By José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have reached a breaking point over the country’s humanitarian and political crisis poured into the streets all over the country on Wednesday. They demanded that the government let aid enter Venezuela to help the many people who are desperate for food and medicine. They demanded that the government hold elections, free political prisoners, and reestablish judicial independence and the powers of the National Assembly.
The Venezuelan government’s harsh reaction — complete with a show of force — was a hugely irresponsible replay of its response to previous protests. The government’s response to these protests is further evidence of the need for strong international pressure, especially from other states in the region, to push for the restoration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela — and a demonstration of the potential cost of a failure to act.
Before the demonstration, President Nicolás Maduro — invoking his “defending peace” slogan — accused the opposition of engaging in “violence, conspiracy, [a] coup d’etat, and interventionism.” He announced he would multiply the number of pro-government militias and arm them. All of this happened amid explosive tensions, in a country where security forces have brutally repressed anti-government demonstrations, sometimes in collaboration with armed pro-government groups.
The government organized a counter-rally in downtown Caracas, precisely where the opposition marchers were heading.
Security forces used force and tear gas against the anti-government demonstrators — available images show dramatic parallels to the outbreak of clashes in early 2014 that led to a wave of arbitrary arrests and abuse against anti-government protesters and bystanders.
Journalists covering the protests said that security forces harassed them. The government took two cable channels that reported on the protests off the air. More than 500 people were detained nation-wide on April 19, most of whom are still being held. A total of more than 1,000 have been detained at anti-government protests since early April, the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal support to detainees, reported on Twitter.
Three people were killed on April 19, with the month’s death toll in protests and related incidents at 22 so far.
Carlos Moreno, a 17-year-old boy who according to media reports was not participating in the demonstrations died after being shot in the head in Caracas. Armed civilians in Táchira state shot at Paola Andreina Ramírez, a 23-year-old university student, killing her, an attack that a bystander caught on video and posted on Twitter. A sniper in Miranda state killed Sgt. San Clemente Barrios Neomar, a member of the National Guard. The attorney general’s office said it was investigating the cases, and that it had identified who had shot Ramírez.
When the demonstrations ended, Diosdado Cabello, the powerful politician from Maduro’s party who once headed the National Assembly, said in his weekly TV show that he “wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of those delinquents who are calling to destabilize [the country],” according to local media. He also showed a booklet with the title “Manual of the Revolutionary Combatant” and photographs of opposition leaders with their home addresses, telling the audience that they knew “where they live, where they go.” In a country where impunity is the norm, and where the government has repeatedly taken advantage of the lack of judicial independence to arbitrarily prosecute and jail political opponents, these implicit threats must be taken very seriously.
In spite of the deaths and the environment of threat, many Venezuelans — although fewer than on Wednesday –took to the streets again on Thursday to push for change in their country. There has been more tear gas and there have been more arrests, local groups said
On Thursday night, at least 12 people died during incidents of looting in two low-income areas in Caracas. Eleven people were killed or electrocuted in El Valle, according to the Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office. After security forces and armed civilians with links to the government entered El Valle, there was repeated gunfire and the children’s and maternity hospital in the area had to be evacuated after tear gas entered the building, according to some residents.
On Saturday, Venezuelans organized a demonstration to honor people who had been killed in during demonstrations in April.
Even before these most recent protests, the region’s eyes were already on Venezuela. The Organization of American States (OAS) is currently debating Venezuela’s compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Over the past few weeks, the OAS secretary general and key member states have voiced serious concern regarding the humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is facing, with basic food and medical supplies in drastically short supply.
The international community has also criticized the ongoing arbitrary detention of Leopoldo López, an opposition leader who was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison, the comptroller general’s decision to bar Henrique Capriles Radonski, another opposition leader, from running for office for 15 years, and a Supreme Court ruling that effectively shut down the National Assembly. The international pressure kept up even after the court partly reversed its ruling responding to a request by the president.
Those willing to criticize the actions of the Venezuelan government should take their disapproval one step further. Latin American leaders should immediately convene a high-level meeting to address the Venezuela crisis and press the Maduro administration to welcome independent monitors when organizing the country’s next elections. They must demand that he release political prisoners, reestablish the independence of the judiciary and National Assembly, and most of all, allow sufficient humanitarian aid into the country to relieve the suffering of the Venezuelan people.
José Miguel Vivanco is the Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tamara Taraciuk Broner is a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.