As an inquisitive reader, books were a cherished commodity for Leopoldo López when he was a political prisoner in his home country of Venezuela. His prison guards eventually observed the strength and focus López gained from reading. In an attempt to stifle his spirit, the guards confiscated his books and locked them in a neighboring cell where he could see but not access them. But López didn’t let this stop him from writing or discourage his resolve to fight for freedom. A Venezuelan opposition leader and freedom activist, today López works to research and resist oppressive autocratic regimes globally.
López joined Tyler to discuss Venezuela’s recent political and economic history, the effectiveness of sanctions, his experiences in politics and activism, how happiness is about finding purpose, how he organized a protest from prison, the ideal daily routine of a political prisoner, how extreme sports prepared him for prison, his work to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded May 10th, 2022
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Leopoldo López. He is an opposition leader from Venezuela. He thinks of himself most of all as a freedom activist, which he very much is. He started his career in Venezuelan politics as a mayor. He was sent to prison for seven years. He managed to escape, is now living in Spain, and he is affiliated with the party Voluntad Popular. Leopoldo, welcome.
LEOPOLDO LÓPEZ: Thank you very much, Tyler. Thank you and your audience.
COWEN: To start with your political career, you were a mayor of Chacao, which is a part of Caracas. What was the hardest part of that job of being mayor?
LÓPEZ: Well, the hardest part was to be doing the municipal activities and improving people’s lives in the middle of political turmoil. My municipality at the heart of Caracas became the heart of the protests against Chávez at the time. Very early in my term, in 2002, 2003, it was the epicenter of massive protests against the regime.
I had to balance that reality of protesting against the regime with doing things for the municipality, and we did extraordinary improvements to the municipality in things that were countercurrent with what was happening elsewhere in Caracas. For example, we brought down crime statistics to make our municipality a very safe place within a city that was increasing, skyrocketing the crime statistics and the murder rates to become the most violent city in the world — Caracas was at the time.
We also improved in a great way all sorts of infrastructure for education, for health, for mobility. We did a lot of that because we improved the taxation system. We created incentives for economic activity, and we became more efficient in the taxation of the municipality, so we became more autonomous from the national government.
I was there for eight years. I first ran in 2000. I was reelected with more than 80 percent of the votes in 2004. And I was to become the governor of Caracas, the metropolitan mayor, which is the second most important post in Venezuelan politics at the time, and I was disqualified to run for office for political reasons. I was taken away from office, so the last time I had an opportunity to run for office was in 2004.
COWEN: If I’m trying to mentally model the governments of Chávez and Maduro, to what extent did the people in those governments actually believe their own rhetoric? When they throw you in jail, do they actually think, “Well, this is for the good of Venezuela”? Or is it just purely cynical and a power grab and about corruption and the money? What’s the balance there?
LÓPEZ: Well, in terms of people’s perception of what was happening in Venezuela, I can give you an interesting framework of what happened over the past years. Up until 2014, when we called for massive street protests against Maduro because he had stolen the presidential election six months before that, most Venezuelans thought of our country as a democracy.
And it was much in the same way that Venezuela was perceived outside: It was a democracy with all sorts of adjectives. I think, personally, when you start putting adjectives in front of democracy, the democracy is having problems. So it was perceived as a democracy in decline, as a fractured democracy. Others spoke about a competitive autocracy, all sorts of ways not to call things by their name, that it was really a dictatorship.
When we called for street protest in 2014, and the regime violently repressed thousands of people, there were thousands of people thrown into detention, hundreds of people thrown into prison, thousands of people that were injured, and some that were murdered. Dozens of people were murdered by the regime. The perceptions started to change. After 2014, it became very clear for the Venezuelan people that we were facing a dictatorship. And Maduro, at the time, had 8 out of every 10 Venezuelans against, and that pattern has sustained ever since.
COWEN: But do they think they’re doing good when they govern — Maduro, Chávez, and their minions? Or is it just cynical?
LÓPEZ: No, I don’t think so. I think that at first, there might have been a lot of people with good intentions. This has been a long process. We are now in year 22 of when this all started, of Chávez winning an election and killing democracy from within, because that’s what happened in Venezuela. At first, he had popular support, and he was able to win several elections, but then democracy was undermined.
Then, with Maduro after Chávez’s death, it became very clear that there was a change, a metamorphosis from a system to a clearly criminal structure. Venezuela today is a criminal structure, and I’m not exaggerating. We can go into details to explain why I’m saying this.
The fact is that they have articulated a way in which they just oppress the Venezuelan people, taking out all of the freedom. At this point, as you say, concretely, yes, they are cynical; yes, they know they are harming people. They know they have created a humanitarian crisis of dimensions never seen in the Western Hemisphere. They know all this, and they are absolutely cynical about everything that they do and the consequences to the Venezuelan people.
