The Venezuelan government needs to be celebrated for releasing Leopoldo López from prison to house arrest. But it should also be condemned if that’s all it does.
Democracies just don’t place leaders of opposition parties in jail, and the whole case against the 46-year-old opposition leader was baseless to begin with. As such, over the past three years López’s imprisonment became a symbol of all that is wrong with the Venezuelan state: its increasing authoritarianism, intolerance, paranoia and – long before Donald Trump – reliance on fake news.
It took almost 100 days of massive protests and major pressure from abroad to convince Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro to release López. There is a good lesson here: Pressure works. If authoritarianism is confronted with resistance, it can be contained, maybe even reversed.
But releasing López is only a minor step. Of all the demands that the opposition and the international community have placed on Maduro, releasing López was perhaps the easiest.
Consider the rest of the demands: 1) Release all political prisoners, not just López. 2) Carry out a recall referendum before proceeding to change the constitution – the demand for the former was made lawfully, and actually came before Maduro proposed to change the constitution, so first things first. 3) Schedule elections for governors, legislators in the state of Amazonas, and for determining whether people want a constituent assembly – all of these elections are required by the constitution. 4) Recognize the legality of the National Assembly and accept its role as an institution of checks and balances. 5) Stop government repression and rampant crime.
For those who still claim that the opposition has no message, perhaps they can understand it in Spanish. The message is simple: elecciones sí, constituyente no, represión nunca más. (“Elections yes, constituent assembly no, repression never again.”)
But Maduro is no dummy. Of course he cannot accept any of these demands. They are too high-stakes. They confront Maduro with the risk of losing power, maybe even his post.
So Maduro has chosen the easiest and least risky of the demands placed on him: Releasing López. Maduro’s hope is that he can stop there. He has touted López’s release as a major concession, a clear sign of good will, and an opportunity to now claim that that the opposition should just shut up.
But the opposition is no dummy either. They know that releasing López, however fair and necessary, represents no real change. They know perfectly well that López is not yet free, but under house arrest. López has been given the right to have contact with his family, but that’s about it.
Venezuelans, like López, are also under house arrest. They are constrained by a system of restrictions that the state has imposed on them. The right to political voice and freedom of choice in their political menu has virtually disappeared. Imports have collapsed because the government has imposed draconian exchange rate restrictions, and this has generated severe shortages of food and medicines. In any economy, this enormous demand for food and medicines would be met by the private sector, but in Venezuela the private sector does not offer relief because of the price controls that the government imposes on retail. Food and (some medicines) can only be found in informal markets – because those are the only markets that the government tolerates (maybe even runs). Only those Venezuelans who are very wealthy can benefit from informal markets because prices are exorbitant.
Chavismo has therefore placed all Venezuelans under house arrest, with the exception, of course, of the very wealthy and well-connected. Socialism of the 21st century looks like patronage from the middle ages.
A week before López left prison, there was another important story of departure from Venezuela. United Airlines ceased flying into Caracas. This is astounding. One of United’s main hubs for Latin America is Houston, the center of the oil economy in the United States. Venezuela is the premier oil economy in the Americas, and third or fourth most important oil supplier to the United States. The Houston-Caracas route should be busy and profitable. But United has decided to discontinue service, citing of course economic troubles (Venezuela’s failure to pay them dollars) and rampant crime imperiling its crew and operations. Other international carriers have also abandoned Venezuela: Air Canada, Alitalia, Lufthansa, LATAM, GOL and Insel Air.
The tragedy is that most Venezuelans don’t have the United option. They cannot just walk out. Like López, they are under house arrest, trapped by a system of political and economic controls. A few lucky Venezuelans manage to escape. But the majority are stuck.
Releasing one prisoner is a great step forward, a historic moment. But it’s not the solution. Venezuelans, like López, require not just a change in living quarters. They need a complete change of house rules.
Corrales is professor of political science at Amherst College and member of the editorial board of Americas Quarterly. The second edition of his co-authored book Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez came out in April 2015.