- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The wife of Venezuela’s highest-profile political prisoner pressed the Obama administration to do more to address the human rights crisis in her country, saying the opposition movement won’t stop until there is “clear justice, a clear rule of law and human rights for all people.”

Lilian Tintori said her husband, Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested following violence at political demonstrations in Caracas last year, is the “emblematic face of 61 political prisoners” being held by the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro because “he is political, he is a progressive leader, and he represents the light of hope and change in Venezuela.”

Mrs. Tintori, who is in Washington this week seeking to shine a spotlight on her husband’s case, said in an interview Tuesday that her goal is “to change the reality of human rights” in Venezuela and generate greater U.S. support for her cause.

But her remarks come at an increasingly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. Mrs. Tintori’s visit comes just a week after the Obama White House slapped visa restrictions on Venezuelan government officials believed to be associated with human rights abuses. Mr. Maduro, the successor and protege of the late populist leader Hugo Chavez, responded by publicly accusing Vice President Joseph R. Biden of plotting to overthrow him.

The White House quickly dismissed Mr. Maduro’s claim last week as “patently false.” But the bitter back-and-forth seemed to undermine any hope that the two nations might be able to improve bilateral ties in light of the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, which has for years served as Caracas‘ closest strategic and ideological ally.

Mr. Maduro has drawn mounting international criticism for jailing opposition figures in Venezuela, even as his government struggles with an economic crisis tied to the recent plunge in global oil prices.

Where Chavez once earned international fame on the left for using the country’s vast oil wealth to finance social welfare programs, regional analysts say Mr. Maduro is now clinging to power in a country on the edge of becoming a failed state as oil revenues plummet.

It remains to be seen how the Obama administration’s posture toward the situation may be impacted by the message being pushed in Washington this week by Mrs. Tintori.

The 36-year-old Mrs. Tintori met Tuesday in Washington with Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza and is slated to hold a news conference at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

She is visiting as part of a group that includes a politically diverse mix of human rights advocates from Venezuela, including the brother of Juancho Montoya, a onetime Chavez backer who was killed during the widespread political protests in Caracas last year.

Tuesday’s OAS meeting is part of a wider effort to convince U.S. and Latin American leaders to publicly criticize the Maduro government’s handling of human rights — with specific emphasis on the Lopez case — ahead of an annual Summit of the Americas meeting to be held April in Panama City.

In a noncommittal statement, OAS officials said Mr. Insulza “listened to the account” given by Mrs. Tintori and “offered to bring it to the knowledge of the relevant bodies of the organization.”

Mr. Insulza did call for “national dialogue” in Venezuela and expressed concern about the Maduro government’s use of the armed forces to control mass demonstrations, the organization said.

Mr. Lopez is currently being held in a military-run prison in Venezuela, facing charges of fomenting unrest that resulted in four deaths during political protests in Caracas. The former mayor of the capital’s affluent Chacao district emerged last year as a leader of opposition groups seeking an end to the Maduro government.

With urgency in her voice, Mrs. Tintori said that she prays every night with her 5-year-old daughter, Manuela, and 2-year-old son, Leopoldo, who took his first steps last year just weeks after his father was jailed.

Mrs. Tintori said her daughter asked her if Mr. Maduro was “a bad person.”

“I tell her that I can’t say that about Maduro,” she said. “The only person that can say that is God. But I can tell you Maduro is doing bad things, and the bad thing is that your dad is in jail, and he’s innocent.”

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