Three years ago, Venezuela’s socialist regime jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López for leading anti-government protests – and also tried to imprison López’s top lieutenant, Carlos Vecchio.
But Vecchio went into hiding and then into exile in South Florida. From here Vecchio helps lead López’s party, Voluntad Popular, or Popular Will.
More intense protests against President Nicolás Maduro have erupted this year as Venezuela’s economy and democracy collapse. By essentially forcing Vecchio to reside here, Maduro unwittingly handed the opposition an effective lobbyist in the U.S. The Harvard-educated Vecchio has become a key liaison between demonstrators in Venezuela and leaders in Washington, who are looking for ways to end Venezuela’s crisis.
Vecchio spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett where that crisis might be headed – and what if anything the U.S. can do about it.
Leopoldo López remains in prison in Caracas. For you – how hard is it to run an opposition movement from exile? Or is it perhaps easier?
You know, this is like being on a soccer team: you have to play a particular position in the field. So that’s what I’m doing right now. I decided to leave Venezuela in order to denounce internationally what is happening in Venezuela, the violation of human rights, but also [explain] what we represent as an opposition.
What’s the most important way you’re playing that role, being el vocero, the spokesman for the opposition in Washington?
I’ve been talking mainly inside the Organization of American States, and particularly with its secretary general, Luis Almagro, who has played an important role in this crisis.
He’s condemned the Maduro regime very strongly.
Yes. But at the same time I’m working with the U.S. administration, the White House and the State Department, but also the Congress.
What more can Washington and President Trump really do at this point besides the economic sanctions they’ve already imposed on certain high-level Venezuelan officials?
They should continue those targeted sanctions. But also, at the same time they should work harder inside of the U.N. Recently we had a statement from the U.S. ambassador inside of the U.N., so we will expect more in order to support the fight in Venezuela.
These massive street protests across Venezuela are in their seventh week now. Do you think they’ll eventually force President Maduro to hold elections and restore democracy?
Yes. This is the only way – in the streets, with a non-violent movement. In order to restore democracy in Venezuela, we need at least three things: One is a general election is 2017. Second is the release of all political prisoners. And the last one is full respect for the National Assembly.
The National Assembly which is now controlled by the opposition.
Forty people have been killed in the unrest, almost all of them protesters. Can we expect Venezuela’s security forces – and the pro-government paramilitary gangs, los colectivos – to become more aggressive and violent toward demonstrators as we go on?
I would say yes, because when Maduro feels that he will lose the power, the only tool that he has in hand is repression. But at the end of the day, in my view, the institution of the military force will be backing the people in the street, will be backing the constitution, and also the people of Venezuela. We are very close to that breaking point, from the information I have.
What information are you hearing in that regard?
Military leaders are becoming very worried about the situation. Police, the National Guard, their forces are telling even protesters, “We don’t want to be out here.”
The demonstrations this year are stronger, even more unified, than those in 2014, which dissolved after a couple months. What’s different this time – what lessons did the various parties that make up the opposition learn from 2014?
I think the economic crisis is even worse than in 2014. But I think we understood this time that we are facing a dictatorship. So we are all on the same page – and we don’t have any other choice.
Venezuela’s opposition is considered largely a middle-class force. A lot of political analysts say the protests can’t succeed unless they attract more of Venezuela’s poorer citizens. Do you think that’s starting to happen?
Yes. More than 80 percent, according to all polls, are rejecting the current administration.
But there’s a difference between having a majority of Venezuelans in polls, and having a majority of Venezuelans in the streets, especially in the barrios.
Yes, we have them. However, because Maduro knows that, [the regime has] implemented this terror on those barrios in order to avoid the demonstrations in the poor areas of Venezuela. But there is a political change in Venezuela, and nobody will be able to stop it.
UPDATE: On Thursday, after this interview, the Maduro government barred another top opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, from leaving Venezuela and visiting the U.N. in New York.