COWEN: Why does there seem to be so much Cuban influence in Venezuela? Cuba is a much smaller country, it’s less powerful, it’s quite broke itself. What explains the magic hold of Cuba on Venezuela? Or is that a cliché that’s wrong?
LÓPEZ: No, it’s very precise. Venezuela, since 20 years ago, fell into the hands of Cuba. In a way, it’s an invasion. One country colonized another country without shooting a bullet and with the will and the permission of the colonized country, and that’s what happened in Venezuela.
The Cubans have had such a great influence over what happens in Venezuela for a long time. That influence goes from giving away Venezuelan oil and fuel to Cuba at highly, highly discounted prices — and many times not even being paid — to the influence of the Cuban dictatorship in Venezuela in social programs, in all of the administration of the state, in the intelligence of the state, in the security of Maduro — his detail is Cuban. The military intelligence and some military strategic issues are also very influenced by Cubans.
This has a lot to do with long-standing Latin American tradition that has seen Cuba as a reference, but in the case of Venezuela, it became an Open Arms policy to give Cuba the possibility to decide on strategic issues that have to deal with Venezuela.
COWEN: Let’s wind the clock back to 1959. President Betancourt is elected. Let’s say that’s you in 1959. What is it you would do differently to stop the way history has unfolded in Venezuela?
LÓPEZ: Well, I think Betancourt, when democracy started, did a very important job in establishing democracy. I’ll give you a bit of context. Venezuela has mainly been a military dictatorship for most of our history, or an autocracy. And the first time we had a real democracy was in 1947, when there was the direct election of a constituent assembly, and that was Betancourt at the time.
Then that government was thrown away by a military coup in 1948, and we had 10 years of dictatorship. Then, when democracy came, there was the writing of a very progressive — in democratic terms — constitution. We had 40 years of an elected democracy. In my view, the first 20 years were very positive for Venezuela, but then, in the last 20 years, Betancourt was no longer the president, and there was a decline. Many of the reforms that needed to take place didn’t happen.
Also, at the very end, there was a lot of influence by the media, and there was this public opinion that everything had to change in Venezuela. And they created this sense of revenge, of vengeance because of some of the economic situations that Venezuela had lived after the 1980s, and that’s what brought Chávez to power.
COWEN: My friend’s from Argentina. As you know, Argentina in the 1920s was one of the wealthier countries in the world, and later it declined rather steeply. There are various excuses. “Well, it was Perón. It was Peronism.” But I wonder if it wasn’t actually inevitable, and Argentina had a lucky streak of a few decades, maybe due to selling meat — refrigerated boxcars — and that was always going to happen to them, even though it had particular prompts.
When you think of the history of Venezuela, do you think the decline was inevitable due to the structure of interest groups, the long history of changing constitutions, long history of oligarchy? Or was there actually a path where Venezuela becomes a free, fairly prosperous economy?
LÓPEZ: Well, I think we had, for sure, many lost opportunities along the way. There was an incredible economic growth during the after-war period, which coincided with the democratic period after 1958. Venezuela became a reference, not just for its democratic system, but also because of the economic prosperity that we had at the time. During the 1970s, the oil sector was nationalized. It was nationalized in a very efficient way, but with some folks, it didn’t open up opportunities for Venezuelans to invest in the oil sector, which was the most important sector of our economy.
We did not diversify the economy in the way we should have, and some of the windfalls that we had during the 1970s and during other oil shocks were not appropriately taken the best use. The most important oil windfall we had was actually during the Chávez period, between 2004 and 2014. When Chávez came to power, the price of oil was below $15 per barrel, and during that period, it reached $150 per barrel.
The increase of oil fiscal income to Venezuela in those 10 years was, in real terms, larger than the entire oil fiscal income between 1922 — which was the date when we started exporting oil — to the year 2000. That extraordinary windfall was stolen, was given away to corrupt practices, was given away in a petrol diplomacy to get the votes and the support of many countries in Latin America, especially the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, right after that huge windfall of 10 years — 2004 to 2014 — we opened the gates to the most tragic humanitarian crisis that we have seen in the Western Hemisphere. That led 7,000,000 Venezuelans to flee our country to look for opportunities that were not found in Venezuela, to find food, shelter, medicine, opportunities, and future that were not found. But it was the year after that economic boom ended that this tragedy started.
COWEN: In 1970, you were richer than Spain, Greece, or Israel, which I find remarkable. But do you, today, ever look, say, at Qatar or United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and think the problem actually was democracy, and that here are oil-rich places that have stayed stable, in fact, but through autocratic rule, and that it’s the intermediate situation that doesn’t work?
LÓPEZ: Well, I think that I, personally, will always be in favor of a democratic regime, a democratic system that promotes a rule of law, the respect for human rights, the respect of freedoms. I think that’s a priority. For me it is, and I believe it’s a priority also for the large, large majority of the Venezuelan people that want to live in a democracy.
