My biggest prize is "being alive", Ledezma says
Venezuelan opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, on December 4, 2017 in Madrid. (Photo: Paco Campos/EFE)
Strasbourg (France), Dec 12 (efe-epa).- To former Caracas' Mayor Antonio Ledezma, one of the eight winners of the 2017 Sakharov Prize, the biggest prize is "being alive". He dedicated the EP award to young Venezuelans who gave their lives “for a democracy they did not enjoy.”
Ledezma, who managed to escape from house arrest in Caracas on November 17 and fled to Spain, will be among the few who could collect the prize in person on December 13 at the European Parliament (EP) headquarters in Strasbourg.
In 2017, the EP awarded the 30th Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Venezuela’s "democratic opposition", including the president of the country’s National Assembly, Julio Borges, the leader of the Popular Will party Leopoldo López _ who is under house arrest _ and Ledezma, who was also under house arrest until he fled to Spain a few weeks ago.
The prize was also awarded to activist Yon Goicoechea, who was released shortly after the Sakharov announcement, and four "political prisoners" _ Andrea Gonzalez, Lorent Saleh, Daniel Ceballos and Alfredo Ramos _ who are still in jail at El Helicoide, headquarters of Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN).
“Why are they awarding that prize to me? I already have the prize of being alive. That prize should have been for the young people who died in Venezuela, and that is why, in the name of those who laid down their lives to protest for a democracy that they could never experience, I am going to accept the Sakharov Prize,” Ledezma told EFE in an interview.
40 years in politics
Ledezma, 62, has a long political career behind him.
His career took off more than 40 years ago with Venezuela’s Democratic Action party, with which he served as a regional and national lawmaker.
In 1992, he was appointed governor of the Federal District of Caracas by the then president of the country, Carlos Andrés Pérez.
He later became mayor of the Libertador municipality in 1996 and, at the end of his term, he founded his own party, the Fearless People’s Alliance.
In 2008, Ledezma defeated pro-President Hugo Chávez United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) candidate in the metropolitan mayoral elections.
The government, headed by Chávez, reacted to the defeat by freezing the funds of the institution. As he had already done in other jurisdictions when he did not win the elections, he also appointed a parallel handpicked government body for the capital.
The Mayor strongly protested by going on hunger strike in front of the Organization of American States’ (OAS) headquarters in Caracas.
Ledezma was re-elected in 2013, defeating the PSUV candidate, and a year later, along with other opposition leaders, went to anti-government protests that resulted in clashes with law enforcement agency members and left 43 dead.
In February 2015, Ledezma was arrested for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy against President Nicolás Maduro.
Still awaiting trial, he remained imprisoned for two months in Ramo Verde military prison, and later, due to health reasons, was taken to his home, where he remained under house arrest until he escaped on November 17, 2017.
After more than a thousand days in detention, Ledezma mocked the surveillance of the agents who were guarding him and after a road trip, crossed the border into Colombia. From there, he traveled to Spain.
“I was kidnapped”
"I was kidnapped. What I did was not escaping, but freeing myself," said Ledezma, talking about his escape, and claiming to have relied on people who were also disgusted by the excesses of the regime in Venezuela, going through "more than 1,200 kilometers during the day, night and early morning" and evading the checkpoints to cross into Colombia.
In Madrid, where he met with his family, he is working on his legal status, which "will be announced at the right time.”
Ledezma does not know when he will be able to return to Venezuela, or if he even will someday.
"Yes, I'm afraid (of not being able to return), but at the same time, I have many dreams and I'm not going to let go of my dreams," he said.
"I am not going to let my hopes and faith decline about us, the two and a half million Venezuelans in exile, reuniting with those who are there fighting in our motherland, which is the reason for our sleeplessness," he stressed.
"The vast majority" in Venezuela wants change
In his opinion, the solution for the crisis in Venezuela lies in "free and transparent" elections, in which "citizens do not suffer pressure," and with observers who "do not look from a distance" but "get involved in carrying out the elections and vote counting process.”
He felt that the recent municipal elections have added one more act to the "fraudulent events perpetrated" in the country, and called them null and void.
Ledezma said his country had great human talent that was recognized all over the world, but faced a mostly "management problem". "Only if there was a government that respected the national Constitution, national reunification would begin," he said, adding "the vast majority" was in favor of change.
In Venezuela "there is a vast majority promoting change, eager that those who govern us leave power because they have done badly." Ledezma acknowledged the opposition was not so united, although there was "leadership, an important political capital."
"What we need is more coherence, more spirit and unity of purpose, because it is not simply a matter of boasting that we are united, declaring that we are united, but it is a matter of telling people what our objectives are, what our goals are, and that no personal project is above purposes related to the welfare of the country."
The left-wing alliance of the European Parliament criticized the decision, which, in the opinion of some, was giving an award to one of the actors involved in political conflict in Maduro's Venezuela.
Ledezma did not agree with the criticism, nor did he think that he might be "used" by political parties in Spain, where he was living in exile.
By Lara Malvesí, with contributions from Marcel Gascón in Caracas
Translated by Meena Gupta Seth
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