The nurses spoke a foreign language, and narrow beds crowded the stuffy ward, but María gazed blissfully into her newborn Sasha’s eyes. María was far from family and friends, but she’d made it to a land of relative plenty — rich with diapers and cooking oil.
Covering Venezuela for Human Rights Watch these past eight years, I’ve watched the country tailspin into repression and privation. In recent weeks, security forces have used excessive force and fired teargas indiscriminately against anti-government protesters, and the Supreme Court effectively shut down Congress — although it later reverted part of its ruling, at the president’s request. There’s little doubt that the Maduro administration looks more and more like a full-fledged dictatorship. My story shows disturbing parallels with the Latin American dictatorships of yesteryear.
As I watched María and Sasha in the Maternity Hospital of Roraima, across the border from Venezuela in northern Brazil, I was carried back in time. Like Sasha, I was born in exile. My Argentine mother fled a military dictatorship just days before soldiers kicked in the door of her family’s home. My father followed her abroad. I was born three years later in what was then a peaceful land of refuge. That land was Venezuela.
I met María and Sasha as I interviewed some of the tens of thousands of people who have fled Venezuela in recent years. Many, like María, have left because of the dire economic situation. Some are political refugees, as my parents once were. In reality, the reasons people flee their homes are often complex and intertwined.
Across Venezuela, hungry people wait hours to buy rice or flour. Often, it sells out before they reach the front of the line. Hospitals lack gauze, syringes, and basic medicines, and they are turning away desperate patients. President Nicolás Maduro’s administration has failed to seek enough international aid to help address the shortages of food and medicine. The government insists that no crisis exists, and punishes those who speak up about it.
What is similar is the concentration of power and the suppression of dissent. In Venezuela, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, had the Supreme Court packed with political supporters in 2004, and over time brought the rest of the judiciary, the electoral apparatus, and every other state institution under his firm control. Like Chávez, Maduro has won elections but used this unchecked power to censor and punish his critics — jailing political opponents, forcing TV channels off the air, prosecuting journalists, and brutalizing peaceful protesters.
The last time Human Rights Watch operated openly in Venezuela in 2008, Chávez had my colleagues arrested in the middle of the night and expelled from the country. Since then, I have preserved my ability to come and go by not attaching my name to the Human Rights Watch reporting. But the risks of government reprisals — both for me and for my local counterparts — have become too great for me to continue. So, at least for a little while, I’ll have to accept exile from the country where I was born and that once sheltered my family. The silver lining is that I can finally speak out about what I’ve seen without masking my identity.
Until recently, most Latin American leaders had remained shamefully silent as the Venezuelan government systematically co-opted its democratic institutions and repressed its critics. But that is finally changing. In mid-March, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, called on the member states to take action, invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which formally commits them to responding collectively when a neighbor’s democracy has been compromised. In a recent Permanent Council meeting, OAS member states delivered a clear message to Venezuelan authorities: the ongoing economic, political, and humanitarian crisis is undermining human rights and democracy.
The international community helped restore democracy to Argentina, and it can muster the will and clarity to do the same for Venezuela. When I was 4 years old, the junta in Argentina collapsed under internal and external pressure, and my parents took me and my brother — two foreign-born children —home for the first time. It’s where I live today with my children.
I predict that María, like my parents, will one day take her daughter home to a country where a democratic government brings those responsible for abuses to justice. On that day, my second exile will have ended.