In the middle of the night on August 1, intelligence agents burst into the homes of Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, two Venezuelan opposition leaders who were under house arrest for trumped up charges, and took them away. The Supreme Court, a puppet of the executive branch, said the men had violated conditions for their house arrest by making public political statements and alleged that they were planning to flee, without providing any evidence. Their families did not know their whereabouts for several hours. López and Ledezma are both reportedly being held at the Ramo Verde military prison.
When President Nicolás Maduro defended his illegitimate Constituent Assembly, he said it was necessary to restore “peace.” Is this the “peace” he had in mind?
These arrests are only the latest evidence that what Maduro really wants to do is crush dissent and impose a dictatorship. That evidence has been growing every day for months. Massive protests have been met with a brutal crackdown in which security forces have shot demonstrators at point-blank range with riot-control munitions, run over demonstrators with an armored vehicle, brutally beaten people who offered no resistance, and broken into homes of suspected opponents. More than 120 people have died in the context of anti-government demonstrations, most of them at the hands of security agents or pro-government armed groups, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Hundreds of demonstrators, bystanders, and critics have been arbitrarily arrested. More than 460 civilians have been prosecuted in military courts, without any due process, for crimes including rebellion or treason.
Meanwhile, the government has failed to address the food and health crises it faces. It hasn’t done enough to secure aid that could alleviate the suffering of many Venezuelans who cannot get adequate nutrition or basic health care for their families. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled their country.
In spite of the danger, many Venezuelans continue to take to the streets and express their discontent. They risk losing their government jobs, or access to food sold under government price controls. Dissent has emerged even at the upper echelons of the government—the attorney general, former government officials and pro-government legislators, and even members of the military are distancing themselves from the abuse. Whether they act out of conviction, or to save themselves when the boat is sinking, the reality is that fewer and fewer people are willing to stay on board.
The world is also standing up to Maduro, offering an increasingly unified front of condemnation. Key heads of state have already said that they would not recognize the Constituent Assembly, have spoken out against the regime’s abuses, and have called on the Venezuelan government to release political prisoners. The OAS has an ongoing discussion regarding Venezuela’s compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in which a majority of governments have expressed concern about the situation in Venezuela. Some have moved from words to action—the United States, Mexico, and Colombia have imposed or committed themselves to imposing sanctions on key Venezuelan officials, including cancelling visa and freezing assets.
The Venezuelan government, as expected, has played the sovereignty card, accusing its international critics of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. But that argument is tired and ridiculous; sovereignty doesn’t make an abusive government immune from criticism and protest—or from consequences.
The most recent arrests are tactics to intimidate opposition leaders and critics. Maduro is testing how far he can go—and this challenge should be met with a very robust reaction.
The international pressure should continue, and there are many ways it might materialize. The Mercosur regional trade bloc is considering expelling Venezuela due to its violation of regional human rights and democracy rules, and foreign ministers from the region are meeting in Lima on August 8 to discuss Venezuela’s crisis and additional measures to take. Key international leaders should adopt targeted sanctions against key Venezuelan officials implicated in egregious abuses, and send a clear message that those responsible for abuses should eventually be brought to justice when judicial independence in Venezuela is restored. All of this should contribute to dissuade officials from violating basic rights in the future.
As it becomes clearer and clearer that there is much to be gained from a peaceful transition back to democracy, and much to be lost from continuing to walk the destructive path Maduro has embarked upon, more and more people will jump off the government’s sinking boat.