Special Series: Interview With Leopoldo López
IWAB recently interviewed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López Mendoza, who is currently exiled in Spain since his arrest and imprisonment by the Maduro regime.
February 18th, 2022
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IWAB recently interviewed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López Mendoza, who is currently exiled in Spain since his arrest and imprisonment by the Maduro regime, in October 2020. Educated at Harvard University, Mr. López was the Mayor of the Chacao municipality in Caracas from 2000 to 2008. In 2009, he founded the Voluntad Popular, a progressive and social-democratic opposition party that fights for the cause of democracy, freedom, and socio-political justice in Venezuela.
Camila Hidalgo (CH): You have witnessed first-hand the Maduro government’s use of narrative and propaganda to crack down on opposition. How do you make Democracy appealing again and win the narrative battle now? What does the new Venezuela narrative look like?
Leopoldo Lopez (LL): This is a huge challenge. Narrative is an important battlefield that sometimes is not understood as such. For many years, in Venezuela, western journalists and academic sectors have turned a blind eye and accepted Chavez’s narrative of autocracy. I remember having conversations with people who basically said, “we need to understand that Venezuela is a tropical democracy, a democracy of the Caribbean.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that if you're in the Caribbean you don't respect the rule of law or freedom of speech?
Let’s look at a more recent example. Currently in Ukraine, a battle of narrative is unfolding. Putin claims that this invasion is about NATO. But the real narrative is about democracy. What Putin really fears is that Ukraine could be successful as a democracy right next to Russia’s borders. Putin’s worst enemy is the fact that this could show the people of Russia that a social revolution for freedom can happen as it did in Ukraine. So, he is playing the NATO narrative, which I believe is just fake or a mirage.
Yesterday (February 17), Putin met with Bolsonaro and Alejandro Fernandez to talk about Latin America. What they all share in a way is the dismantling of the concept of liberal democracy. They adopt a disciplined narrative that divides society along many lines – race, income, gender, ideology. It must be realized that part of the fight against autocracy is in the field of narratives. That is part of a playbook that I have seen very clearly unfold in Venezuela, but elsewhere as well.
Matt Donovan (MD): Recently, Venezuela has made moves to incorporate the dollar into one of its main currencies. What do you make of this dollarization? Do you think it plays a part in the future of Venezuela?
LL: This dollarization has become a reality because of hyperinflation and because the Venezuelan bolivar did not have any value. Dollarization was not even a legal decision in the sense that it concerns only a minority of the population. I would say that maybe 3-4 million people in Venezuela might have access permanently to dollars, leaving another 25 million people without permanent access to dollars. We are witnessing today in Venezuela an exponential increase in the levels of inequality. I think it will be very difficult to have a stabilization program that entirely removes the dollar from the economy.
However, I think it's superficial to try to understand the Venezuelan economy just in terms of the dollarization impact. The core of our economy stems from illicit sectors like cocaine ($2.5-$3 billion), contraband, money laundering… This “dark economy” is facilitated by Maduro’s alliances with other similar regimes.
Maduro receives more support from Iran, Russia, Turkey, Cuba, and China than we receive from the US and the West; that is not to say that we don't appreciate the type of support that we receive. Iran and Venezuela have an energy exchange that has been very profitable for both countries. Turkey has an alliance with Maduro around the extraction and the commerce of gold. China has given a lot of credit to Venezuela and has engaged in infrastructure projects, the same way it has done in Africa.
These dynamics of alliances are crucial to understand the case of Venezuela and why Maduro remains in power. But their implications go beyond Venezuela and are truly international in that they provide these autocrats with mutual assurance of military, diplomatic and economic cooperation.
MD: Mexico has also shifted its positioning towards Maduro, distancing itself from the Lima group (which recognized Guaidó as the interim president). What do you make of this splintering process?
LL: This splintering is very significant. It’s not just Mexico, but also Argentina. This is part of a pattern that we are seeing in Latin America, unfortunately. I don't think that Lopez Obrador is a good reference of a healthy democracy. The challenge is to “disable the enablers”, because even though Argentina and Mexico are not openly dictatorships, they are enablers of Maduro. They do so by allowing the participation of Maduro, Ortega and others in international organizations.
This is part of the problem: dictators continue to be recognized. If their crimes and corruption are just pushed under the rug, the internal struggle against them becomes much harder.
Instead, the US and Europe should intensify their support towards democracy. We need to have the largest, widest, and most committed network of nations that center their efforts around the basic need for free and fair elections. That's what the people in Hong Kong are calling for. That's what the people in Myanmar are calling for, the people of Iran, Turkey, or South Sudan.
CH: What do you believe is the exit out of this dictatorship? How can Latin American countries, or the international community, support the democratic cause in Venezuela?
LL: What I found very shocking while in exile, is that there is no link or articulated effort among all the movements that are fighting for the same cause in different countries. We had no contact with the Cubans or the Nicaraguans, yet we are fighting the same enemy. Over the past months, I have thus dedicated to articulating what we have called “the ally,” – an alliance of leaders and movements across all countries that are facing autocracies, whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Our aim is to create a two-level network that allows leaders and opposition movements to interact and share information with organizations like Freedom House or the Alliance of democracy. We have launched new projects that promote grassroots activism and provide non-violence training or support to leaders fighting autocrats; something that we've done many times with success in Venezuela. The use of technology has proven very helpful in the fight for freedom. Previous initiatives were either dedicated to specific areas like human rights or freedom of speech, or they are foreign organizations. Our focus is on the front lines of the fight for democracy; precisely where there is no democracy. Let’s always remember that it is not because there is no democracy somewhere that the people there do not want democracy. A simple reality is that the majority of the people do want freedom and do want democracy.