption that has forced millions of people into poverty. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela, once the most prosperous country in Latin America, is now the poorest – poorer even than Haiti.”

Big swaths of the country’s territory, the 50-year-old activist continues, “are under the control of irregular organizations – different interest groups, armed groups, terrorist organizations… The state is part of a network of organized crime that includes drug trafficking, smuggling, money laundering and so on. It is a failed state that is engaged in violations of human rights on a massive scale. This is something we have been saying for years, but it has now been certified in a concrete way by the United Nations. The International Criminal Court is also about to publish a report on Venezuela, which could lead to the first prosecution of a sitting head of state for crimes against humanity.”

Authoritarian alliance

Given this parlous state of affairs, how does he explain Nicolas Maduro’s political survival? “One of the main reasons is the international alliance that supports him,” Lopez responds. “These are countries which are hostile to democracy – China, Russia, Iran, Turkey – and that were not traditionally close allies of Venezuela. Now they have an outsized role in the economic and political life of the country. The support that Maduro gets from his allies is much stronger than what we get from the democratic countries. Diplomatic support, public statements, are important – but they are not enough. Maduro gets economic support, he gets military assistance, he gets help with the illegal extraction, refining and sale of gold, etc.”

Internally, he adds, the crucial factor has been the support the regime still retains among the “regular and irregular” armed forces. At the end of April 2019, Lopez and his political protege, Juan Guaido, attempted to spark a rebellion against the regime with the backing of the army, but it quickly ended in failure.

“It was logical for us to ask for the support of the armed forces,” he says, defending the strategy. “We are calling on them to support the demand for free and fair elections.” Lopez blames the recent lull in protests on the pandemic and the restrictive measures it necessitated, combined with shortages of gasoline and poor telecommunications infrastructure. All this, he says, makes it “particularly challenging” to organize the activity of the movement. “Nevertheless, two days ago [on July 5] we started a new round of mobilization, with protests all over the country.” He admits that, more than two years since Guaido proclaimed himself – and was widely recognized abroad – as the legitimate president of the country, the failure to dislodge Maduro has contributed to the falling popularity of the young opposition leader. Lopez insists, though, that Guaido remains the most popular politician in Venezuela.

Prospects of negotiations

Does he see any real willingness for meaningful concessions on the part of the regime? How can the stalemate in the negotiations be broken? “The only way to achieve change in Venezuela is for the negotiations to lead to a timeline for free and fair elections,” Lopez emphasizes. “So far they have failed mainly because of the unwillingness of the regime to commit, but other factors played a part also. One was the fact that in the past we had set many different objectives, with the result that none was discussed as it was supposed to be. Now we are focusing very specifically on a timeline for elections. The second issue is that there has never been a true engagement of the international community. We are now asking our main allies, the US and Europe, to become actively engaged in the negotiations. Especially the United States, which has a key role in the talks about possible guarantees and the potential lifting of sanctions [against the regime].”

Lopez, who went to high school and university in the US, declares himself very satisfied with his recent talks with American officials. The Biden administration, he says, “continues to support political change in Venezuela. They have made clear that there will be no lifting of sanctions unless the regime takes meaningful steps towards democratization. The [Maduro] dictatorship was hoping for at least a partial lifting of sanctions. This has not happened – and will not happen.” The key difference of the Biden approach compared to that of his predecessor is precisely the willingness to engage in “a multilateral diplomatic process,” he explains, with the participation of all countries that could contribute to the conclusion of a political agreement.

Is he as satisfied with the European stance? How does he view the way Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, has handled the Venezuelan file? What about the policy of the Socialist government of Spain, where he currently resides?

“We have some disagreements with the incremental approach of Mr Borrell. We believe that the negotiations should lead to a timeline for parliamentary and presidential elections, while the high representative at times seems to be focusing on other matters which don’t lead to real change.”

Lopez is particularly critical of the mediating role of the former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero, calling him “an advocate of the dictatorship.” Indeed he voices concern that the Zapatero approach remains influential within the Spanish Foreign Ministry, leading to “priority being given to stabilizing the dictatorial regime over the transition to democracy.”

‘I hope to return soon’

Lopez spent three years (2014-17) in military prison for his role in leading anti-government protests, and two more under home arrest. He was temporarily freed during the uprising of April 30, 2019, but after it was suppressed, he sought refuge at the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. From there, he escaped to Spain, and exile, in October 2020. The Maduro regime has asked Madrid for his extradition so that he can serve the remaining eight years of his 14-year sentence. Does he plan to return to Venezuela, even at the risk of finding himself back in prison?

“Yes, I am prepared to take the necessary risks – and I hope to return soon to Venezuela,” he replies, reminding me that in 2014 he voluntarily turned himself in to the authorities. “And there are lots of people today in Venezuela who continue to risk their freedom fighting for democracy – starting with President Guaido, who is still there and is walking the streets of Venezuela, despite the fact that the regime continues to say it will do whatever it takes to silence the voices of opposition.”