It was the morning of Sunday, February 16th. Two days before my appearance before the unjust justice. Both my home and my parent’s home were raided that day. Lilian, my wife, and my two children were at latter address at that time. That day Diosdado Cabello came to my family with a plan as cowardly as the person that concocted it: Nicolás Maduro. Then plan was none other than to take advantage of the fears my family had for the situation I was in, in order to manipulate them and convince that it was best that I left the country.
It all started with the arrival of 20 men dressed in black, with hoods, assault weapons and an arrest warrant for homicide and terrorism. After searching the property and intimidating my family, they stated that the President of the National Assembly at that time, Diosdado Cabello, was on his way and wanted to speak to them.
Upon arrival, the first thing he said was that it was best for everyone’s interest if I left the country. More so, he said that if I agreed to this he would “kindly” assist me with all the requisite arrangements. What Cabello did not know, was that earlier that day I had made my family aware of my decision through the only person I meet with during my time clandestinely: Carlos Vecchio.
My family, in the midst of substantial tension, already was fearful that something might happen to me. Hence they asked Carlos to convince me to at least consider the option of leaving the country. I received the message, and I must confess that as son, father and husband, I understood it. Because it is not easy to see a loved one in a dangerous situation, much less knowing what the members of corrupt elite are able to do. Nonetheless, I asked Carlos to inform them my firm decision: I would face the dictatorship and I would voluntarily appear before an unjust justice. Furthermore, I was to do that Tuesday, February 18th. It was both timely and key that this message had gotten to my family before Diosdado’s arrival, because they were able to make it very clear that I had no intention of leaving Venezuela.
Having been turned away in his initial overture, Cabello proposed an alternative. He suggested that I applied for political asylum and locked myself away in some embassy. Once again he made it clear that he was willing to “help” with the arrangements. Once again, the answer was the same: No.
Both my parents and Lilian have told me that the “meeting” was cordial, at least as cordial as intimidation tactics can be. They even told me that at Lilian’s insistence that I was being unjustly criminalized, Cabello confessed that I was innocent and that this was nothing more than a political decision. He said that they were taken aback by our call for non-violent protests, especially after the municipal election where our party, Voluntad Popular, had come ahead as the party within the Unidad with the most amount of mayors, the vast majority of which were localities where previously PSUV had always (including the municipality of Maturin, capital of the Monagas state, second most important oil producing state and casually the home state of Cabello, where he has been elected as an assemblyman). That first meeting ended without any agreement, simply because there nothing to agree on.
That same day, I clandestinely recorded a video to ask the people of Caracas to please join me on Tuesday, February 18th in my appearance before the unjust justice. The government’s response was immediate. That same night, during a mandated national address, Nicolás Maduro attacked me once again, calling me a terrorist and a murderer and reiterating that security forces were deployed and actively pursuing me. During that address he also insinuated, for the first time, the thesis that some groups were plotting to assassinate me.
In the wee hours of Tuesday, February 18th, Maduro and Cabello, decided to increase the level of pressure on my family. Cabello reached out to Lilian once again and asked for another “meeting”. Once again he went to my family’s home with a new proposition, this time the most cowardly of all. He said he possessed information that proved that I would be assassinated if I made a public appearance: “the fascist right wants to kill him, and the colectivos too and the latter are very hard to control”. His proposal was that I should appear in a “controlled” environment, without anyone, perhaps a few witnesses. He warned that if I made my appearance in a public demonstration I would be assassinated: “the people in the right will take advantage of Leopoldo’s public address to carry out an assassination attempt. My recommendation is that he surrenders in private”.
This line of reasoning, brought forward by Diosdado Cabello had a profound impact in my family. Starting at 3 a.m., Lilian asked me time and time again that I didn’t make a public appearance, she asked me to think of our children. My parent’s also made the same plead. The threat had escalated to the highest level possible, death. My mother said to me: “Leo, think of Lilian. Think of Manuela and Leopoldo, your children. Think of what it means to surrender to an unjust justice and that we don’t know how long this will go on”. Lilian and my family insisted up to the last minute, however, even though I couldn’t stop thinking of them for even a second, I didn’t back down from my previous decision. The call for the demonstration had already been made and I was committed to the Venezuelan people. I had already made a choice that to this date I maintain it was the right one: I would never leave Venezuela and I would face the dictatorship in each and every terrain, especially the moral one. Living clandestinely or going into exile were not feasible options as they would imply that I would be a prisoner of my soul.
