When Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López '93 H'07 was imprisoned, a group of media-savvy Kenyon alumni sprang into action.
Story by Gordon Young
Robert Gluck ’93 wasn’t exactly a boxing fan when he moved into Lewis Hall in the fall of 1989, but he soon came to appreciate the sport. It was hard not to, after an outgoing first-year from Venezuela named Leopoldo López ’93 rearranged the furniture in the ground-floor lounge to form a ring, passed out boxing gloves, and started holding matches. The sparring sessions became a popular diversion for a bunch of guys who were adjusting to life away from home.
“You saw right off the bat that Leo was a doer. He’d organize things. He’d talk to anybody. He just kind of made things happen,” Gluck remembered. “This was a time when we were all new and struggling to get to know each other, so it was a unifying thing for us.”
The pair became close friends at Kenyon despite never taking a class together. Gluck visited López’s home in Caracas their senior year, and they hiked Mt. Roraima, one of the most majestic South American plateaus. After graduation, they stayed in touch while López attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Gluck worked on the presidential campaign of Lamar Alexander. López flew from Venezuela to attend Gluck’s wedding in 1997.
By that time, the charismatic López was laying the groundwork for a political career, which didn’t surprise Gluck. “At Kenyon, we used to joke that he’d be president of Venezuela someday,” he said.
George McCarthy, professor of sociology and López’s faculty advisor, shared that view. “He had everything you need to succeed in the political world,” McCarthy said. “He had a very diplomatic quality to him that was not phony. He was intelligent, perceptive, and he knew how to listen.”
But political trajectories are difficult to predict, especially for a figure willing to aggressively challenge the ruling party in a deeply divided country like Venezuela. In 2000, López was elected mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest district of Caracas, where he earned a reputation as an honest and efficient administrator. But in 2002 he was implicated in a failed coup to oust President Hugo Chávez, and in 2008 he was banned from public office for six years after a government investigation into alleged corruption while he was mayor. The ban was widely condemned by the international community, and López was cleared of all charges in 2011, but it effectively derailed his plans to run for mayor of Caracas.
López eventually broke away from the dominant coalition of opposition groups to form Voluntad Popular, a party willing to take a more confrontational stance toward Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, who became president after Chávez’s death in 2013. His efforts culminated in a series of large anti-government demonstrations in January and February of 2014 as Venezuela endured a flagging economy, rampant crime, and crackdowns on the media. At a rally on February 12, 2014, violence broke out and two protesters and a government supporter were shot and killed.
We are living in a dark time when criminals are rewarded."
Leopoldo López ’93 H'07Venezuelan opposition leader
The next day, authorities issued an arrest warrant for López, accusing him of inciting violence through “subliminal” messaging in speeches to his supporters. He faced numerous charges, including murder and terrorism, even though he had publicly called for peaceful demonstrations. Moreover, local media reported that photos and videos of the scene indicated shots had been fired into the crowd by uniformed security officers.
López briefly went into hiding, prompting Maduro to call him a “fascist coward” and a “fugitive from justice.” A few days later, he turned himself in at an emotional public rally, vowing to fight the charges. “We are living in a dark time when criminals are rewarded and they want to imprison the Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change,” said López, with his wife at his side, to the large crowd of supporters before he was taken into custody.
His trial began last July. International observers criticized the proceedings after the presiding judge banned the majority of López’s witnesses from testifying and disallowed other defense evidence. “The independence and impartiality of the judicial system—a cornerstone of the rule of law—has been put into question and therefore the fairness of his trial has been tainted since the beginning,” Amnesty International stated in a press release.
Gluck watched the tumultuous events of 2014 unfold from Los Angeles, where he is the managing partner of High Lantern Group, a communications strategy firm. He emailed two dozen Kenyon friends who were active in law, media, politics, and public relations to discuss López’s arrest. “We got an instant response from our small circle of friends, and then it just started to expand very quickly,” Gluck said.