However, there has been great mismanagement due to misconceptions of the economy, to a state-led economy that did not open possibilities for a private sector to flourish independently of the state, but also with the level of corruption that we have seen, particularly over the past 22 years — it’s what has led Venezuela to the situation in which we are.
In Venezuela, you could argue that we did much, much better economically, and in terms of all of the social and economic standards, than what happened during these last 20 years of autocracy. This autocracy had the largest windfall and the largest humanitarian crisis.
During the democratic period of 40 years, Venezuela became one of the most literate countries in Latin America, with the largest amount of professionals being graduated every year, with the best in social, health, and education standards, vaccination rates, housing programs that were in Latin America. So, we did perform much better under the democratic period than has been the performance by any means in the autocratic regimes of the last 22 years.
COWEN: Why wasn’t there more support for Guaidó’s revolt against the current government? Just internally, things became so terrible, right? Here was a plausible alternative to the status quo, and it failed. Why?
LÓPEZ: Well, there was an immense level of support. We saw in the streets hundreds of thousands of people protesting again. We’ve had many cycles of very intense and long-standing protests. In the year 2014, it was six months; 2017, also four months; and in 2019, almost an entire year.
But then came COVID that paralyzed the country, and there was no gasoline. That also gave the regime of Maduro — and I think this is a global pattern, where we’ve seen that COVID really gave a hand to autocratic regimes to impose more social control. I think that that was one of the reasons why the mobilization that we saw in 2019 completely stopped in 2020.
LÓPEZ: No, I think that by no means there’s a comparison with the level of corruption of the regime. But we do have great challenges in terms of how to manage our country in very transparent and efficient ways. I think this is one of the challenges that we have, going forward, is to make the administration of public resources of the country very transparent and efficient. This is, again, something that requires the compromise of all the democratic sectors.
COWEN: In the case of Venezuela, do sanctions work? Should we favor sanctions?
LÓPEZ: I believe that sanctions are a necessary tool to compensate the lack of other options to deal with autocracies. We have seen that very clearly here after the invasion of Russia into Ukraine, that the first response of Europe and the United States — and particularly very, very intensely (and surprisingly, to me) the way in which Europe responded with economic sanctions as the first alternative.
I think that in the case of Venezuela, that is also true. I also believe that sanctions have been important, and I support the imposition of individual sanctions for violations of human rights and corruption, but also general sanctions that will create the necessary pressure in order for the regime to open opportunities for the democratization of the country. I think that sanctions are the only reason why the regime will sit down and negotiate a way forward towards democratization of Venezuela.
COWEN: Obviously, Russia is still fighting in Ukraine. Other than the case of South African apartheid, what are the examples for sanctions that actually have worked? Don’t they usually just make people in the sanctioned country poorer, and often they cement in the autocracy?
LÓPEZ: Well, that has been an argument that has been widely spread, but it’s actually not true. It’s actually not factually true that the crisis in Venezuela was created by sanctions. By no means — in economic or social terms — does the crisis of Venezuela coincide with the imposition of sanctions. Now, with a full regime of sanctions, there is this narrative promoted by the autocracy of Maduro that Venezuela is doing better, that there is actually economic growth.
We have seen in some of the Wall Street analysis about Venezuela that this is a year where there will be an important growth in the economy. If that is happening, and sanctions are imposed now, actually, there’s really no clear relationship that sanctions create a strain in the Venezuelan economy. That is true, but they are also the only tool, the only leverage that there is in order for Maduro to open a possibility for a free and fair election.
COWEN: If we look at Brazil — Brazil has Petrobras. Mexico has Pemex. Those have been major problems with corruption, bad governance, but they haven’t brought those regimes to the state of chaos we see in Venezuela. If you think about this comparatively, what do you think are the differential reasons why Mexico and Brazil have stayed quite a bit more stable?
LÓPEZ: It’s incredible, yes. When I worked in PDVSA, I worked there, I graduated, I had the opportunity to be in the office for strategic planning, particularly with the chief economist. And we were always very interested in the analysis of PDVSA and other state-owned companies. And by far, PDVSA was analyzed and was evaluated as one of the best state-owned oil companies in the world. It was, at one point, the third-largest oil company in the world. We were producing at the time 3.7 million barrels of oil, but that all changed. Today, we’re producing less than 600,000 barrels of oil, and the company has completely collapsed.
When you frame the question that today, Pemex is a reference or it’s doing better than Venezuela, it’s just a huge shift because Pemex was the wrong example of what oil companies should be like 20, 25 or 30, 40 years ago. It’s not that Pemex is getting better. It’s that PDVSA basically collapsed.
PDVSA was completely dismantled because of corruption. Tens of billions of dollars were stolen because of the corrupt activities around the oil industry. There are dozens of criminal cases open in the United States courts because of money laundering, corruption, and corrupt practices associated with PDVSA.
