"Punished for Protesting" in Venezuela - Commentary

Human Rights Watch has published a searing indictment of the Venezuelan regime’s brutal response to the recent protests in which 41 people lost their lives. Aptly entitled “Punished for Protesting,” HRW’s report is welcome for many reasons, not the least of them being the credibility that the NGO enjoys among liberal and left-wing opinion formers. Thanks to HRW’s efforts, it will be that much harder for the regime’s western apologists to stick to their portrait of chavismo as a noble exercise in wealth redistribution.

The report contains scores of harrowing testimonies from victims of abuse, medical professionals, journalists, and others. Particularly striking is the testimony of Keyla Josefina Brito, a 41-year-old woman from Barquisimeto, in the western state of Lara. On March 2, Brito and her 17-year-old daughter set out for a local butcher’s store just as the security forces were dispersing a demonstration. In the chaos, a female pedestrian was hit by a passing car. Brito and her daughter flagged down a truck and got inside with the seriously wounded woman and several others seeking to escape to safety. After driving a few blocks, the truck was stopped by the National Guard. All the passengers were detained, including the woman who’d been hit by the car and who required urgent medical attention. They then spent several hours in a detention facility where female National Guard members cut off their hair and beat them viciously with helmets, batons and fists. The women were also threatened with rape. Only when they agreed to sign a document confirming they had not been mistreated were they released.

Such outrages are not isolated instances, as HRW makes clear. Says the report:

What we found during our in-country investigation and subsequent research is a pattern of serious abuse. In 45 cases, we found strong evidence of serious human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces, which included violations of the right to life; the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the rights to bodily integrity, security and liberty; and due process rights. These violations were compounded by members of the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary who knew of, participated in, or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees, including serious violations of their due process rights.

This account flies in the face of President Nicolas Maduro’s claim that the violence was largely provoked by the protestors whom, for good measure, he frequently denounced as “fascists” and agents of the CIA. The response of the authorities, HRW argues, had little to do with enforcing the law. Instead, the chavistas marshaled the police, the National Guard, the secret services, and a compliant judiciary to “punish people for their political views or perceived views.”

The HRW report is a boon for those U.S. legislators who have diligently tracked the erosion of basic human rights in Venezuela over the last fifteen years, first under Hugo Chavez and now under Maduro, his appointed successor. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee convenes later this week for a hearing on the Venezuelan abuses, there will be no shortage of pertinent questions to ask–including the issue, not addressed in “Punished for Protesting,” of alleged Cuban involvement in the repression, something that Florida Senator Marco Rubio has repeatedly stressed. In making the case for sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved with the repression, Rubio has also criticized the current administration for its anemic stance toward the mounting crisis over which Maduro presides. “This current government in Venezuela acts as enemy of the United States,” Rubio told the Washington Free Beacon last month. “For those reasons alone we should care about what this government is doing, and so far under this administration the stance has been silence.”  

Maduro’s latest innovation–a “shopping card intended to combat Venezuela’s food shortages”­–will hardly allay the fear that his regime is further embracing the Cuban model of socialism. The measures accompanying the card will involve, according to Reuters, “fingerprint machines at checkout counters to keep track of supplies.” Small wonder, then, that his regime is beginning to crack from within: This week, Juan Carlos Caguaripano Scott, a captain in the National Guard, announced his decision to “break the silence” by charging the government with conducting “fratricidal war.”

While the death toll from the protests suggests that Venezuela has some way to go before reaching the depths of other authoritarian states, Scott’s words indicate that the potential to do so is there. With almost 80 percent of Venezuelans, among them supporters of Maduro, now acknowledging the country’s dire predicament, the question now is how much longer the outside world, most obviously the United States, can continue acting as a bystander.

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