The sense of shared purpose evoked the feeling of a class reunion planning committee, but with much higher stakes. The alumni knew that without pressure on the Venezuelan government, López would have little, if any, leverage in court. Instead of the promising political career they had envisioned for López in Gambier twenty years earlier, their friend could easily end up serving a long stint in prison. They needed to raise awareness—and do it quickly.
They formulated plans to help López by spreading the word to other alumni while keeping his name in the news and on the minds of government officials in the U.S. and around the world. What started as an email exchange soon became a well-coordinated international effort.
Joining Gluck as key players in the effort to free López were Sue Corral ’93, Tom McCormick ’93, and Paul Brown ’86. Corral, a graphic designer living in the Washington, D.C., area who specializes in branding for weddings and social events, created an online presence for the group and worked to get other Kenyon grads involved via social media. Corral drew on her experience as the art director for Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Weddings to build freeleopoldo.com, a website that serves as a clearinghouse for news and updates about López, including articles translated from Spanish-language media. Within a few weeks, a Facebook page had more than 20,000 likes.
“It’s really a testament to Kenyon that so many alumni who spent a little time with Leo in the middle of Ohio twenty years ago still care,” said Corral, an art history major. “A lot of the alumni who have helped in some way never even knew him.”
Donations were soon flowing to a nonprofit entity that the group established with the expertise of McCormick, an attorney, to help with López’s legal fees and other expenses. McCormick lived in Lewis Hall with Gluck and López their first year, and he remembers helping the Venezuelan smuggle a motorcycle into the dorm late one night as a prank. He reconnected with López in May 2013 at their class reunion and shared a beer with him at the Village Inn. Less than a year later, he was watching YouTube videos of López being arrested.
“This is really about the criminalization of free speech and democratic action,” McCormick said. “Leo never lit a match, or threw a brick, or pulled a trigger. He is being jailed for his words. This is simply not fair, and I want to help him.”
Gluck reached out to Brown, a lobbyist with Prime Policy Group in Washington, D.C., who had studied political science at Kenyon, asking him to help raise awareness on Capitol Hill. The two had worked together with a shared client years earlier and stayed in contact, sometimes discussing López’s career.
“I was intrigued by Leopoldo,” said Brown, who never knew López in college. “You couldn’t help feeling he was putting himself on the line for something. He had a Kenyon sense about him in terms of his values and idealism. He was very compelling.”
In addition to setting up the website and the nonprofit, the alumni made it their mission to get López’s story in the media, and keep it there. With Gluck’s help, López was able to publish an op-ed in the New York Times in late March 2014. “We must continue to speak, act and protest,” he wrote. “We must never allow our nerves to become deadened to the steady abuse of rights that is taking place. And we must pursue an agenda for change.”
Waging a media relations campaign when your “client” is a political prisoner with limited access to the outside world presented unique challenges. López had to pass the Times column off to relatives who were allowed to visit him in solitary confinement. It was then handed off to Gluck, who submitted it to the Times.
“It was a weird situation,” Gluck said. “I had to explain to the editors why they weren’t getting this directly from Leo, and I had to give them access to family members so they could confirm that he had actually written it. It was more complicated than a typical op-ed.”
We must never allow our nerves to become deadened to the steady abuse of rights that is taking place. And we must pursue an agenda for change."
Leopoldo Lopez '93 H'07in an op-ed in the New York Times
It was worth the effort. The day after the op-ed ran, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour took up the situation in Venezuela. She interviewed José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), a possible arbitrator in the Venezuelan political crisis, and quoted directly from López’s op-ed: “The OAS . . . has abstained from any real leadership on the current crisis of human rights and the looming specter of a failed state. To be silent is to be complicit in the downward spiral of Venezuela’s political system, economy, and society, not to mention in the continued misery of millions.”
Amanpour followed up with a blunt question for Insulza: “That’s a really serious charge, but he has a point, right?”
It was just the kind of coverage Gluck wanted. “It was a great moment, because our goal is to help people understand Leo’s side of the issue, and this was a great example of us breaking through and making that happen,” he said.
