As Venezuela descends deeper into crisis, the European Union has awarded its top human rights prize to the country’s opposition and political prisoners. Euronews reporter Alberto de Filippis managed to enter Venezuela to speak to members of this opposition.
Venezuela is at a crossroads. The country’s economy has been ravaged by chronic inflation. In this deeply deeply polarised country, the opposition insists that the ruling socialists have destroyed not just the economy but also democratic institutions. The ‘Chavistas’ of President Nicolás Maduro in turn accuse the opposition of being elitist and of exploiting Venezuela’s poor. They allege opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States.
Chavism deflects its responsibility onto other people.Director, Foro Penal Venezolano
But what about the people? For ordinary Venezuelans, there seems to be little trust in politicians anymore.
Despite months of violent unrest and 120 deaths on the streets, Chavistas swept the board again in recent elections, taking 17 out of 23 governorships. Once more, the opposition cried foul.
It’s in this context that the EU has awarded Venezuela’s opposition and political prisoners its prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights.
Venezuela's opposition awarded Sakharov Prize for championing human rights https://t.co/scyX3fagEv— Amnesty Ely City (@amnestyelycity) 26 octobre 2017
The European Parliament said it wanted to reward the courage of those fighting for freedom in the face of a repressive government.
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo is one of the most respected figures of Venezuela’s Democratic Unity coalition. He says he believes in peaceful dialogue, not because he is a pacifist, but because he knows the Chavistas are well armed.
If the authorities let him out of the country, he will go to Strasbourg with other oppostion leaders to receive the Sakharov Prize.
Alberto de Filippis, euronews: “Mr Aveledo, in terms of human rights in this country, what’s the situation?
Human right violations on the rise
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, former Executive Secretary, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática:
“Human rights violations are on the rise, not just when it comes to life or free speech, but also in terms of the right to health, which is another basic right. (He shows a report) This report written by the Human Rights Assembly at the Parliament tells everything. In this graph, we can see the increase in murders. We have a lot of different problems related to human rights violations in this country and all of them are on the rise.”
Euronews: “Sir, what does the Sakharov Prize mean for the Venezuelan opposition?”
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo: “It means a lot to us and to the Venezuelan people. The Sakharov Prize has existed since 1988. When you look at previous winners (people and NGOs), you realize it’s a list of human rights and social liberty fighters. And this already means a lot. Not to mention the fact that the people of Latin America have only been awarded on five occasions. And this is important. It shows how worried Europe is regarding the state of things in Venezuela.
“But I would also underline that this is the very first time, in the history of this prize, that a public institution has been awarded. NGOs, ordinary people and also the press have won, but never a public body, like a parliament. This is very important because it shows that within the Venezuelan state there is a battle between those who protect the constitution, human rights and freedom, and those who attack these key things. It shows that the Venezuelan people are fighting for their freedom.”
Euronews: “In the last few days the Venezuelan government has said there will be no dialogue if Washington does not lift the economic sanctions against Venezuela. What do US sanctions have to do with the political dialogue between Venezuelans?”
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo: “It has nothing to do with this. Like other dictatorships, our government wants to make out that there isn’t any confrontation between those in power and the people, but that the confrontation is between Venezuela and other countries. This is because Venezuela is obliged to respect international law, for instance human rights. It’s the reason why there are sanctions against political officers and the Venezuelan government as a whole.
“But Chavistas want to show that these sanctions are against the Venezuelan people instead. Chavistas have had to take responsibility for not respecting human rights. The sanctions are against specific public servants and members of the government. What the government is trying to do is wrap itself in the national flag in order to mix things up. They want to confuse personal interests with the interests of the Venezuelan people. This is an old trick, often used by dictatorships.”
Euronews: “Do you think a political amnesty for some Chavistas would help kick-start a democratic transition and dialogue?”
