The departure into exile of one of Venezuela's main opposition leaders — the ousted mayor of Caracas — speaks of a crisis, humanitarian and political, that is reaching new proportions.
For most of the nearly two decades after the late President Hugo Chavez launched his Bolivarian revolution with the promise of spreading Venezuela's vast oil wealth among all its citizens, Antonio Ledezma — like many Venezuelans — chose to stay, wait and see.
But in 2015, Venezuelan authorities seized the mayor and placed him under house arrest for voicing his opposition to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's successor. Ledezma was charged with conspiracy and working to overthrow the Maduro government, and had been under house arrest until last Friday.
That day, the 62-year-old joined what is estimated to be more than one million Venezuelans who have left the country since the 1990s and made a risky 900-kilometer escape to the border of Colombia, his jump-off point to a life in exile in Spain.
"When a human being wants to recover his freedom, he will take any risk and that is what I did," Ledezma said in an interview Wednesday with the VOA Spanish Service. "I took a personal risk to recover my freedom after more than one thousand days deprived of my human rights."
The nation he left is a shadow of its former self. Venezuela is one of the top oil producers in OPEC and as recently as 2011 topped Saudi Arabia as having the largest proven reserves among members of the cartel. Now Ledezma, like other exiles, laments chronic food shortages and empty shelves in once gleaming supermarkets, and often nonexistent basic medical supplies and services.
Maduro has said his country's economic problems are not the result of bad policy or a failure of the Chavista socialist model, but rather the outcome of U.S. sanctions and an "economic war" waged by Venezuela's remaining business elite. The Venezuelan leader has also refused to roll back government controls enacted during the Chavez years.
Now free to travel, Ledezma visited Washington this week to meet with the head of the Organization of American States, give speeches at think tanks, and make media appearances in a bid to call attention to the plight of a nation he said is being held hostage.
"That is my role, to be one more of these wave of Venezuelans who had to flee Venezuela and seek refuge in other parts of the world because they feel persecuted politically in the country or because they simply feel that to stay in Venezuela is to wait to be shot in the head," he said.
"Or at the very least die of hunger," he added, referring to rising malnutrition and low wages.
Oil and Cuba
OPEC figures show Venezuela's oil production tumbled in recent months, reaching a 28-year low in October. Analysts say the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, has been unable to find enough money to maintain wells and pipelines and keep other parts of the production infrastructure working. Critics blame mismanagement and corruption.
The crisis has deepened to the point where Maduro has begun appointing members of the military to run the company. This week, he named a general, Manuel Quevedo, to run PDVSA, and sources at the company told Reuters more military officers are to be appointed.
Critics question whether the moves are truly anti-corruption measures, suggesting they are really meant to give Maduro more control of Venezuela's oil industry, which accounts for 90 percent of the country's overall exports.
Ledezma sees no hope of resurrecting Venezuela's collapsed economy as long as Maduro remains in power and maintains the links to communist Cuba that were established by Chavez, who offered Havana preferential terms on oil contracts. Like many in the Venezuelan opposition, Ledezma accuses Cuba of siphoning off Venezuela's oil wealth — with Caracas' consent.
"Venezuela is the only country with a government that is paying so that it can be invaded. Venezuela is financing the Cuban regime, handing over oil money that we need for food and medicine that are scarce now," Ledezma said. "We have told the international community it needs to be vigilant of what is happening in Venezuela because its people have been taken hostage."
'Hope' or 'vampire'?
Reaction to Ledezma's flight into exile and his new crusade in the world has been mixed. Supporters showered praise during a Facebook Live appearance on the VOA Spanish website. One blogger wrote, "You are our hope."
Venezuela's president also expressed approval, albeit sarcastically, of Ledezma's departure. In a speech to supporters, Maduro laughingly described the Caracas mayor as "the vampire that is flying free about the world," and called for Spain not to return him.
There is little chance Ledezma will go back while Maduro is in power. In Wednesday's interview, the ousted mayor indicated that any negotiations would have to include discussions on Maduro's exit.
In starting his life in exile, Ledezma has plenty of company. Venezuela researchers say the number of Venezuelans living outside the country has risen by 2,000 percent since the 1990s.