A few days ago, we released in Buenos Aires a report that documents the Venezuelan government’s torture, arbitrary detention, and prosecution of dissidents, and the firing of state workers who support efforts to hold a recall referendum that could end President Nicolás Maduro’s tenure in office.
Why did we release our findings in Argentina? During his campaign and since taking office in December 2015, President Mauricio Macri has publicly criticized Maduro’s poor human rights record and called for concrete action, including the release of political prisoners.
But Argentina’s foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, who is a candidate to become the next UN Secretary General, has adopted ambivalent positions. Her candidacy has created a political incentive for her to soften her position on Venezuela. If Malcorra adopts a firm and principled stance, she risks having allies of the Maduro government like Russia and China—which are permanent members of the Security Council—block her candidacy.
When Malcorra addressed an OAS Permanent Council’s meeting on Venezuela in May, she did not even mention the words “human rights,” “political prisoners,” or “democracy.” She has tried to justify her weak public stance by saying that it reflects her support for a “dialogue” between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.
In light of Macri’s strong stance and Malcorra’s disappointing one, we decided to take our findings to Argentina, present them to both of them.
In a meeting with Macri before we released our report, in which we discussed our findings and Argentina’s role in addressing the Venezuelan crisis, the president reaffirmed his commitment to protecting human rights and democracy there. In a meeting with Malcorra, after the release, she affirmed that the government has only one foreign policy, and that it is determined by the president—if that’s the case, Macri must ensure that there are no inconsistencies and that his government takes an active role in pushing Venezuela in the right direction.
Malcorra said we didn’t need to convince her how bad the situation was in Venezuela. And I heard her say for the first time that the recall referendum should be held in 2016.
If the vote occurs this year and Maduro loses, Venezuela will hold an immediate election for president. If it is delayed until 2017, and Maduro loses, his vice president will assume the presidency until the next regular election in 2019. What this means is that if the referendum is going to be held, the government has a powerful incentive to delay it until 2017.
As our most recent report shows, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and the National Guard have, since May, detained 21 people on allegations that they were planning, fomenting, or had participated in violent anti-government actions. Most have said they were abused in custody, including several who testified in court that they suffered physical abuse that rises to the level of torture, including brutal beatings, electric shocks, and threats of rape or murder.
Unfortunately, these and other victims of abuse have nowhere to turn to in Venezuela, given the lack of independent courts willing or able to stop, prevent, or sanction human rights violations. Although in several cases documented in our recent report prosecutors failed to present credible evidence linking the accused to crimes, courts charged them anyway. In some cases, the supposed evidence included mere possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners.
The Venezuelan Penal Forum, an independent group that provides legal assistance to detainees nationwide, has a list of more than 90 people whom they consider political prisoners in Venezuela.
Since June, the Venezuelan government has fired dozens of workers of the customs and tax office nationwide in apparent retaliation for supporting efforts to secure the recall referendum, workers told Human Rights Watch. Other government agencies have reportedly fired hundreds more referendum supporters. The Venezuelan government also needs to address a dramatic humanitarian crisis, with food, medicines, and medical supplies in short supply and hard to get.
Since the dialogue headed by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and supported by Malcorra began, the situation in Venezuela has not improved—on the contrary, it has worsened.
The problem in Venezuela is not lack of dialogue; it is rooted in government repression aimed at crushing the same opposition it claims to be engaging in dialogue with.There is a clear asymmetry between a government that has near absolute concentration of power and the opposition. This is why the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which exists precisely to address such situations, is currently being implemented under the leadership of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.
Argentina’s government should work with Almagro and press Venezuela to deliver concrete results. To start with, they should call on Maduro to stop the abuse of detainees and release every Venezuelan who has been arbitrarily detained and subjected to politically motivated prosecutions. These should include opposition leaders like Leopoldo López, as well as lesser-known dissidents. Macri and Almagro should also press Venezuela to refrain from intimidating and harassing supporters of the recall vote.
An honest foreign policy about Venezuela must be subject to an empirical and continuous evaluation of its results. Almagro’s efforts, which allow for a multilateral evaluation to hold Venezuela’s government accountable under the Charter, are the most promising way forward. Argentina should support and promote initiatives within this process and it should do so in a timely fashion; Venezuela is running against the clock.