Two centuries ago Simón Bolívar got on his horse, traversed the Andean mountains and liberated five countries. His work finished too early to be awarded our Freedom Award, first given out in 1943. Tonight we pay tribute to a man who is doing for Bolívar’s native Venezuela, what the Liberator once did for many of us.
Venezuela is a magical country, now mismanaged by a ruthless regime that has destroyed it. People stand in long queues, their arms marked like cattle, to buy cooking oil, flour or toilet paper. Inflation is higher than in Zimbabwe, criminality is worse than Syria’s and scarcity is of Subsaharan scale. Blackouts are recurrent, people eat out of garbage bins, malaria is back and dead children are placed in cardboard caskets. Regime kleptocrats that have stolen billions are now giving away its US based CITGO to the Russians.
Democracy has been crushed. Opposition leaders, like the Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma – his wife Mitzy is here tonight- have been jailed. The regime has muzzled the press and packed the Supreme Court with cronies that have castrated the opposition dominated Congress. Young people are jailed for tweeting, or for gathering signatures as Pancho Márquez did. Like Carlos Vecchio, hundreds have been exiled and elections have been indefinitely postponed. There is no food for the hungry, but plenty of tear gas for protesters. There is no medicine for the sick, but plenty of bullets for marchers.
Into this dystopian dark nightmare, from an unexpected place – the OAS- a ray of light broke through. The OAS was a bland, gray organization with many treaties to uphold democracy, defend human rights and stand for justice. They were all in paper. OAS Secretary Generals in the past would take the job, get along, go along, not step in any toes and move on. Two years ago a quite, unassuming, unyielding man took the job. Tonight’s Freedom Award winner has released one report after another, documenting and denouncing the crimes and abuses of the Venezuelan dictatorship in footnoted, thoroughly sourced, irrefutable indictments. Our hemisphere was shocked out of its complacency and is now springing into action. The isolated regime announced yesterday it will withdraw from the OAS in two years, the people of Venezuela in the streets are showing the world that the regime will be long gone before that happens.
Tonight we celebrate skin and paper in the struggle for freedom. Diana López bypassed document seizures in the Ramo Verde prison by offering her arms, legs and back, her own skin as paper, to her jailed brother Leopoldo, so he could write a creed for freedom that became a book. Luis Almagro took principled, unused, dusty pieces of paper, like the OAS Democratic Charter, grafted them onto his skin, denounced the regime and demanded democracy for Venezuela.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Freedom House presents the 2017 Freedom Award to the Secretary General of the OAS, the beacon for hemispheric democracy and the liberty leader in the Americas: Luis Almagro.