For the past 14 months, Tintori has devoted her life to winning her husband’s release, traveling abroad and meeting with a range of powerful figures, among them Vice President Joe Biden, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Pope Francis. She managed to secure a statement from Chile’s Senate calling on the Maduro government to release all political prisoners (including Lopez), permit free and fair elections, and respect human rights. It was quite an achievement in Latin America, where countries have often avoided taking open stands on the politics of their neighbors. Yet Maduro shows no signs of yielding. He has little reason to.
“We’re living through social, economic, and political crises,” Tintori told me, “and we’re on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. And the crime situation amounts to a violation of our right to life.”
She was not exaggerating. Armed robberies occur in broad daylight, kidnappings abound, and the country is second only to Honduras in its annual homicide rate—just shy of 25,000 in 2014. Soon after his election, Maduro announced that he was launching Plan Patria Segura (“Plan for a Safe Homeland”), which foresaw increased cooperation between the military, paramilitary forces, and the police. But nothing has changed.
“In Venezuela, either they kidnap you, kill you, or rob you. ... Every 20 minutes a Venezuelan dies, a shot is fired, a Venezuelan cries out,” she said.
Besides crime, the country seems to be careening toward economic and social implosion. The fall in global oil prices has severely reduced hydrocarbon revenues—the source of 96 percent of the state’s exports and half its income. And almost all the country’s current troubles began with Maduro’s presidency. Just why is unclear, though state-imposed currency controls, a shortage of dollars (earned previously through the sale of oil abroad), and a thriving black market have all played a role. For Maduro, though, the problem is “economic warfare” and “sabotage” being waged by the Venezuelan elite.
As we talked, it became clear that Tintori was suppressing anguish over her husband’s plight. “We took the decision together that he would turn himself in, to unmask Maduro’s anti-democratic regime,” she told me. But the costs of that decision are mounting. On February 18, 2015 the anniversary of his detention, Lopez used his one weekly phone call from prison to give a lengthy interview to CNN en Español. As it was ending, the guards realized what was going on and yanked away the receiver. Prison authorities then suspended Tintori’s visits (during which she would bring along their two small children, Manuela and Leopoldo Santiago). She said that she has rarely been able to communicate with him in the two months since then, and that he’s spent half his term in solitary confinement—including 24 days in a tiny cell with no sunlight as punishment for his television interview. “They sound alarms at three in the morning so he can’t sleep,” she told me. “Men wearing ski masks and armed with shotguns search his cell, without his permission. They destroy his things and steal his writings. One night, they threw human excrement and urine through his cell’s barred window, and then cut off his light so he couldn’t bathe or clean his room.” Repeated requests for Venezuelan officials to comment on Tintori’s allegations of abuse have gone unanswered.