On 28 May, the US House of Representatives voted for the Obama government to impose sanctions against Venezuela. The decision followed votes in the Foreign Relations’ Committees of both Congress and the Senate approving the ‘Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act’. The vote is not binding but adds to political pressure for President Obama to impose sanctions. This Bill targets would provide at least US$15 million additional funding to Venezuelan opposition groups. It would also allow U.S. President Barack Obama to freeze assets and ban US visits by any current or former Venezuelan government official responsible for “directing significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses against persons associated with the anti-government protests in Venezuela.”
This call for sanctions is based on the wholly false premise that the government of Nicolas Maduro is engaging in human rights abuses. Key sponsor of the sanctions, Senator Robert Menendez, claimed sanctions are needed as the Venezuelan government is “violating the human rights of Venezuelan students who are peacefully protesting for the betterment of their nation and their families.” Likewise co-sponsor Marco Rubio stated they are “to punish human rights abusers in Nicolas Maduro’s regime… The Venezuelan people have suffered enough under the incompetence of Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro.”
The last remark makes its clear what the real issue is about. This is an intervention into a Venezuela’s sovereign affairs to try to weaken Chavismo by its long term opponents. In doing so the supporters of sanctions show a disregard to the fact that the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro have been democratically elected time after time.
Nonetheless, supporters of sanctions cite human rights abuses as their justification. This has been a dominant media message too, stemming directly from the spokespeople for the opposition. As the Economist wrote in May : “Nicolas Maduro has none of comandante’s [Chavez’] famous charisma, and growth in oil income has stalled. [So] Anger over food shortages and uncontrolled violent crime spilled over in February into nationwide protests. The government’s response has been a harsh crack-down”
The allegation that it has been the Maduro government that has been responsible for the wave of violence, the majority of deaths and for sanctioning human rights abuses in a “crack down” is wide off the mark. The picture on the ground is far from the simple media narrative of state forces targeting peaceful protesters in a wave of government sanctioned killings.
Setting the Record Straight
The current wave of violence directly followed the call in February for the ousting of the government by taking the streets made by leading opposition politicians. The politicians behind this call, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado are linked to the 2002 military coup against President Hugo Chavez. Tragically this violence has left 42 dead and over 800 injured. One death is too many and each is a tragedy for Venezuela. But when assessing responsibility for these deaths it is important to acknowledge that a very small minority – four of the 42 – are opposition fatalities caused by state security forces.
Of course, those four deaths should be condemned and the perpetrators brought to justice. That is exactly what the Venezuelan criminal justice system and, separately, the government of Maduro government is doing. In fact not only has President Maduro condemned those deaths attributable to the security forces, but he has taken tough action including sacking the head of the military police and ensuring the arrest of officers involved.
But just as those four deaths are condemnable so are all the others. For example, at least 10 police officers have been killed at opposition protests or trying to clear barricades; that is due to violence from opposition. A greater number of civilians have been killed at deliberately dangerous opposition barricades. Of these at least 5 were shot dead while trying to clear opposition street barricades. At least 6 died in fatal crashes across these barricades, including people garroted by razor wire deliberately positioned to maim and kill. These figures underline how the greatest cause of the deaths has been violence from extremist in the opposition.
Another common myth has been that the government has been tolerating murder carried out by pro government gangs. In the wave of violence a number of people – around 6 – have been killed in incidents where it is alleged pro-government gangs were responsible.
These have been disputed and it is for the Venezuelan criminal justice system to look into these events and to bring anyone responsible to justice. But what can be categorically ruled out is that any such gang violence was sanctioned by the government. Those who have made the allegation without providing any serious evidence have had to ignore government statements rejecting any groups taking the law into their own hands and using violence against political opponents.
For example President Maduro himself warned: “I want to say clearly: someone who puts on a red t-shirt with Chavez’s face and takes out a pistol to attack isn’t a Chavista or a revolutionary. I don’t accept violent groups within the camp of Chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution. If you want to have arms to fight…get out of Chavismo.”
It really is not possible to be any clearer than that. Yet you will struggle to find mainstream news organisations citing this quote even though it circulated widely on blog sites.
Nor is the Venezuelan government tolerating abuses by police officers as is inferred. Two minutes research on the home page of the Attorney General reveals a document showing state investigations into 197 allegations of mistreatment or excess use of force by police officers. The Attorney General document states that 18 police officers are being investigated with some for very serious cases including murder. The Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz herself has warned that “The behaviour of all the institutions must adhere to human rights and if it doesn’t … there are going to be punishments for those who are responsible”. Ironically the proposed US sanctions explicitly mention the Attorney General as someone who will be targeted.
Nor is it reasonable to argue that this is systemic police violence. Whilst any police involved in the unlawful use of force should face the consequences of the law, the number of allegations is a very small proportion of the police involved in attempting to prevent the illegal ousting of the government. Over 20,000 police have been involved in seeking to prevent the violence associated with La Salida. The number of officers alleged to have committed abuses is less than 1%.
The claim of a crackdown also doesn’t stack up. Over the past three months of violence around 3200 people have been arrested, around 600 face criminal charges and 174 remain detained including 12 police officers. This is for violence that has seen 42 dead, 800 injured, the centres of cites brought to a standstill by roadblocks, targeting and arson of public transport and the burning down of public facilities.
Regarding the number of arrests, an interesting comparison is with the London riots of 2011 (where the levels of violence, though very serious, was significantly less severe and lasted for a shorter period of time). There a very similar number were arrested (3,100 people) and more than 1,500 appeared before magistrates on charges connected with the disorder. Venezuela is, unfairly, being subjected to different standards in order to make the false claim of a “crackdown”.
Venezuela Pre-Chavez – An Example of State Sanctioned Human Rights Abuses
There is an example of a systematic state led crackdown in Venezuelan against protesters., from 1989, before Hugo Chavez was elected. Then people rose up against the Venezuelan government to protest against neo-liberal polices imposed by the IMF. The wave of state violence unleashed then killed around 3,000 people, many buried in secret graves. It is these types of human rights abuses that the current Venezuelan government has stated will never again be tolerated, and the action taken by the current government clearly contrasts with the impunity shown by previous governments to the crime of 1989.
The US attitude to Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia provides a stark contrast to the debate on Venezuela. There , over 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered there since 1989, mostly by right-wing paramilitaries in collusion with security forces. Yet Colombia has received receives billions in aid from the US and the situation there is met with relative silence in the international media.
Venezuelan Government Calls for Peace
In contrast with the dominant media narrative, from day one the Maduro government advocated peace. Three days after the violence broke out the government called a national peace rally. A week later it organized the first national peace Conference involving Opposition aligned figures. It initiated the talks with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), who sent a delegation to Venezuela to monitor and help broker peace at the request of Maduro. A “truth commission” has been established to investigate all acts of violence – from protesters and elsewhere. Maduro has set up National Human Rights Council that includes representatives of NGO’s such as the Latin American Foundation for Human Rights and Social Development and the Support Network for Justice and Peace. UNASUR has been invited by the president to select a group of human rights experts to join the council.
The recent political violence in Venezuela shouldn’t be explained simplistic ‘state repression of peaceful protesters’ narrative. Attempts to do so appear to be politically motivated – as seen with the call for US sanctions. The principal source of lethal violence is linked to opposition street barricades. Yet it is the opposition activists and their allies who will be receiving millions more dollars in US government funding if President Obama passes the sanctions bill.