“It is what I live for!” says Leopoldo Lopez, prominent Venezuelan opposition leader against President Nicolas Maduro when asked about what motivates him to continue advocating for equality in Venezuela.
“Until you have freedom you do not know what freedom is,” the activist continues in a joint interview with Tamara Adrian, the first trans elected official of the Venezuelan National Assembly and second transgender elected official in the Western Hemisphere.
Lopez, 50, a Harvard educated political mentor to Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-recognized president of Venezuela, escaped to Spain in October of 2020 to be with his family after being a political prisoner for almost seven years.
“We actually got stopped at the border, but they did not know who I was,” he explains when recounting details of his escape out of Venezuela into Colombia, a journey of over 100km (62 miles) he made on foot. “At that moment I took the best lesson I learned in prison: You take control of the way you breathe, the way your heart beats.”
Since Lopez entered politics amidst Venezuela's sometimes violent scene in 2000, he has lived at the center of Venezuelan opposition against the Chavez and Maduro administrations. Once one of Caracas’s most beloved mayors — with a 92 percent approval rating when leaving office in 2008 — Lopez has not been foreign to much controversy.
Although never charged, he was accused by the Chavez administration for alleged corruption and misuse of public funds. This prevented him from running for office that consequently led to several international tribunals, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that ruled Lopez’s rights had been violated in this action. Lopez was not alone in being accused as the Chavez regime also prevented hundreds of other politicians from running, mostly from opposing parties.
Lopez and Adrian are both members of the Popular Will Party, a political party founded by Lopez and Guaido, that identifies itself as the progressive Democratic party and has seen many of its members jailed and/or exiled by the Maduro administration. The two first met when Lopez asked Adrian to run for a seat in the General Assembly after years as an LGBTQ+ activist and lawyer.
“She is an authority because of her life story,” Lopez says of Adrian’s influence on the LGBTQIA+ rights movement in Venezuela. She has been successful due to her intellect and the impressive “way in which she presented the case for nondiscrimination.”
Adrian and the Popular Will Party have been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights in Venezuela when first introducing the Free Marriage Act to the General Assembly in 2012 that eventually failed after Maduro placed assembly members voted against it.
“Venezuela is one of the few countries in the Americas that does not have equal rights.” says Adrian when asked about what life is like in Venezuela for the LGBTQ+ community, “They have to hide sometimes because of the fear of persecution, and the fear of police [who] are often extorting people that are presumed to be LGBTQ+.”
Out’s April cover story on the treatment of the LGBTQ+ Venezuelan migrant diaspora echoes Adrian’s sentiment that life is unbearable for many queer people. Adrian and several in-country surveillance groups have reported that this has only worsened since the pandemic. “Maduro has been given ultimate power during the pandemic,” she explains, having paused nearly all commerce in the country and locking millions down at home.
During a virtual speech to UNHCR, Maduro placed blame on the humanitarian crisis on the more than 450 unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union on Venezuela, arguing they have stripped the government of at least $30 billion in oil revenues, financial resources that could have been used to fight the pandemic.
Similar to the pandemic, the dire situation in Venezuela has affected nearly every aspect of everybody’s life in the South American nation that has seen its economy fall into a tailspin. The situation is exacerbated by what Adrian describes explicitly as a dictatorship. She says that the humanitarian crisis is caused by “the terrible situation of the dictatorship.”
“In Venezuela we have a pandemic of the rights of the people,” adds Lopez when talking about the erosion of rights of the entire population of Venezuelan, “This pandemic has gotten so bad that people don’t even have the right to food, or even the ability to be in public. “We need to break paradigms,” he declares passionately. “Freedom is like oxygen when you have it, you do not think about it.”
“The humanitarian crisis is happening because of the choices of the dictatorship” says Adrian when talking about the living conditions of LGBTQIA+ Venezuelans and why according to a Brookings Institute report nearly 16 percent of all Venezuelans have left their country.
“All rights for all the people” says Lopez, motivated by the global protest in the streets of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “No discrimination for anybody.” This was his rallying cry for the people of his beloved Venezuela and his message to supporters around the world.
“Every right of every Venezuelan has been violated. Venezuela is being strangled,” he continues. “When you start to see democracy under that lens,” it shapes the rest of your attitudes. “People around the world need to unite under a single call for freedom.”
As the pandemic launched its deadly assault on the planet, oppressive regimes worldwide have found justifications for committing heinous acts of human rights abuses in regions across the world. The dictatorial regime of Maduro is no exception. The duel pandemics of COVID-19 and widespread lack of human rights has left many Venezuelans hopeless.
At the end of the interview, Lopez and Adrian took the opportunity to speak in both English and Spanish directly to the LGBTQ+ community: “To those who have been discriminated against and fled and suffered all kinds of abuse, our hearts are with you.”
Additional reporting by Jeremiah Noonan.