I’ll give you some figures of this collapse. I gave you the first one: We were producing 3.7 million barrels of oil, now less than 600,000. The debt of the company was around $3 billion 20 years ago, and now it’s over $50 billion, and we are producing less. The number of direct employees was around 50,000, and now it’s close to 200,000.
There is no output in products from the Venezuelan refineries because they basically collapsed. One of them exploded in the year 2012. Since there was a corrupt hiring of the insurance, it was never brought back to function ever again. It was the largest refining complex in the Western Hemisphere, and it just collapsed. Because of corrupt practices, it has remained collapsed over the past 10 years.
COWEN: If we think of Venezuela as the Latin country with the closest ties to Simón Bolívar, do, in some ways, the problems of Venezuela reflect original flaws in Bolívarism?
LÓPEZ: No, I think Bolívar had a proposal that, if it had come true, it would’ve been a very different geopolitical dynamic in the entire continent and the world, because his view was that Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia were one nation — and Bolivia — were one nation called La Gran Colombia. Unfortunately, for different political reasons at the time, that didn’t happen, and it was split up into different republics.
He was also very clear in the compromise to our republic, to the rule of law, to the respect of the freedoms and the liberties of the people of the newly freed countries. I think that it’s the contrary. There has been a path against what Bolívar and the independence proposal at the time thought for the future of Venezuela.
COWEN: Has it hurt Venezuela to be so thinly populated? It’s one of the most thinly populated countries in the world, right? Is that a problem for nation building and state capacity?
LÓPEZ: When you say thinly populated, what do you refer to?
COWEN: It has a lot of fairly empty territory, so the return to building infrastructure to more distant parts of the country is relatively low. To get, say, to Angel Falls by road can be a daunting proposition. The difference between the coast and the Highlands — maybe in some ways, that has limited its ability to evolve into a mature nation-state.
LÓPEZ: That could be an analysis. However, the population in Venezuela has been concentrated along the coast primarily, and in large cities. There was, during the after-war period, a huge migration — because of the oil activity — to the cities, and that has remained a pattern. Of course, looking forward, there needs to be some propositions for taking better advantage of the rest of the territory. However, we do have very densely populated cities that in themselves have large problems to be solved.
COWEN: Are Venezuelans too charismatic, culturally?
LÓPEZ: Well, I think Venezuelans are very happy people. Venezuelans are people that have a particular charisma. I have seen that and realized that over the past year. I have seen Venezuelans all over Latin America and other parts of the world, and I see how they do, how they are perceived, how many of them succeed in different works, opportunities. They are a very well-considered character. That’s what I’ve seen all over my travels in Latin America.
Of course, I think that we have an entrepreneurship spirit that, because of so many hardships that we have been facing — particularly over the past 20 years, and intensively over the past 10 years — that Venezuelans have become very resilient, but it’s a particular way of being resilient, with good vibes and good attitude.
COWEN: Culturally, how are the Highlands different, say, Mérida?
LÓPEZ: Well, Mérida is culturally linked closer to Colombia, to the culture of Colombia. It’s also primarily a mountain-populated country. Of course, there is a large population in the coast.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, western Venezuela, where we have the mountains and it’s close to Colombia, was basically detached from Caracas and from the coast. Travel there needed to be by sea. It took two, three days to go from Mérida to Caracas. That created an isolation of that part of the country. However, that quickly changed during the last part of the 20th century, and Venezuela became a very well-communicated territory.
COWEN: Am I wrong to think there’s an especially strong rivalry, or sometimes even dislike, between Colombia and Venezuela? Where does that come from?
LÓPEZ: There are some people that try to promote that conflict and try to use it. Chávez, especially, was very keen on doing this, to use historical references of the differences between Bolívar and Santander. Santander was one of the leaders of the independence of La Gran Colombia. He was Colombian and he became president of Colombia.
Chávez had a narrative trying, basically, to say that the history of Venezuela can be reduced to three episodes: when the Spanish came and they conquered and they killed the Indians; when we got independence and then Bolívar suffered prison by Santander; and then his own period. They tried to simplify that narrative, and this is something very characteristic of populism. Perón, who you mentioned before, was also very keen in doing this. There is this sentiment that has been politically manipulated.
However, we have seen the way in which the people from Colombia migrated to Venezuela by the millions during the last part of the 20th century, and now the tide has changed, and millions of Venezuelans are migrating to Colombia. And there is a very natural integration. Venezuela and Colombia, in a way, are very close culturally, historically, and family way. There are millions of Venezuelans that have married Colombians, and now their children are Colombian Venezuelans. I think that that creates a very tight bond between the two countries.
COWEN: Will Chile go the route of Venezuela? Or will it keep its political stability? There seems to be much more turmoil there now than there had been.
