BY: CLAUDIA A. GONZALEZ
Venezuela´s situation is, with each passing day, becoming more critical. Even though the situation in Syria takes precedence as one of the grimmest realities of our current time, within the Latin American region, Venezuela is certainly the worst crisis the continent has witnessed in recent years. Thankfully, it is no longer a crisis that is unheard of; media has given increasing coverage to the appalling conditions Venezuelans are facing. Unfortunately, abuses committed against the regimes’ vociferous dissenters are still not equally known, at least not in the detail their victims deserve.
In 2017, Venezuela lived its most violent episode in history, with protests turning extremely harsh and repression becoming increasingly arbitrary. The violence witnessed was, of course, a direct result of the government’s response to political opposition, which demanded better living conditions in a country that is closer to a humanitarian collapse with each passing day. During this time, arbitrary detentions increased, civilians were trialed by military courts, and a general perception of fear plagued the population; but it is important to remember that even though Maduro has been more radical in his approach towards silencing opposition, his doing is only the legacy of what Hugo Chavez had already begun since chavismo arrived to the government in Venezuela.
During the years of Hugo Chavez, several others were also unfairly prosecuted to serve as an example and many continue to be incarcerated under the cruelest conditions, because they held, at some point, some political opposition to chavismo.
As of March 4th of 2018, Foro Penal, a Venezuelan NGO that serves as pro bono criminal defense attorneys to those detained for political reasons or under arbitrary conditions, documented 235 political prisoners. According to the same NGO, Foro Penal, the main detention method is house arrest, with 90 people under this type of detention, most of these people at some point were arrested and held within security forces headquarters and later moved to house arrest under “humanitarian” considerations. The National Guard detention center follows in second where 78 people are currently held and the Bolivarian Service of National Intelligence (SEBIN) holds 70 people.
To understand the depth of injustice that has been committed against these people, details are always important. Unfortunately, they always fall short as to what these Venezuelans have had to endure. Notwithstanding, the cases of judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, Ivan Simonovis, Daniel Ceballos, Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma, shed light on how the Venezuelan chavista government has operated against its opponents.
On December 10, 2009, Maria Lourdes Afiuni was arrested after her decision to grant parole to Eligio Cedeño, a former Venezuelan banker who had been arrested three years before for alleged illegal currency transactions. During the three years Eligio Cedeño was in jail, he was accused of mishandling 25 million dollars the National Exchange Currency Control Board had approved. Judges failed to show up to court leading to the accusation that the case was more an arbitrary detention. Eligio Cedeño had been known for providing financial aid to opposition leaders, and assistance to two relevant adversaries of Hugo Chavez, Carlos Ortega and Patricia Poleo, who had radically opposed his government, and had to finally also flee from the government.
Considering the former, in 2009 the United Nations Workshop on Arbitrary Detention determined and declared Eligio Cedeño’s detention arbitrary, and thus Maria Lourdes Afiuni decided to grant him parole. That same day, she was arrested and a week later incarcerated in the National Institute of Feminine Orientation (INOF). During this time, former President Hugo Chavez openly called her a bandit, applauded her arrest and openly commented that her sentence should be 30 years in prison – the maximum jail time you can do in Venezuela.
During her time at the INOF, she was first locked in with inmates that had been convicted by her. She was repeatedly sexually abused and assaulted by INOF guards, as well as other inmates, who in many cases were women she had also convicted during her time as judge. After the many abuses she endured, in 2013 she was released under parole. Her case has been one of the most symbolic as it portrays the cruelty the chavista government was willing to commit in order to make an example of a Venezuelan.
Ivan Simonovis’ case is also a relevant example of injustice, dating back to Chavez’s ruling. Simonovis used to be a criminal science expert, security consultant and more importantly the Chief of Police for what used to be the Caracas Mayor’s Office. His case holds particular significance as he was the Chief of Police on April 11, 2002 when a political protest against Chavez turned violent for the first time resulting in the death of 18 people. During the same week of protests, a coup d’etat was orchestrated against Chavez, but he was returned to office three days after.
