EspañolSpeakers came from near and far for this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum, to raise their voices against totalitarianism, support human rights, and demand the release of political prisoners throughout the world, including Venezuelan Leopoldo López.
Twenty countries in all were featured at the seventh annual event, on May 26-27, which had the theme of “Living in Truth.” Case studies and life experiences sent the message that even common citizens can ignite the spark that leads to the toppling of authoritarian regimes.
Journalists, comedians, refugees, cartoonists, politicians, technology experts, human-rights activists, filmmakers, and economists shared their stories before an auditorium packed with 300 guests. People around the world could also watch online through a live feed.
Among the prominent figures at the event were Twitter Vice President Clin Crowell; comedian Iran Kambiz Hosseini; and Zineb the Rhazoiu, columnist of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Moreover, Stanford University professor Larry Diamond and gay rights activist Abdellah Taia were also present.
Latin America maintained a prominent position with cartoonist Rayma Suprani and Chilean economist and former Minister of Finance Andrés Velasco. Furthermore, Cuban graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado was awarded the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent at the end of the event.
Maldonado’s art work, critical of the communist regime, has led him to be targeted by the Cuban police. Today, he is in prison for the crime of attempting to present the George Orwell book Animal Farm in a public space. During his performance, the artist released two pigs called Fidel and Raúl, named after the former president and the current military ruler of the island.
“El Sexto” wasn’t able to receive the award in person, given that he has been in jail since December 2014, waiting for a trial on charges of contempt.
— Andrés Velasco (@AndresVelasco) May 26, 2015
“At the Oslo Freedom Forum. Grand testimonies of those who defend freedom in Russia, Iran, Libya and Venezuela.”
Freedom’s High Price
Venezuelan Rayma Suprani, followed by over half a million users on Twitter, is one of the few — if not the only — female cartoonists in her country. She joined three other speakers to close the event on Tuesday, May 26, and spoke of the “right to offend.”
She told the audience about the consequences of standing there and speaking in front of the audience, of what could await her on her return to Venezuela. She asserted that opposition politician Leopoldo López, speaker at the forum in 2010, was arrested shortly after returning from a trip abroad.
“From this universal podium I say, release Leopoldo!”
— Mica Hierro ن (@micahierro) May 26, 2015
“Venezuelan cartoonist Rayma Suprani asks for Leopoldo López’s release at the Oslo Freedom Forum.”
Suprani further explained that her professional experience of 19 years was abruptly cut short, after the newspaper she worked for was purchased by businessmen with connections to the socialist regime.
“After the newspaper was sold, my work became very uncomfortable for its pages. The editorial line changed,” she said. Subsequently, she asserted that expressing opinions in contemporary Venezuela “may cost a very high price.”
The cartoonist is the subject of criticism on programs broadcast on state television, and she receives constant attacks on her name and her professional integrity. Moreover, she has had to face several lawsuits. “I went from being the victim to being the victimizer,” she explained.
In addition, Suprani said she has received offensive anonymous phone calls, and even death threats.
“The defense of freedom is not a coat that we wear and we can take off at any moment. Freedom and the defense of human rights are an inseparable part of the profession. This is certainly a way of life,” she optimistically stated.
For her, cartoons are a way of seeing the world, and those who create them are interpreters of the reality of a society. Therefore, she considers herself a free thinker, a philosopher who tries, through her drawings, to predict where a society is going to.
“Cartoons are a thermometer that measures the liberties of a nation. Critical drawings versus the tolerance of the government. The best exercise to reveal the strength or weakness of a democracy.”
Suprani branded Nicolás Maduro’s government as a “contemporary dictatorship,” in which human rights are not respected, political dissidents and students are arrested, and millions of dollars are spent to clean up the image of the government, as well as to lobby abroad to “hide corruption and their true interests.”
Freedom of expression, she said, “is [either] unlimited,” or it cannot be considered as such.
How to Avoid Dictatorships
Andrés Velasco meanwhile shared his experience as a teenager during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. He examined why Chile suffered a coup and what can society do to make sure that it does not happen again.
“When the coup happened, it was not a surprise … the society was ideologically divided. People who did not think like you became not only an opponent, but an enemy,” he stated.
However, Velasco said that Chileans did not anticipate the deep violence that would come along with the coup.
At the time, he admits, he tried to tell his classmates what he knew was happening, but people did not want to hear about it: “Even in a dictatorship, sometimes the truth is too disconcerting. People get married, have children, worry about their accounts; their lives continue. That is what makes dictatorships last as long.”