Venezuelan commentator Reinadlo Iturriza analyses the government’s handling of the events in the el Rodeo prison within the context of the state’s traditional role in the penal system, and within the framework of the principles of the Bolivarian constitution.
1. On Monday 15 April 2002 I was walking to work via the Sabana Grande mall when I passed a buhonero [informal street stall worker] yelling jubilantly – it’s hard to know if it was in full work mode or as a political agitator – “Cons-ti-tu-tion-of– the- Bol-i-var-i-an-Re-pub-lic-of-Ven-e-zue-la-so-you-read-it-and-learn!” That little blue book, who would have seen it, we had defended it with our teeth, they had seized it from us, flung it into the bonfire, and we had managed to rescue it through the work and grace of popular insurrection, all during the four preceding days. It’s true that that Monday the little blue book smelt of victory, of staying up all night, of street parties, of he-returned-he-returned-he-returned! It’s true that that day all its text jumped about and danced and everyone said what they had to say.
2. If there’s anyone who, for convenience, distance, or betrayal, stopped believing in that little book, that’s their problem. I still believe in its promise, in the horizon that it drew up, in its power, little imperfect book like all human art, but good enough to be able to fight with wherever needed.
3. Our constitution speaks of a democratic and social state of rights and of justice; it demands that the state guarantee free, accessible, impartial, suitable, transparent, autonomous, independent, responsible, equal and expedient justice without unnecessary delays, without formalisations or useless replacements. It commits the state to protecting the life of people in prisons, whether they are being processed or have been found guilty, whatever the motive for their imprisonment.
4. In light of the events in the El Rodeo [prison], of the death of twenty-one prisoners and one relation as a consequence of the riot on Sunday 12 June, and above all from the operation that the National Guard carried out from Friday 17, the discourse around the need for the state to regain control or restore order in the prisons has gained strength.
5. It’s impossible to avoid the question: Has the state at some point stopped having control of the prisons? Never.
6. Order imposed by the state reigns in the jails. Actually, this prison status quo reveals part of the logic of the functioning of the Venezuelan state and sums up the power relations that it is based on.
7. The images of the seizing in El Rodeo 1 offer a clue of the type of order that prevails in the jails: It’s about, without a doubt, an order founded on violence. A violence exercised by who and against whom? The guns and the drugs that were confiscated have only been able to enter the prison with the active concurrence or complicity of government workers, police, civilians and military who are part of, together with other actors in the penal system, the prison mafia. Business in the prisons is lucrative, violent, criminal to the point of abomination, and benefits a complex network of government workers and police, a small part of the criminal population, and affects not only a majority of prisoners, but also the government workers and police who have tried to confront it.
8. One would have to wonder if the status quo that reigns in the prisons, including the regularity of prison riots disputing internal control, isn’t the best way to guarantee the de-politicisation of the conflict. That is, to avoid prisoners organising and fighting for their rights. It would be about a status quo that guarantees the political control over the penal population.
9. If the old opposing political class that grew and became strong with the protection of this criminal, violent, and mafia state, today acts as defender of the rights of the prisoners against the beatings of the government, it isn’t because it cares about the fate of the prisoners. What it is seeking is to retake control of the government in 2012 and recover all the lost ground within the state. For this, it adopts a wearing away strategy: denouncing the inefficiencies of the government management. If the private media interviews families of prisoners it’s not because it understands or feels solidarity with their rage or pain, it’s because it’s important to create all the possible fractures within the heart of the poor people, where the social base of support for the Bolivarian Revolution is concentrated. It’s a falseness that could turn out to be expensive for them: It’s known that the average anti-Chavista is more given to punitive populism: zero tolerance, gun down the delinquents etc. It’s not good to expose yourself too much to the “miserables” (wretches).
10. The Bolivarian Revolution rose up against this criminal, violent, mafia, anti-grassroots state. We could look very bad now as defenders of this infernal and despotic machinery that gobbles up and spits out poor people, that criminalises and produces criminals just like the prisons.
11. All discourse that disguises or silences the brutal reality of the mafia prisons (whoever it is that makes them up),that silences, makes invisible, or criminalises the families of prisoners, is a discourse that serves the preservation of the status quo in the prisons, equivalent to a defence, actually, of the state apparatus that we have inherited, this staunch enemy of the Bolivarian revolution, that blocks or tries to neutralise, in all fronts of struggle, the democratic radicalisation of Venezuelan society.
12. Such discourse, that has been used in the public media, is a serious obstacle to the efforts that the Bolivarian government and other state powers are currently carrying out to effectively control the situation in El Rodeo 2 through the proportional use of force, but also to create another penitentiary institution and, beyond that, to construct a penal system in accordance with constitutional principles. For those who, within Chavismo, have made themselves spokespeople of such discourse, it wouldn’t hurt them to read the Bolivarian Constitution. Let’s see if they learn something, the buhonero would say.
13. Lastly, there won’t be a solution without listening to the prisoners. That’s revolutionary political ABC: people/subject, protagonist, who participates and has a voice and a face. Or is it that the prisoners aren’t people?
Translation by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com