We Need a Global Fight for Freedom

Leopoldo Lopez, former Venezuelan political prisoner, considers the challenges to democracy in Latin America and shares his belief that democracy must deliver for its people.

From 2014 to 2020, Leopoldo Lopez was imprisoned for his pivotal role opposing the rise of Venezuela’s authoritarian rulers Nicolas Maduro and the late Hugo Chavez. During three of those years, the former Venezuelan mayor was placed in solitary confinement. The Kenyon College and Harvard University graduate now lives in exile in Spain and serves as a Wilson Center fellow. His commitment to freedom has earned him the European Union’s Sakharov Prize and a Nobel Prize nomination.

Lopez spoke in April with Christopher Walsh, Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy at the George W. Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. He described then why he considers the challenge to democracy in Latin America is the same as it is in the rest of the world: Democracy must deliver for its people. In Latin America, Lopez says, that means creating opportunities for more people, overcoming poverty, and expanding health care. But he contends that the fight for freedom is not peculiar to Venezuela. The struggle needs to go global.

What do you see as the greatest challenges to democracy in Latin America right now? 

The main challenge to democracy in Latin America as well as in the rest of the world is that democracy needs to deliver. It needs to create the confidence in the people that democracy can actually solve the problems that the large majority of all of these countries are seeing as their priorities.

The main challenge to democracy in Latin America as well as in the rest of the world is that democracy needs to deliver.

In Latin American, unfortunately, the economic situation has been in decline. Inequality has been on the rise. Poverty has been on the rise. On top of all of that, there has been the authoritarian alternative that has created changes within many countries: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and, of course, Cuba, dating back many decades now. These are examples of how authoritarian regimes are taking over different regions within Latin America. 

What are the best ways to counter those threats? Does the United States have a role to play in that region? If so, what is it? 

To go back to your first question, there is an internal threat, which is the delivery of democracy. There is also an external threat because liberal democracy is under attack.

After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, it has become very clear that this is not a conspiracy theory. This is happening, and it’s happening in a way that is very deliberate. It’s not only happening in Ukraine. Ukraine is an extreme example of using tanks, bombs, and genocide to subvert liberal democracy. The subversion happened in a different way in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua, but the result is the same. It’s the imposition of autocratic regimes over populations that were totally free and under a democracy. 

The main challenge is to understand that liberal democracy is under attack from within and from outside, and that democracies need to deliver to create confidence and support. There also needs to be clarity that there is this deliberate attack to undermine democracies.

This requires a global response, not just from the United States, but from any country that believes freedom, democracy, respect for the rule of law, and respect for basic human rights are universal values. They are all under threat and need to be promoted and defended with different ways of strengthening democratic leadership all over the world. 

You talked about democracy delivering, and that has to happen. But what does a democracy have to deliver to remain healthy and vibrant and strong? 

In the case of Latin America, democracy needs to deliver on the very basic needs of the people. Democracy needs to deliver in creating opportunities for the large majorities of the people. Democracy needs to deliver in overcoming poverty. It needs to deliver in expanding health care to the population. It needs to deliver in the hope that the way you are living today will improve.

Unfortunately, there is a confidence crisis that is being used as an opportunity. And disinformation and other types of attacks increase this lack of confidence in democracy.

So, democracy needs to deliver very basic things. Then you can promote this idea that freedom is worth defending. There is an attack on that very basic idea, but I believe this is starting to change after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Those of us who believe in democracy and freedom sometimes take for granted that people are going to support that system. But the experience of Venezuela, which you know very well, or the experience of Hungary has shown that there’s popular support for authoritarian movements. How should those of us who believe in democracy and freedom respond when voters back those movements at the polls? 

In the case of Venezuela, that was true 20 years ago, but it is no longer true. I want to make that very clear. [Nicolas] Maduro is not only rejected by the Venezuelan population. He’s despised by the Venezuelan population. A very large majority of the people identify him and his system as responsible for [Venezuela’s] economic collapse and the humanitarian crisis.