LÓPEZ: Well, I think they have the same temptation at the moment that we had in Venezuela 22 years ago, when there was this proposal to change the constitution to create new institutions and to pack the institutions with the people loyal to the regime. Chile is undergoing a challenge of rewriting a constitution that could divide the Chilean people, as it happened in Venezuela, or it could unite the Chilean people, as it didn’t happen in Venezuela.
I think it, in a great way, depends on the output and the type of, quote, “political consensus” that they can agree upon in this constituent process that they’re undergoing. I hope they learn from what happened in Venezuela because, at the time, the promise of a new constitution, of a constituent assembly, was a mirage. It was a promise to solve all of the problems. It made democracy crumble, and it basically dismantled the rule of law, and it paved the way for the autocratic regime that we have now.
COWEN: It’s a puzzle to me why there’s an apparent negative correlation in Latin political developments. Governance in Peru more or less seems to have collapsed. Chile has more turmoil. Colombia arguably has more political problems than it seemed maybe seven or eight years ago. Mexico, much worse with drug gangs. Brazil seems weirder. Is that all just coincidence? Or is there some underlying structural force why all these developments are coming at the same time, more or less?
LÓPEZ: Well, I think that there is an underlying problem, which is the lack of delivering by democratic regimes. I think there is a tendency, a global tendency, to undermine democracy. And part of the problem has been the lack of democratic governments to deliver on big issues: poverty, inequality, opening opportunities, health, and education. I think that there is a real challenge that democracies need to deliver for the people, because if not, they’ll become questioned and they become prey of autocracy proposals that won’t improve the living standards of the people, but will crumble and attack the democratic system.
COWEN: Your seven years in prison — I’ve read, you had 300 books with you. Which ones were they?
LÓPEZ: Well, I had many books on the history of Venezuela. I also had different oil books, economic books. For example, I had the different books of Daniel Yergin that I reread while I was in prison. I read a lot of Latin American literature, from [Mario] Vargas Llosa to Leonardo Padura, a Cuban who has written masterpieces in the way in which the Cuban society has evolved and that, for me, sounds very close to our case in Venezuela.
I also read a lot of Colombian literature. William Ospina, who wrote very interesting books on history and adventure, the way the rivers in South America were conquered — the Orinoco and the Amazon Rivers. I read a lot of Stefan Zweig, a lot of his autobiographies, mainly the books that I had.
I wrote the book that you read after a year and a half in prison, but things really changed. At first, I did have access to books, but books became such a cherished thing for me. It was very clear for my captors that it was something that kept me very focused, that they took the books away, and they did it in a very cruel way.
I was in a prison cell two by two with the bars, and a meter and a half away, there was another cell. They put all of the books right in front of me. I could not reach them, I could not read them, but they were there. I wrote an essay that I called “The In Prison Books.” It was, in a way, a metaphor of how autocratic regimes keep knowledge, or keep books, or keep discussions away from the people in order to control their minds and the attitudes of individuals.
My relationship with the books while I was in prison was a very close relationship. At one point, I was taken away all of the books. The director of the prison — he called himself a Christian. I said, “You should not take away from me the word of the Lord, so you should give me the Bible.”
After a couple of days, he gave me the Bible. I read the Bible from Genesis to Apocalypse, and it was a really interesting experience to read the Bible in that way. Reading chronologically the story of the people from Israel and the story of Jesus Christ, for me, was a really interesting and fulfilling experience.
I also had the opportunity to write, but then they took my pens and paper away from me. By the end of my imprisonment, I had nothing. I only had my mattress and the few clothes that I had there. I didn’t have a chair, I didn’t have a table, I didn’t have anything.
COWEN: Just so our listeners know, your book is called Freedom Confined: Prison Notes by the Insurgent Democratic Leader of Venezuela.
With respect to the Bible, how exactly is it different to read the Bible in prison?
LÓPEZ: To read the Old Testament, for me, was reading the history of the people from Israel. That was something very fulfilling for me and created great admiration for that story that, for us Christian Catholics, gave a way to Jesus.
The story of Jesus, when you’re in prison, is a very powerful story because it’s a story of an individual who was first praised and supported, and then was challenged by his own people. Then he was beaten, and he was crucified, and he was misunderstood, and he suffered a great deal. Then we see the ways in which the apostles took the word and spread the word. For me — I’ve been always involved with creating networks of people and doing grassroots organizations and grassroots activism. You read the story of the apostles, and it’s the story of grassroots activism, so that also felt very close to me.
It was a lecture at different levels. Of course, there is a spiritual reading of the Bible, but then there’s also the historical context that I really became familiar with. And I identified with many of the stories that were there because many of the stories in the Bible are stories of hardships, of crossing the desert in many different ways. That’s what has been my life experience personally and also family-wise and also nation-wise — that we have been crossing the deserts at different periods, individually and as a nation. For me, that also was a very heart-feeling experience.
