A traitor’s job: defending Human Rights in Venezuela

 By Paul Cortés Ruiz


Throughout history, defending the truth and exposing it for public consumption has been a dangerous line of work. The 21st century is by no means an exception. From the newsworthy and notorious to the anonymous and obscure, groups and individuals who labor against government abuse and corruption find themselves at the crosshairs of an invisible gun, with all-too-real bullets flying in their direction. The risks that accompany this vocation underline its importance to the maintenance of democratic governance, and governments that suppress the work of critics toe a dangerous authoritarian line. A particular subset of government critics merit special protections due to the nature of their work; human rights organizations, both local and international, are the oft unsung heroes of democracy. They are staffed with individuals whose purpose is, at its simplest, to defend the right of their co-citizens to live in countries respectful of human rights. That is why, for anyone who shares a similar wish, recent developments concerning the safety of human rights defenders in Venezuela are particularly disconcerting.

All over the world, the “democratic deficit” is growing. From Asia to Europe to the Americas, governments continue to crack down on essential pillars of democracy, such as free speech and checks and balances.[1] Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in representation of civil society, work against these digressions, shedding light on and helping correct wrongs and abuses while holding governments accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, these groups and individuals are coming under fire —sometimes literally— for doing their job and pursuing their beliefs in accountable and democratic governance.

In Venezuela, the persecution of civil society organizations has come hand in hand with the social and economic revolution that is chavismo and the intense political polarization that it has wrought. If you ask a devoted government follower, she will most likely say it was worse before, when the corruption of the Fourth Republic kept the people poor and repressed.[2] If you ask an embattled opposition supporter, she will say that it all started with President Hugo Chavez’s 1999 Constitution. Whatever the history of democratic governance in Venezuela, it would be hard to turn a blind eye to what has happened the past decade regarding human rights protections.

If one were to judge from the statements (or lack thereof) of regional organisms such as the Union of South American States (“UNASUR”), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (“ALBA”), the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (“ECLAC”), and the Organization of American States (“OAS”), the past decade or so has been undoubtedly one of worry for Venezuela. Fears of imperialist intervention —allegedly planned by a coterie of characters such as right-wing exiles, Colombian conservatives, and the United States of America— overwhelms the political discourse. This strong and almost obsessive invocation of the principle of non-intervention frequently eclipses the institutional discussion on human rights violations and the decline of democratic institutions in Venezuela.

There is, however, one forum where the Venezuelan government has not been able to escape from criticism. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“IACHR” or “Commission”) has constantly kept an eye on the human rights situation in Venezuela. Since at least 2003, it has received petitions and taken up cases of Venezuelans whose rights failed to be vindicated in the Venezuelan courts. The Commission also holds periodic and special public hearings, during which it hears from both civil society organizations and representatives of the Venezuelan government. The IACHR is a cornerstone of the Inter-American system, its counterpart being the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Commission acts as both an investigator and prosecutor before the Court. It can bring cases against Member States on behalf of their individual citizens. Unfortunately, in 2012, President Hugo Chávez denounced the American Convention on Human Rights, and Venezuela officially withdrew in 2013. This deprives the Commission of its power to refer cases to the Court. However, as a member of the OAS and signatory to Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, Venezuela continues to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.

Venezuela before the IACHR: Reports and Hearing

Back in 2009, the Commission issued a comprehensive report on the situation of democracy and human rights in Venezuela.[3] The report specifically addressed the obstacles that those who lead organizations in defense and promotion of human rights face, among them: burdensome and invasive financial and administrative controls,[4] the slandering of their names,[5] and the criminalization of their work.[6] The IACHR report also noted that the Venezuelan government has pursued a systematic policy of threatening, harassing, and slandering human rights defenders. Yet, most worryingly, the Report identified at least 6 cases of human rights defenders who were murdered presumably due to their work in the period between 2003 and 2009. [7] The Report stated this was not a “general practice” in Venezuela before 2003.[8]

In light of these allegations, the Venezuelan government —for all effective purposes— limited itself to saying that the IACHR was attempting to provide blanket immunity for human rights defenders.[9] Underlying this reasoning is the (mis)perception that all human rights defenders critical of the government work for the United States, and are thus constantly trying to undermine and overthrow the Revolución through lies and manipulation. By attacking the credibility of non-governmental organizations, the government seeks to discredit their findings, apparently content to turn a blind eye to the significant and systematic abuses perpetrated under the color of law. The “glorious revolution”, evidently, must not be slandered.

