Venezuela’s Oldest Human Rights Organization: “Here There is a State That Respects Human Rights”

As "reports" of alleged "human rights violations" in Venezuela are unscrupulously circulated by transnational corporate media and rightwing governments, VA speaks to long time human rights activist Sister Eugenia Russian, President of the Latin American Foundation of Human Rights and Social Development (Fundalatin), concerning a range of issues, including "political prisoners", "torture" allegations, the "crackdown" on journalists, Liberation Theology, and more. 

As “reports” of alleged “human rights violations” in Venezuela are unscrupulously circulated by transnational corporate media and rightwing governments, VA speaks to long time human rights activist Sister Eugenia Russian, president of Latin American Foundation of Human Rights and Social Development (Fundalatin), concerning a range of issues, including “political prisoners”, “torture” allegations, the “crackdown” on journalists, Liberation Theology and more. 
Q: Fundalatin has a long and distinguished history as a defender of human rights. Could you talk a little about the origin and role of your organization?
A: Celebrating its 37th anniversary on June 9th, Fundalatin is the first human rights organization in Venezuela, founded in 1968 with the aim of supporting [political refugees] expelled and displaced by the Southern Cone dictatorships, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, who came looking for refuge in Venezuela. 
Fundalatin was founded by the Spanish priest Father Juan Vives Suria, who left his post as President of Caritas due to a conflict with the Church hierarchy [Conferencia Episcopal], together with mostly secular Chilean exiles fleeing the [Pinochet] dictatorship.The goal was first to create a space [for the refugees] where their dignity would be respected and second to educate people in human rights from the perspective of liberation theology. 
[Fundalatin] was created really as an ecumenical [organization] with various [Christian religious] tendencies, including Lutheran, Evangelical, Presbyterian, and Catholic. Fundalatin has always been guided by liberation theology and as such is forever open to everything that creates life and promotes a culture of justice and peace. If you want peace, work for justice. Without justice, there can be no peace. Otherwise, there’s the peace of the cemetery, of the tomb, or the peace of silence. Building peace through justice is the continuous work we have after 37 years because after 1999, we stopped attending to specific cases [of political refugees] and dedicated ourselves exclusively to human rights education in organizations, state institutions, schools, and above all in base communities. 
Q: It’s no secret that Liberation Theology is a very subversive, revolutionary tradition, being declared a principal enemy of the US government in the 70s and 80s during its terrorist wars in Central America. Can you elaborate on how Fundalatin’s commitment to Liberation Theology and the Bolivarian process distinguish it from other human rights NGOs emerging in Venezuela? 
A: Throughout our history, we have differentiated ourselves from both other human rights organizations as well as the Catholic Church. The Church leadership has long been our enemy, frequently attacking us in defense of its doctrines and dogma. Let’s be clear that in the majority of Latin America with the exception of Brazil and Central America where we find bishops like [Oscar] Romero, Castor Galica, and countless others across the continent who gave their lives for the people, the Church hierarchy in Venezuela functions as a political party always advancing the interests of the Right. The Church hierarchy, instead of being rooted among the base communities, among the people, the poor, the most vulnerable, is always going to take the side of the bourgeoisie, the side of power. 
But Liberation Theology is totally the opposite, actually present within grassroots communities, in favor of the poor and in constant struggle against poverty, which is a sign of capitalism that harms the human being. All of this serves to distance us from the hierarchy of the official religion, as we are always on the side of the people, accompanying them through their anguish, sorrow, hope, and happiness. 
Among the NGOs that have been around during this process Venezuela is experiencing, we encounter CONFAVIT, which was trying to seek redress for [the massive human rights violations that occurred during] the Caracazo [1989], only to later take on a rightwing party posture, abandoning precisely the mission for which it was created. 
We also encounter other [human rights] NGOs who are very clearly paid by transnationals and the US, who want to destabilize all other models of society different from theirs. The US, which is the number one violator of human rights that has never ratified any of the international [human rights] conventions, wants everyone else to uphold human rights. The US is the principal financier of NGOs to destabilize other countries, above all countries that are seeking to build another world, one not defined by the commodification of life, of the mother Earth. These NGOs have been created to constantly attack Venezuela and the other Latin American countries with leftwing tendencies that have sought to radically transform democratic structures and visibilize the poor, accusing them of human rights violations and appropriating spaces such as the OAS [Organization of American States] and the UN, where principal human rights violators like the US have weight. 
