A Counterhegemonic Approach to Human Rights: A Conversation with Antonio González Plessmann

A Venezuelan activist and researcher talks to us about a recent human rights report.

Antonio González Plessmann has been a militant of the Venezuelan left and a human rights activist since the 1980s. As a former vice-rector of the National Experimental Security University (UNES), he participated in the police reform that began in 2006. Today González Plessmann is part of Surgentes, a research and education collective committed to human rights and the democratization of society. In this interview, he talks to us about a recent Surgentes report research titled “Turn to the Right and Repression to the Left: Human Rights Violations in the Popular Camp,” arguing that the Venezuelan government has turned to the right in both an economic and political sense.

A newly-published Surgentes report states that in recent years the Venezuelan government has been moving towards the right. The document focuses on what it calls a “democratic deficit” at the governmental level. This is particularly concerning in a project that has long been defined by its deep commitment to democracy. What evidence is there pointing to this rightward turn?

The shift to the right expresses itself both economically and politically.

In economic terms, it comes with a set of measures leading to deregulation and flexibilization that seek to attract private capital investment to the detriment of social rights: privatizations, tax exemptions, dollarization of transactions, de facto dismantling of labor rights, and return of latifundia [to private owners], among others.

Basically, these are measures that the right has been demanding for two decades. Chavismo had not yielded on these demands, because they are structurally contrary to its program of siding with the public instead of with capital. Chavismo committed itself to popular power, with the means of production in the hands of the people, and with communal self-government. All this went hand in hand with a strong state that controlled strategic goods and services in favor of the majority. And the whole project pointed the way toward a democratic society, an alternative to capitalism. Now these main principles [of Chavismo] are being revoked by the ruling elite.

In strictly political terms, this economic shift has gone along with the progressive closure of democratic spaces, both inside state institutions and with regard to the organization of popular power.

It is important to contextualize this trend. Until 2015, Chavismo had responded with popular mobilization and participation to every crisis and all the opposition’s anti-democratic attacks. The participation took place in elections, in organizations, and on a street level. The notable defeat of Chavismo in the 2015 parliamentary elections constitutes a turning point. Control of the National Assembly by the opposition would have allowed the right-wing to appoint important posts in three national public powers [Judicial, Electoral, and Citizen] that would be hostile to the government, and it was clear that anti-government sectors had the strength to activate a presidential recall referendum.

From then on, a change took place in [institutional] Chavismo: public consultation and electoral processes were henceforth avoided, limited or downplayed, both at the state level and in the communal councils and communes. Here are some milestones in what we identify as democratic deficits:

  • Calling it an “internal reorganization process,” the Ministry of Communes suspended the issuing of certificates of registration for new communal council spokespeople in 2016. This brought the elections of spokespeople to a halt. When the elections of spokespeople were reactivated, new conditions were set in place so that only PSUV militants or those endorsed by the party could participate and get elected.
  • Due to the enormous difficulties in access to food, the CLAP [food bags delivered to three to six million Venezuelans every month] became the most important space for mobilizing in community life, displacing the communal councils. Note, however, that the CLAP spokespeople are not elected by popular vote – as had been the case with communal council spokespeople – but appointed by the state and the governing party.
  • The National Assembly elected in 2015 was essentially annulled, first by successive Supreme Court rulings, and later by the National Constituent Assembly.
  • In response to the insurrectional demonstrations of 2017, Maduro called for a constituent process, but without consulting the people on the election mechanism and the new constituent assembly’s mandate. This entailed an implicit violation of the equal, universal right to vote, inasmuch as some citizens could vote two or more times depending on their status as workers, retirees, students, etc. The most important potential of a democracy [the Constituent Assembly] was then activated, but this was done through a mechanism that bypassed the expression of the popular will. The National Constituent Assembly, elected through a non-democratic mechanism, enjoyed exceptional powers, drafted laws, dismissed and appointed officials, etc.
  • Political parties – both right-wing opposition parties and leftist parties that have criticized the ruling elite’s drift to the right – have been handed over to sectors favorable to the government through judicial intervention [which reconfigured the parties’ leadership].
  • The social conflicts triggered by the economic shift – in state-owned companies and institutions and in the countryside – are increasingly targets of repression. Unfortunately, as was the case in the 80s and 90s, the economic “package” is accompanied by a repressive one.

These are some facts that make the political shift to the right evident.


The situation in Venezuela is particularly complex because of the crisis and US sanctions, and many interpret the limits of Venezuelan democracy now (which is always limited in capitalism and even more so in dependent capitalist countries) as a result of imperialist harassment. How much truth is there to this claim?

The unilateral coercive measures pushed forth by the US and the European Union are antithetical (in a structural sense) to the defense of human rights. Their impact on the population is devastating and criminal, and they are aimed at triggering a change of government in Venezuela. Thus the sanctions violate Venezuela’s right to self-determination.

Despite many internal contradictions and tensions, Venezuela was attempting to build a democratic society as an alternative to capitalism – and to do so from a Latinamericanist perspective. That is to say, with independence from the United States. This is something that imperialism had to punish: what is happening today cannot be understood apart from that earlier conflict.

This means that by escalating the conflict, the US and the European Union are partly responsible for the degradation of the ruling elite, including its tactical turn [to the right], which is becoming a strategic change. So the answer to your question is, yes, it is partly true that the ruling elite responds to the local and international right’s anti-democratic attacks, by shutting down democracy [at home].

The problem with this strategic shift is that it modifies Chavismo. At one time, Chavismo had broadened the mechanisms of democratic participation, public deliberation, popular organization, forms of popular consultation, and the people’s protagonism. The current configuration reduces the role of the people to that of a grateful client of the elite.

