What I learned about freedom from a 2x2 Venezuelan prison cell

Updated 12:00 AM ET, Thu November 11, 2021

Leopoldo López is a Venezuelan politician and opposition leader who was imprisoned on charges of inciting anti-government protests. He is a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative's Frontlines of Freedom project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)For many people, freedom is an abstract concept. It's like breathing; you don't think about it until you are gasping for air.

The same thing happens with democracy. Too many voters take it for granted, until the moment they realize it's entirely possible to have an election without democracy -- just like in Cuba, Russia, Iran, and my home country of Venezuela.
Leopoldo López
This became painfully clear to me while I was imprisoned for political opposition to President Nicolás Maduro's dictatorship. In a 2x2 meter cell with a lock the size of a brick, I learned what freedom was when I didn't have it.
The Venezuela I was born into in the 1970s was considered the envy of the Americas: a country with a strong economy capable of providing prosperity and opportunities to almost everybody. Venezuelan leaders had successfully built this regime of freedom after the downfall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez's military dictatorship in 1958. Between the 1960s and 1990s, Venezuela was "the democratic exception" in Latin America, a title that every Venezuelan carried with pride.
My country had some of the best public services of the region during that time -- including a prestigious network of schools and universities and a health care system that helped eradicate malaria in parts of the country in 1961, as certified by the World Health Organization (WHO), a status Venezuela has since lost. This was an era when many Europeans and Latin Americans alike wanted to emigrate to Venezuela for a better life.
Now, 22 years after Hugo Chávez's presidency began and nearly a decade after Maduro seized power in what I believe was a fraudulent 2013 presidential election, Venezuela is undergoing the worst multilayered crisis in the continent. Poverty, violence, starvation, and shortages of crucial supplies are the new normal. A 2016 survey found that almost three-quarters of the population involuntarily lost an average of 19 pounds, with emergency rooms overwhelmed by cases of severely malnourished children.
Hospitals lack the equipment and medicine they need to function, leaving families across the country at risk of dying without access to treatment -- a situation aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country, many for fear of persecution or lack of economic opportunities.
How did we turn from being an island of democracy to a broken dictatorship? I think the answer is twofold: First, we suffered an erosion of the essential elements of democracy. After becoming president in 1999, within a year, Chávez changed the national constitution and called for a "mega-election" that saw him inaugurated for a six-year term. He changed the political structure of the country; packed the Supreme Court; took control over the National Electoral Council; and labeled critical members of the free press as "enemies of the homeland."