This article was written by Jeffrey Tayler and originally posted at Bloomberg.com
“The last days of a dictatorship are when the dictatorship becomes the most dangerous and uses, regrettably, its worst weapon: hatred,” says Lilian Tintori, the 37-year-old wife of Leopoldo López, the charismatic leader of the Venezuelan opposition party Voluntad Popular. She’s speaking by phone from Caracas on a recent Monday. Her husband, López, is internationally recognized for his efficient, transparent governance of one of Caracas’s most prosperous districts from 2000 to 2008. He has called for Venezuela to undergo a peaceful transition to democracy involving the lawful—and early—departure of President Nicolás Maduro. Since February 2014, López has languished in the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas.
Following a trial later labeled a “farce” by the lead prosecutor, López received a sentence of almost 14 years for “subliminally” inciting violence during the countrywide anti-government protests of 2014. “Leopoldo is innocent,” Tintori insists. “He never called for violence. He is being persecuted for thinking differently.” At Ramo Verde, López is kept in solitary confinement, she says, in a separate tower in which he is the only prisoner, in a two- by three-meter cell without electricity, with only a small, high window for light. Guards routinely subject him to what Tintori calls “cruel, humiliating searches.”
“Very often, in the middle of the night, more than 10 officers dressed in black and wearing ski masks burst into his cell and search it violently, throwing all his books, clothes, food, and pictures of our children on the floor,” Tintori says. “They overturn his mattress and strip off his sheets and destroy everything. They have thrown human excrement and urine through his window and insulted and threatened him.” Though she fears for her husband’s life, she says he is strong: “He isn’t breaking, nor will he ever break.”
The Venezuelan government did not respond to requests for comment on these or other allegations made by Tintori.
Were he free, López, 44, would make a promising candidate for president in a country deep in crisis. Since he replaced the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro, a high-school dropout and former bus driver, has presided over a slow-moving disaster. (“Catastrophic” is how 80 percent of Venezuelans evaluate Maduro’s running of the country, according to a March opinion poll.) In 2015, the economy, now the worst-performing on earth, contracted by 10 percent and is expected to shrink by an additional 6 percent this year. Inflation is hitting 720 percent, the currency has devalued by 93 percent, and Venezuela, dependent on oil for 96 percent of its state revenues, will probably default soon on its foreign debt. Food shortages result in hours-long, often violent lines. Water cutoffs and electrical outages are common, with power plants operating at less than 30 percent of capacity. Medicines have largely disappeared, even in hospitals. (The National Assembly has declared a nationwide humanitarian health crisis, and Human Rights Watch has likened the situation to that of a war zone). Murders and kidnappings have proliferated. The looting of supermarkets has spread. The country teeters on the brink of anarchy, famine, and revolt.
The Maduro government has done little more than address this unfolding national disaster with nasty rhetoric, blaming the country’s ills on Venezuela’s “far right elite,” scheming “Yanquis” of the reviled “imperio,” and the “parasitic bourgeois,” all the while imprisoning and harassing opposition members. More than seven out of 10 Venezuelans now want Maduro to quit office before his term expires in 2019.
Clearly perceived as a threat, López has been forbidden by prison authorities to correspond in writing with anyone, even his children. Tintori’s visits to her husband at Ramo Verde have served as the only means by which he has continued to communicate his message, at times explained in op-eds. (See, for example, here and here.)
“I write down what he says on my arms and legs. When I leave the prison, I take pictures of what I’ve written and send it to journalists” and other members of the democratic opposition.
“I’m being persecuted by the government at this moment, with cars without license plates following us right now. At night, cars follow us without turning on their headlights.” The government spies on her at home, using drones that hover outside, monitoring even her bathroom window and her children’s room. “The regime is trying to intimidate not only Leopoldo, but us as a family, but they will not break us,” she says.