WIL S. HYLTON @hylton_william | Leopoldo López Speaks Out, and Venezuela’s Government Cracks Down

In The Times Magazine last week, I wrote about Venezuela’s descent into an unprecedented crisis. With extreme shortages of food and medicine, rampant crime in every province, a capital city with the highest murder ratein the world and one of the highest levels of inflation in recorded history, Venezuela is the most urgent humanitarian disaster in the Western Hemisphere, producing the largest exodus of refugees in the history of the Americas. At the same time, the prospect of political change seems vanishingly slender: As the country spirals down, President Nicolas Maduro is tightening his grip on power, invalidating opposition parties and forcing political rivals into exile and prison.

The central figure in our story is Leopoldo López. A prominent opposition leader who founded two major political parties, Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, López has been a prisoner of the Venezuelan government since 2014. The charges against him — which include the allegation that he embeds his speeches with “subliminal messages” that cause listeners to become violent — have been fiercely criticized by human rights groups and political leaders around the world. After three years and seven months in the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, López was released to house arrest last summer on the condition that he remain silent. Instead, he spent the past six months in daily communication with me, recording dozens of interviews over encrypted channels about his country, his captivity and his evolving political philosophy.

On the afternoon before the story was published, I called López to see how he felt about breaking his silence and the prospect of going back to prison for violating the terms of his release. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” he said. “Leadership needs to take risks.”

The risk became concrete a few hours later, when agents from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or Sebin, appeared at his front door. At first, they merely instructed López to perform a familiar routine. Over the past six months, López has been required to pose for a photograph about four times a day, holding a copy of the latest newspaper. This is one of many peculiar aspects of his detention. Anyone who goes to the movies is familiar with the construct of a kidnapping picture, which has a kind of logic, but to explain why López is forced to pose with a newspaper four times a day is more difficult, raising the question of who, exactly, would be in a position to demand proof of life from the secret police, and why they would require it so often.

After taking a photo of Lopez at 6:30 p.m., the agents left, but they returned about 15 minutes later to take another. Another 45 minutes passed, and they came back for a third picture — this time asking him to sit in a chair while they photographed him in profile. Another 30 minutes went by in relative quiet, before a squad of eight agents wearing ski masks burst into the house with assault weapons. This time, they demanded that López record a video, looking into the camera and stating the time, date and year. Then they recorded another take of the video, and then another. When they were satisfied, they told López and his wife, Lilian Tintori, that they were going to remain inside the house until a high-ranking intelligence officer arrived.

Over the next few hours, López and I remained in contact. With agents in the adjoining room, we spoke quietly and traded messages. A few minutes before 10 p.m., he was still uncertain what to expect. “We have asked what is happening,” he said, “and finally they told us that there is the possibility that they take me back to Ramo Verde.” An hour later, little had changed. “They are still here,” he said. “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I don’t know what is happening. I don’t know if it was because they got the alert of the publication, or something else is happening.”

For all its political repression, Venezuela is not yet North Korea or even Cuba. There are still remnants of the democratic institutions that once made it the envy of the region. The national Legislature, for example, was effectively dissolved by the Maduro government after opposition candidates won a majority in 2015 — but representatives of the National Assembly continue to meet and legislate in defiance of the administration. A handful of local and regional agencies have also maintained a semblance of independence, and when Sebin agents were still inside the house the following morning, López and Tintori began to raise alarms with their political allies.

By midday, representatives of the National Assembly had gathered in front of the house to stage a protest. When journalists gathered to report on the scene, the police arrested half a dozen of them — but word was already spreading through the international community. Condemnation poured in from foreign leaders and organizations, including the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, who declared the invasion “illegal, violating rights.” The office of child-protective services visited the home and took a stand against Sebin, issuing a public order that the presence of armed guards in ski masks was a threat to the well-being of the López children. Agents finally withdrew, taking up a position on the front sidewalk, where they remain in ski masks and tactical gear. How long they will stay, and what they are planning, is unclear. The agents have given no indication to López, and the Venezuelan government has not responded to my inquiries.

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 2.30.23 PMSome observers have suggested a direct connection between my article on López and the raid. Moisés Naím, a prominent scholar of Venezuela, who served as the country’s minister of trade and industry, captured this sentiment in a post on social media: “In reaction to this New York Times magazine’s article, Maduro’s political police is acting against Leopoldo López and his wife.” But many people close to López have doubts. Agents entered the home several hours before my story was published, and friends of López find it difficult to believe that, after spending the past six months either unaware or unconcerned by our interviews, the Maduro government finally noticed and objected, just when it was too late.

