Hello, thank you very much for joining us for my interview with Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas, Venezuela, who is a political exile. This interview is going to be in Spanish, which is unusual for us, but to accommodate Antonio Ledezma’s Spanish, we conducted the interview in his native language. Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Venezuela, welcome to the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you for your presence here as a representative of the Venezuelan people who are seeking liberty and to recapture the political and economic opportunities that their beautiful land offers. Can you explain for the audience your experience as a political prisoner after spending over 30 years in politics? A political prisoner and, at least for now, a Venezuelan exile. Well, thank you very much, Ambassador, for the invitation and thank you to the Institute for receiving us and opening your doors to a Venezuelan who brings a message of peace and a plea for support to the international community. I am one of the many who are persecuted for dissenting from the Venezuelan government because in Venezuela dissent is criminalized and our politics are policed. And for those who are in office, the right to have an opinion is a crime. There are people who are arrested for just criticizing the government on social media, people who protest over the shortages of food and medicine. And it’s a contradiction that there are political prisoners in a country where they say there is democracy, because in democracies there should be no political prisoners. And in Venezuela, there are more political prisoners than in Cuba, which says a lot. Wow. People generally don’t know much about the origins of the crisis in Venezuela, the origins of the crisis, the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the deterioration of democratic institutions, and the systematic attacks by the chavista regime against democratic institutions and the private sector in your country. Can you share that dramatic experience of witnessing the destruction of your country? Well, what is happening in Venezuela is a consequence of the application of anachronistic government schemes. The recipes that Chávez applied are anachronistic and tied to fateful populism. It is the curse of populism which has made it possible to raze a prodigious land with as many human and natural resources as Venezuela. Another cause of this disaster is impunity. Where there is no justice there is no peace. And the impunity works for the government because the government controls the courts in Venezuela. Where the constitution is not respected, of course there cannot be progress. There is no governance because there is no separation of powers. Where freedom of expression and private property are not respected, where the president of the republic and his predecessor (Chávez before he died and now Maduro), see any business and if they feel like expropriating it they expropriate it, and they authorize the invasion of farm land, that is the tragedy that we have in Venezuela. An immensely rich country, one of the richest of Latin America, today has 85% of its population living in poverty. Those are the things that we need to resolve in our country. Yes, it’s very important for the world to understand that you cannot defeat a regime that has international support from criminal networks directly involved in drug trafficking, and has allies like Russia, China, and Cuba. Such a conspiracy cannot be defeated without international support. What would be your message to world leaders insisting on support to ensure that the voice of the people is heard in Venezuela? That the crisis in Venezuela not only affects Venezuelans who suffer firsthand the havoc of a narco-dictatorship, but that this narco-dictatorship is a threat to hemispheric peace because we are talking about a group that is evidently connected to narco-trafficking and terrorism and with scandalous corruption. Let alone the violation of human rights by officials of this government which has endorsed the repression that has taken the lives of citizens simply protesting in the streets over their disapproval of the state of the Venezuelan economy. You are a co-founder with other Venezuelan politicians like María Corina Machado and Diego Arria of a group called Soy Venezuela (I am Venezuela). What is the purpose of that organization, the reason this new voice of the people is needed, and how can the world support your efforts in Venezuela? Soy Venezuela is effectively a platform that seeks to reorganize the opposition coalition, because the coalition is a necessity particularly in the struggle against a narco-tyranny, which is no small thing. It’s a government which has squandered a fortune, billions of dollars, but that has monopoly control of the violence. It controls the police, and has turned the military into a praetorian guard for the president. It punishes those who tell the public about the things they should know. As I have said, it has rejected the right to private property in Venezuela. That necessitates support from the international community because such a government is a threat to the hemisphere. What would your message be to the chavistas and also to the leaders of the armed forces in your country? There are many people who voted for Chávez because they believed in what he said. And that happens in a democracy: where there is an option to vote, there are people who end up voting for it. Yes, I was there in ‘98. Coming from someone who heard Chávez’s speeches in 1998, these speeches hid what was actually implemented, which was the application of an authoritarian scheme, an economic model that brought ruin and desolation, astonishing the world with how an immensely rich country like Venezuela can be destroyed. My message to those people is that we all need to recognize each other as Venezuelans who have rights. That whatever government replaces this narco-tyranny should also work for them. That political persecution cannot be repeated, that freedom of thought and opinion cannot be punished, and they have a right to belong to whichever political party they want to, because that is something that is intrinsic to democracy. And to the military, I say simply to respect the national constitution and uphold it. We don’t want the military to be for the opposition. They shouldn’t be for the opposition just as they shouldn’t be for the party in power. The military, according to article 328 of the national constitution, is obligated to stay outside of the political discourse, and to uphold the constitution. Your message, really, to the armed forces and the chavistas is that “We are Venezuela,” not just “I am Venezuela,” but “We are Venezuela,” and that a national consensus is needed to rebuild the country, recapture democracy and the opportunity for the people to choose their leaders and rebuild the country. It’s been said that democracy does not guarantee to the voter that the leader they elect will create a good government. There is no certificate that says, if you elected President Obama or President Clinton or President Trump, here is the guarantee that he will be a good leader. There’s no such thing. But democracy does give the voter the opportunity to replace the president for doing a bad job. And in Venezuela, as you have said, it is necessary to have a joint effort. The damage that has been done to the Venezuelan economy, society, and institutions is significant. We should see the crisis as an opportunity because crises end up being either an opportunity or perdition. We see the crisis as an opportunity, not to search for a hero, not to search for a savior or false messiah, but instead to search for Venezuelans with talent and unite their efforts and creativity to create plans to rebuild the Venezuelan economy and the social fabric in the short and medium term. Well, it’s really a marvelous message not only for your country but for the whole world. And it’s important, Ambassador, that it to be known that we will proudly receive those who want to invest in Venezuela. We’re not going to have that complex that investors use to help us rebuild Venezuela. Today, more than ever, we need the international community. We Venezuelans will contribute our work, our volunteerism, but at the same time we are going to need the help of the international community. Well, thank you very much for coming, Mayor Ledezma, and good luck. That concludes our conversation with Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas Venezuela. Please like and subscribe to our page to get more information and videos from the American Enterprise Institute.