“I am being held in prison in violation of international law, and I will not relent until the people’s demand is met: Democracy must be restored to Venezuela.”
Wanting change is not the same as being willing to risk everything in order to achieve it. And Leopoldo López knows this very well. He shook the world and led movements against an authoritarian government in search of a better future for Venezuela, aiming to recover a democratic path that was lost years ago.
His rise as a political and democratic figure in Venezuela started with his experience as a mayor of Chacao, one the main municipalities of Caracas. He was first elected in 2000 with 51% of votes and reelected in 2008 with 81% of votes. His administration obtained awards from Transparency International in 2007 and 2008 as being one of the most honest and efficient in the region, exhibiting his qualities as a democratic leader.
Additionally, he was elected in 2008 as the third best mayor in the world by the Worlds Mayor organization.
He is also the founder and National Coordinator of the political party Voluntad Popular (Political Will) which identifies itself as a pluralist and democratic movement that is committed with the realization of the social, economic, political, and human rights of every Venezuelan. For this and many other efforts, Future Capitals World Summit honored him in 2009 as one of the Most Innovative People in the world for that year.
His efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela have not gone unnoticed by the dictatorship, which has conducted a full-out campaign against him. He has being the object of several attacks, including different kidnappings and threats. The regime went as far as barring him from running for any public position with false accusations. However, Leopoldo Lopez sued the Venezuelan state demanding his political rights to be reinstated, a cause which was unanimously approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
In 2014, Leopoldo Lopez launched a campaign named La Salida (The Exit) which aimed at employing constitutional means through responsible civil manifestations to the seek the exit of Maduro’s regime. On February 12th, he called upon Venezuelan citizens to exercise their legal rights to protest against the scarcity, insecurity, and shortages that the country suffers, but to do so peacefully and without violence.
In the aftermath of that protest, Nicolás Maduro personally ordered his arrest on charges of murder, arson and terrorism, which was nothing more than a “politically motivated attempt to silence dissent”, as stated by Amnesty International. On February 18th, Leopoldo Lopez delivered a speech on a popular square of Caracas in front of thousands calling for “a pacific exit” from the authoritarian government, “within the constitution but in the streets.” He was offered exile, but instead, he chose to “stay and fight for the oppressed people in Venezuela” and will not stop until every right is guaranteed to every citizen.
In his last words as a free man, he told the public “if his imprisonment would help Venezuelans to wake up once and for all and demand change, it would have been worth it.” Soon after, he turned himself in to the Venezuelan National Guard, handing himself over to a “corrupt justice” in order to unmask the Maduro’s dictatorship.
It was because Leopoldo Lopez spoke out publicly against the government’s corruption and inefficiency that he is now locked up in the military prison Ramo Verde. He has been denied visits by his family and has faced both physical and psychological torture, spending half his term in solitary confinement. However, the regime thought that by imprisoning him they had succeeded in silencing his calls for freedom, but instead it provoked an international campaign in his support, globalizing his fight for democracy in Venezuela. Over 40 former Latin American presidents have endorsed his cause. Nelson Mandela’s former attorney has also joined the cause to support his challenge against the government. Furthermore, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Right, the European Parliament, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and most major human rights groups have also supported Lopez. Despite having a year and half in prison, he remains the most popular political leader in Venezuela, as has been shown by recent polls. He was even recognized as a Global Thinker in the category of Challenger by Foreign Policy for “upending the tactic´s of Venezuela´s loyal opposition” in his search to restore democracy. Also, the Harvard Kennedy School honored him with the “Alumni Achievement Award” for or “his support of democracy and transparency in Venezuela”. He is the first person to receive the award in absentia due to his imprisonment.
On May 25th, through a hand-written letter that Leopoldo was able to send from his prison cell, he announced he would start a hunger strike as a non-violent protest demanding for the government to announce the date of the next parliamentary elections (which should happen in 2015 but are yet to be scheduled), and for the elections to be supervised by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU). Lopez also demands for the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, and stop to all the persecutions and threats to those who think differently.
He will not stop the hunger strike until these demands are met and he will never surrender his fight for a democratic Venezuela. In the letter, Leopoldo Lopez also called upon the citizenship to rally around the country demanding for their rights to be respected. With this single message, Leopoldo Lopez was able to fill the streets of Venezuela with thousands of people.
When this message was written, Leopoldo Lopez had accumulated 9 days in hunger strike. Today, he is the most prominent Latin American political prisoner and the biggest threat to the Venezuelan authoritarian government regime. He is the Nelson Mandela of the 21st Century. Even in prison, they have not been able to suppress his conviction to restore democracy in the country. He is committed to see one day a better Venezuela governed by democratic institutions and where every right is guaranteed to every citizen.