MADRID (AP) — Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan politician who for years has led some of the biggest challenges to the government of Nicolás Maduro, pledged Tuesday from his self-imposed exile in Spain to continue fighting to “free” his homeland.
López, who spent over six years in prison, confined at home or sheltering in the Spanish embassy in Caracas, addressed reporters for the first time since reuniting with his relatives in the Spanish capital two days earlier.
“It is our responsibility — and also the one of nations that believe in democracy — to do everything in their power to liberate Venezuela,” said López, adding that change shouldn't happen because of external influence but due to the Venezuelan people's will “in coordination with the free world.”
López spoke to cameras minutes after he was received by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at the headquarters of Sánchez's Socialist Party in Madrid — a choice of location interpreted as an attempt by the Spanish leader to distance his left-wing coalition from Venezuelan politics. Sánchez's partner in the government, the far-left United We Can party, has in the past had connections with the socialist movement governing Venezuela.
In a tweet, Spain’s Socialist Party shared video of the meeting, writing that the party wanted a political solution for Venezuela in a “peaceful way.”
“The Venezuelan people must suffer as little as possible,” the tweet said.
Presenting himself as a “commissioner” of the government of Juan Guaidó, a López protege who has been recognized as Venezuela's interim leader by more than 50 countries that consider Maduro's 2018 reelection illegitimate, López pledged to promote a “free, fair and verifiable” new presidential election in Venezuela.
Following years of a political standoff that has eroded the social and economic fabric of one of Latin America's richest countries, Maduro's government is preparing to retake control of the National Assembly, the last major domestic institution in the hands of the opposition, in December legislative elections that Guaidó has vowed to boycott.
López fled Saturday from the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas, where he had found shelter since he led a failed U.S.-backed military revolt against Maduro in April 2019, and landed on Sunday in Madrid reuniting with his wife, three children, mother and father. The latter is a European lawmaker with Spain's conservative Popular Party.
López declined to release any details about the whirlwind escape for fear of endangering others. But he saidd allegations that his exit had been negotiated with the Maduro government were “absolutely false."
“Only five people knew about it, nobody else, not even my wife,” he said. “I organized it with the people who helped me and whom I'm going to protect.”
Since López's escape, Venezuela's government has removed from his post as interior minister the general who oversees the SEBIN intelligence police that had a heavily armed contingent outside the ambassador’s residence. In a statement, it also accused Spain of helping the “terrorist” López to get away.
López thanked the Spanish ambassador, Jesús Silva, for sheltering him in Caracas and criticized moves by the Maduro government to arrest some of his party members and supporters.
The 49-year-old politician was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison after being convicted of inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded. He was released from a military prison in 2018 but last year he broke his house arrest as tens of thousands joined him and Guaidó in a failed coup attempt.
While the opposition has struggled to regain momentum, Maduro has remained firmly in control of the nation’s military and nearly all other government functions.
López, who said he had been forced to leave Venezuela “because of the circumstances,” quoted a former Venezuelan presidential hopeful, Rómulo Betancourt, who famously said “We will come back” after losing the 1978 presidential election. In decades of political career, Betancourt had to go into exile at least three times.
“We are going to return to Venezuela to liberate Venezuela and to build the best Venezuela," López said.
Repeatedly questioned about how he planned to remain relevant in Venezuelan politics, the opposition leader said he would focus on helping Guaidó gain more international support. He called for the European Union “not to look away,” and to widen existing sanctions against Maduro's inner circle to 56 officials singled out in a United Nations report last year that highlighted abuses in the country.
“I do believe in these type of sanctions because I have seen how it works," he said.
He said top officials in the governing party who help ousting the current leader should become part of the transition to a new regime.
“I want to emphasize separating our strategy between what Nicolás Maduro is and the rest of the reality that surrounds him,” López said.
“There are people who say that you have to get rid of absolutely all the people who have had something to do with the dictatorship during the past 20 years. That is materially impossible.”