NGOs like PROVEA and others go constantly to the meetings of the OAS general assembly to denounce Venezuela, demanding “freedom of expression”, “freedom for ‘political prisoners'”, etc. What they fail to see are all of the rights that are guaranteed in Venezuela, such as the right to healthcare, in which Cuban and Venezuelan doctors attend to our poor people who never before had access to medical attention in their own neighborhoods. They [the NGOs] don’t see that now poor people are included in the university system, that elderly people have learned to read and write within their communities that were always invisibilized. They don’t see the advances at the level of housing, nor do they see all the advances in nutrition, where the poor now have the possibility of eating three times a day, an achievement which was recognized by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. 
So all you have to do is walk around the city and see the gains in order to see that here there is a state that respects human rights, a Constitution that guarantees human rights, a Plan of the Motherland that visibilizes the poor, those with the least. These are aspects that must be emphasized, though there are indeed many things that need to be improved, which we are working towards insofar as the people are becoming more conscious and self-educated. It’s not only the responsibility of the state, but of society together with its state powers that must work in synchrony with the people. 
Q: Let’s address some of these accusations against Venezuela. In the case of Leopoldo Lopez, who made headlines with his video announcing an alleged hunger strike in May, can you comment on his self-declared status of “political prisoner” and the UN allegations of torture in the cases of Lopez, Ceballos, and one other?
A: These three citizens are jailed under laws and parameters of the Constitution of our republic. According to the Attorney General and the chief ombudsman, they have family visits, they are separated from other inmates, they have all of the rights of a jailed person. 
Leopoldo Lopez is a Venezuelan politician who has refused to recognize the Constitution, calling for acts of terror together with Maria Corina Machado, Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonsky, and others who plan an “exit” from the Venezuelan democracy currently governing the country.

The best way to suspend the Constitution is to issue calls for violence. In any other country throughout the world, that is called terrorism, which is the intent to cause terror in the population. Leopoldo Lopez is a person who on behalf of my organization I would call a terrorist , because he calls constantly for the suspension of the Venezuelan Constitution and for people not to recognise the Venezuelan government and its institutions. This is penalized everywhere in the world. In Venezuela, there is a legal procedure underway in which they are investigating [Lopez and others] in accordance with all of their rights under the Constitution. This of course has been taken up by the media who constantly claim that there is torture, but according to all of the declarations by the ombudsman’s office following periodic visits, these men are in a normal state of health and have their lawyer, their spouses visit whenever they like. So, we must ask, where is the human rights violation?

Q: And there is also the case of the jailed “students”, including the far right “youth leader” Lorent Saleh held in what has been described as a torture chamber in Plaza Venezuela known as the “tomb”. Can you comment on this?
A: Effectively we have to correct many things in the detention centers inherited [arrastrandose] from over 40 years ago, and little by little detention and rehabilitation centers have been created where those jailed have access to music, education, etc. 
Now, in the case of these young people, Venezuela does not have a state policy to torture anyone. If a police officer gives a student a beating, and the latter says he was tortured, then an investigation is opened into that officer who committed the abuse. In fact, there are various jailed police officers, because the Venezuelan state must respond to these situations, and the officers who took people’s lives during protests are now in jail. And we mustn’t forget that there were also many police officers who died as a result of the [2014 violent opposition protests known as] barricades, as a result of this terrorism unleashed in Venezuela in non-acceptance of the government. 
Q: Another controversial issue at stake is Resolution 8610 of the Defense Ministry which governs the role of the Armed Forces in protests. The Venezuelan Right has claimed that this Resolution authorizes the use of force against demonstrators, pointing to the case of [insert name]  the 14 year-old youth killed by a police officer in February. 
A: Look, [that incident] was taken up by the Right in order to claim that in Venezuela peaceful demonstrations are repressed. In fact, many workshops have been held in universities, schools, and communities o explain to people the meaning of this resolution. On the basis of these meetings, a manual is being created which will serve to operationally determine when a protest is peaceful and when it becomes violent, causing destruction and impeding the free movement of other people. This doesn’t mean that the National Guard is going to come out shooting at and killing people. The operations manual, which is being developed by the ombudsman’s office, the public prosecutor, and the Defense Ministry, will give precise instructions [concerning the role of police and the National Guard in protests], and various NGOs are also involved in this process. 
