Fugitive Caracas mayor flees house arrest for Spain, Venezuela’s Maduro says ‘they can keep him’
Antonio Ledezma had already crossed into neighbouring Colombia where he boarded a plane for Madrid late on Friday
Ousted Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma arrived in Madrid a day after he escaped from house arrest in Venezuela and slipped past security forces into Colombia.
Ledezma’s flight from Bogota landed early on Saturday morning at Barajas airport in the Spanish capital. With a Venezuelan flag draped over his shoulder, he hugged his wife and two daughters.
“I am going to travel the world. To spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship,” he said.
Ledezma was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. He said on Friday his decision to flee was driven by threats intended to force the opposition to resume negotiations with Maduro’s government.
“My voice is joining a chorus of Venezuelans who have asked for help from Colombia,” Ledezma earlier told reporters in the Colombian border town of Cucuta.
Several Venezuelan magistrates have also taken shelter in Colombia, including former attorney general Luisa Ortega, who is under government protection.
Ledezma said his journey was worthy of a film, taking him past more than two dozen Venezuelan police and national guard positions before he was able to reach Colombia. However, he gave no details of his escape.
“I don’t want to be a hostage to tyranny, to be used to subdue an opposition,” he said.
In Caracas, Maduro minced no words.
“Today, it’s Antonio Ledezma who has left us. Now the vampire is flying around the world. He’s off to Spain with a special deal, off to sip wine on the Gran Via. They can keep him,” the president said at a rally in the capital.
Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said Ledezma, whose wife is currently living in Spain, was at risk in Venezuela.
“I know that his life was in danger because of the position he took firmly and coherently against this false dialogue,” she said, referring to talks between the government and the opposition.
Ledezma has been critical of a planned new round of talks hosted by the Dominican Republic in December, after earlier efforts failed to get off the ground.
He said he had conveyed his objections to the talks in a phone call with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been a vocal critic of Maduro.
“It is time to step aside and allow a transitional government, so that Maduro cannot continue torturing the people of Venezuela,” Ledezma told reporters before heading to Madrid. “Maduro is starving the people of Venezuela.”
Organisation of American States chief Luis Almagro hailed the mayor’s escape.
“My regards to Antonio Ledezma, moral reference of Venezuela, now free to lead the fight from exile, for the establishment of a democratic system in his country,” he wrote on Twitter.
Earlier, Colombia’s migration department said Ledezma had “entered Colombian territory by land, over the Simon Bolivar international bridge”.
The mayor, a lawyer by profession, was arrested and jailed in February 2015 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the president. He had been under house arrest following surgery.
He was elected Caracas mayor in 2009 and re-elected in 2013.
Ledezma is a member of the Democratic Action opposition party, which was the biggest party in Venezuela before the arrival into power of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999.
He told Venezuelans that it was not a time to lose faith in their struggle.
“You have to keep flying the flag which symbolises the dignity of a people who have lost food, who have lost their cash and who don’t have even have the money buy a sandwich,” Ledezma said.
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press