However, to your point, there might be many examples like Hungary of how autocratic regimes grow from within democratic systems. Elected officials, once in power, start to crumble, attack the rule of law, dismantle the autonomy of institutions, and undermine respect for different freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The result is that democracy starts to crumble from within a democratic system. 

That was the case in Venezuela. We didn’t lose democracy in one day. It was a gradual process, a process that took many years. In hindsight, it’s very surprising that it wasn’t until 2014 when the large majority of the Venezuelan people, as well as people from outside Venezuela, understood that what we were living in was a dictatorship.

Before that, if you ask Venezuelans, people would have said that we were living in a democracy with an adjective: a weakening democracy or a competitive autocracy, or whatever type of wording. But never would you cross the line to say, “No, this is actually not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship.” 

That’s another lesson learned from Venezuela: Democracy can be lost in a gradual process. That is why it’s so important that there is an awareness and a commitment to uphold the values of democracy and freedom.

That was the case in Venezuela. We didn’t lose democracy from one day to another. It was a gradual process, a process that took many years.

Those values may be abstract for many people. They were abstract to me. I was born in Venezuela in the 1970s. The country was a beacon of light for democracy, for prosperity in the region. Today, we are the poorest country in the region by far because of a political system. We took those values for granted.

I didn’t know what freedom was about until I was in prison, until I was in a prison cell 2 x 2, when days, weeks, months, and years went by. I spent the most part of four years in solitary confinement during the seven years I was in confinement. That’s when I really learned what freedom was about.

At least in my experience, the only way to really grasp the meaning of a concept as abstract as freedom is when you don’t have it. You shouldn’t wait until you don’t have it to realize that one should defend, as an individual and as a society, the values of freedom. 

Agreed. And you found the courage to stand up to what you saw happening in your country. The cost was you became a political prisoner. Given that experience, how would you inspire other leaders in other systems who see the same thing happening in their countries? What inspiration do you give them to find the courage to stand up to these illiberal or authoritarian leaders? 

That is a combination of many things. You need to have the personal drive and the commitment, and only hope can give you that. Is there a rational way forward when you’re in an autocratic regime? Is there step one, two, and three, and then in step four, we will be free, and in step five we will have a democracy? It’s not that easy.

You need to have almost a faithful, irrational commitment to defend freedom. That grows from within. I would appeal to that commitment. That’s why part of the fight for freedom is to reignite the idealism around this concept. 

I didn’t know what freedom was about until I was in prison, until I was in a prison cell 2 x 2, when days, weeks, months, and years went by. I spent the most part of four years in solitary confinement during the seven years I was in confinement. That’s when I really learned what freedom was about.

I remember in the 1990s, when I was starting here in the United States after the Berlin Wall fell, there was this view that the world was inevitably going to become a democracy and that a market economy was going to be the economic system.

In a way, it was very naive to think that even in places like China there was going to be trickle-down democracy. If there was economic prosperity, it would bring trickle-down democracy. That just didn’t happen. You need to have this commitment. That’s one thing. 

The second is the need to promote a global movement for freedom. We need to understand the fight for freedom in Venezuela is not an isolated fight. It’s the same fight for freedom in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Belarus, in Russia, in Iran, in Turkey, in South Sudan, in China, in Hong Kong, in Cambodia. It’s the same fight for freedom, the same struggle.

A global struggle for freedom is called for at this moment much in the same way that in the 1980 and 1990s the environment was just becoming a global conversation. Beyond that, it became a global commitment.

Now, the environment crosses all ideological lines. You can have shades of gray between what one proposes and the other proposes, but most of the people are committed to the environment. 

We need to create that same sentiment around freedom that requires a commitment of people all over the world. Not only those of us who are living under the threats and the consequences of autocracies and dictatorships, but also those who live in the free world and understand that in order for you to uphold your freedom here in the United States, you need to have the consciousness and the commitment to promote freedom elsewhere.

