Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
By Elena Cata.
It is no secret in the international community that the humanitarian situation in Venezuela is dire. A history of detrimental governance has driven Venezuela into political and economic ruin. Former President Hugo Chávez’s populist political ideology was characterized by a desire to nationalize Venezuelan industries and a rejection of U.S. imperialism. However, Chávez’s economic policy resulted in a destructive spending spree that produced an incredible run-up in the price of oil and racked up enormous piles of debt. As a result, almost 10% of Venezuela’s 31 million-strong population have fled overseas; of those who remain, nearly 90% live in poverty. Throughout his reign, Chávez effectively edged Venezuela towards authoritarianism, paving the way for current President Nicolás Maduro to establish a dictatorship.
Human rights abuses have proliferated under Maduro’s rule; these abuses include but are not limited to extrajudicial killings, inadequate prison conditions, and denial of freedom of expression. As political power is concentrated within a corrupt dictatorship, the government of President Nicolás Maduro wields the ability to silence dissidents who speak up against human rights abuses. In this paper, I explore the tactics the Venezuelan government uses to silence non-violent human rights defenders and how this suppression contributes to the proliferation of human rights abuses.
I argue that the government of Nicolás Maduro uses harassment, stigmatization, and intimidation tactics to inhibit freedom of expression in Venezuela, effectively limiting domestic human rights defenders, activists, and journalists from exposing human rights violations and consequently working to end such abuses. Tactics to limit freedom of expression include arbitrary detentions, criminalization of speech, censorship, harassment, and violence. These repressive tactics have engendered the escalation of human rights violations in Venezuela and hindered the success of domestic actors to name and shame the policies of the dictatorship.
Arbitrary detentions are defined by The Center of Justice and Accountability as “unlawful detention that occurs when an individual is arrested and detained by a government without due process and without the legal protections of a fair trial, or when an individual is detained without any legal basis for the deprivation of liberty.” Arbitrary detentions are frequently used by the Venezuelan government as a policy tool to target political dissidents. In 2017, Amnesty International published a report on politically-motivated arbitrary detentions in Venezuela, stating that their organization had been made aware of, and had effectively verified, that arbitrary arrests were being conducted without a court order. The common factor in these arrests is that those detained by the state authorities have all had a critical or dissenting view of government policies. Whether it be at the hands of members of opposing political parties, human rights activists, or citizen protestors, the Maduro regime fears any political noise that draws attention to their illegal and inhumane practices.
A high-profile case that demonstrates the lengths to which the Maduro dictatorship will go to silence political dissidents is the snatching and detention of politician Gilber Caro. Caro is a Member of Parliament who aligns with the National Assembly party, the opposition to Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Caro is a vocal advocate for social justice and his non-violent activism efforts led to his eventual detention and imprisonment. On January 11th, 2017, Caro was on his way home to Caracas when he was arrested by officers of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, the premier government intelligence agency. The Vice President of the Republic of Venezuela explained in a TV address that a gun and explosives had been seized from Caro and that the Member of Parliament was involved in terrorist activities. Caro was taken to July 26 prison in Guárico and was never brought before a court to determine the legality of his situation. In February of 2018, Amnesty International raised Caro’s arbitrary detention before the Inter-Commission on Human Rights during a public hearing on citizen security and institutionality in Venezuela. Amnesty International stated that Caro was illegally deprived of his freedom, imprisoned without a warrant, and his parliamentary immunity had been violated. However, it wasn’t until June 2nd, 2018 when representative Caro was released from prison. Since that day, he has been arbitrarily detained on two more occasions as the Maduro regime continues to silence his political agenda.
Gilber Caro’s story is just one example that demonstrates how arbitrary detentions are used to not only stop political dissent, but to deter those who harbor such views from voicing such dissent. Caro continues to bravely speak out against the Maduro dictatorship but his persistence places him in constant danger. It is not uncommon for those who are arbitrarily detained to be threatened and experience torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the Venezuelan intelligence service and military. The Venezuelan human rights organization Penal Forum reported that, as of October 2020, there had been 413 arbitrary, politically motivated arrests in the year 2020; these increased following the declaration of a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Additionally, the uncertainty and vulnerability of detainees has been exacerbated by the pandemic as the government has used COVID-19 to justify lack of notification of arrests and prison conditions. These aggravating factors effectively deter human rights defenders from calling out abuses.
