Magazine | December 3, 2018, Issue

The Mayor of Caracas, Free and in Exile

Antonio Ledezma (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)
A look at Antonio Ledezma

When a dictatorship comes to arrest you, it does not skimp on force. More than 100 agents came to arrest Antonio Ledezma. About 25 of them came up to his office, smashing doors and shattering glass as they went. “They arrested him savagely,” as his wife later said. “They hit him.” Ledezma himself said to the agents, “Why so many? I’m only one person. I weigh 75 kilograms [165 pounds]. I’m not going to fight you by myself.” Downstairs, there were about 80 men, wielding machine guns, firing them in the air, putting on a big show.

They carted Ledezma off to prison.

He is, or was, the mayor of Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. For almost three years, he was a prisoner — and then he escaped the country. He has joined something like 4 million of his countrymen in exile. They have fled persecution and starvation (a kind of persecution, to be sure). Recently, Ledezma was a guest of the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York. A silver-haired gent, he is both urbane and passionate, which is not an atypical combination for a Latin Ameri­can politician.

Antonio Ledezma was born in 1955 and early had a taste for politics. He first went to jail at 13, after he participated in a student protest. He went on to earn a law degree. He served in the legislature of Venezuela and, in 1999, founded a party: the Fearless People’s Alliance. (The name comes from Venezuela’s national anthem, “Gloria al bravo pueblo,” which sings of the fearlessness of the people.)

It was in 2008 that he was elected mayor of Caracas. That was almost a decade into Hugo Chávez’s regime. Chávez had come to power under the “camouflage” of democracy, says Ledezma. He was elected democratically and then set about dismantling the country’s democracy. He was not without talent, needless to say: great and dark talent.

He had “the magic of seduction,” says Ledezma. “He played the role of a poor man exploited by the gringos, by the Americans, giving speeches that were full of self-pity and promising that the state would be more paternalistic than ever.” We are a rich country, Chávez would say, so why should anyone ever want for anything? (Soon, they would be wanting for everything.)

Mayor Ledezma was one of the most prominent opponents of Chávez and chavismo in the country. In a headline last year, Britain’s Guardian described him as a “hardline” opposition leader. What does “hardline” mean, exactly? Ledezma is certainly opposed, firmly, to the tyranny that has stalked and battered Venezuela.

He was arrested, by those 100-some men, in February 2015. The charge? The usual: “conspiring against the peace and stability of the nation.” While in prison, Ledezma fell ill, and he was sent to his apartment for house arrest. “I was locked inside my apartment for more than two years,” he says. “Sometimes I would go up to the window, just to get sun, but that was forbidden.”

Never once did he succumb to depression, he says. He worked against it, day after day. “I held on to my sense of humor. And I always woke up with the hope that we would overcome what we were trying to overcome.”

He played mental games. For instance, he would imagine himself walking in El Ávila National Park, nearby. Or visiting New York. Or going to Italy, where his brothers live. Mainly, “I would take refuge in books,” he says.

What did he read? He read about Winston Churchill, and his fight against appeasers at home and dictators abroad. He read speeches by Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and others. Also, “I got really interested in understanding transitions to democracy” — in Spain, Chile, and South Africa, for instance.

He designated four different reading spots, within his apartment. This was “to break the monotony,” he says. In each spot, he would read a specific book. He would rotate from one spot to another (and, yes, one of the designated reading places was the bathroom). Also, he wrote poems, more than a thousand of them.

On July 30, 2017, there were elections in Venezuela — total shams. Ledezma said so, in a video posted online. At 1 in the morning, they came to arrest him again, in his pajamas. He made as much noise as he could, so that his neighbors might hear him. He did not want to be simply “disappeared.” One neighbor, a woman, filmed the arrest, screaming, “They are taking Ledezma away! They are taking Ledezma away!” This video was circulated far and wide.

As before, the agents treated Ledezma brutally. And in prison, conditions were nasty. The cell was cramped and crawling with cockroaches. The food was putrid. And so on. Still, Ledezma kept his mental strength, remembering that Venezuelans before him had had it much worse.