A global struggle for freedom is called for at this moment much in the same way that in the 1980 and 1990s the environmental was just becoming a global conversation. Beyond that, it became a global commitment.

It’s a lie to think that you can uphold freedom here in the United States if the rest of our world crumbles and kneels down to autocratic regimes. That will inevitably affect the quality and the capacity to live in a free society anywhere in the world. 

Is there a particular movement or fight for freedom going on in the world that gives you hope, that you think is a success story? 

There are many stories, particularly stories of great struggles that have taken place and over. I’ll just review some of them over the past years. We saw how in Hong Kong millions of people rose up against the autocratic regime of China. We saw an impressive movement of people in the streets clamoring for democracy and freedom in Belarus. We also saw hundreds of thousands of people going to the streets in Nicaragua and in Venezuela. All of that happened over the past four or five years. 

Unfortunately, in all of those places, the dictators are still holding onto power. However, it’s motivating to know that there can be the capacity to make all of those movements part of a larger movement.

That is something we are working on. We are trying to create an alliance of leaders, movements, organizations, and individuals who understand that we need to unite efforts, that we need to articulate in many different areas to promote a fourth wave of democratization. It’s very clear now that after the Russia invasion of Ukraine, this is not just a problem of the Ukrainian people, and [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. Other people have been talking about this.

I feel that part of the fight for freedom in Venezuela is being fought in Ukraine. That’s why we need to have a lot of solidarity and support what is happening in Ukraine. This is an opportunity to have a global alliance for freedom. 

I was struck when you were talking a moment ago that there are not one, two, three, four or five steps from authoritarianism to democracy. The transition starts with commitment of the people. Talking from your own experience, how do freedom-loving people create that kind of commitment? 

That requires grassroots presence. I have been a grassroots activist.

That’s a stepping-stone to organize people all over a territory that are committed to these ideas. At least for me, the hope, the enthusiasm to continue to step up against autocracy and to promote freedom has to do with seeing that many other people also share that view. They share that dream. We can have strength by the numbers, from the bottom up. Organizing people can have a multiplier effect. They can become part of a much larger network. 

This is the way we have survived in Venezuela politically, by never giving up, by always having presence. I even continue to have at least a virtual presence with people in Venezuela on a regular basis, but we have leaders doing this on a regular basis face-to-face. This is the source of the enthusiasm and the commitment that is required. 

In the case of your country, it didn’t suddenly go from democracy to authoritarianism. There was backsliding, if you will. Looking back, what would you say to other countries who are concerned about democracy backsliding in their nations? What are the most important trip wires to be concerned about? 

A playbook is being laid out in many different countries, each one with their own content. But it all starts with undermining the rule of law, with attacking institutions, with attacking the free press. At the beginning when all of this was happening [in Venezuela], many people thought this was an issue of journalists or of the owners of the media. There was a point where they closed a TV channel in 2007, and that did create a lot of protests in the streets.

But there are signs when this drive towards autocracy begins to take place: attacks on the free press, attacks on leadership, undermining the different rights of the people. 

I would advise others to not to take these signs lightly. Once they start being evident in any society, people should be actively concerned. That requires political engagement. And I don’t mean just engagement by politicians. I’m talking about engagement in the public sphere. Politics is a public sphere, and the public sphere is not the monopoly of politicians. It’s a mistake for people to think political engagement is foreign from them. Becoming engaged in the defense of these principles has a consequence in the way people live.

As an example, Venezuela today is living through a huge humanitarian crisis and an economic collapse that hasn’t been seen anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Just to give you an idea, Venezuela’s GDP has fallen 80% over the past eight years. Seven million people out of a population of 30 million people have left our country over the past four years. 

That gives you an idea of the magnitude of the collapse. Its origin is the dictatorship, the autocracy, and the ideas they uphold and the corruption they promote.

This has consequences for the people. It’s not like you can become only an observer from afar and think that it’s not going to knock on your door. Autocracies, dictatorships, they knock on your door. Once they come into your house, into your private life, it might be too late. You might have lost everything that you cherished and valued.