Gluck and Lenny Alcivar, a communications strategist also working with the group, hoped to create a snowball effect. The Times op-ed and the CNN report started the ball rolling. Since those first successes, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, El Universal, the BBC, and numerous other media outlets have raised questions about López’s imprisonment and trial.
In September, just as Venezuelan President Maduro arrived in New York for a high-profile United Nations climate summit, the New York Times editorial board called the López trial a “travesty” and labeled Maduro’s efforts to silence opposition leaders “deplorable.” President Barack Obama called for López’s release while speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative during the summit.
Brown sees his task as making López’s plight relevant in Washington at a time when international issues in the Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, and Europe command far more attention. It’s a tough sell, because the situation in Venezuela is not a direct U.S. security concern. “The goal is to keep this on the radar so lawmakers continue to care about it, and Maduro can’t win by simply hiding the ball, delaying the judicial process, and hoping the world forgets what’s going on down there,” Brown said.
In a fiercely divided Washington, that means convincing members of both parties that support for López serves their interests. Republicans can take up López’s cause as another way to oppose the socialist government in Venezuela. For Democrats, López can be a human rights and free speech issue.
Brown has been pleased with the bipartisan results so far. A Republican-sponsored resolution “supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democracy” passed the House last March. A few days later, the Senate approved a resolution put forward by a Democrat “deploring the violent repression of peaceful demonstrators” and “calling for full accountability for human rights violations.”
Conservative Ted Cruz of Texas took to the Senate floor to denounce what he called López’s “show trial,” declaring that “every American should take an interest in Mr. López’s fate.” And Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill that was signed into law in December calling on the U.S. to support democracy in Venezuela and hold government and security officials responsible for the violence.
But action by the U.S. government runs a risk. Like Chávez before him, Maduro gained support by establishing himself as a socialist bulwark against American influence in Venezuela and portrayed López as a right-wing backer of U.S. interests. While that’s a view held by many in Venezuela, López’s supporters reject the characterization.
“If Leo were a politician in this country, he would probably be a liberal Democrat,” Brown said. “He’s a reformer. But if you put an American face on efforts to help Leo and make it seem like America is interfering in Venezuelan politics, then it plays right into Maduro’s hands.”
Given the political realities, international pressure on Maduro will be essential in the campaign to free López. López’s family has hired Jared Genser, a human-rights lawyer who has been dubbed “the extractor” for his success in securing the release of political prisoners. He represented Burmese opposition leader and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest and now represents 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is incarcerated in China.
Genser took López’s case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva and advocated for him in face-to-face meetings with various government officials around the world. The approach takes time and requires extensive travel to build support.
“When Maduro is confronted everywhere he goes by people advocating for Leopoldo, telling him that he really needs to resolve this case, then you begin to change the calculus,” Genser said. “I’m working with the Kenyon alumni group to make sure that every resource and every relationship that people have is brought to bear to help Leo get out as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile, López’s outspokenness has had repercussions. Supporters said that his visiting hours have been curtailed, his cell is regularly searched by guards in the middle of the night, and he has been told that he may soon be moved to a prison farther from his family.
It’s difficult to predict the outcome of the trial, or even when it will conclude. The political nature of the case, along with the strictures making it all but impossible for López to present evidence in his own defense, suggest that he is likely to face more time in prison. But those close to the case say it’s anyone’s guess how long the sentence might be.
As the trial drags on, members of the Kenyon group continue to hold regular Friday conference calls with López’s legal team and family members to exchange news and discuss strategy. Adriana López Vermut, Leopoldo’s younger sister (who is a restaurateur in San Francisco), has emerged as a forceful advocate for her brother. She and members of the alumni group traveled to Kenyon in October 2014 and spoke in Rosse Hall about their international efforts to “shine a spotlight” on her brother’s case. There are plans for more events in other cities around the country, including a teach-in in collaboration with Kenyon in Washington, D.C.
“Kenyon was probably one of the best things that happened to Leopoldo,” López Vermut said. “It’s amazing how his friends have rallied around him. They really have no agenda other than trying to help.”