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo: “We have to look at every opportunity politics, rights or diplomacy can offer. We must walk every possible path in order to find a solution. The most important thing is to try to mitigate the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Some people speak foolishly about the fact that a foreign invasion, or even civil war, might solve things. This would only make the situation worse.
“Using force doesn’t solve anything”
“Using force does not solve anything, it only leaves deep wounds. The force which the government is using is the precise cause of the suffering we are currently experiencing. This is why we must explore the possibilities offered by politics and law. If we can get political transition through peaceful means, in the least traumatic way, this would be a major help and highly advantageous.”
Euronews: “Professor Aveledo, thank you.”
Ramón Guillermo Aveledo: “Thank you.”
The government refuses to recognise the very existence of political prisoners in Venezuela. Those in jail for political or civil disobedience are accused of terrorism.
Representing them in court can be extremely dangerous. Lawyers who defend political opponents can face huge problems in both their private and professional lives.
Despite that, the crisis in the country has reached such a level that more and more people are losing their fear. They are prepared to support those who have been put behind bars. Gonzalo Himiob founded Foro Penal, a pool of lawyers and volunteers who represent and provide legal assistance to hundreds of political prisoners.
We met him to find out what it’s like for those who’ve been jailed. Exact numbers on how many people are currently in prison because of their activism vary widely, but they include peaceful protesters, critics of the government and opposition politicians. Human Rights Watch says opposition groups in the country have identified more than 600 detainees, arrested and prosecuted arbitrarily.
“Chavism deflects responsibility”
Euronews: “What constitutes a political prisoner for you? Does a definition exist?”
Gonzalo Himiob, director, Foro Penal Venezolano: “The first category are those people who are criminalised for what they represent. They are “neutralised” as potential political leaders or actors of social mobilisation. In this group we find the most famous political prisoners, like Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma, Daniel Ceballos, etc. From an individual point of view these people represent a threat to the existing power structure and this is the reason why the government tries to neutralise them. This is the first category.
“The second category are those people, who, as individuals are unknown but are part of something. An institution, for example. They may belong to a specific group which the government wants to get rid of. Such as students, journalists or judges. I would like to mention the case of María Lourdes Afiuni. She is one of the most symbolic cases. She is under arrest not for what she is as an individual, but for who she belongs to. They are sending a message: if you fight the establishment we will get you.
“The third category are what we call propaganda prisoners. Every time the authorities wish to justify the official position they attack and criminalise some people in order to attack a certain section of society. This is done so as to maintain and strengthen their own propaganda. For instance, when the government claims we are in an economic war, it will arrest traders, or a specific category of trader. This is all done to show that it is the traders who are responsible for the economic crisis and not the government.
Chavism deflects its responsibility onto these people. Real estate developers, bankers and currency traders have all been targeted. As have doctors and pharmacists. It has even happened to bakers when the government said there was no more bread because there was a “war on bread’‘. Consequently they arrested a lot of bakers to justify their own narrative, claiming they were the villains. In this way the government avoids taking responsibility for the economic crisis. These are the three categories of prisoner.
“Political prisoners have the right to escape”
Euronews: “There is a question I have to ask you. All prisoners aspire to freedom. According to your NGO, what is reprehensible for Antonia Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, to flee Venezuela?
Gonzalo Himiob, director, Foro Penal Venezolano: “Listen, in general terms, if you are a political prisoner in custody, and you escape justice without resorting to violence against a person or property, it is not considered a felony in Venezuela. You could say it is “accepted”. Every time this happens though, we are very worried about those who didn’t escape. If you think of political prisoners as hostages, you can imagine that if one hostage escapes, those who will pay the consequences are those left behind, those who didn’t escape. And this is what is happening with people like Leopoldo López or Daniel Ceballos. Restrictive measures against them have been tightened, they’ve put electronic bracelets on them, they’ve restricted visits, and when things like that happen, we are worried. And it is also more complicated for us as defence lawyers to convince judges to ease measures against our clients who are in prison – by granting them conditional release for instance. Why? Because they could say, “If I grant you conditional release, you could escape. That won’t make me look good.” The government wants to use prisoners as a bargaining chip. So things are difficult for us, but I have to say that if you are a prisoner and, above all, a political prisoner, you have the right to try to escape, you have the right to recover freedom.”
