“I am a prisoner but I am free in spirit”

The Voluntad Popular chief answers EL PAÍS’s questions from his jail cell outside Caracas

Leopoldo López greets a crowd from a window at the military prison Ramo Verde in Caracas.
Leopoldo López greets a crowd from a window at the military prison Ramo Verde in Caracas. EFE

Imprisoned in a military jail 30 kilometers outside Caracas for the past year, Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López is calling for unity within the Venezuelan opposition. Responding to EL PAÍS’s questionnaire from his prison cell, the man accused of inciting last year’s anti-government riots signs off his nine pages of handwritten answers with a slogan: “All rights for all Venezuelans!” What follows is an edited excerpt of his responses.

Question. How has your experience in prison changed you?

Jail is a tough experience, especially if you are innocent, and it comes accompanied by injustices and violations of fundamental rights

Answer. It is a tough experience, especially if you are innocent, and it comes accompanied by injustices and fundamental rights violations. I have been in prison for more than a year. I have been deprived of basic rights and so has my family. I spent the first six months in total isolation. I could not receive visits except from my close family and my lawyers. The conversations with my defense team are taped. They read and confiscate my mail arbitrarily. We have been victims of violent searches by military intelligence commandos. They have thrown human excrement into our cells and we are being taped directly and secretly at every moment. Despite my difficulties due to my status as a prisoner of conscience, I have had time to grow and turn adversity into opportunity. The lives and examples of Mandela, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Socrates, St Paul and others have given me inspiration to face this reality of being a prisoner because of my ideas. I have felt a deeper freedom than when I was fully free. It is the freedom of the spirit. Prison has allowed me to reflect a lot on why I am here and my commitment to Venezuela. The most important thing is the idea of creating a country, a united nation around the commitment for “all rights for all Venezuelans.” The democracy of the 21st century must go beyond the formality of election or the division of powers, and even beyond the republican ideal of the rule of law. It is based on respect for the rights of all, without exception.

Q. Do you fear that your stay in prison has cut you off from the reality in the streets to the point where it conditions your interpretation of this political moment?

A. I try to stay informed about what is happening in the country. I spent most of last year locked up in my cell, meaning that I was a prisoner even within the prison. But far from cutting myself off from reality, this experience has brought me much closer to the reality that many Venezuelans live. I have learned about the lives of young prisoners, about their relatives, the failures of the justice system, the corruption in every sector. I have gotten to know the military world up close because I am being held in a military prison and my wardens are soldiers. I have experienced the injustice of corrupt judges and attorney generals, the delayed judicial processes, and the conditions of prison life in my own flesh.

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Q. Opinion polls consistently show that you and Governor Henrique Capriles are the two most recognized and well supported opposition leaders. How do you interpret these results?

A. In my opinion, the most relevant thing about the opinion polls that I have been able to read is Venezuelans’ deep desire for change. Given this reality, our priority must focus on the constitutional and democratic route. Meanwhile, at the same time, we must work to define concrete proposals that will allow us to turn our desire for change into positive transformation for all.

Q. President Nicolás Maduro rhetorically offered to free you if the United States would simultaneously free a Puerto Rican pro-independence prisoner. Beyond this gesture, do you feel you have become the government’s currency in any negotiation?

A. The remark he made in which he insisted on exchanging me for other prisoners is public confirmation of my condition as a political prisoner, as a prisoner of Nicolás Maduro.

Q. At least two countries, Spain and Colombia, have risked getting into a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela by asking for your liberation. What would you say to their heads of state so they continue to make this call?

A. Statements in favor of liberation of political prisoners in Venezuela have come from many places and they have been very strong. The UN, the European Parliament, Colombia, Spain, the United States, Peru and the OAS (through its secretary general), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Socialist International, ODCA [Christian Democrat Organization of America] and others reject the situation of political prisoners and they call for immediate liberation. This confirms our innocence and how serious it is that it is government practice to imprison dissidents.

In retrospect, I would make the decision to turn myself in again. The other option, exile, banishment, would have been much more painful

Q. In 2014, there was an schism within the opposition. Today, do you think unity is necessary? If yes, what do you suggest to create it?

A. Unity among all democratic factors in all sectors. There are no schisms that do not weaken. We need unity in demonstrations and unity in the electoral process, unity in the streets and unity in voting. These are not mutually exclusive strategies, but rather complementary. The key to unity is to have a common goal and to not make it an end in itself.

Q. Has your captivity lasted longer than you thought it would? Would you change your decision to turn yourself in in February 2014?

A. When I voluntarily went to the unfair justice authorities, I knew that I was exposing myself to a long period of captivity, to an unjust imprisonment. Maduro had threatened me with prison innumerable times on national television. These threats allowed me to prepare mentally and to prepare my family. I talked to my wife Lilian about it a lot. In retrospect, I would make the decision to turn myself in again. The other option, exile, banishment, would have been much more painful and I would feel more of a prisoner. Today I am a prisoner but I am free in spirit.

Q. It seems that the detention of other opposition members will follow that of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. Do you think these arrests will discourage the protests?

A. The persecution and criminalization of political dissidence is going to continue. At least these are the clear signs the government is sending with Ledezma’s imprisonment. We must stay firm and full of hope, and communicate, as best we can, that our fight for a democratic Venezuela, free and sovereign, is worth it.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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