After meeting with Nicolás Maduro this week, Brazil’s President Lula implied that democracy is thriving in Venezuela and called the undermining of democratic institutions there a “constructed narrative.” As someone who recently survived efforts to overthrow Brazil’s democracy, it was frustrating to see him fawning over Venezuela’s repressive ruler.
It’s no secret that the Maduro government has seized control of Venezuela’s legislature and subordinated the judiciary. Election monitors have documented conditions undermining the fairness and transparency of recent elections. There have been 15,700 politically motivated arrests since 2014, with more than 280 political detainees being held now. Human Rights Watch and Venezuelan organizations have documented crackdowns on protesters, torture of detainees, and prosecutions of civilians in military courts. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has opened an investigation into such crimes. President Lula likely knows all of this.
Maduro’s government has also spurred one of the largest migration crises in the world: 7.2 million Venezuelans have fled since 2014, close to six million to other Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Brazil. The United Nations has reported that undernourishment in Venezuela is highest in the region, affecting 6.5 million people. Human Rights Watch has documented the collapse of Venezuela’s health system.
Various world leaders have met with President Maduro in recent months and positioned themselves to play a mediating role in any negotiations toward the restoration of democracy. But by parroting the Maduro government’s talking points, President Lula aligned himself with Maduro’s authoritarian allies and missed a chance to help lead Venezuela out of a massive humanitarian and human rights crisis.
At this week’s meeting in Brasilia, Presidents Lacalle Pou of Uruguay and Gabriel Boric of Chile, leaders from opposite ideological ends, took aim at Lula’s comments. President Boric said the suffering of Venezuelans was a “reality,” not a “construct,” and that he had “seen it in the eyes” of the hundreds of thousands taking refuge in Chile.
President Lula should pursue every chance to restore the leadership his ill-considered comments undermined and fulfill his promise to lead on human rights worldwide. The Venezuelan emergency and the migration crisis it has generated will continue to be an important topic whenever South American leaders meet.
President Lula should show support for the Venezuelan people: the political prisoners, the threatened journalists, the sick and hungry, the migrants and refugees, and seize every opportunity to reframe his stance on Venezuela.