In November and December 2016, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government and factions of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) held two rounds of political dialogue focused on permitting a constitutionally sanctioned presidential recall referendum, effectively allowing humanitarian aid to enter the country, and ensuring the release of political prisoners. Under the increasingly authoritarian Maduro administration, the number of political prisoners in Venezuela has ballooned from around a dozen to more than one hundred since 2013. Although the number of political prisoners has been roughly constant since 2014, the government has practiced a “revolving door strategy” by detaining individuals, releasing them after a period of bargaining, then arresting more. Evidence indicates that Maduro uses the jailing of dissidents to discourage public protest, to divide and weaken the political opposition, and as a leverage point with the United States and other international critics. Regardless of his motives, releasing these detainees must be a central condition of any mediated solution to Venezuela’s current political crisis. The country has descended into authoritarianism since October 2016, as the government postponed regional elections and suspended an opposition-driven presidential recall referendum against Maduro.
Human rights abuses in Venezuela have long been present in the country’s history. Leaders silenced leftist guerillas with a fierce counter-insurgency campaign throughout the late 1950s and 1960s that resulted in civilian disappearances and deaths. During Jaime Lusinchi’s presidency in the 1980s, the military police was accused of killing 14 innocent fishermen in the El Amparo massacre and of the extrajudicial killing of nine members of a subversive leftist group in the Yumare massacre. In 1989, under President Carlos Andrés Pérez, security forces killed hundreds amid a weeklong wave of anti-government protests known as the Caracazo. Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported “intractable human rights problems” in the country, including “arbitrary detentions; torture; extrajudicial executions; the unlawful use of excessive force resulting in physical injury and death; and abhorrent prison conditions.”
Despite protections established in the 1999 Constitution, human rights further eroded under the polarizing Hugo Chávez presidency (1999–2013). Among myriad abuses, Chávez targeted individuals for criminal prosecution who publicly opposed his Bolivarian Revolution. Among those targeted and prosecuted was Francisco Usón, a general who criticized Chávez on television; Raúl Baduel, an outspoken critic of a 2007 constitutional referendum; and María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who acquitted a prominent anti-Chávez banker of charges that he had evaded currency controls.
A number of individuals associated with the political opposition also faced persecution, including former governors of Zulia state, Manuel Rosales and Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, and president of the Globovisión channel Guillermo Zuloaga. Despite government intimidation and censorship, Chávez did not adopt a strategy of holding prisoners of conscience during his first decade in office. In fact, HRW did not even mention the term “political prisoner” in its 2008 special report that led to the organization’s dismissal from the country.
Instead, it is Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro who has begun to use prisoners of conscience as a tool of intimidation and bargaining. Under his aegis, Venezuela withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights in September 2013, and has since used the Venezuelan judicial system’s lack of independence to arrest and prosecute political opponents.
After Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013, there were about a dozen political detainees in Venezuela. Today, despite denial from officials, there are currently 116. Except for nine individuals imprisoned in the 2003–2004 period, the rest were jailed after April 2013 by the Maduro government. Some are well-known opposition voices, like ex-Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma, political organizer Yon Goicoechea, and journalist Braulio Jatar. Others are simply university students detained over allegations of planning, fomenting, or participating in anti-government actions — including peaceful protests. Nearly half were jailed on charges of inciting violence during the 2014 anti-government protests.
Thirty-nine of the current prisoners were detained for participating in anti-government protest, three for government criticism on social media, 30 for “military rebellion,” and 44 for undefined reasons. The only “evidence” prosecutors present for these crimes is political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners. Not surprisingly, many of these detainees describe facing brutal conditions while in custody, including torture and other forms of abuse.
Maduro is also careful to keep the total number of prisoners at any one time near 100 “to avoid international scrutiny.” This consideration creates a revolving door policy of arbitrary detentions whereby prisoners are never sure if they might be released, and no opposition politician, military dissenter, or student protester knows if they might be the next prisoner.
Perhaps the most emblematic political prisoner is Leopoldo López, leader of the Voluntad Popular political party and one of the most important opposition politicians, who is serving a 13-year sentence for his alleged role as the “intellectual author” of violence during the February 2014 demonstrations that resulted in the deaths of 43 people. During his trial, which the lead prosecutor called a “farce,” the presiding judge did not allow López’s lawyers to present evidence in his defense and sentenced López for “subliminally” inciting violence during the protests. Today, López still languishes in detention in the Ramo Verde military prison on the outskirts of Caracas while his wife, Lilian Tintori, writes op-eds and speaks to an array of foreign leaders in an attempt to pressure the government to free the country’s political prisoners and hold elections. Although Tintori and López have international advocates, Maduro takes an uncompromising position.
Prisoners are of growing strategic importance for Maduro, particularly as socio-economic conditions worsen and his popularity plummets. Detainees are tools to disincentivize protest and sow discord among the fractious opposition, and even employ as an international bargaining chip. For instance, many previously active Venezuelans no longer protest after the consequences they faced in 2014. What more, detentions deprive the MUD of key figures and splinter an already fragmented opposition coalition. Detainees may also be pawns in a larger geopolitical game.
In 2015, Maduro said the only condition under which he would consider commuting López’s sentence would be in exchange for the freedom of Oscar López Rivera, a left-wing Puerto Rican nationalist convicted in the United States of masterminding more than 100 bombings against civilian targets in major American cities. In that same year, a round of diplomatic talks between U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon and senior Venezuelan officials concluded with the release of two student protesters in exchange for a photo op.
Resolving this problem requires hemispheric and global attention. So far, domestic efforts to release these prisoners have failed. Institutions to protect citizens from state predation such as the Office of the Public Defender are, like most Venezuelan institutions, bereft of power or lack autonomy from the ruling party. Nor has lawmaking worked. In March 2016, the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a bill that would extend amnesty to more than 70 political prisoners. Maduro vocally denounced it as unconstitutional and the Supreme Court overturned it in April. Similarly, international pressure on the Maduro government has been ineffective. In 2016, Secretary General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States lacked a sufficiently strong majority of member states in the hemisphere to invoke his organization’s Inter-American Democratic Charter—just one tool to press Venezuela to restore judicial independence and the protection of fundamental human rights.
No easy solution exists. Bringing Venezuela’s government to account requires a multi-pronged approach of external pressure, internal mobilization, and dialogue that raises the cost of repression and lowers the cost of moderation. A first step would be to apply external pressure through multilateral international engagement that stimulates real negotiation yet demands accountability—not just unilateral sanctions that may raise the government’s barriers to compromise. Simultaneous internal mobilization can pressure the government to respond while the international spotlight is being shined on its actions; either the government acquiesces to activists’ demands, or it cracks down and faces a credible threat of international reprisals. Whatever the path, the defense of Venezuelan human rights requires the involved parties reducing the government’s exit costs.