Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Free Leopoldo Lopez

Posted on July 22, 2014

Today I am here to say the world is watching Venezuela.  The Senate especially is watching human rights abuse in Venezuela.  I especially am watching the case of Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in prison for 5 months.  For what?  For leading a political party and exercising his constitutional rights. 

Senator Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has spoken out about human rights abuse in Venezuela.  Senator Corker, the ranking Republican on Foreign Relations has spoken out about human rights abuse in Venezuela.  Yesterday, Senator Cruz of Texas gave an impassioned speech about Leopoldo Lopez in Venezuela and that conspicuous example of human rights abuse.  Senator Rubio of Florida has been at the forefront of this discussion with his leadership on the Foreign Relations Committee. 

Today, I wish to speak about human rights abuse in Venezuela and to say to President Maduro in Venezuela that the world is watching.  The world is watching him and his efforts to imprison his principal political opponent, Leopoldo Lopez. 

Many of us have visited Robben Island off South Africa's coast.  When my family and I did that a few years ago, there was no moment that impressed me more in that visit than when some of those who were imprisoned there with Nelson Mandela still give tours of Robben Island, about where he lived and where he exercised and how he conducted himself in the 27 years he was there before he came back and was freed and became one of the most important persons in our world history. 

It seems to me President Maduro of Venezuela is determined to turn Leopoldo Lopez into the Nelson Mandela of Venezuela by his unconscionable imprisonment of him principally because Leopoldo has spoken out and has expressed his political views about the country he loves.

Leopoldo was born in Venezuela and comes from a patriotic Venezuelan family, but he was educated in the United States which is where I met him.  I met him when he was a student at Kenyon College.  In fact, I made the graduation speech, when I was Secretary of Education, to the class in which he graduated, and he was a friend of my son who was also a student.  I watched him over the years.  He went on to Harvard and obtained a master's degree there at the Kennedy School.  He could have stayed in the United States and had a very successful career, but he chose instead to return to the country he loved, Venezuela.  He was elected mayor of a municipality there at the age of 28 in an important area outside of Caracas.  Four years later he was reelected with 81 percent of the vote.  He is a rising star in Venezuela.  There is no brighter star rising in the skies of Venezuela. 

Hugo Chavez's government knew that someone like Leopoldo, who is well educated, charismatic, purposeful, and honest, with a desire to help his fellow Venezuelans, would do nothing but cause problems for their socialist government, so they barred him from running for public office and accused him of misusing public funds. 

I suppose a lot of us would like to bar our principal opponents from running against us.  The senator from New Jersey and I are both in elections this year, but it hasn't occurred to us that in the United States we could actually do that.  Elections are the lifeblood of our political system and the lifeblood of this country and the lifeblood of our liberty and freedom, but in Venezuela if you don't like your opponent, you just say they cannot run for office.  That is what they did to Leopoldo. 

Leopoldo fought back, taking his case all the way to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and he won.  I had an opportunity to see him in 2011 when he did that.  I knew he would win his case.  Anyone who listened to it believed that.  He then stayed in Venezuela.  He faced assassination attempts, harassment, threats, but never wavered in his call for the Venezuelan people to take action against the oppressive regime of Hugo Chavez and more recently Nicolas Maduro. 

Venezuela is a rich country and has lots of money, but people cannot get toothpaste, people cannot get tissues.  The inflation there is more than 50 percent.  You would expect there to be a leader demanding change from the government, someone who could express the views of the people.  Leopoldo is that person, but he has been in jail for 5 months.  He has been barred from running for public office because he is that leader. 

He is a husband.  He is the father of two young children.  He chose to turn himself in to face trial.  He could have come to the United States or some other country and said, "I am in exile.  I am a popular Venezuelan and I'll take the brave act of going into exile."  No, he didn't do that.  He turned himself in, with a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people behind him, because he is in the tradition of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, and others, and is focusing his resistance in a nonviolent and a constitutional way.  That is his lesson to the people of Venezuela. 

However, he is in jail and has been for 5 months, and President Maduro keeps him there to silence the opposition.  Or so the President thinks.  Leopoldo's trial starts tomorrow.  I say trial, although it is not a trial that we would recognize. 

The distinguished chairman of the Judiciary Committee is on the floor today.  He has been a leading spokesman for human rights across the country.  He, too, is interested in human rights abuse in Venezuela.  He would not recognize this trial. 

The defense team of Leopoldo has attempted to bring forward 60 witnesses plus other experts to testify on their client's behalf. However, during a preliminary hearing every single witness for the defense was disqualified.      

There is the distinguished lawyer, the senator from Massachusetts, on the other side of the aisle.  She knows what a trial is.  She recognizes human abuse when she sees it, just as all of us do.

So I think it is important for President Maduro, the people of Venezuela and the people in Venezuela who have been subjected to human rights abuse to know that is not going unnoticed in the United States of America, that there are senators on the Democratic side and on the Republican side of the aisle who are paying close attention to this; that our State Department is reviewing this very carefully; that this sort of human rights abuse in Venezuela – a country badly in need of political discourse and leadership – is something we should not ignore.  We should say to President Maduro:  Free Leopoldo Lopez.  By locking him up for 5 months you are not silencing him.  You are helping to make him the Nelson Mandela of Venezuela. 


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