“I grew up reading stories of martyrs,” he says. “So I thought, ‘This is nothing compared with Guasina and Sacupana. This is nothing compared with La Rotunda.’” Those first two places were concentration camps in the 1950s, under the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. La Rotunda was a prison that became infamous under the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, who ruled Venezuela for 27 years: 1908 to 1935. La Rotunda was the kind of place where they mixed glass into the food and hanged men by their genitals.

Present-day authorities returned Antonio Ledezma to house arrest — whereupon he plotted his Great Escape. On November 17, 2017, he slipped away, crossing into Colombia and then flying to Spain. There, he told journalists all he cared to: “This journey of more than 24 hours was like a James Bond movie. We passed more than 29 checkpoints, roadblocks. I took all the risks.”

Andrés Pastrana, the former president of Colombia (1998–2002), jotted a tweet: “Welcome to freedom! We need you free in the world, defending liberty, human rights, and democracy, and not a prisoner of the narco-dictatorship of @NicolasMaduro.” Maduro, as you know, is the present chavista dictator, having succeeded the original in 2013, when the original (Chávez) died.

Ledezma agreed with Pastrana, telling the press, “I am going to defend the liberty of Venezuela. I’m more useful to Venezuela on the street than as a prisoner.”

In Madrid, he was greeted by the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, in the Palace of Moncloa. Spain has offered Ledezma and his family refuge, and they will stay there for as long as necessary. Back in Caracas, Nicolás Maduro cackled, “The vampire is flying free around the world! The vampire, protected, has gone to Spain — to live the great life.”

Has it been great? It has been better than prison or house arrest — but Ledezma would not have chosen to be in exile, trying to rally the world to help Venezuela. In any event, he is doing it with zeal.

There has been some personal sadness, even shock. In October of this year, Ledezma’s son-in-law was arrested by Spanish police. Luis Fernando Vuteff, an Argentinean businessman, stands accused of being part of a money-laundering operation, tied to the chavista government. Ledezma has said, essentially, that he loves his family — but that the Spanish judicial system ought to take its course, and will. He adds that he himself has never had “any relationship with anybody related to the cliques that have destroyed my country.”

Venezuela was once a model nation, prosperous, advanced, democratic. Did Ledezma ever imagine that it could slide into tyranny and poverty — not just poverty but starvation itself? “No, honestly. I thought we would have more and better democracy, not go back to a time that seemed to be gone forever: a time when we had strongmen as leaders, when people would blindly follow the man on the horse, a false messiah who gave populist speeches, claiming to be predestined. Chávez was really good at that.”

Maduro is much less good at it, much less talented. “He is an activist,” says Ledezma, “formed and educated by the Castro brothers. He’s an agitator, very limited intellectually.” According to Ledezma, and many others, the Castro brothers chose Maduro as their vehicle for leverage over Venezuela. The dictator Gómez, continues Ledezma, “didn’t know how to read or write. But he knew that he didn’t know, and because he knew it, he surrounded himself with brilliant people” — people who knew about petroleum, for example, people who knew about state finances. Maduro, on other hand, “is ignorant but thinks he knows. Therefore, he has surrounded himself with people who are unqualified, and the result is a disaster.”

Venezuela is No. 1 in oil reserves — No. 1 in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia and the rest of them. Yet Venezuelans lack oil. The country is No. 6 in gas reserves yet goes without gas. It is No. 10 in water reserves yet lacks drinkable water. This year, some 300,000 children are at risk of death by starvation. Robbers and other criminals operate with impunity. The population is horribly vulnerable, which is why they flee if they can.

How long can this go on? Ledezma explains that Maduro and his government rule by brute force, and the help of their Cuban partner — but rebellion is stirring in military ranks. Some of them aren’t eating, and “there is nothing more subversive in a military than hunger,” as Ledezma says. Ledezma thinks that capable nations ought to intervene in Venezuela. To speak of self-determination in the Venezuelan context is absurd, he says. The people have no voice, no choice. That was destroyed years ago.

Mayor Ledezma has been honored by the National Endowment for Democracy (Washington, D.C.), by the European Parliament, and by other bodies. With Leopoldo López, still a political prisoner, he may be the most prominent opponent of the chavista regime in the world. And now he is free to shout, which is bad news for the regime, and good news for those of us, wherever we live, who yearn to see it fall.

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