The criminalization of dissent is another tactic the Venezuelan government uses to silence its opponents. Criminalization occurs when arrests and arbitrary detentions morph into criminal charges, a form of punitive retribution. It is not uncommon for human rights defenders, journalists, and protestors to face criminal charges as a result of their vocal dissent. The severity and frequency of such charges often go unchecked by the judiciary, resulting in extremely harsh sentencing. On January 12th, 2021, five human rights defenders and members of Azul Positivo were detained in Zulia state. Azul Positivo is a humanitarian organization that has been providing aid to vulnerable communities in Zulia, particularly people living with HIV/AIDs for 15 years. Additionally, the group has been increasingly active in combating the negative impact of COVID-19 on local communities through educational sessions on disease prevention and assistance in food safety. The group of five was originally arbitrarily detained, without being officially charged, but were later charged with alleged “fraudulent handling of cards”, “criminal association” and “money laundering.”
While the human rights activists were released on February 10th, they still face these criminal allegations. In light of these egregious charges, UN experts have urged Venezuelan authorities to curtail the increasing attacks against civil society organizations and journalists. Their statement read “The arrests and criminal charges are part of a pattern of increasing criminalization of civil society organizations in Venezuela, which already operate under a repressive set of laws and regulations including the 2017 ‘Law Against Hate’ that restricts the exercise of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression, among others.” The “Law Against Hate” which the UN experts referenced is an article of legislation that contributes to the prevalence and frequency of criminalization.
The Constitutional Law Against Hatred for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance, commonly known as “Law Against Hate” was passed by the Venezuela Constituent National Assembly on November 8th, 2017. The law criminalizes any actions that “incite hatred” against a person or group, although the only actions that are criminalized are those characterized by dissent against the government regime. The 2017 law is used to restrict Venezuelans from exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression by serving as a powerful punitive deterrent. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, “groups exercising their right to peacefully assemble play an important role in ‘mobilizing the population, permitting the formulation and expression of grievances and population, facilitating the celebration of events, and, importantly, influencing public policies.” Bachelet aptly points to the power of expression without censorship that human rights defenders, protestors, and journalists alike are deprived of as a result of the “Law Against Hate”. This repressive law fosters criminalization that limits the power of the Venezuelan citizenry to “name and shame” the government when they abuse their power.
Tarek Saab, the government’s chief prosecutor and one of the creators of the hate law, rejects the claim that the “Law Against Hate” is being used for partisan purposes. He told Canadian media corporation Reuters that the “legislation is an important instrument for defusing unrest”. Saab hides behind the far-reaching term “unrest” to avoid acknowledging that the only type of unrest that is criminalized is expression or assembly at the hands of those who oppose the Maduro government. As criminal charges on the basis of the “Law Against Hate” have proliferated in Venezuela, legal scholars have deemed the law unconstitutional and illegitimate. Venezuelan scholars and activists argue that the law not only violates freedom of expression but was illegally enacted by a legislature that Maduro invented to circumvent the opposition-controlled national assembly. The “Law Against Hate” has had detrimental consequences on illuminating human rights abuses and government corruption. Any civilian, scholar, journalist, or politician who seeks to criticize the Maduro Regime is subject to harsh criminalization that could lead to serious fines and incarceration. Saab claims that “the voices of violence, terrorism, and crime have been completely disarmed”. Through his lens as the chief defender of the Maduro regime, he is absolutely right. However, the voices that have been “completely disarmed” would be more accurately defined as “voices of dissent” as any opposition is considered violence against the regime. Through the criminalization of free speech and assembly, the Maduro regime effectively silences its dissidents and has created a process of anguish and pain for human rights defenders and their families that dissuades such “subversive” action.
Media censorship is the third tactic that the Venezuelan government uses to suppress human rights defenders. For more than a decade, the government has expanded and abused its power to regulate the media. Human rights defenders and journalists have been increasingly forced to weigh the consequences of disseminating information critical of the government. Television and radio stations are almost entirely state-run and government authorities have banned the few independent TV and radio stations that do not align with the regime. Media outlets are barred from reporting on food and medicine shortages, protests led by the opposition, and virtually any non-governmental approved information. Andrés Azpúrua, director of an Internet freedom watchdog VEC Sin Filtro (Venezuela without Filter), contends that
“Most Venezuelans are in the dark, starving for information.” While Venezuela’s internet freedom has been weakening in recent decades, the country dropped from “partly free” to “not free” in annual reports by Freedom House, a global democracy monitor, in 2017. Because domestic actors are unable to discuss and publicize the human rights violations the Maduro regime carries out on a daily basis, both international actors and Venezuelan citizens alike are left in the dark.