Just a few months ago, on March 18, 2015, while we in Puerto Rico were paying attention to the first hearings in fifteen years on the general state of human rights in Puerto Rico in the Commission’s history, Venezuelan civil society representatives and a government delegation went head-to-head in a similarly themed hearing on Venezuela.[10] The representatives of Venezuelan civil society[11] focused on the blatant lack of judicial independence, and how it manifested into a lack of democratic governance. Moreover, José Gregorio Guarenas, from the Vicaría de Derechos Humanos de la Arquidiócesis de Caracas, noted that human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, intimidations and criminal investigations by government officials for having petitioned the Commission for a hearing. In a recently released report, Amnesty International also documented notable cases of persecution and harassment of human rights defenders.[12]

Defending the defenders: Precautionary measures

In what is truly a shocking (but illustrative) instance of such behavior, the powerful president of the Legislative Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, at the time took to his weekly state channel television program Con el mazo dando to call out the would-be representatives appearing before the IACHR. Throughout February and early March, Mr. Cabello engaged in numerous rants against those scheduled to appear, identifying them by name and calling them “conspirators” and “traitors.”[13] Finally, on the eve of the hearings, Mr. Cabello identified the day, hour and place the representatives where to arrive at in Caracas following their participation in the IACHR, calling on his followers to “stay alert.”

In response, on March 17 and 20, the IACHR issued two precautionary measures in favor of five of the human rights defenders that attended the hearings that Commission itself had called.[14] The orders cite the persistent harassment and threat to the right to life that the individuals faced in Venezuela. Along with an earlier precautionary measure aimed at providing adequate health treatment to a pair of jailed student protesters, Venezuela accumulated three precautionary measures in March 2015.[15] Precautionary measures issued by the IACHR are a preventive mechanism by which the Commission alerts a State that individuals are at imminent risk of suffering grave and irreparable harm. Once ordered, a State is required to provide adequate protection to the individual beneficiaries of these measures. An actual case need not be before the Commission or the Court in order for either of these entities to issue a precautionary measure. They can serve a protective function, guaranteeing the free exercise of human rights: “In practice, the protective function is exercised in order to avoid irreparable harm to the life and personal integrity of the beneficiary as a subject of the international law of human rights.”[16]

The previously cited 2009 report noted that the Commission’s several orders for precautionary measures issued in benefit of human rights defenders in Venezuela where either ignored or instead used as justification for continued harassment.[17] The report detailed cases in which beneficiaries of the Commission’s measures were consistently monitored, harassed, and investigated by precisely those officials tasked with their protection. Also, the Venezuelan Public Ministry has required domestic ratification of these measures by local courts, which ultimately defeats their purpose.[18]

The Government’s dismissive response

Germán Saltrón, Agent for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights

Germán Saltrón, Agent for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela before the IACHR. Credit: Daniel Cima, Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos

Turning back to the hearings held this past March, the government delegation’s response, led by Germán Saltrón, was merely to highlight the corruption of the Fourth Republic, reminding the Commission of how bad it was before the “Comandante Eterno” Chavez came to power.[19] Then, towards the end of his turn, he accused both the civil society representatives and the Commission of remaining silent through the Caracazo and Hugo Chavez’s removal from power in April 2002. He then stated that the IACHR’s pronouncement on the latter issue was tinged with bias and disrespect, because they addressed Chavez as “Mr.” Chavez instead of “President” Chavez. Those are the reasons, according to him, that Venezuela has denied for more than a decade repeated requests for the Commission to visit Venezuela for an in situ session. Replying to Commission’s questions, Saltrón again stated that Venezuela is in a state of war, presumably against the United States, ever since Chavez won elections in 1999. Then, he made allusion to post-election disturbances and those of February 2014 as evidence of a “state of total war.”

I bring up these events because they are truly fascinating to watch. Mr. Saltrón barely mentions issues regarding the independence of the judiciary or protection of human rights. He sticks to the political argument: the blatantly nationalistic position that the United States is waging a 15-year war against the Venezuelan state. He engages in ad hoc attacks against the civil society representatives, discrediting them as “Fourth Republicans”, in some instances attributing events of the Caracazo to them. I will only limit myself to saying this is a ridiculous attempt to deflect criticism. By framing the issue as one of a hypothetical state of siege, Mr. Saltrón and the Maduro regime aim to cloud the discussion on human rights violations with considerations that simply do not factor into whether a State provides adequate human rights protections. The conditions conducive to the defense of human rights were never addressed by the Venezuelan delegation at the hearing.

While this self-delusion of continued paranoia is a central postulate of Chavista political thought, employing it against human rights organizations is worrisome. As mentioned before, Venezuela is no longer party to the American Convention of Human Rights, mainly because it considered the Inter-American Court “complicit” with United States policy.[20] Chávez himself referred to it as “nefarious, putrid, and degenerate.”[21] But the consequences of this rhetoric being used to discredit the work of both local and international human rights organizations and to harass their workers are gravest when considering the effect it has on the right to life, the right to free association, and the freedom of expression. If civilians cannot (1) collectively hold the government accountable (2) through public discourse (3) because their lives and livelihoods are in danger for these actions, then democracy cannot be either guaranteed or sustained. Venezuela is governed by a party ideology that sees its very existence threatened by the work of these individuals. The legislative, executive, judicial, and military powers are all in service of this paranoid mindset that considers every criticism a threat from outside, malevolent powers. That is why, when push comes to shove, the love-touting, people’s-champion rhetoric that is a staple of the regime’s platform has to be reconciled with continuing demonization and outright criminalization of human rights defenders. It is an intellectual landscape worthy of comparison with George Orwell’s 1984, but one that cannot even aspire to such levels of sophistication. Through the bluntness of the heavy hand of the state, the Maduro regime aims to suffocate the reality of a society created by its very own twisted and polarizing ideology. Us Venezuelans on the outside can only raise awareness so that the international community heeds the words that manage to squeeze through the regime’s tendrils, uttered by those who are brave enough to continue their work defending the human rights that are so necessary for a peaceful nation. If not the State, quis defendit ipsos defensor?[22]

