By Deborah Malamud
On Feb. 18, 2014, Leopoldo López ’93, founder of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and former mayor of Chacao, a subdivision of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, was arrested wearing a shirt that read “el que se cansa, pierde (he who tires, loses).” Since then, Venezuela’s political situation has gained international attention. Yesterday evening, the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) and the Office of the President sponsored a talk by Adriana López, Leopoldo’s sister, in Rosse Hall about her brother’s involvement in politics and fight for Venezuelan freedom. In an interview prior to the talk, Adriana told the Collegian that Leopoldo has, from early adolescence, “had a very clear sense of public service.” She described her family’s reaction to his unrelenting commitment to activism as “always supportive,” in part due to their father’s and grandfather’s own dedication to public service.
Adriana, who owns an arepa kitchen in San Francisco, has “been able to exchange letters” with her brother, and feels his profound faith as a Catholic has served as “a tool he uses on a daily basis to endure the journey that he’s in right now.”
Adriana described Leopoldo, who originally intended to attend Harvard Divinity School but instead ended up at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Public Policy, as the most religious member of her traditional Catholic family. His ability to use religion in order to connect with his constituents points to the interdisciplinary nature of Leopoldo’s story.
A vast array of groups and majors on campus “have an investment in this talk,” Andrea Lechleitner, administrative assistant for CSAD, said. Leopoldo’s story takes place “so far away from Gambier, and yet it’s still so closely connected to it. It’s about standing up for the qualities you believe in, that you feel are worthy to uphold.”
Maya Street-Sachs ’17, a sociology major, was inspired by the knowledge that López was a sociology major, too. “The change you make … here in Gambier can be picked up and brought to a [larger] cause … and you can start to see real change happening,” she said.
Leopoldo’s case “may undermine some of the popularity Chavismo has enjoyed in parts of Latin America,” Assistant Visiting Professor of Political Science Nancy Powers wrote in an email to the Collegian. Chavismo is a left-wing ideology spearheaded by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. His imprisonment “has garnered a lot of attention from the UN, from international human rights organizations, and here in the U.S.,” Powers wrote
Adriana noted that many of her and her family’s efforts to incite action from other countries’ governments, which have occurred largely through Venezuelan embassies, have been successful — for instance, the United States government, Club Madrid and several European countries have condemned Leopoldo’s imprisonment. However, she said that many “Latin American countries have been very quiet about it.”
“The opposition to President [Nicolás] Maduro is diverse,” Powers, whose areas of expertise include Latin American and grassroots politics, wrote. “Some favor negotiation and building an opposition movement that can win the next election. Others, like [Leopoldo] López, favored a more activist stance.”
Paired with his style of dialogue, which Adriana describes as being “very black and white,” López’s desire to spur immediate change, rather than craft a deal, has received criticism from both supporters of President Maduro’s and members of other opposition factions for being too radical. Adriana’s response to critics is that her brother is “not radical, but bold,” and that his urgency to push for change stems from his belief that “there’s no better time than the present to correct what’s not right.”
“The only radical thing about him is that he felt the time to act was now,” Rob Gluck ’93, a close friend and classmate of López, said. “If you consider what he’s speaking for, it’s human rights — the right to free speech, basic economic freedoms. Those are far from radical positions.”
“[López] organized a lot of … protests,” Gluck said, “but he also threw a lot of the best parties.” López, who, in addition to politics, was passionate about surfing, boxing and staying out late, sought to understand the beliefs of his fellow classmates during his time at Kenyon. He used his social abilities to develop himself as a “man of dialogue,” according to his sister.
“During college, there are a lot of people who have a viewpoint and that’s their world,” Gluck said. “But for Leo, if you had an opinion, [he’d ask], ‘Is it informed? Could you defend it?’ And then he embraced that.”
Adriana admired López when they were growing up, but, like many younger sisters do, found her older brother to be “really annoying.” She believes it is his “good, [albeit] dark sense of humor” that allows him to seek dialogue even in situations where “everyone is wearing red, supporting Chavez, and on the other side, everyone would be wearing white [supporting López], and he’d cross the divide and say, ‘Let’s talk this out.’”
Alexa Simic-Hachmann ’17, who was born in Venezuela, wrote in an email to the Collegian that “conditions in Venezuela are proof that democracy is fragile. We cannot tire in our quest to regain it.”
Even as the struggle for Venezuelan freedom continues, López refuses to rest. As his T-shirt said, “el que se cansa, pierde.”