I stood before an unjust justice.
I was jailed in the Ramo Verde prison on February 18th at half past 11 pm. That day I had woken up at 3 am. At 4 am I left clandestinity, I hid in the trunk of a car and it took me 45 minutes to arrive to Caracas. During those 45 minutes, that truthfully felt like several hours, I couldn’t stop thinking of the victims of kidnappings that are forcefully subjected and transported in that same way. I was sensitized with the subject because a few days prior the brother of a good friend had been kidnapped and murdered. I thought of my family, my children and above all, I though of where I would end up on this February 18th.
I had planned to make my formal presentation at 11 am, right in the middle of a public demonstration organized precisely for that purpose. I had been living in clandestinity for six days and at the time Nicolás Maduro had announced the roll out of all public law enforcement in the pursuit of “the terrorist Leopoldo López”. They searched for me eagerly, they raided my home, my parents home, the headquarters of Voluntad Popular and, with assault rifles at hand, they had detained several of my colleagues hard at work in that location.
I arrived at the demonstration riding a motorcycle. Those were tense minutes. I had to cross a National Guard check, and was able to do so because I did not remove the full-face helmet. When I arrived to the location of the crowd I knew they would not be able to detain me, it was then that I removed the helmet. We walked towards Brión square. There was no stage or sound system. There was just people, many people, many more people that I would have ever imagined. They were all dressed in white, as a sign of peacefulness, as we had asked when we called for the demonstration (through a video during my time in clandestinity). We had called the demonstration through social media, almost in an artisanal fashion. I will never forget the immense solidarity and affection demonstrated towards be by the people of Caracas, a people for which, without doubting it for a second, I would repeat the same sacrifice a thousand times over.
Once I arrived to the very end of the demonstration I decided to climb up the José Martí statue that, as a funny reminder, had been remodeled during my time as Mayor of Chacao. From there I said some brief words with the help of a megaphone. I explained that I subjected myself to the authorities because I had not committed any crimes and because for me it was not an option to leave the country or play hide and seek as the government would have preferred. These were my words, I transcribe them because they are the best proof of my innocence and because firmly believe in them:
We are living through a dark moment in Venezuela: Criminals are rewarded by the government, and Venezuelans looking for a democratic, peaceful and constitutional change are put to jail.
Today, I hand myself to an unjust and corrupt justice system, that does not judge following the Constitution and the Venezuelan laws. But today, I also hand my deepest commitment to you, Venezuelan women and men: If my imprisonment leads to the awakening of our people; if it leads the majority of Venezuelans that want change to stand up decisively and build such peaceful and democratic change, then this infamous imprisonment, set directly and cowardly by Nicolás Maduro, will be well worth it.
But I do not want to take that step into temporary silence without making it clear the reason for this struggle. We struggle for our youth. We struggle for the students. We struggle for those who have faced repression. We struggle for our political prisoners.
This struggle, sisters and brothers, is for the entire Venezuelan people that today is suffering. Suffering in line, suffering shortages. It is for the unemployed youth, that see no future as a consequence of the wrong economic model, imported from other countries, that just does not blend with Venezuela’s “Bravo Pueblo”.
Together, sisters and brothers, we need to envision and build a clear way out to this disaster. Such way out, sisters and brothers, needs to be peaceful; it needs to be constitutional; but it also needs to be proactive and built by street-based activities. Venezuela does not have remaining free and independent media outlets for us to express ourselves. So if the media is silent, let the street do the talking! Let there be streets full of people talking about peaceful and democratic change!
Sisters and brothers, I ask of you that we continue our struggle; that we do not abandon the streets; that we take our constitutional right to protest and that we do it peacefully, without any violence whatsoever. What I ask of all of us, of all that are here present, of all the Venezuelans that want change, is for us to get acquainted, trained, organized and active in non-violent protest. The protest of the masses, of the wills, the hearts and the souls of those who want to change without hurting fellow Venezuelans.
I ask you not to lose faith. And I am sure, in the name of my daughter Manuela and my son Leopoldo -and as Andrés Eloy Blanco used to say, he who fathers a child fathers all children-, in the name of all children of Venezuela, I swear to you that we will be victorious and that very soon we will have a free and democratic Venezuela.
May god bless you!
I also wanted to make sure that the situation would not spiral out of control due to my decision: “I beg you, when I pass the line of national guards, please remain peaceful. I want no violence”.
I am innocent of all the crimes I am being accused of, and I assumed candidly the responsibility for having called for a protests. That was and still is my biggest strength.
