Fighting for Democracy

A new public award named for Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ’93 honors his commitment to plural and inclusive democracy.

By Mary Keister

After Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López ’93 H’07 led anti-government demonstrations in early 2014, Venezuelan authorities accused him of inciting unrest and issued a warrant for his arrest. They gave López a choice, as he detailed in a 2014 letter to the Kenyon community: He could leave the country. He could go into hiding. Or, he could turn himself in to a judicial system he knew would not be fair or just. 

He chose the last, presenting himself to authorities after an emotional public rally. 

“I made this choice because I believed it would create an opportunity to more directly confront the lies, abuses of power, and the need for change at the very root of the system,” López wrote in his 2014 letter. “The perpetrators of this injustice can only win if the world turns a blind eye. But if people speak, act and shine a spotlight on what is happening, change will come.” 

López’s family, classmates and other members of the Kenyon community have now united to honor López’s commitment to addressing injustices through a new award in his name, administered by Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD). The Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award will recognize an individual who has demonstrated a significant commitment to the peaceful advancement of freedom and democracy at great personal sacrifice. In creating the award, López’s classmates, family and the Kenyon community at large ensure that López’s commitment and bravery will not be forgotten, and they shine a light on others who are working to uphold core principles of democracy around the world. 

“Leopoldo López exemplifies what it means to devote one’s life to a greater cause. His personal sacrifice in pursuing a more just Venezuela shows how one person’s actions can shape public discourse in a substantial way,” President Sean Decatur said. “His dedication to civic engagement is what Kenyon works to instill in all its students, and in creating this award, Leopoldo’s family, friends and fellow alumni illuminate the value of living one’s life in pursuit of a freer, fairer world.”

A sociology major at Kenyon, López spent three and a half years at Venezuela’s infamous Ramo Verde prison before being released to house arrest in July 2017. He left his home in an April 30, 2019, uprising against the government of Nicolás Maduro and subsequently sought shelter in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. Prior to his incarceration, López founded Voluntad Popular, a political party in Venezuela that has energized an activist moment against the Maduro government. He has been an important mentor to Juan Guaidó, a rising political leader recognized by a number of nations, including the U.S., as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. 

“At a time when democratic societies face substantial challenges across the globe, Leopoldo López’s sacrifices remind us of democracy’s true worth as it remains the only viable pathway to a fairer, more equitable, and more just world,” said Professor of Political Science David Rowe, CSAD director. 

In addition to the Freedom and Democracy Award, López’s classmates, family and members of the Kenyon community created the Leopoldo López Student Award to honor a Kenyon student who exemplifies López’s commitment to democracy. The student award was presented for the first time in April 2019 to Schuyler Stupica ’19, an international studies major from Sylvania, Ohio.

For more information, including award criteria, visit kenyon.edu/csad.