Leopoldo López had escaped. That was the rumor. What started out as a wish that was retweeted on social media had suddenly materialized. Venezuela's most important political prisoner had outwitted the impenetrable vigilance of Nicolás Maduro's dictatorship around the Spanish embassy in Caracas where López had been sheltered for more than a year.
That was the end of six years of prison, torture and persecution, starting with his arrest during a Caracas street protest Feb. 18 2014, accused by the dictatorship of incitement to violence. He spent more than three years in the Ramo Verde prison, was later put under house arrest because of health issues and finally sought refuge in the Spanish embassy amid a failed uprising on April 30 2019.
“Maduro controls nothing,” jeered interim President Juan Guaido, recognized by nearly 60 countries, on his Twitter account. “Outwitting your repressive machinery, we managed to get him to foreign territory.”
Few know how he slipped out of Venezuela unnoticed, and he won't explain it.
“I can't give you details, Jorge,” he told me during an interview from Madrid using the tablet of his wife, human rights activist Lilian Tintori. “The truth is that there's been retaliation by the dictatorship. More than 14 people are in jail right now, people who had nothing to do with my departure.”
But he did explain to me why he chose to escape. “The circumstances of my stay in the embassy changed,” he said. “I reached the conclusion that I could contribute much more from outside, supporting our President Juan Guaidó, supporting our cause, being a voice in the fight for Venezuela's freedom,” he said.
López has lived six truly hard years. “I never regretted it,” he told me, now reunited with his three children. “I had a difficult time in prison. Four years of isolation, of torture – by the way, torture that was mentioned in the UN reports. But I never regretted it, and I don't regret it now. That's part of the struggle. If we are ready to lead, we must be ready to suffer what it means to fight a dictatorship.” A recent U.N. Human Rights Council report on Venezuela accused the Maduro regime of murders, rapes, tortures and repression.
Hugo Chávez, who used his highly personal style to seize virtually all powers in Venezuela starting in 1999 and laid the foundations for the current dictatorship, died from cancer in 2013. Many people at the time believed there could be no Chavismo without Chavez. But Nicolás Maduro is still in power. Was he underestimated, I asked López.
“Nicolás Maduro is much worse than Hugo Chávez,” he answered. Maduro is not an ideological leader … He represents a criminal structure that is protecting military groups, paramilitaries, corrupt people from different parts of the continent and the globe … I do believe he was underestimated. We were very clear in 2014, when we said we were living under a dictatorship in Venezuela. And that's why I went to prison.”
The question now is how to remove Maduro from power. U.S. presidential adviser Eliot Abrams has said there will be no magical solutions in Venezuela, and no one is talking about a military option any more. One part of the opposition toyed with the idea of participating in elections for the National Assembly on Dec. 6. But not any more. The Organization of American States, Spain and other countries will not recognize the results. It will be another fraud, designed to strengthen Maduro's power.
López also does not believe the solution is to negotiate with Maduro. “I believe that's naive,” he told me. “After all this time, after trying not one but more than six rounds of negotiations with Maduro, we have to conclude he will not accept a negotiated solution.”
López believes “the pressures must continue,” with “individual, focused, strategic” sanctions and a legal campaign to file charges against those “responsible for torture, repression and homicide.” But sooner or later López says he will return to Venezuela.
“I am convinced we will return,” he told me. “And when I say 'we,' I speak in a huge plural because there are millions of us Venezuelans living in exile … We will soon design a strategy to be able to return. But we will return, and we will see a free Venezuela.” Real change can only come through Venezuelans in Venezuela.
Meanwhile, López is learning to live in freedom and using the iPad, his new contact with the outside world amid the pandemic. Tintori, who fought fiercely for him in many international fora, did not know he had escaped from Venezuela until he phoned her from a secure location. When he landed in Madrid, he asked officials to leave the airport without journalists around so he could surprise his children.
His eldest daughter Manuela and son Leopoldo clung to him after opening the door of their home. But daughter Federica, who is 2 ½ years old and knew her father only on FaceTime chats from the Spanish embassy, “didn't believe it and stayed away.” Now, thanks to a dangerous and complicated escape, Federica has a three-dimensional daddy. “I want millions of families to enjoy that happiness,” he told me as the interview ended. “We will not allow the dictatorship to put wrinkles on our hearts.”