1001 nights. Of course our mind goes naturally to that most famous of collections; stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Opulence and intrigue and exotic luxury. Leopoldo Lopez’s 1001 nights have, unfortunately, been much less grand.
Leopoldo Lopez is the world’s most emblematic, yet still somehow unknown, political prisoner. Lopez was arrested 1000 days ago, after the February 12, 2014 rioting against President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly totalitarian regime prompted him to start a popular non-violent movement called #LaSalida (‘The Exit’ in Spanish). A warrant was issued for his arrest – he was charged with vandalism and rebellion – and on February 18, 2014 he surrendered himself to the ‘authorities’ (I use that word extremely loosely). On September 10, 2015 he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for “subliminal messaging” (meaning they couldn’t find anything he’d said that matched up with the charges), in a trial that was not public, that violated the constitution, and which the prosecutor (who fled to the US – from a guilty conscience) said was completely preposterous – a sham.
The world has closed ranks to call for Lopez’s release. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Foundation, Amnesty International have all declared his incarceration illegal. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called it, well arbitrary. President Obama demanded that his captors let him go; as has Ban Ki Moon. This October the Dalai Lama tweeted in support of Leopoldo.
Lopez has had a rough time of it. As the regime’s prize hostage – and their greatest bargaining chip – he’s been assaulted. Has his room tossed pretty often. Been placed in solitary confinement. Had to go on a hunger strike. Been drenched with human excrement. Had Hugo Chavez’s speeches blared at him in an endless loop. Has been denied visitation rights and his wife is invasively strip-searched every time she wants to visit him.
There are those who would say Lopez is not Mandela. But of course Mandela didn’t start out Mandela – he became Mandela; through decades of suffering, and patience. I honestly hope Lopez doesn’t have to go through that – becoming Mandela – but he seems perfectly willing. He rejected the offer, upon his surrender, to let him flee. He again rejected being offered his freedom in exchange for calling off the opposition’s recall referendum. His defiance is laudable.
I’ve met Lopez a bunch of times. A few times in Venezuela when I was working there. The last time was at a presentation at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC, maybe in 2011 or 2012. Always, he was warm – engaged. He remembers people; the mark of a charismatic leader, he engages and has a good mind for details and makes people feel important. One of his ancestors – Simon Bolivar – also had that trait, it is said.
I think of Lopez often. His son is the same age as mine; and while I’ve watched mine sit up, crawl, walk, speak and sing and laugh and dance; Leopoldo has missed all these things. The regime stole them from him – these, the most formative years of a little boy’s life.
Leopoldo’s 1001 nights.
I did write a novel – well not about him, but certainly inspired by him and the others who sit in jail. “The Burning of San Porfirio”; a political prisoner released from jail after thirty years to wander the wasteland of a country that forgot who he was. Its fiction – my novel; but it is dedicated to Leopoldo and his sacrifice. It is my way of honoring him – in the only way I know how.
1001 nights; that is a long time. Lets hope it is almost over.
Meanwhile, be free, Leo. If only in your own mind – close your eyes to walk down the quiet dirt paths of your land, bathed in sunshine and adorned by fragrant flowers. Listen to the quiet calls of the turpial in the trees above; looking down on you in gentleness. Let the energy from the endlessly pounding waves of the beaches – the beaches of your country – radiate upward and fill your waiting with purpose and energy and strength. Breathe deeply of the fragrance of your home, Leo – the one that you are fighting for with every unfree breath you take. They cannot take this from you; nor can they deny what your fight has meant to the rest of us. Be free, Leo, be free.