COWEN: What was it like living without a mirror?
LÓPEZ: Well, it was interesting to look at my face after more than three months without knowing what I looked like. I had grown my beard, and then my beard became a symbol to other prisoners. I was isolated in one of the buildings. The prison where I was — they had two buildings. In one of them, there were between 400 and 500 military prisoners, and I was in the other building most of the time by myself.
I was taken to a place where I could see the sun once every three, four days, very early in the morning. I had a beard. Other prisoners started to grow a beard as a sign of protesting against the regime. There was a point where many of us had grown the beard, so the beard became illegal. In order for me to see my lawyer, I had to shave, and the other prisoners were not able to have a beard.
Prison is a very intense experience in many ways, but it can break you or it can make you stronger. I was very conscious of that because I prepared myself for this experience. Six months before I was taken to prison, there was a warrant for my arrest, and that gave me an opportunity to read about the experiences of other political prisoners.
I read the story of Mandela, of Gandhi, of the brief periods in prison of Martin Luther King, and of many Venezuelan political prisoners. There was one thing that was very clear in all of those testimonies, which is that they need to have a routine. Since the very first day, I was very self-conscious of having a routine and knowing that my battlefield against the regime was taking place in my head, in my heart, and in the capacity to maintain myself with a strong soul.
I was very conscious and disciplined about going about my routine, which was basically praying, reading or writing, and doing physical exercise. I did that with spartan discipline every single day, and that’s what kept me very focused during my time in prison.
COWEN: How much trust was there amongst the prisoners?
LÓPEZ: Amongst the prisoners, there was a lot of trust. Actually, I was able to lead a protest in prison. We were able to take control of the entire prison. This happened in February of 2015. We had been preparing ourselves because I had brief encounters with other prisoners, particularly when I was taken to mass. After three months of being there, I was asking to be able to go to mass or to see other prisoners because that’s a right that prisoners have.
There’s one point in the mass liturgy when you stand up, and you give the people a hug in an expression of peace. That gave me three to four seconds with each prisoner. When I went to that ceremony, I was with two officers of the intelligence police, but that brief moment gave me the opportunity to tell some of the prisoners, and to give them the following message. I would tell them, “Tell your wife to look to my wife and to get in contact.”
I did that with many prisoners, and we had a slow iteration of getting in contact with different prisoners. It got to a point where we had people in each one of the floors in each one of the sectors of the prison. We were prepared to do a very strong protest.
One day it all sparked because they mistreated a baby that was coming in for visit. This plan that we had been crafting for months was activated, and we took control of the prison for maybe 14 hours. So it was a very intense moment, and prisoners were very conscious of the dictatorship as the source of many of their problems.
Since it was a military prison, more than half of the people there were there for political reasons. There is a very high intolerance and very tremendous consequences for the military that stand up against the regime. People who just make a comment or go to a meeting or even talk about the news in a certain way — they run the risk of being thrown into prison. As I said, many of the people there were also military-political prisoners with a very strong commitment to struggle for freedom, so that created a very fertile ground for organizing many of the prisoners.
COWEN: What was used as money in the prison? What was the medium of exchange?
LÓPEZ: Well, money itself. Since I was isolated, I had no possibility of doing any exchange for anything, but I do know that the way things get exchanged — not just with money, but also through the visits. You get paid through the wives or the spouses or the people that come to visit. That’s how some of the transactions happen.
They happen outside of prison, but there is not much exchange since there are not many goods or services that can be provided. One of the services that prisoners provide is shaving other prisoners. That’s an open service that can be charged for, but there are very little things that can be exchanged.
COWEN: Do you ever regret simply leaving the country instead of having gone to prison? Was that the right decision you made? How do you think about it? And how transparent do you feel your own views and motives are to yourself?
LÓPEZ: Well, I actually have never regretted doing what I did. I was very conscious because I presented myself voluntarily. I was not caught. There was a warrant for my arrest. I went into hiding for several days, and then I called for a protest to turn myself in, and tens of thousands of people came out to the street, and I presented myself, being very clear in what I was doing. In a way, I felt the commitment to show to the Venezuelan people and the world the petrified system that we were in and the lack of rule of law.
It became a symbol of injustice, and that became also a symbol of the struggle for many people to fight, so I never regretted doing that. It was very hard for me and my family. I also know that my family — although they went through very difficult moments, they understand and they support what we went through because we had a purpose. I had a purpose, as an individual. My family shared that purpose.
And I believe that happiness is about having a purpose. It’s not the material gain or the status that you can have. It could be that for some people, but I think that the best way to define happiness is when you have a purpose that you can stand up for, that you wake up every day with commitment, regardless of the obstacles that you are facing. I continue to have that purpose now, so I never regretted going to prison.
