Caged and restless

Leopoldo Ramo VerdeLast Saturday, Prodavinci published a meaty piece of journalism-slash-history: Part 1 of the first extended interview opposition leader Leopoldo López has given since he was jailed last February (here, in Spanish). The author of the piece is Boris Muñoz, one of Venezuela’s best journalists.

The interview is quite long, but that’s understandable. Leopoldo, Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner, has a lot to say. It focuses on his day-to-day reality inside prison – how he has learned to play the cuatro, how he divides his day – but also on the events leading up the point when he turned himself in, starting with the days after his party won several important mayoral positions.

The interview’s main contribution is that it serves as an opportunity for Leopoldo to remain part of the conversation – and he knows it. While jail has, in the words of Muñoz, “preserved [Leopoldo] from the wear and tear that other political actors, both government and opposition, have suffered from as of late, as if he were locked in an anti-corrosive chamber,” it’s clear Leopoldo is missing the fray, and he is eager to jump right in. As he told me in December, he loves a good debate, and that comes through in the interview.

One of the important things Leopoldo does is frame the current struggle as a fight for freedom. In one of the more powerful passages of the piece, he cites Nelson Mandela by saying that “being imprisoned has gotten him closer to the thousands of Venezuelans who suffer from an unfair justice system.” He talks about day-to-day issues, but he is also unafraid to talk about the big picture. “Venezuelans,” he says, “have many material and basic wants, but they also have spitirual needs, the need for freedom, and any political discourse or proposal must understand that our people have a need for this as well.”

This is a direct response to comments made by some in the opposition, saying that Venezuelans don’t need talk about “dictatorships” or “freedom” because they don’t care about such abstract concepts. Leopoldo guffaws those that say these concepts do not help connect with the people, saying that Venezuelans’ intelligence “should not be underestimated.”

One of the more surprising aspects of the interview is how one of the people that emerges best is … Diosdado Cabello! As Leopoldo talks about the process that led to him turning himself in, Cabello comes across as an actual, albeit evil, human being – more Michael Corleone than Darth Vader, eager to negotiate the best outcome with the López family, all the while trying to get Leopoldo out of the way.

According to Leopoldo, Diosdado was the main conduit between the government and his family, and he was very interested in him leaving the country, asking for political asylum, or basically stop being a nuisance. When Cabello said that Leopoldo could be” assassinated – something López clearly understood as a death threat – he decided to turn himself in. Apparently, while Leopoldo was in the car with Cabello, who served as his personal chauffeur on his way to jail, Diosdado personally called Supreme Tribunal justices as well as the Attorney General to ask about Leopoldo’s case and give them barking orders.

The last of the main points that López makes is something that I have tried to convey on the blog – that the idea that the protests “strengthened” the government, or that the opposition is “weak,” is nonsense. The government’s numbers have never been this low, and as Leopoldo himself points out, any opposition candidate would easily beat Maduro right now, according to opinion polls. People are hurting, and they are blaming the government. If the protests strengthened the government, then you would have to argue that the government would be much weaker at this point had the protests not occurred, something difficult to do when their approval ratings are at historical lows. The opposition appears to be rudderless because its main leader is in jail, incommunicado, and that’s an important caveat. The government holds all power in Venezuela, but it is far from being in control.

When Hugo Chávez was imprisoned after his failed coup attempts in the early 90s, a series of interviews with well-known journalists helped keep him relevant, while serving as useful tools in building the “myth” of the Chávez persona. The myth of the hero as a “caged lion” is as old as Daedalus and Icarus, and building that myth through interviews such as this has usually been a succesful strategy.

Still, this is no propaganda piece. My general sense while reading it was that it is an important document on the current debate in the opposition. And while it is premature to tell whether any of this will have lasting impact, something tells me it’s a piece we will be revisiting.