That Tuesday, at 4 in the morning, I left for Caracas. At 11 in the morning I appeared before an unjust justice and after that I was transported to La Carlota, were a few minutes later Diosdado Cabello arrived*.
We arrived to National Guard’s hangar; there you could see the people protesting at the gates of the airport. The last time I had spoken to Cabello was in the year 2007 when he was the Governor of Miranda and I was the mayor of Chacao. Around that time I had written a citizen’s security plan called “Plan 180”, which posed an integral approach to dealing with crime and violence in Venezuela. I started working on that plan after the death of Carlos Mendoza, a colleague that was assassinated in an attempt on our life. He died in my arms. I was unable to quell the pain of his family, no words are enough in situations like that, but I committed to develop a proposal that would significantly address the issue of violence in our country, and perhaps prevent other families of having to go through the same terrible ordeal. I sent that plan to Cabello, and to all national and regional authorities, because the security of all Venezuelans demanded it so, and since that time I had not spoken to him again.
Upon seeing him I immediately asked about this supposed assassination plan. He told me that this was true, that they had several proofs and recordings. To this date these recordings have not been made public, likely because they do not exist. Then he told me: “So, what should we do?” I answered: “What do you mean ‘what should we do’? You are the ones holding me under custody”. He then retorted by saying: “The only way out is through a helicopter. The plan is that three helicopters will leave the airport, we will be in one of them heading for Fuerte Tiuna, from them we will go to the courthouse”. I agreed to this, with the sole condition that my family and my lawyer were allowed in the same helicopter, because it came to mind the moment when Dictator Pérez Jiménez called Jóvito Villalba to “talk” after the fraudulent election of 1952, which in turned transformed into his forced exile. I feared that I could be taken out of Venezuela against my will as per Cabello’s suggestion.
Despite the dire situation, I must admit that the helicopter ride gave me peace for a few seconds, as it allowed me to see beautiful Caracas from up above. It filled me with strength and hope to see the sea of people overflowing the streets. The last time I had flown in a helicopter was with Iván Simonovis, now also a political prisoner, when he was Secretary of Metropolitan Security and I was Mayor of Chacao.
We arrived to Fuerte Tiuna and from there we made our way to the courthouse in an SUV driven by Diosdado Cabello himself. He had turned into the executor of my detention. We got a chance to speak regarding the situation of the country. I told him that the detention of those young Venezuelans in Táchira and Nueva Esparta was profoundly unjust, and that they should be released because they were innocent. He confessed significant concern with the economic situation and he insinuated harsh criticism to those he called “the geniuses running the economy, that always have an answer for everything, but the situation is critical”.
After we arrived at the courthouse we had to wait in the vehicle because the court wasn’t ready, neither was the requisite documentation from the police and the prosecutor’s office. I was able to witness how Cabello called directly the president of the Supreme Court and the General Prosecutor to ask them, or more so demanding explanations, as to why my case file wasn’t ready. I asked him what was going on and he told me: “No one expected you would actually show up, and nothing is ready” and I thought to myself: “Of course, you thought I was going to leave the country”. We went up to the courtroom and he mentioned: “This is the first time I set foot in this building”, and once again I thought: “But this is not the first time you call a judge, a prosecutor or a supreme judge to see ‘how things are going’”.
That night, after a first encounter with the 16 judge of control, it was ordered that I be held captive in Ramo Verde, where I was transported in a caravan of motorcycles and SUVs. In the SUV where I was being held, there were also General Álvarez Dalls, director DIM, and General Noguera, commander of the National Guard. It was being driven of course by the multifaceted Diosdado Cabello, who that day served as policeman, prosecutor, judge, custodian and even chauffeur.
Listen to the narration made by Leopoldo of these facts the final day of his trial in this never heard before audio:
*The journey that Leopoldo endured to arrive to Chacaíto, the place where thousands of protestors waited for him in his first public appearance, was described in the posting called “The day I arrived to RamoVerde”.