Independent media organizations Efecto Cocuyo and El Pitazo are among the many outlets that have been censored this year by Venezuelan authorities, accused by pro-government media of advancing foreign “interference” efforts. Specific forms of censorship include audits and seizures of equipment that lead to the shutdown of media operations. Targeted online attacks are also commonplace for media outlets that attempt to disseminate information the government doesn’t agree with. Digital newspaper Tal Cual recently reported that they were the target of a 3-hour long digital attack that cut off access to their website. However, the most recent tactic the government has used to ensure widespread censorship has been frequent information blackouts. Essentially, the state-run internet provider will create an expansive blackout, particularly when the government wants to avoid international media attention. For example, on the weekend of February 22nd, members of Maduro’s opposing political party faced off with the military in an attempt to bring aid into Venezuela from Colombia. In order to hide their efforts to deny humanitarian assistance to their citizens, the dominant state-run service provider blocked YouTube and other streaming websites along with domestic and foreign news outlets. This widespread blackout was a blatant human rights violation: a direct government attempt to limit domestic and international recognition.
Censorship of the media effectively infringes upon the contributions of media outlets to report on human rights abuses. As a result, international human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations are void of accurate and reliable information regarding the state of human rights in Venezuela. Additionally, as illustrated with the aforementioned example regarding aid from Colombia, attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans are actively mitigated and these inhumane actions are swept under the rug with censorship. The Maduro regime has committed ample time and resources to ensure that anyone who disagrees with them lacks the ability and platform to be heard. The threat of censorship alone deters journalists and human rights defenders from speaking out as the risks often outweigh the rewards. Acting Deputy Director Tamara Tariuk Broner of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch reports that while “some brave journalists continue to report independently from Venezuela, fear of reprisals has made self-censorship common. Self-censorship by journalists and human rights defenders is incredibly harmful because the role of these actors is to foster accountability for governments that abuse their privileges. Censorship effectively curtails the accountability function of activists and journalists alike and contributes to the proliferation of government violations.
The final method I explore that the Maduro regime uses to silence its dissidents are violent attacks and assassinations. According to Human Rights Watch, police and security forces have killed nearly 18,000 people in Venezuela in instances of alleged “resistance to authority” since 2016. In what can be described as a disturbing display of power abuse, Venezuelan authorities have engaged in serious human rights violations without impunity. Human rights defenders, journalists, and protestors alike are in constant danger of being executed by government forces as their mere existence threatens the regime.
Alí Domínguez was a human rights defender and youth political leader who was brutally murdered in March of 2016. Domínguez had been missing since February 28th after attending a meeting of volunteers and NGOs at the headquarters of the newspaper El Nacional to discuss the defense and protection of human rights in Venezuela. He is said to have died in the early hours of March 6th as a result of a beating that caused him head trauma, a broken septum, loss of teeth, and other horrendous injuries. Before his death, Domínguez recently alerted his closest friends that he had been receiving threats from the state security and intelligence forces for reporting on acts of corruption and human rights abuse. Sadly, Domínguez’s fate is not uncommon for those brave enough to speak out against the regime.
Reporter and cameraman Andrés Eloy Nieves Zacarías was shot dead when 10 heavily-armed members of Venezuela’s Special Action Forces (FAES) burst into the recording studio of La Guacamaya TV, a local TV station. Days later in August of 2020, the body of José Carmelo Bislick, a teacher and presenter on local Radio Omega 94.1 FM, was found on the side of the ride in the state of Sucre. The Maduro regime has proved they can torture, abuse, and kill with impunity for years. This culture of suppression through murder has undoubtedly deterred human rights defenders and journalists from disseminating information that threatens the regime’s ability to govern by force.
The Venezuelan government silences those who defend human rights through arbitrary detention, criminalization, digital attacks through censorship, and violence. The suppression of such defenders limits their function to serve as accountability mechanisms to nonviolently name and shame government practices. Without effective activism, human rights abuses proliferate as states don’t have an inherent interest in criticizing themselves. With such domestic mechanisms systematically disabled in Venezuela, the Maduro regime has created conditions under which human rights defenders cannot exercise their right to inform, and human rights abuses continue to proliferate.
While my research has illuminated the extraordinary trials and tribulations human rights defenders in Venezuela must endure to reveal the truth, I leave with the hope that their resilience will someday bring about significant change. The threat of arbitrary detention, violence, criminal charges, and stigmatization have not yet silenced all journalists, politicians, and the thousands of citizens who seek to end human rights abuses in Venezuela. The corrupt dictatorship will continue to silence those who promote human rights as long as Maduro remains in power. Therefore, domestic actors must continue to fight tooth and nail to expose human rights violations and use international networks to name and shame the dictatorship.
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