Since the best things we achieved in the Bolivarian Revolution occurred when the people mobilized, demanded rights, built popular power, and democratized the economy. It is impossible for us to accept the elite’s turn as a legitimate response [to outside attacks]. It is with popular power and more democracy – not less – that we must respond to imperialist attacks!

One of the issues you explore in the report is human rights violations. In this regard, you examine the situation of workers and campesinos. Are these struggles in Venezuela being criminalized?

In Venezuela, we have one of the lowest minimum wages in the world – about two US dollars per month – which covers less than 2% of the basic food basket. Also, people’s right to social benefits, always calculated in relation to their base salary, has essentially disappeared, with salaries so low that they do not protect against unemployment or reward seniority.

Additionally, the state is indirectly laying off workers on a massive scale, since people are forced to migrate due to low wages and, while there is a firing freeze in place, labor inspections are not happening. Finally, the Ministry of Labor’s Memorandum 2792 [2019] leveled off wages and eliminated the rights to strike and to collective bargaining. This all amounts to a policy of flexibilization and deregulation of labor, aimed at stimulating private capital investment.

The situation, of course, generates conflicts that meet with increased repression. In a field sample, Surgentes documented 51 cases of workers’ human rights violations affecting 138 people between 2015 and 2020. Here is some relevant data:

  • In 94% of the cases, the right to personal liberty was violated. That is to say, the workers were arbitrarily prosecuted, detained, and accused of crimes they did not commit. In 45% of the cases the right to justice was violated (procedural delays, denying the right to defense, accusations and convictions without evidence).
  • In 25.5% of the cases, the right to personal integrity was violated (workers were mistreated or tortured).
  • In 12% of the cases, the right to freedom of expression was violated (workers expressed criticism through social networks or meetings and were accused of inciting hatred).

A pattern of selective repression also emerges in the cases we analyzed, evidence of which is that intelligence and criminalistic agencies were summoned to investigate 70% of the cases that we documented where workers were demanding their rights. Of those, 41% were investigated by the DGCIM [military intelligence], 15% by the SEBIN [civilian political agency], and 14% by the CICPC [forensic criminal investigation agency].

Of the cases we analyzed, 92% (or 47 of them) occurred in state companies or state institutions. Of those, 26 were workers involved in labor rights struggles, while 14 were workers denouncing corruption or being denounced for corruption without evidence.

A notable case is that of Rodney Álvarez, a Ferrominera worker who, on June 9, 2011, participated in a union assembly (of Sintraferrominera, an independent union, which had been under attack by PSUV militants). On that day several armed men broke into the assembly and shot at the attendees, wounding three and killing Renny Rojas. There is a video showing a local PSUV leader shooting a firearm, but there is no evidence against Rodney. He was then incarcerated for 10 years, with the trial deferred for various reasons during that period. This month he was condemned to 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Something similar is happening in the campesino context. The government’s agrarian policy prioritizes agribusiness over small and medium-sized producers. The search for new alliances between the state and private capital goes hand in hand with the empowerment of big landowners, who had been on the defensive since the promulgation of the Land Law in 2001.

In the campo, the alliance between local capitalists and public institutions (agrarian judges, local INTI [the state’s land institute], prosecutors, mayors, governors), who tend to act in favor of landowners, is very clear. Surgentes documented 98 cases of repression of campesinos struggling for the democratization of land – between 2015 and August 2020 – with more than 40 arbitrary detentions, eight hired killings, and two forced disappearances. Additionally, there were 34 cases of arbitrary evictions or attempted evictions following the same pattern: a landowner or a public official with interests in land turned the institutions against the campesinos. We documented injuries, threats, theft of work tools, poisoning of water wells, and schools set on fire.


The Surgentes report states that the shift to the right goes hand in hand with attacks against human rights. I agree. But it does not follow that by fighting for human rights we can actually redirect the Bolivarian Process towards socialism. This being the case, is it necessary to combine the struggle for human rights with other goals and with a well-defined working-class approach?

The liberal conception of human rights is insufficient and leaves open enormous spaces for violating human dignity. Additionally, it is a historical fact that it has been used as an alibi for capitalism and imperialism. But that does not mean that we should give up on the emancipatory potential of human rights or abandon them as a terrain of struggle. Surgentes is committed to reinterpreting human rights, radicalizing them, deepening them, stripping them of their colonial charge – in order to put them at the service of emancipatory, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-colonial, and biocentric processes.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Freedom of expression in its liberal, hegemonic conception focuses on the role of the state and what it should not do: it should not impede expression. But it says nothing about the importance of promoting the voice of excluded majorities or discriminated minorities and very little about regulating corporations. Reinventing this right, as popular communicators all over the world are doing, would mean expanding guarantees in a way that implies democratizing the media, thus opening the path to truly free communication. Hence, there is a dispute around freedom of expression, and the reconceived right to freedom of expression becomes a tool for struggle.

Another example would be the right to participation. In its liberal version, the right is associated with representative democracy. But in the Bolivarian Revolution, both the state and thousands of communards interpreted this right as including the right to self-government, to direct or deliberative democracy. In this way a political right extends into the economic sphere which, in turn, broaches the need to democratize the means of production, if democracy and participation are to be substantive.

So, to respond more directly to your question, it is not as if a class-based project is something that needs to be connected with the human rights struggle as if they were two parallel spaces. Rather, a class-based approach is an integral part of the counter-hegemonic human rights project, which is anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-colonial.