I can tell you, when I escaped more than a year ago, it was very difficult for me, because I had made a personal and a public commitment to remain in Venezuela. However, after seven years, it got to a point where there were diminishing returns in the things that I could impact in Venezuela, being isolated, and also, the personal difficulty of seeing my kids growing up.
My oldest daughter, Manuela, was four when I first went to prison. My youngest, Leopoldo, was one, and then I have a baby girl of four. That was, of course, another reason that led me to be with my family.
But primarily, I was motivated to figure out different ways of making our struggle for freedom known, to get different types of support, to articulate with other leaders and movements that are going through the same struggle elsewhere, because what I have realized is that what we have been going through in Venezuela is not an isolated issue.
It’s not an isolated case, not even in Latin America. It’s a global struggle for freedom, and over this past year and a half, I have seen similarities in what we are going through with many other places, in Asia and Africa, in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and of course in Latin America.
COWEN: You did your undergraduate work at Kenyon in the United States. When you first showed up, what surprised you the most?
LÓPEZ: Well, the Midwest was [laughs] something very different, but I really had an extraordinary opportunity to be at Kenyon College and have a liberal arts education. It was a place where I struggled very intensely with ideas, and I also had the opportunity to do my early activist and grassroots organization.
I remember we organized a protest during my junior year. It was after the invasion of Kuwait, so we were protesting against the war. It was 12 of us, and we sounded the fire alarms exactly at the same time that the first bombs went down. This was more than 30 years ago, and one of the people that were with me was caught, so we all showed, and we were suspended for some time. We ignited a very intense debate on the campus.
I also had the opportunity to organize one of the first environmentally conscious organizations on the campus. We called it ASHES: Active Students Helping the Earth Survive, and it was much in the thinking of Greenpeace at the time, being very proactive. That was the time that we had the first celebration of Earth Day on campus. I had the opportunity to be in contact with many issues. I had the opportunity for very intense philosophical and ideological debates, and also, I was very involved in sports, so it was a very good experience.
COWEN: Why is boxing fun?
LÓPEZ: Well, I’ve always done martial arts, ever since I was a young kid. I have always been involved and competed in martial arts. But several years ago, a couple of years before I went to prison, I started boxing. I really liked it. When I was in prison, I was doing a lot of boxing, most of the time by myself, but it’s something that gave me a lot of self-control and also a lot of self-assurance. Even though I knew that I was always going to lose against the weapons and the numbers of my custody, it gave me a lot of self-assurance.
It’s a great sport. It’s tactical, it’s physical, it’s very fast, and it gets you in contact, and I’ve always liked extreme sport. For me, boxing is an extreme sport in the sense that when you’re sparring and you are getting hit, you know that you’re in a dangerous situation, and you need to not only have a good offense, but also a good defense. And in a way, boxing is also about knowing how to get hit, knowing how to defend. It’s very strategic. I love boxing. I box five times a week, if I can.
COWEN: Why are motorcycles fun?
LÓPEZ: I’ve always liked motorcycles as well. I actually competed in Enduro. When I was mayor, I always used a motorcycle to move around the city. I’ve always been a motorcycle fan as well. I crossed from Ohio to the West Coast in a relatively small motorcycle, a Suzuki Katana 250. Whoever knows about motorcycles knows it’s not a highway motorcycle, but it was a great experience. It was a solitary experience for me. I spent three weeks crossing the United States, and that actually prepared me, in a way, for prison.
I had another experience. I hitchhiked from Peru to Venezuela. I was very into ice climbing at the time. I spent some weeks climbing in Peru right after the mountains opened because the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla group was no longer taking control of that part of the country. Then I hitchhiked back to Venezuela. All of those experiences being alone, I think, prepared me for what I had to face later on in prison.
COWEN: Che Guevara, overrated or underrated?
LÓPEZ: I think overrated, for sure. He was somebody that assassinated people himself. He committed great crimes against the Cuban people. He also was a systematic violator of human rights and promoted violent conflict elsewhere. But he became a cultural icon that has been presented as something of an idea of a revolution without really looking at what his actions were.
COWEN: If you think of everything you’ve learned and experienced over the decades, have your political views shifted more to the left or more to the right? And why?
LÓPEZ: I’ve become more of a libertarian, to tell you the truth. I think that even that right-left spectrum doesn’t do precisely to the way in which I’ve shifted. I continue to have a great priority in my beliefs to social issues, to addressing the huge problem that we have of poverty — how to lift millions of people out of poverty and inequality. I believe that the core of the solution for the well-being of millions of people is with the respect for and the promotion of people’s rights, so I’ve become more libertarian.
In terms of the geopolitics, we have seen how many countries that were social democracies, or even countries that have more of a left-leaning political ideology, have given less solidarity to the struggle for freedom in Venezuela. I think we need to think of ways of associating with other peoples that it’s not only between left and right, but basically those who promote freedom and liberty as a core of their beliefs to articulate a society that provides well-being for all.
COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader, set in the context of what has been happening with the Maduro regime. I quote: “Has there been a right-wing radicalization of Venezuelans? A lot of my Venezuelan friends are now proudly homophobic and anti-feminist, also very disrespectful of anything related to equality and help for the poor. Has that happened because of the failures of an ostensibly left-wing regime?”
LÓPEZ: I certainly don’t think that that is true. I don’t know where you reader knows this group of Venezuelans, but it surprised me, that characterization. I can tell you our own beliefs. We are very open in that respect, and we believe that all rights should be for all the people. In that sense, we have become a movement, a vanguard in different positions.
We have the only transgender congresswoman in the entire continent from our political party. We believe that our view for democracy — what we talked about — the best Venezuela, which is, in a way, the promised land or objective, we promote that all rights should be for all the people.
What has become radical, I could share with you, is in the rejection of socialism as a concept. The way in which Venezuelans today perceive the word and the concept of socialism — it’s very, very negative because socialism has been the banner under which the destruction of Venezuela happened. Socialism — it’s a very highly rejected concept. With a lot of passion, you will hear people of very humble backgrounds and very humble and poor reality being very charged against what socialism means for Venezuelan people.
Socialism for Venezuelan people means the lack of freedom, means a humanitarian tragedy, means hyperinflation, means the collapse of the economy, means the incapacity to provide health services, means the complete collapse of the educational system, the destruction of the universities, the criminalization of the security forces, the incapacity to vaccinate newborns, the incapacity to give running water to the large majority of the people. That reality is what socialism means to the large, large majority of the Venezuelan people.
COWEN: What type of people would you recommend should return to Venezuela now?
LÓPEZ: I think all of the people that could return should return. However, when you look at the migration patterns, more or less, a rule of thumb is that when you have such a massive migration like the one that has happened in Venezuela, where 7 million people out of a population of 30 million people have already left the country, global patterns talk about one-third of that population returning if there is an improvement in the conditions. And the improvement in the conditions is not just economic. It’s also the democratic system. Given that, I think that a lot of the people that have already left are going to stay away from Venezuela.
That provides us with a huge challenge in how to incorporate Venezuelans that not necessarily are going to return to our country physically, but there are ways to support the reconstruction of Venezuela as a nation. We see great examples. Colombia is an interesting example. Israel is, of course, a very important example of how you can support while not necessarily living in the territory, and taking the best advantage of such a large diaspora.
That diaspora in Venezuela has taken a lot of the best professionals. Unfortunately, medical doctors, engineers, economists have left our country. Teachers, all sorts of professionals have left our country. Of course, we would need for many of them to return, but the fact is that many of them will remain. We need to figure out ways in which all those that remain and those that go back to Venezuela can support the reconstruction of our country.
COWEN: When you give advice to the United States, what do you tell us to do?
LÓPEZ: Well, to use the extraordinary leverage that the US has over Venezuela in order to pressure for a path towards democratization of Venezuela. That means free and fair elections. To use the leverage of sanctions in order to promote a free and fair election in Venezuela.
COWEN: The last two questions. First, what is it you’re doing now?
LÓPEZ: I continue to be very involved in Venezuelan politics in the sense that I have the responsibility of a political party. However, we are giving more and more responsibilities to those who remain in Venezuela.
I’m also doing a fellowship at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, where I am working and researching on the rise of autocracy as a global phenomenon, the decrease in democracies, and particularly the way in which freedom movements have evolved over the past years, and thinking about ways in which we can improve the efficiency, the capacity, the buildup, grassroots organization of freedom movements in Venezuela and elsewhere. That has taken me to be involved with different universities. I spent some time at Stanford University in March. I was at Harvard last week, in GW a couple of months ago.
I’m also trying to articulate a space, a movement of leaders and movements from countries that are living today under autocratic regimes, to articulate, in a better way, a common struggle for freedom. Those are the three things I’m doing.
COWEN: What is it you hope to be doing next with that group, the international group?
LÓPEZ: Well, with the international group, we were thinking of hosting or promoting what we call the World Liberty Congress by the end of this year. We hope to have this event in Vilnius, Lithuania, to gather leaders and movements from all over the world and come with ways in which we can collaborate with each other, we can communicate, we can advocate, and we can also join efforts in such important issues, like how to address the kleptocratic network that has been functioning among the autocratic regimes that lead to huge levels of corruption and that are the source of maintaining these autocratic regimes.
There are many ways in which we are looking to collaborate among leaders and movements. There’s no such movement of this sort today, and we hope to promote the first steps for a global movement for liberty and freedom.
COWEN: Leopoldo López, thank you very much.
LÓPEZ: Thank you very much, Tyler. Thank you and your audience.