‘When you started your political career, in a free, democratic, prosperous Venezuela, could you have ever imagined that prison and exile would be in your future? I mean, it’s not what you signed up for, is it?” I put this question to Leopoldo López. He smiles and says that, “in a weird way,” he could imagine it, and he did sign up for it. He then explains.
When he was growing up, he took part in family gatherings on Sundays. Older relatives would talk about Eudoro López, Leopoldo’s great-grandfather. This López was an opponent of the Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez. Eudoro paid for his opposition with prison and exile.
Leopoldo López never forgot this great-grandfather. He certainly remembered him on February 18, 2014, when he, Leopoldo, was arrested — arrested by the current Venezuelan dictatorship, begun by Hugo Chávez and now headed by Nicolás Maduro.
As every Venezuelan knows — and not a few others around the world know — Leopoldo López is a leader of his country’s opposition. I have met him at the Oslo Freedom Forum, held in Miami this year. The Venezuelan exiles who are present greet him rapturously. You can understand their rapture, too. López is handsome, personable, and articulate, yes — but he is also uncommonly brave.
After we talk about his great-grandfather, Eudoro, Leopoldo tells me something else. “Yesterday, somebody asked me, ‘Do you think it was worth it, to go to prison for all those years and be separated from your wife and children?’ I took some time before answering, and I said, ‘Yes, I think it was worth it.’” And why is that? “Because, though it was a great hardship for me, and a greater hardship for my family, my children now have something that is cherishable: a sense of purpose, the willingness to fight for an idea. I can’t think of a better inheritance.”
Happiness involves more than smiles and good times, says López. “In the end, happiness is about having a sense of purpose, and my children have now been part of an experience that will make them happier and better people.”
Leopoldo López was born in 1971 to one of the most prominent families in Venezuela: a family long involved in politics, publishing, medicine, engineering, and so on. Indeed, López is a descendant — one of the few — of Simón Bolívar himself.
López was educated in the United States. He went to the Hun School of Princeton, named after its founder, John Gale Hun, who had been a math professor at Princeton University. He then went to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. And finally to Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he earned a master’s in public policy.
“Did you have a choice?” I ask him. “Did you have to enter public life, given your family background, or could you have been . . . anything?” He smiles and recalls the job interviews he had during the end of his time at Harvard. He received offers from McKinsey, to work in its Atlanta office, and from J.P. Morgan, to work in New York. The thing is: He did not want to work in either consulting or banking. He just wanted the satisfaction of having a choice — options.
He went home to Venezuela and before long was in public life. At 27, he was elected a district mayor of Caracas — mayor of Chacao, one of the capital’s five districts. Those were “super-happy years,” he says. (Eight years, two terms.) Not yet married, he threw himself into the work, effecting many reforms, of which he is proud.
Naturally, he wanted to “move up”: run for mayor of Caracas at large. He was leading in the polls. But the national government barred him from running.
He took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in Costa Rica. He won the case. But the government of Hugo Chávez simply thumbed its nose at the inter-American system.
“I had to reinvent myself,” López says. He goes on to say that he has had to do this many times. In 2009, he founded a political movement, a democracy movement, dubbed “Voluntad Popular” (“Popular Will”). Working alongside him was Juan Guaidó, who today is an opposition legislator and regarded by many as the rightful president of Venezuela.
In 2014, López led mass protests. The government was keen to get him out of the way. López faced a choice: flee the country or submit to arrest. He submitted. After the usual joke of a trial, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. López was confined in Ramo Verde, a notorious military prison.
How did he keep his mental and physical fitness? He had read a variety of prison memoirs, he tells me — memoirs such as The Road of Hope, by Nguyen Van Thuan, the Catholic prelate from Vietnam. All of these memoirs said one thing, loudly: develop a routine, and be absolutely strict about it. López took this to heart. He would do three things, every day, without fail.
“Every day, I prayed,” he says. In previous times, he had been a “mechanical Catholic,” as he puts it — sort of going through the motions. But in prison, “I learned to pray from a different perspective.” Years before, a priest had told him that people tend to pray in three circumstances: when they are afraid; when they’re in need; and when they are grateful. The prayer of gratitude is very powerful, López says.
He gave thanks for the opportunities in his life. For his parents, his wife, his children, his friends, his political movement. He gave thanks for the simplest things, such as the chance to hear birds sing, or to see a full moon. He even gave thanks for the ordeal of being a political prisoner — because he figured it would make him a better person.
So, prayer was the first thing. Then there was “intellectual fitness,” as he says. He read all he could, when his jailers allowed him to have books. In one period, he could have only the Bible — which he read from Genesis to Revelation. He also learned how to draw. And how to play the cuatro — a small guitar — before the jailers took it away from him.
Third, there was physical fitness. He exercised as much as possible.
López was imprisoned at Ramo Verde for three and a half years. For almost half of that time, he was in isolation — solitary confinement.
How did his guards treat him? Very well, at first. They liked him (as it is very hard not to do). He developed relationships with them. Many times, they asked for personal advice. There came a time when López went on hunger strike — 28 days. After that, six people were selected to guard him, and only him. Initially, they were friendly. But one day — with no warning — there was a change. A radical change.
