For Leopoldo López, one of Venezuela’s most prominent political dissidents, just about any semblance of normal life, pandemic notwithstanding, feels like a luxury.
In his first month of self-exile in Madrid, he has been meeting with foreign leaders, other Venezuelans abroad and reconnecting with family members who had already relocated to Spain.
“It’s something I didn’t have,” López said in an interview with The World. “Taking my kids to eat a hamburger or an ice cream, going to a park, and just talking to them. It’s a simple and ordinary life.”
López, 49, fled to Madrid in late October. He escaped from Venezuela after almost seven years of seclusion — first in detention by the government of President Nicolás Maduro in a military prison and in house arrest, and later in hiding in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas.
Now, López is speaking out against Maduro and the elections his administration is set to hold on Sunday for the country’s legislative body, the National Assembly. Virtually all opposition parties are boycotting the elections, and the European Union has said they are not being held under conditions that guarantee a free and democratic process.
López spoke to The World’s Latin America correspondent, Jorge Valencia, about his detention, his escape and the elections.
Jorge Valencia: You were held in prison for almost four years, and you say you spent much of that time in solitary confinement, which the United Nations recognizes as a form of torture. How did you get through that time?
Leopoldo López: There was a period of very intense solitary confinement where the guards took almost everything I had in my cell, like books, paper and pencils to write and draw. During that time, it was just a mat on the floor and nothing else. I had read the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Cardinal Van Thuan, who was detained for 13 years in Vietnam. They both had routines, so since the beginning I established a daily routine that consisted of three things: I prayed very conscientiously, I exercised my intellect by reading, drawing or meditating, and then I exercised.
I was very exigent, very demanding with myself. When everything got taken away, I had to substitute the books for meditation and contemplation. I was always aware that the fight was in my mind, that what they wanted to break was my mind, my mental stability, my commitment to our cause.
You escaped from the Spanish Embassy in Venezuela to Spain on Oct. 24. And I heard you on Colombian radio say your escape was similar to the movie, “Argo,” where a CIA agent smuggles six foreign service officers from the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. How did you get out?
Yes, I've seen that movie. It's a different context, but it was something similar. I can tell you it was very intense hours, a lot of planning and a lot of precise execution. We had moments that I thought that we were going to get caught, very, very close to being caught.
What do you know about the life of an average person in Venezuela right now? How would you describe it?
Life in Venezuela right now is a story of contrasts between what we used to be and what we are. We used to be a prominent, prosperous, democratic country, and now millions are going hungry and being repressed. Two-thirds of the population cannot eat three times a day. Almost half of the population has lost around 10 kilograms of weight over the past few years. There is no gasoline, and there are long lines that take days for people to fill a tank of gasoline. This, in the country with the largest reserves of oil on the planet.
But there is one industry that works and where the regime invests and has the best technology available. That is the repression and espionage industry. So, it's not just a country going through a humanitarian tragedy, but it's also a country that has to deal with the repression of a regime that is willing to incarcerate and kill dissidents.
Most opposition parties, including the party of National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by some 60 countries as the legitimate president of Venezuela, are boycotting this weekend’s elections. That means President Nicolás Maduro’s party is all but guaranteed an overwhelming victory. What happens after this weekend?
These are not elections. This is a fraud. And it’s not just us saying that, it’s the European Union and the Organization of American States. We have absolutely no clue how Maduro’s electronic electoral system works. There is absolutely no auditing, no international observation for the elections and therefore, no possibility of having a fair election. And this is the third time that has happened in the last three years. What happened in 2017 and 2018 was that we called them what they were, which was fake elections, and we did not participate.
So, you ask me what will happen after Sunday? This is what will happen. President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly that was elected in 2015 will continue its constitutional mandate until there is a legitimate, free and fair parliamentary election. It is necessary for us to continue to fight and have free and fair elections in Venezuela.
What do you see as the next steps for you?
We have one priority, and that is to strengthen unity at all levels, in political sectors but also social sectors and civil society. That unity needs to have a common objective and that is free and fair elections for the Venezuelan people.
And how do you accomplish that from Spain?
Well, I have been in confinement for seven years, and I’ve learned how to work without the option of leaving a place. I also think that the world understands today during the pandemic that you can do a lot of things from far away. I’m on Zoom all the time, my friend. I’m physically here in Madrid, by my heart, my mind and my priority is in Venezuela.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.