The following letter to the Kenyon community from Leopoldo López was also submitted to the Collegian in October 2014.
Dear students, faculty, and members of the Kenyon community,
When I heard that my sister Adriana would be visiting with you I was filled with joy, as it brought back so many good memories of Kenyon and the ways that it contributed to the work in progress that I am today. From my earliest days as a freshman living in Lewis Hall, to building my mind in the classroom and expanding my world outside of it—and making lifelong friends along the way—the time I spent in Gambier was one of the richest, most rewarding periods of my life.
As many of you know, I am writing this letter from a military prison in Venezuela, where I am being held for the simple act of speaking and protesting against a political, social, and economic catastrophe.
Today in Venezuela, we have a health system that does not cure the sick; an educational system that does not teach; a social system that does not care for the vulnerable people in society; police, judges, and prosecutors who do not protect; an economy that produces neither employment nor well being. As a result, Venezuela has one of the worst homicide rates on the planet; the highest inflation in the western hemisphere; severe shortages of basic necessities; and growing social instability.
Our people are being strangled by a regime that wants to control everything, wants to ration food, marks people with numbers in order to purchase ingredients, tells people what they must listen to, read, or see; in other words, a 21st century dictatorship. Civil institutions such as the electoral system, judiciary and media have been thoroughly corrupted by the ruling political party, which has ruthlessly persecuted all forms of disagreement.
At the beginning of 2014, we prepared a roadmap for change, which combined non-violent protest with a legal and constitutional process to allow people to vote for a new government. La Salida is the name we have given to our plan to exit from today’s terrible circumstances to a better life for all Venezuelans.
When we began protesting, the government issued a warrant for my arrest, in a clear attempt to criminalize dissent. I was faced with three options: I could leave the country or continue in hiding, as many other good people have chosen to do. The third option was to present myself before an unjust justice voluntarily, and that is what I did.
I made this choice because I believed it would create an opportunity to more directly confront the lies, abuses of power, and the need for change at the very root of the system. I have now seen first-hand the decay of Venezuelan justice being suffered by thousands of Venezuelans. Manipulation, the delay of process, and political control of judges and prosecutors in their provisional roles makes them dependent, vulnerable servants of a system and not of justice. For me, these are now more than mere facts and figures, and knowing this infuses me with an even greater moral and patriotic urgency to pursue change.
To those who are reading this, I urge you to follow these events, learn more, and ask others to do the same. The perpetrators of this injustice can only win if the world turns a blind eye. But if people speak, act, and shine a spotlight on what is happening, change will come.
If you would like to learn more about how to help, please visit the website that my Kenyon classmates have established, FreeLeopoldo.com.
The truth is that I do not know how long I will be here, but I do know that for as long as my imprisonment lasts, I will be calm, serene, and clear on my principles and my convictions.
I know that one day—may it be one day soon (although time is something I have learned to master and not allow to torment me)—I will leave in freedom and with even more strength to fight for change, and for a clear democracy for Venezuela.
And when that happens, I can’t wait to walk down Middle Path on a return visit to Kenyon.
1971: Born in Caracas, Venezuela.
1993: Graduated from Kenyon with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
1996: Graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with a master of public policy degree.
2000: Elected mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest district of Caracas.
2002: Implicated in short-lived coup against President Hugo Chávez.
2004: Reelected mayor of Chacao.
2008: Banned from holding public office for six years following government investigation into alleged corruption.
2009: Created Voluntad Popular, a new opposition political party.
2011: Cleared of all corruption charges from 2008.
2014: Arrested after three people were shot and killed at a large anti-government protest in Caracas in February. Charged with inciting violence and a variety of other crimes.
2014: Celebrated his forty-third birthday in prison on April 29.
2014: Trial began in July.
2014: President Maduro offered freedom for López in exchange for his exile from Venezuela and release of a U.S. prisoner. López—and the U.S. State Department — rejected the offer.
2015: Trial continues.