Activism and the Liberal Arts
Leopoldo López ’93 H’07 was transferred from prison to house arrest in Venezuela on Saturday after more than three years in prison. Just reflect on that for a moment: 41 months; or 1,239 days, including 32 days spent in severe isolation in the tower of Ramo Verde prison, before Leo would be reunited at home with his children.
Almost none of Kenyon’s current students were enrolled in February 2014 when Leo, the founder of Venezuela’s Voluntad Popular movement, turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities after being accused of inciting violent political protests. This year’s rising seniors may remember when Leo’s sister, Adriana López Vermut, gave an inspiring speech on campus in September 2014. Yet many members of the Kenyon community — faculty, alumni, students, staff — worked to keep Leo’s cause prominent, writing letters and taking action to make sure that his story and fate were not forgotten.
The ideal liberal arts education prepares students to take on the responsibilities of citizenship; the very phrase “liberal arts” derives from the classical conception of the knowledge needed for free citizens to engage in civic life. We often emphasize the role a Kenyon education plays in career preparation, or for instilling a passion for lifelong learning in the arts, humanities and sciences. Both of these benefits of a Kenyon education are linked to a responsibility to participate in civic life, to put this knowledge into practice during a lifetime of active citizenship. We teach our students to listen thoughtfully and think critically when confronted with different perspectives, and to address difficult issues with reason as well as passion.
Leo’s life work — dedicated to improving the lives of his fellow Venezuelans and the ideals of democracy — is a living model of this type of civic engagement. For Leo, the concept of justice is not merely a topic to be debated around a seminar table, but a principle to which one must commit fully, and democracy not an abstraction, but rather a value that must be defended. Leo’s transfer to house arrest is not an end to his personal struggles or the struggles of the Venezuelan people. (Being held under house arrest is still not freedom, and the fight for democratic reform in Venezuela will continue.) His continued pursuit of justice for Venezuelans and a brighter future for his country, even as he faces uncertainty in his own future, will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us.
Most of us cannot imagine the sacrifices Leo has made to defend these values and principles. Our thoughts will remain with Leo, his family and the Venezuelan people as the struggle continues. Yet we also should take this moment to remind ourselves of the ways we can and should exercise the responsibilities of citizenship. Vote. Use your communication skills (honed at Kenyon) to make your voice heard. Listen to others, and build coalitions around common values and principles. Work to make Leo’s example a model.