To bid goodbye to my fellow Caraqueños, I sent them a wholehearted message that I have repeated always to Venezuelans in all corners of the country: “I ask you not to lose faith”. That is key to sustaining our resistance to this authoritarian government, the faith that all Venezuelans should have in ourselves, in our endless capacity to overcome obstacles and continue the path towards democracy, freedom and well-being.
Upon conclusion, in the company of Lilian, my parents and many other leaders and activists from different political organizations, I walked to the barricade where the National Guard was. There was the General Commander of the National Guard, General Noguera, joined by General (B) of the National Guard, Benavides. Both insisted that I should wear a helmet and a bullet-proof vest -maybe aiming at reinforcing the narrative, produced by the Government, that there would be an assault against my life, or to show me as a criminal-. Obviously, I rejected. They formally charged me and let me in one of the small tanks that laid in the area. There were thousands of people in the place. We requested for support and applied non-violence as our strategy. We spent three hours navigating through a sea of people until we could leave the place in peace and with our heads high.
We arrived at La Carlota. Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, arrived minutes later. I will discuss about this encounter later on. He ordered us to board three helicopters that moved us to Fuerte Tiuna. There was no other way out, since all gates of La Carlota were swarmed with the noble people of Caracas that manifested against my detention. From the helicopter I could see the immense amount of people that set out to protests that day: Thousands of caraqueños in the neighboring streets.
From Fuerte Tiuna we moved on a line of cars to the Palace of Justice. The vehicle I was in was driven by Diosdado Cabello. Upon arrival, we had to wait for some time because the documents related to my case were not ready. The could not be. Everything was forged and invented.
We waited and, two hours later, we had the audience where the Judge 16 of Control. She dictated a freedom privation measure in the military prison of Ramo Verde. The audience did not conclude and was set to continue in the next day.
I was also driven by a line of cars from the Palace of Justice to Ramo Verde. Now again, Diosdado drove the SUV, and we were accompanied by General Noguera and General Hernández Dalla. The line had 10 SUVs and 10 motorcycles. We arrived at 11pm. We were received, in proper formation, the officers and soldiers that custody the prison -about one hundred and twenty men in total-. They were presided by Colonel of the National Guard Humberto Calles. His salutation was: “Chávez lives, the fight continues”. This was a political salutation that displays the submission of the armed forces to a political partiality, blatantly violating the Constitution. This salutation is repeated by every garrison, in every formation and in every chance that a military officer addresses another. Nevertheless, given my experiences in prison during the last months, this is not shared by the majority of uniformed officials.
I was taken to the entrance, and from the to the annex. This was a removed building where there was a single “normal” cell, surrounded by punishment cells or “tigritos”, as they are called in the prison jargon. We climbed three stories, the hallway was dark, walls were burned and there was lots of dust in the floor. We arrived to my cell, they handed me a bed sheet, a soap bar, a tooth paste and a tooth brush. “See you tomorrow. In the morning you have an audience” they said instead of good night. The door closed, a heavy iron gate with bars and a plank as reinforcements and a thick steel bar lock which is the largest of its type that I have seen. The door closed, followed by the locks that gave way to the annex. The deep echo of such noise climbed through the stairway announcing, reminding me , that this is a prison. That is the most distinctive sound in this place, a sound seal that speaks: “You are an inmate”.
The presentation hearing should have occurred in the Caracas Palace of Justice. However it was the regime’s decision not to remove me from Ramo Verde and have the proceedings in a “mobile tribunal”, a bus that they had parked at the doorsteps of the prison (I presume to abide with the formality of being judged outside a military prison). The hearing lasted twelve hours and in the end, after listening to the absurd arguments of the prosecution, as was already decided by Maduro and his government, they left me behind bars.
During this long hearing, the prosecutors were not able to look me in the eyes. In the end, one of them, Franklin Nieves, approached me and told me: “I’m very sorry”. He offered me a chocolate and some mints. I received them and told myself that this man knows that he doing something wrong, but he is a prisoner of the system, the dictatorship, just as much as I am. The time of freedom will come, for him, for the men and women in the armed forces, and for all Venezuelans.
That was how I arrived to Ramo Verde, my first night. That first night in prison is perhaps the longest. It is a transition point, the end of a stage and the start of another. Those long first set of hours, lying in bed, staring at the roof I recalled every that had happened sinceFebruary 12th: the clandestinity, the raids, the persecution and the presentation before the unjust justice. I was then able to assimilate the events of that February 18th, that started in the trunk of a car, the people, the tribunals, a trip in a helicopter, the arrival to this place and the closing of the cel with that sound. Since that day, still February 18th, until September 23rd, seen months, I remained locked up in my cell, in isolation, with just one hour a day in the yard.