Simonovis was arrested in 2004, but was only found guilty in 2009, when he was convicted to 30 years in prison. He was charged with the death of two of the 19 people during the protests. To this day, no other inquiries have been carried forward to investigate the presence of shooters on that protest. No shooters were convicted, and those who were identified on Puente Llaguno, who carried out the massacre against the opposition, now serve within the chavista government; no charges were ever pressed against them.
There has certainly been a change in the nature of political persecution. Chavez had very particular opponents he wanted in jail or to leave the country. Nicolas Maduro, on the other hand, has had a different stance, particularly since protests increased in 2017, when he radicalized his approach to freedom of expression and political opposition further. Venezuela currently has a law “against hate”, which forbids people from speaking up against the government. Not too long ago, the government promoted a campaign encouraging people to refrain from speaking negatively about Chavez; the slogan read “Here it is forbidden to talk bad about Chavez”. People living in the poorest parts of the country and Caracas, are constantly intimidated; political prisoners from these regions have increased in number, as have the number of victims of repression during protest, and people fleeing the country in search of asylum.
On a more personal note, a couple of my colleagues are currently under detention. When I used to live in Venezuela, I was briefly part of an organization called Embajadores Comunitarios, which was a small NGO trying to promote leadership in the most vulnerable parts of the city in the format of Model United Nations. This wonderful group of people taught adolescents negotiation, and history, among many other tools in attempts to foster leadership in this adverse context. Today, Gregory Hinds and Geraldine Chacon, both in leadership positions in the organization have been held for almost three months in the SEBIN headquarters.
On January 31st, without any type of search warrant, SEBIN searched the premises of Embajadores Comunitarios headquarters. Subsequently, the Director General, Gregory Hinds was summoned for an “interview” at SEBIN headquarters, after which he was detained and no communication with him was allowed. Following Gregory’s arrest, during early morning, Geraldine Chacon was also arrested and taken to the SEBIN headquarters. To this day, no charges have been formally pressed, no communication is permitted and SEBIN officials have provided no communication as to the status of their situation.
Alongside, Gregory and Geraldine, one of the former students of the program was also detained. He was an outstanding student during the program, and therefore was offered scholarships in the best private organizations, and conducted further programs within his community to improve quality of life there. On April 24th he was arrested by SEBIN forces, to this day, not even his mother has been able to see him. He is been charged with conspiracy offences.
In 2017, Luisa Ortega Diaz, former chief prosecutor, in an unprecedented action, pronounced herself quoting an unavoidable historical duty, and declared there had being a rupture in the constitutional order in Venezuela. This came shortly after the Supreme Court had ruled against the opposition-led National Assembly. Her defiance opened a gate towards understanding how far Nicolas Maduro and his allies have been going with regards to imprisonment of political opposition. Among the many things she has admitted, her recent comment on Leopoldo Lopez´s case stands out most. Lopez, a leading political opponent to Chavez and Maduro, has been in prison for the past four years. Luisa Ortega Diaz admitted that Leopoldo Lopez is innocent and that he was incarcerated amid pressures received from government official Diosdado Cabello.
Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is certainly erring on the larger scale of human rights violations, but the attempt to silence these brave Venezuelans because of their political position, and especially their defense of human rights and freedom of speech, needless to say the confession from a former prosecutor that silencing the opposition is State policy constitutes a violation to democracy and human rights that we, as Venezuelans, had never experienced before. For a regime, which promised to fight for “the people” and claimed to be romantic humanistic politicians, chavismo has created the largest wound in Venezuela’s political life in, at least, the last hundred years.
Claudia A. Gonzalez is a Political Analyst with a background in economics. She is currently an Associate at Atheneum and holds a Master’s degree in Political Science. She has attended Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidad Catolica Andres Bello and the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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