This weekend, I spoke with several people who suggested another possibility. They pointed out that the raid did not coincide merely with the article but also with an accelerating crackdown on his political movement.

The party that López founded in 2009, Voluntad Popular, is by far the most confrontational element of the Venezuelan opposition. It was through Voluntad Popular that López organized the widespread demonstrations that led to his arrest in 2014. I wrote about the day of his arrest — how he called for supporters to gather in a city plaza, dressed in white as a sign of peace, and delivered a speech before turning himself in to the National Guard, who placed him inside a military vehicle but could not find a way out of the crowd until López, using a megaphone, persuaded his followers to clear a path. To describe that scene is one thing; to see it is another: This videooffers a visceral sense of the energy and intensity of the movement López leads, and the reason it could seem threatening to a ruling party.

Since that day, even with López in prison, Voluntad Popular has continued to be the most combative wing of the opposition. During an attempted negotiation this winter between opposition leaders and the Maduro government, Voluntad Popular was the first party to declare the process a failure and leave the table; Voluntad Popular was also the first major party to boycott this year’s presidential race. In each case, the other major parties followed, and the Maduro government has now postponed the presidential election.

Unsurprisingly, the government has also intensified pressure on Voluntad Popular. Nearly 90 members of the party have been arrested. One of them is Gilber Caro, a member of the National Assembly, who was recently transferred to an undisclosed location, where he is being denied access to legal counsel or any contact with the outside. On March 5, the United Nations commission on human rights condemned this treatment of Caro, demanding that his attorneys and family be “immediately informed of his whereabouts” and classifying his captivity as an “enforced disappearance under international law.” Another member of Voluntad Popular, Freddy Guevara, is the vice president of the National Assembly. Guevara was traveling on the border with Colombia when he received word that the Maduro government was preparing to arrest him. The charges were never stipulated, but the threat was too serious to ignore, and he approached the government of Chile to obtain sanctuary at the embassy. When I spoke with Guevara a few days ago, he told me that he saw no other choice, and sees fewer now. “They wanted to use me as an example to the other congressmen, that no one is untouchable,” he said. “I didn’t want to give them that advantage, so I decided to assume this part of the struggle in an embassy, and not in jail. But I don’t know when I will be out, when I will be free.”

On Feb. 15, Maduro commandeered the national airwaves to disparage Voluntad Popular, along with the other political party that Lopez helped to found, Primero Justicia, as “violent fascist groups” that no longer have legal standing in Venezuela and exist “outside the law.” The leader of Primero Justicia, Julio Borges, has a long history with López. In 1992, they founded Primero Justicia as a civil organization; in 2000, they converted the group into a political party; and in 2008 their paths diverged over a spate of differences about party management and political philosophy. A core distinction between them is that Borges leans considerably to the right, while Lopez is an elected member of the Socialist International. Even so, Lopez and Borges have resumed a close partnership over the past few months, with Lopez leading Voluntad Popular and Borges serving as president of the National Assembly. When Voluntad Popular withdrew from negotiations with the Maduro government this winter, Primero Justicia was right behind. When Voluntad Popular announced plans to boycott the presidential election, Primero Justicia did the same.

As a consequence, the risk to Borges has been steadily rising. In recent weeks, he has remained outside the country. When I caught up with him yesterday evening, he was adamant that Primero Justicia will no longer participate in the electoral process until there is international monitoring of fraud. This position has put his party and his life in jeopardy. “I have been threatened both in public and in private, violently intimidated on multiple occasions, accused by Maduro on national television of all type of made-up stories and physically hit several times,” Borges told me. “The weaker the government is, the more aggressive they get.”

In light of the crackdown on opposition figures, many people close to López suspect that the raid of his home was unconnected to my article. In fact, they wonder if the agents from Sebin learned about the story only when it appeared online in the middle of the raid, and if the article might even have complicated their plans to arrest him.

For his part, López is unsure what to believe. What he does know is that the phalanx of secret police is still stationed outside his house, and the agents have given no indication of when they plan to leave. The prospect of going back to prison remains palpable and distressing, but López said he is prepared for whatever comes. “That’s the role of leadership in a situation like this,” he told me. “It’s not about campaigning, or fliers, or the best slogan, or political marketing. It’s about talking to people and expressing ideas in a confusing situation. Leadership needs to light a candle and hope that candle becomes a huge fire.”

RELATED COVERAGE

  1. FEATURE

    Can Venezuela Be Saved? 

  2. Venezuela’s New Assembly Members Share a Goal: Stifle Dissent 

  3. Venezuela’s New Leaders Begin Their March Toward Total Control