This has been manipulated a lot, because in the death of this youth from San Cristobal, a Venezuelan brother, as with any human being, we all lose. There is no Right nor Left; it’s a human being who lost his life. Now, we also have to recognize that this happened in a pressured situation: there’s also the other youth who pulled the trigger and no concious human being  is going to shoot someone openly. There are pressures, everything that he perceives, and perhaps he [the police officer] was not adequately trained to handle a firearm. 
So what’s our job then? To work for a culture of peace, a culture of non-violence, and to have manuals that will help our officers. I can testify to the fact that many police officers and soldiers receive training in human rights from the National Security University and the Armed Forces, including workshops and accredited courses. This is another great challenge, namely that [these personnel] can receive all of the training from the manual in order to successfully guide protests. 
This comes to the fore in light of the fact that during the February 2014 protests, hidden in buildings were paramilitaries with more powerful firearms than the police and National Guard, who assassinated many law enforcement officials. In response to this, I think that we have to continue training our police officers on the basis of the manual. The young officer who killed the other youth from San Cristobal is in jail; the parameters of Venezuelan law prohibiting the taking of life were upheld. 
Q: National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has been recently accused by the Wall Street Journal of drug trafficking. What is Fundalatin’s stance on these allegations of “narco-socialism”?
A: Understand that from the moment of political change in 1999, they have been attacking our political leaders accusing them of being drug traffickers. They accused Chavez of plotting to cut off the heads of all of the Democratic Action party members and fry them in oil. They established a policy of constantly attacking different Venezuelan politicians. I think that you can’t make any kind of accusation without actually having sufficient proof. You as a newspaper can’t say, “the Fundalatin nun is a prostitute” because you feel like it. You have to reveal where you got that information that I’m a prostitute. So this is the dynamic of the international rightwing medic to constantly attack [Venezuela]. 
Now, why are they attacking the President of the National Assembly? Because elections are coming. Who am I going to attack? The head of that instiution. That way, I go about weakening [the National Assembly] and creating caos among the population, via the social media. It actually appears quite interesting that the National Assembly President has pressed lawsuits against the newspapers responsible for spreading misinformation. 
Q: On this very point, the NGOs and the media are accusing the government of violating freedom of expression on the grounds that the journalists sued by Diosdado Cabelllo are prohibited from leaving the country. 
A: Because they have been accused of a criminal act, in which case, the first thing the public prosecutor says is, “you are under investigation and you can’t leave the country,” but that’s all stated in the law. In any investigation by the public prosecutor’s office, they prohibit you from leaving the country because that can lead to you escaping and the investigation cannot continue. 
Here there is no human rights violation. Here there is an issue that falls totally within the parameters of Venezuelan law. Now we know that behind the media and the specific journalists who wrote the story are the large transnationals. Behind this are many interests of the Venezuelan and Latin American bourgeoisie as well as those of the US and Europe. I think that Diosdado Cabello is totally within his rights to bring legal claims against those making allegations without proof. 
[Q: Many NGOs accuse Venezuela have perpetrating homophobic practices against the LGBT community, particular the trans population. Where does Fundalatin stand on this issue?
A: The reality is that we live in a completely machista continent where from very young it is taught that women clean up and men don’t. These capitalist cultural dynamics serve to inculcate a capitalist mentality from very young. 
Our Constitution is broad, open, pluralistic, participatory, but nonetheless many of these rightwing LGBT organizations, go to the UN, to the OAS to say that Venezuela is homophobic.]
Q: What is the relationship between Liberation Theology and the Bolivarian socialist ideology guiding the Bolivarian Revolution?
A: Fundalatin is born from Liberation Theology but also from Bolivarian theology, namely that liberatory essence displayed by our heroes as a reference for humanity. But we are also guided by other theologies, like those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi that created cultures of peace. 
In terms of our relationship with the Venezuelan state and with the revolutionary process Venezuela is living through, we offer workshops and courses in Liberation Theology to different ministries and state institutions as well as communities in order to continue building a society every day more integrated. We try to offer all of this knowledge of Liberation Theology so that it takes root within this humanistic system that Venezuela is building in its path towards socialism, equality, and equity. 
We find ourselves within the project of Jesus, the Christian project, not Christianity, which is something else that is preached by the hiearchies. The Christian project, the project of Jesus is totally socialist, as was the case with the first apostelic communities that lived in communism. The Church fears communism, because they always stand in defense of bourgeois power, but real communism is the coexistence of equality, justice, and equity for all the members of a community. Liberation Theology entails the transformation of the human being towards unity and harmony with mother Earth and all other human beings.