The guards were cold and surly. They kept their distance from the prisoner. They would not talk to him, one on one. They would not even look him in the eye.
After some months of this, López was able to talk with one of the guards. He said, “Hey, what happened, my friend? This is not normal. I know you. I know the name of your father. I know the name of your kid. I know how much you love your kid. I know what you like to eat. I know you, man. I know you’re not a bad person. What happened?” The man said, “I’ll tell you later.”
Some days later — in another furtive moment — the guard said, “You asked for an explanation, and I’ll give you one.” The prisoner’s guards had been coached by Cubans. (Agents of the Cuban regime dot the Venezuelan government.) The Cubans stressed that a guard’s job was to dehumanize the prisoner. And that’s what they were doing, or attempting to do.
“It was tough,” says López, “because, even though I was in solitary confinement, at least I had guards to say good morning and good afternoon to.” After the guards were instructed by the Cubans, “the situation became a bit bitter.”
And yet: López has won a victory over bitterness and resentment. He has prayed about this matter diligently. “I was always aware that I had an enemy, which was resentment, and that this could build upon my heart. I can tell you very honestly that I don’t feel hatred toward the people who put me in prison.” To work for a free and democratic Venezuela, says López, “you need to have your heart in the right place.”
This does not mean he is not a fighter, López adds. Far from it. “I box every day. I will have my first amateur bout before the end of November. I’m a fighter at all levels. But that’s very different from being angry. I am not an angry person. I am not resentful.”
By the way, several of the officials who prosecuted and imprisoned López later admitted what everyone knew anyway: that they were pressured to do so. It could have cost them their lives if they had disobeyed.
In July 2017, following mass democratic protests in the country, López was transferred from Ramo Verde to house arrest. This was against his will: He did not want to leave prison while any other political prisoners remained. Three weeks later, he was taken back to prison. “It was descending back to hell,” López tells me. After several days, he was returned to house arrest.
Police agents surrounded his house constantly. Four times a day — at 6, noon, 4, and 8 — he had to have his picture taken with a newspaper, showing the date.
In April 2019, there were again mass protests. Chaos enveloped the country. It appeared the chavista regime might even fall. Sympathetic soldiers freed López from house arrest, and he walked the streets of Caracas for a couple of hours. He appeared before throngs with Juan Guaidó. But it quickly became necessary to find refuge — which he did, in the Spanish embassy. He stayed there for a year and a half.
In October 2020, he escaped — escaped Venezuela itself. It was very daring, this escape, very dangerous. At the last moment, he was almost caught.
The details of this escape would take an article, or a movie, of their own. Suffice it to say that the escape was inspired by a 2012 movie, Argo, about the extraction of U.S. diplomats from Iran. López was disguised as an electrician. After a heart-stopping encounter with guards, he made it across the river to Colombia, where he was flown to Bogotá, and then on to the United States, and finally to Spain — where he lives in exile.
‘What will it take?” I ask him. “What will it take to dislodge the regime. Surely, it will happen, right? How?” “We’ve tried all different ways of taking down the regime,” López answers: “elections, negotiations, protests, military uprising, international pressure, sanctions. We’ve tried everything. If you ask me, we need to continue to try everything, and I hope that the way things change in Venezuela is through a free and fair election. It will be very important to have democratic legitimacy in bringing about change. The legitimacy brought by a free and fair election is crucial, in my opinion.”
López believes that democrats, the world over, ought to be in alliance with one another. Authoritarians are very good at allying with one another. He cites the governments of Russia, Cuba, and Turkey, among others. But democrats? They tend to be isolated and embattled.
“We need to make democracy and freedom sexy again,” says López. It was in decades past. “We need to re-create an enthusiasm to fight for freedom.” These days, Americans and Europeans are questioning their own model, López says: the model of freedom, democracy, markets, human rights — all of it. This waning of self-confidence needs to be addressed, he maintains.
“‘Freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are words that are used all the time here in the U.S.,” López tells me. “For us [meaning Venezuelans], those words are not abstract. For us, those words mean a lot.” He would like to tell Americans that “they have a great responsibility to give meaning to those words. The United States continues to be, whether you like it or not, the beacon of light and hope for freedom and democracy in all the world.”
He further says, in no uncertain terms, that if the people of the United States turn their backs on freedom and democracy abroad, they may find themselves losing those things at home. A general defense of freedom and democracy, says López, is a form of self-defense.
For many years, he has had a slogan: “El que se cansa, pierde”—“He who tires, loses.” I say to him, “You haven’t tired, have you?” “No, I haven’t,” he answers. “I’ve had moments of great difficulty, I can tell you that, but I have a commitment, and I can’t afford to get tired. I have the responsibility to continue, I have a sense of purpose. I’m blessed to have that.”
Venezuela, he points out, is not only under dictatorship, it is also wracked with hunger. Outright starving. Venezuela is the poorest nation in the Americas — even poorer than Haiti, which has suffered cruelly for generations.
“People find their purpose in different ways,” says Leopoldo López, “and I thank God for giving me a purpose in life: to fight for the freedom of my country.”
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