from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Leopoldo Lopez, Democracy, and the 2016 Presidential Race

May 13, 2015

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Today at the Council on Foreign Relations we hosted Lilian Tintori, the wife of the Venezuelan political leader—and political prisoner—Leopoldo Lopez. With her were Lopez’s father and mother, and his five year old daughter. They are in Washington campaigning for his freedom, and for the freedom of all Venezuelans. For fifteen months Lopez has been jailed by the Maduro regime on ludicrous, trumped-up charges after a phony, fixed trial. He remains in a military prison. His true crime was be an elected mayor and a leader of the opposition, and far more popular than Maduro.

The case struck me in part because yesterday, in Israel, I met with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet political prisoner. On Sharansky’s desk was a photo he pointed out. In the background was the headquarters of the Soviet KGB, the infamous Lubyanka—where Sharansky had been held before his conviction and his imprisonment in the Gulag for 9 years. There, Sharansky had been told he would never get out of Russia and would die in prison. But in the foreground of the photo stand Sharansky, his wife Avital—who had spent years campaigning for her husband’s freedom just as Lilian Tintori is doing—with their daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. This was a photo celebrating the victory of freedom over oppression, and of faith over despair.

The Lopez case is becoming an international cause. Thirty-six Latin American former presidents of all political stripes have endorsed his cause—though it seems that no sitting president has spoken out, which should be a cause of shame in Latin America. The failure of the OAS to act has also been shameful, and is one of a long list of failures by the last OAS secretary general, Jose Maria Insulza. During his term the OAS, once a bulwark of freedom in the region, turned back to being a dictators’ club. Fortunately his term is ending. Now the Lopez case will be an early test of the new secretary general, Luis Almagro of Uruguay. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Parliament, and most major human rights groups have spoken out in support of Lopez. If Almagro is serious about democracy in the Americas, so will he.

So will any U.S. politician of the left or the right who is asked about it, and many have. It is a compelling case, and given the state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations there is no down side in our political system. The more publicity given this cause, the better.

The harder cases come where there is a down side or where matters appear more complex. Take Egypt, for example: there, many U.S. political leaders take a “forget about human rights” view. Indeed the failures of the “Arab Spring” outside of Tunisia have left many analysts, diplomats, and politicians saying forget about human rights in the entire Arab world. After all, we have many interests there, just as we do with tyrannies such as Russia and China—ranging from trade to security to Iran.

In the case of Egypt, it’s striking that so short-sighted an argument can be persuasive so soon after its obvious failure. Many of the same people who said “forget about human rights, we need stability” under Mubarak are saying it again, now about the Sisi regime—just a few years after the “stable” Mubarak regime crumbled in a couple of weeks. Today Sisi is crushing political life in Egypt. He is crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, or trying to do so, but crushing as well all NGOs and civil society organizations and political parties and democracy initiatives and human rights groups. The recent history of Egypt suggests that the likely outcome, in a few years, is an explosion. History also teaches that when a ruler does this, the conspiratorial and extremist organizations regroup. They survive and often thrive in the dark. The groups that are more effectively crushed are the moderates. So when the explosion comes, are we shocked when the extremists seem better organized and prepared, and seize power or win the first election? The Sisi formula may work for a few years, but it is no formula for stability.

The United States is now entering a presidential race when these issues will be debated, and it’s a debate well worth having. We will find some candidates in essence saying “forget about human rights” while others remind us of America’s role as a beacon in the dark for those struggling for freedom. Some of the likely candidates, who include sitting senators and a former secretary of state, have a record on these issues, and it is fair to question them about their support for freedom—or their subordination of freedom to real or imagined advantages in other realms, or in favor of smoother relations with foreign rulers no matter how brutal or repressive.

We should be working hard to achieve freedom for Leopoldo Lopez, and for his counterparts around the globe: political prisoners whose crime was peaceful action on behalf of democracy and human rights. We should do so in hostile countries, and in friendly countries. If during this presidential campaign indifference to freedom is suggested as a wise and prudent U.S. foreign policy, let’s demand that candidates explain why that policy is truly practical—and how it comports with American values.

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