Lilian Tintori still recalls the proposal from her husband Leopoldo Lopez. It was hardly orthodox.
“He said, ‘I am asking you to marry twice. Do you want to be married to me first and, second, do you want to be married to the country?.’” It was 2006; she can hardly have known what she was getting herself into.
Today, Ms Tintori, an athletic 36-year-old, is in the midst of a debilitating crisis that is indeed at once private and public, personal and political. How it ends may determine not just her family’s future but also that of the country to which they gave themselves that day – Venezuela.
It was a year ago last Wednesday when Mr Lopez, former mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas, dramatically surrendered himself to the authorities after they accused him of fomenting street riots that were to lead to 43 deaths and more than 3,000 arrests of protesters before eventually dying down in April.
Considered a political prisoner by the United Nations, Mr Lopez is being held in isolation on the Ramo Verde military base outside the capital, a predicament that has elevated his status as the most potent opposition figure in Venezuela. But if the shock of his surrender on 18 February last year and the ensuing incarceration have been hard for Ms Tintori, the past several days have been a nervous nightmare.
“It has been a really tough year but this past week has been the worst, because, honestly, we are really scared for Leopoldo’s life,” Ms Tintori told The Independent on Sunday, seated at a small table in the garden of the Lopez home in Chacao, her mother-in-law Antonieta Mendoza at her side.
It was inevitable that Wednesday’s anniversary of the arrest of Mr Lopez would bring new tensions. A brief rally on Wednesday led by Ms Tintori at the spot where he was taken went off peacefully. But on Thursday, the regime showed its fist once more, arresting the Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, also aligned with the opposition, accusing him of abetting what it says was a US-backed plot to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro. He was charged on Friday and was also yesterday being held at the Ramo Verde base.
Earlier this month, Ms Tintori flew to London and Washington in search of overseas support, a trip that culminated in a meeting with US Vice-President Joe Biden. It was only hours after she landed back in Caracas that she said 20 masked men with guns blasted open the door to Mr Lopez’s cell with a blow torch, destroyed his personal belongings and moved him to still more spartan quarters. The episode terrified her. “It is retaliation for the meetings I had overseas and with Joe Biden,” she said. “I am certain of it.”
Each time she tried over subsequent days to visit her husband, last Sunday taking along her two young children, Manuela, five, and Leopoldo Santiago, two, she was turned away. “There is a law that entitles the children to see their father in prison, but they ignored it.” But nothing, she insists, has followed proper legal process since this all began, not in his ongoing trial on charges of inciting the unrest – he faces a possible 14 years – and certainly not the manner of his capture in the first place. Her husband had been in hiding for two days at the height of last year’s protests when 20 armed men in balaclavas burst into her house, with a warrant, to search for him. He wasn’t there, of course.
Barely had they gone before another uninvited guest apparently showed up, Diosdado Cabello, the President of the National Assembly, and an ally of Mr Maduro. He allegedly said he knew of a plan to assassinate Mr Lopez and urged Ms Tintori and her husband to accept exile in a foreign land of their choosing.
It was an attempt by the regime to remove Mr Lopez and the threat he represented. But by then Ms Tintori had had word from him that he would accept no deals. “I had asked him, ‘Think about what you are doing. Think about your children.’ But he was clear. ‘Exile or hiding myself away is not an alternative. I would then be a prisoner of my soul,’ he said. That’s when I understood. I said, ‘OK, so we are done trying to dissuade him. Now we have to start fighting for him.’”
It was four days later that he emerged from hiding, delivered a short appeal to his followers and submitted to arrest.
As for the ongoing trial, Ms Tintori offers only disgust. She and her family are allowed to attend the hearings that happen almost every week. But the press are barred and there is no record of any of the proceedings, including anything said by the defendant. While the prosecution has brought roughly 100 witnesses to the stand so far, the defence has been allowed none.
Earlier this month Mr Lopez’s father, also Leopoldo, was expelled from the court indefinitely after being caught wearing special glasses with an embedded recording device. Because there was a British diplomat sitting by him, the government formally accused Britain of having supplied Mr Lopez with the glasses. Britain has denied it. Mr Lopez backed London up. “I was caught, and when one of the sheriffs pulled me out, I let the glasses drop and they fell on this British fellow who had nothing to do with it,” he said.
“How can you have a trial like this?” pleads Ms Tintori, who every day, at home and outside, wears a T‑shirt with the slogan “Free Leopoldo” across it. But she says that nothing in Venezuela surprises her any more. “I know what happens in this country. We live under a regime. We don’t have rule of law here. All our public institutions are kidnapped by Maduro.”
Prospects of Mr Lopez coming home soon are slim. It may not be to Mr Maduro’s advantage to keep him at Ramo Verde – it risks turning Mr Lopez ever more into an opposition Messiah – but for now there is no indication he means to let him go and almost certainly not before critical parliamentary elections due in the autumn, where the ruling United Socialist Party founded by Hugo Chavez risks being routed.
It is no normal marriage at all, but Ms Tintori insists she has never had regrets. “Absolutely not.” Her husband’s dream is now her own, she says, and it’s encapsulated in the slogan of the party he founded, “Voluntad Popular” or “Popular Will”. They are going through all of this for “A Better Venezuela”.