Yesterday, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison. After being detained since February of 2014, he was found guilty of conspiracy, arson, damaging public property, and inciting violence during a political protest last year that ended in the deaths of 43 people.
López founded the party Voluntad Popular in 2009 to defend the rights of all Venezuelans and oppose the dictatorship of Hugo Chávez and Nicólas Maduro. In February 2014 he called for peaceful protests to address the country’s high levels of violence, shortages of basic goods, and to oppose President Maduro. Hundreds of thousands of protestors took over the streets of Venezuela. When state police intervened more than 3,000 were arrested and 43 were killed.
The legal charges blamed him for deaths during the protests. The long-delayed trial followed many irregularities. With Venezuela’s lack of judicial independence, the ruling was announced without any evidence linking him to the crimes. For more than a year, López was not given an opportunity to defend himself. The verdict and trial demonstrates to what extent Venezuela’s government is willing to oppress dissent and anyone who opposes the ruling president. The trial is a violation of human rights, and shows the reality in which the Venezuelan people live—“utterly defenseless in the face of government abuses” as Human Rights Foundation Chairman Garry Kasparov said this week.
The United States and United Nations have called for the Venezuelan government to release Leopoldo. Last year, the U.N. declared that López’s detention was arbitrary, and ordered his immediate release. U.S. officials have made it clear that López’s release is key to normalizing relations between both countries. However, Maduro has ignored these pleas, making it clear where his true interests are—with the Cuban government and other authoritarian regimes.
Cuba influences Venezuela more than most people know. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela took on the Cuban model of crushing dissent and political opposition, and blaming killings on protestors instead of its own government—such as in Leopoldo López’s case.
In return for Venezuela’s economic lifeline to Cuba, which has provided the communist island with more than 120,000 barrels of oil a day, Cuba provides the Venezuelan government with advice on how to monitor internal opposition and stifle dissent. This intelligence network led by Cubans keeps all dissent throughout the country monitored and is ready to take drastic measures if protests break out. Moreover, Venezuela has taken Cuba as an example that there are no meaningful repercussions from the U.S. or other countries for continued human rights violations.