Euronews: “Thank you.”
As a lawyer, Gonzalo Himiob suggests we talk to a young woman who spent almost three years in jail for tweeting against Chavism. We cannot take the risk of shooting on the streets, so we meet her in her home to find out how dangerous it is to speak out against those in power.
Skarlyn Duarte was just 22 when she was arrested. She spent nearly three years in prison. Her father died while she was in jail and the judge did not let her out to attend his funeral.
Today she lives in limbo, waiting for her sentence. She cannot leave the country for risk of being arrested. Her trial was delayed dozens of times, her passport has been confiscated and she is considered an enemy of the state – what she describes as a Kafkaesque situation.
“Freedom is priceless”
Euronews: “What happened the day you were freed?”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “I felt I was born again. Freedom is priceless. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. What I regret most is not being able to say farewell to my father. He fought for me and he died while I was in prison. It was very difficult, I couldn’t be with him.”
Euronews: “So your father died and they did not let you go to his funeral?”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “Yes. I was in prison and my Daddy died. I couldn’t see him, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to him.”
Euronews: “Could you tell us what happened to you?”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “In 2014, I Tweeted about political personalities and the government didn’t appreciate it. Some time later, about six months later, around 10 officers from the Sebin, the Venezuelan secret service, came to search my home. They had a warrant and searched my home. They didn’t tell me why. I didn’t know why because those Tweets were old. They searched computers, laptops etc, and told me that I had to go with them because they wanted to interrogate me. I left with them at 3.30 pm. They started to interrogate me but I didn’t know why because they hadn’t told me anything. After a while, I understood the reason why I was there, so they started to ask questions, but I denied all the accusations.
“Night fell, they told me my parents were waiting for me outside. They asked me tons of questions, I don’t remember what exactly. I denied everything. So they let me go but they told me that they would have to carry on with the investigation. Then I went home. One month later, they rang me at home and told me to go to the police station to pick up some of the equipment they had seized at my home. I thought, ‘That’s ok, they’ll just give me my stuff back’, so I went. They started to ask me more questions about the Tweets. So I asked them why I was there, whether I was there to get my equipment back, what was happening… I could see that they didn’t have any intention of returning my equipment . So I understood it was a trap and they wanted to arrest me.”
Euronews: “But what were you accused of?”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “I was accused of digital espionage, sabotage, as well as incitement to hatred, and insult to public officials. So those were the felonies I was accused of.”
Euronews: “What sentence did they hand down after all that?”
“My trial was postponed 27 times!”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “My trial was postponed 27 times. I never had a preliminary hearing.”
Euronews: “But were you convicted?”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “No. Up until today, I keep going to court and they keep scheduling hearings that I have to go to.”
Euronews: “Could you show us some pictures of the campaign organised by your friends while you were in prison?”
Skarlyn gets out her mobile phone and shows Alberto some photos.
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “Of course, these are some of the pictures of the campaign organised while I was in jail. These pictures helped make my case known to the world.”
Euronews: “As an ordinary citizen, what do you think of the current state of dialogue between the opposition and the government?”
“The government wants to impose its views”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “In my opinion, this dialogue is useless because the government wants to impose its position. I don’t think they will reach an agreement. The government wants to impose its views. Things won’t change. It makes no sense to waste words on something that won’t give any results.”
Euronews: “Skarlyn Duarte, Thank you.”
Skarlyn Duarte, former political prisoner: “Thank you.”
Plagued by poverty, food shortages and hyper-inflation, Venezuela is deeply a polarised country between a minority government and an overwhelming majority of people demanding change.