CAMBRIDGE — When the Venezuelan government called for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, he knew he had a choice to make: He could flee, he could hide, or he could turn himself in peacefully and be jailed for leading protests against what he calls corrupt and dictatorial leadership.
His wife, Lilian Tintori, 36, feared what would happen if Lopez surrendered.
“I don’t believe in the justice that we have in Venezuela. I asked him not to do it,” she said in Cambridge Saturday through a translator. “He said to me that if he didn’t do it, he would be a prisoner of his own soul.”
Three months after Lopez, 43, was jailed in a military prison outside of Caracas called Ramo Verde, he became the first person to receive the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Achievement Award in absentia. The award, instituted in 1997, recognizes alumni who have “significantly improved the human condition.”
In a speech written from his jail cell and read by his younger sister, Adriana Lopez Vermut, 36, Lopez called for justice and dedicated his award to the young Venezuelans who have protested, who have been detained and imprisoned, and who have died for the cause.
“Even though my weeks in prison have now stretched into months and possibly far longer, the choice is worth it if it wakes the Venezuelan people — and the world — to the injustice that is taking place,” Vermut read, her voice breaking with emotion.
Lopez, who graduated from the Kennedy School of Government in 1996 with a master of Public Policy degree, is the former mayor of a small municipality of Caracas called Chacao, where he served until 2008. He left office with a 92 percent approval rating and was named third-best mayor in the world by the organization City Mayors, according to a biography from Harvard. But he was banned by the government from running for any other elected position.
The leader of the Voluntad Popular party, Lopez has been an outspoken critic of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro and has led protests against high crime and inflation, corruption, scarcity of basic goods, and intimidation of the news media.
Maduro and his supporters have described the protests as an attempted coup sponsored by right-wing and “fascist” opponents in Venezuela and abroad, including the United States.
Authorities called for Lopez’s arrest on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a massive Feb. 12 rally; he turned himself in on Feb. 18 before a crowd of thousands of supporters in a public square in Caracas.
Since Lopez’s surrender, his wife said he spends his days in a small cell with a bed, a hot plate, and lots of books. Tintori said she is allowed to visit, with family, from Thursday to Sunday.
The couple’s 1-year-old son took his first steps in his father’s cell, she said. They also have a 4-year-old daughter.
“After death, the worst thing that can arrive to someone is losing his freedom,” she said through the translator.
But since her husband has been imprisoned, she said, they are more convinced than before that they are “on the right side of history.”
The cell, she said, has become a “second home” and a place to reflect. Lopez says he reads a book a day and he writes about what is going on in his country. Her whole family has suffered, Tintori said, and government officials have targeted her in the media. She fears for her husband. But he is not the only political prisoner in Venezuela, she said.
“Leopoldo’s voice is now many people’s voice,” she said.
Lopez’s sister and wife embraced as they accepted the award on his behalf. His sister, who lives in California, has not seen her brother since he was imprisoned, because she was just two weeks away from giving birth to her son when he was arrested. The whole family supported his decision to turn himself in, she said, because it was the only choice Lopez could live with.
“He doesn’t falter from his center; he doesn’t lack grace. He’s a very black-and-white person when it comes to certain things,” she said. “It’s a personal sacrifice, but as he says, if it will awaken the people, it will have been worth it.”
Two other Kennedy School graduates were also honored Saturday. Mois Cherem, founding partner and chief executive of a social enterprise called Enova that brings technology-based learning to Mexico’s poorest urban neighborhoods, was given the Rising Star Award. Doug Levine, a member of the board of directors of the HKS New England Alumni Association, was awarded the Julius E. Babbitt Memorial Alumni Volunteer Award.