  For more Information:

Photo by Trinitro Tolueno

* I would like to thank the 2014-2015 Editorial Board of Pangea for their support. I would also like to thank Gabriel Espinoza for his help and suggestions.

[1] See “What’s gone wrong with Democracy?” The Economist (Mar. 1, 2014) available at http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do. See also World Press Freedom Index 2015, Reporters Without Borders (2015) available at http://index.rsf.org/#!/presentation (“There was a drastic decline in freedom of information in 2014. Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year…. The decline affected all continents.”).

[2] The Fourth Republic is a reference to the 40+ years that followed the end of the dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958. It was a period characterized both by democratic progress and pervasive corruption, and resulted in social unrest in 1990s, beginning with el Caracazo and Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998.

[3] Democracia y Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R., OEA Ser. L/V/II, doc. 54 (2009) (in Spanish).

[4] Id., paras. 559 – 87.

[5] Id., paras. 590 – 604.

[6] Id., Paras. 605 – 20.

[7] See Id., paras. 623-27.

[8] Id., para. 622.

[9] Id., para. 618.

[10] General Human Right Situation in Venezuela, 154th Ordinary Period of Session of the Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R. (17 Mar 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iceT84dt0U0.

[11] Comité de Familiares de las Victimas de los sucesos ocurridos entre el 27 de febrero y los primeros días de marzo 1989 (COFAVIC); Vicaría de Derechos Humanos de la Arquidiócesis de Caracas; Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL).

[12] Amnistía Internacional, Venezuela—Los Rostros de la Impunidad: A Un Año de las Protestas, las Víctimas Aún Esperan Justicia 41-44 (24 Mar. 2015)(in Spanish), https://www.amnesty.org/es/documents/document/?indexNumber=AMR53%2f1239%2f2015&language=en. See also Venezuela—The Faces of Impunity: A Year After the Protests, Victims Still Await Justice, Amnesty International (24 Mar. 2015)(Executive Summary), https://www.amnesty.org/es/documents/document/?indexNumber=AMR53%2f1239%2f2015&language=en.

[13] See “ONG de la Extrema Derecha, cuadran con Comisionado de la CIDH, para sancionar el programa ‘Con el Mazo Dando’” Con el Mazo Dando (Feb. 12, 2015) http://www.conelmazodando.com.ve/ong-de-la-extrema-derecha-venezolana-ya-cuadraron-con-comisionado-de-la-corte-interamericana-de-los-derechos-humanos-para-que-sancione-el-programa-con-el-mazo-dando/ (in Spanish).

[14] Medida Cautelar No. 143-13: Alfredo Romero y otros respecto de Venezuela, Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R. (Mar. 17, 2015) available at http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/pdf/2015/MC143-13-ES.pdf; “Medida Cautelar No. 71-15: Marco Antonio Ponce respecto de Venezuela,” Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R. (Mar. 20, 2015) available at http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/pdf/2015/MC71-15-es.pdf (in Spanish).

[15] On April 22, 2015, the Commission issued another Precautionary Measure benefitting jailed opposition figure Daniel Ceballos and Leopoldo López.

[16] Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R., About Precautionary Measures, Organization of American States http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/decisions/precautionary.asp (last accessed Mar. 31, 2015). See also Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Art. 25.

[17] Democracia y Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, supra note 3, para. 640.

[18] Id.

[19] In fact, Mr. Saltrón began his intervention by expressing his displeasure that the government should have less time than the civil society representatives. He also made clear his antipathy for the proceedings, calling it an “inquisition” based on unfounded accusations. He read from the 1999 Constitution’s preamble as proof of the horrible state of the judicial power before President Chavez took power, noting that 15 years is not enough to clean up the courts left over from the Fourth Republic. He stated that the judicial power is autonomous, highlighting that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has failed to find otherwise. See General Human Rights Situation in Venezuela, supra note 10.

[20] Chavez: Venezuela debe abandoner la podrida Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, RT en Español (Aug. 2, 2012) available at http://es.rt.com/d98 (in Spanish).

[21] Chavez retira a Venezuela de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, ABC.es (July 27, 2012) available at http://www.abc.es/20120725/internacional/abci-chavez-retirada-venezuela-derechos-201207251203.html (in Spanish).

[22] “Who defends the defender?” Google Translate, https://translate.google.com.pr/#la/en/Quis%20defendit%20ipsos%20defensor%3F (last accessed 31 March, 2015).



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