from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Leopoldo Lopez , John Kerry, and the Uses of English

September 13, 2015

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

In Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez was sentenced this past week to 13 years and 9 months in prison. Lopez, a successful political leader who threatened the vicious and repressive Venezuelan regime, is Venezuela’s most famous (but not its only) political prisoner. This grotesque sentence follows a grotesque "trial" that violated every definition of due process and fair play.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that "The baseless conviction of the opposition leader Leopoldo López and three Venezuelan students for violent incidents during the country’s 2014 protests exposes the extreme deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela" noted that his trial "involved egregious due process violations." Jose Miguel Vivanco of HRW said “This case is a complete travesty of justice" with "totally unsubstantiated charges."

Amnesty International said the "prison sentence against a Venezuelan opposition leader without any credible evidence against him shows an utter lack of judicial independence and impartiality in the country" and added that “The charges against Leopoldo López were never adequately substantiated and the prison sentence against him is clearly politically motivated. His only ‘crime’ was being leader of an opposition party in Venezuela."

These comments are angry--and justified. The entire prosecution was political and the trial was an evil farce.

Now compare what Secretary of State John Kerry said. Here is his statement in full:

The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The decision by the court raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics.

Since Mr. Lopez’s arrest and imprisonment in February of 2014, we have underscored our concern with the charges brought against Mr. Lopez—which we consider illegitimate—and we have repeatedly called for his release and for the release of all Venezuelans who are imprisoned for political reasons. We call on the Government of Venezuela to respect the rights of all political prisoners; and to guarantee fair and transparent public trial, consistent with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Venezuela’s Constitution.

This statement reads like a parody of State Department blather. We’re "deeply troubled?" We have "concerns" that are "underscored?" Can’t anyone at State speak English? We "consider" the charges against Lopez "illegitimate." That’s nice, but it seems to be an expression of opinion: we "consider" them illegitimate, but others may disagree, I guess. The trial "raises great concern" about events in Venezuela--again, concern.

Was it impossible for Kerry and his staff to escape the usual, boring, weak words like "deeply troubled" and "concern" that no actual human being ever uses in speech? Was it impossible today something like Amnesty and HRW said? It seems unlikely that war would have been declared had Kerry’s statement avoided the usual "troubled" and "concerned" and said "I condemn this travesty, this baseless conviction, this inhuman sentence, and this despicable and lawless regime." In today’s context, the actual statement conveys lack of interest or commitment, or energy. Perhaps some day State can return to a vocabulary that uses the English language to convey vigor, power, and strong intent. But apparently not for the coming year or so.