The woman had left her home at 3 a.m. to arrive early at a market in Caracas where diapers would be sold at a subsidized rate. She stood in line for six hours with her 4-month-old baby—you have to have the baby or a birth certificate with you to buy the diapers—until members of the National Guard started shooting teargas toward the line. She didn’t know what was happening, but ran away to protect her son, she told us.
When she returned after the teargas dispersed, it was too late. She did not make it into the market to buy the two packages of diapers that were allowed per person. Crying, she said she had two diapers left, and could not afford to buy them in the black market, where they cost 300 times more. She told our researchers that she had to stand in line to buy everything but could not manage to get enough food to feed her family. She said, “If you have breakfast, you don’t have lunch, and if you get lunch, you don’t have dinner.”
Our researchers have been back and forth to Venezuela over the past few months, and the situation only gets worse. The economy has collapsed. There are long lines outside food markets selling subsidized goods. The majority of medications considered “essential” by the World Health Organization have vanished from many hospitals and pharmacies. In hospitals we visited, doctors said they lacked medicines and basic medical supplies and send patients’ relatives out to try to find them. They often come back empty handed. Patients with various illnesses struggle to get medical treatment. Outside the capital area—particularly among the poor, who can’t afford black market prices—the situation is even worse.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro has refused to acknowledge that there is a health and food crisis in Venezuela. Instead of recognizing its responsibility and looking for solutions, it accuses the political “right” of carrying out an “economic war” to undermine the government. Venezuelan authorities are also preventing any significant humanitarian assistance from entering the country, which could help alleviate the crisis.
To silence critics, the government has conducted widespread arrests and other repression. Since 2014, we have been documenting the violent response of security forces to protests, with beatings and arrests of peaceful demonstrators and even bystanders and torture in detention. The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a nongovernmental group that provides legal assistance to detainees, counts more than 90 people it considers political prisoners.
When our researchers visited Venezuela in June, they documented the detention of 21 people since May, accused of planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions. In some cases, the “evidence” included mere possession of political materials such as pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners. All but two have been charged with criminal offenses. In several cases, prosecutors failed to present credible evidence linking the accused to crimes, but courts charged them anyway.
Most detainees said they were abused in custody. Several testified in court to abuse that may amount to torture, including brutal beatings, electric shocks, and threats of rape or murder.
On a previous trip, we found that police and military raids in low-income and immigrant communities over the past year have led to widespread allegations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations.
The political opposition won a landslide victory in Venezuela’s December 2015 legislative elections. The country’s nakedly politicized Supreme Court, however, has managed to declare unconstitutional almost every law the Assembly passed this year.
The opposition is campaigning for a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency. The Venezuelan electoral authority—where most officials are government supporters—has repeatedly delayed the referendum. Under the law, if the referendum is held this year and Maduro loses, new elections would be called. But if the vote is after January 10, enough of Maduro’s presidential term will have passed that the vice president would take over until the next regular elections in 2019. This creates an incentive for the government to delay the vote.
During our June visit, we found that the government had fired dozens of customs and tax-office employees in apparent retaliation for signing the recall petition. All had been on the job for more than a decade and none had been accused of poor job performance. Other government agencies have reportedly fired hundreds more.
Regional leaders have been calling for dialogue between the government and the opposition. But they should realize that their calls are futile so long as the government continues to target its opponents for repression and abuse. They should demand that Maduro stop arresting opponents and abusing detainees, and release every Venezuelan arrested for political reasons. That includes opposition leaders like Leopoldo López, who has been in prison since February 2014, and other lesser known dissidents. Maduro’s government should be pressed to allow the recall process to proceed without interference and to adopt serious measures to address the humanitarian crisis.
The Maduro government acts as though it can get away with repression and abuse just by making disingenuous promises about dialogue to foreign leaders. Without strong international pressure, that won’t change.