Ana Barrios has been a social worker and human rights activist for some thirty years. She is a member of the Surgentes collective, an Chavista organization that works to democratize society and strengthen popular power initiatives. She is also part of San Agustin Convive, a mostly women’s cooperative in the San Agustin barrio in Caracas. In this interview, Barrios talks about the dialectic of progress and setbacks in the sphere of human rights in Venezuela.
The Bolivarian process has been characterized by a radical expansion of democracy and rights in general. What can you tell us about the expansion of rights during the course of the revolution, particularly in relation to police reform?
The Bolivarian Revolution brought about an expansion of rights that is unprecedented in Venezuela’s history. Chavez’s arrival to power in 1998 brought together the diverse struggles of historically excluded popular masses. We saw, for the first time, an alliance between the people and political power, and this allowed for huge advances at all levels. It all began with the approval of the Bolivarian Constitution  through a process that was, in itself, profoundly democratic. For the first time, we had a constitutional text with guarantees that had been debated, consulted, and approved by the vast majority.
All of this opened the way for a process that began to grant social and economic rights to the most excluded sectors of the population. It was not just rhetoric. The data shows enormous advances in the areas of food, healthcare, housing, education, and campesino access to land. Those early years also brought about the eradication of illiteracy, an important increase in schooling levels, progress in labor rights, etc. The collective achievements of those early years are enormous and undisputed, even by those opposed to the Chavista project.
I should add here that all this happened hand in hand with the construction of huge structures of popular power that were, in themselves, the most developed expression of protagonic democracy. Of course, before the Bolivarian process, participation had been limited to elections.
Needless to say, all of this was not free of contradictions and internal tensions… We couldn’t expect it to be any different! We were attempting to demolish the bourgeois state, as Chavez would often say, through a radically new democratic and participatory process.
The expansion of rights progressed unevenly. When it came to the reform of the state’s police apparatus, the revolution was slow. Chavez inherited a discriminatory and class-based police model. The role of the police in any bourgeois state is to ensure control of the population and to secure the existing model of capital accumulation. In the old policing model, the struggle against crime was exercised through social control – and, of course, this adversely affected the excluded sectors, particularly poor young people, the dark-skinned residents of the barrios, who were targeted for the mere “crime” of being poor.
It was a huge contradiction to speak of democracy, inclusion, and popular power while the police was exercising its power in a discriminatory way, thus affecting the revolution’s key actors. Understanding this situation, Chavez said [in 2008]: “security is associated with repression, with the existence of police and military apparatuses whose role is to strike at the people [with] a classist vision (…). It is the bourgeois state that organized the police and military bodies (…). What for? To strike at the poor, the popular classes, (…) to preserve the interests of the dominating classes (…). This disease is still alive and well in many police forces.”
Chavez’s commitment to transforming the police model took off in 2006 with the creation of the National Commission for Police Reform. The Commission’s first step was to set up a nationwide consultation process that gave rise to the new police model. It came with a set of standardized norms based on respect for human rights. It also involved the creation of the Bolivarian National Police, the National Experimental University of Security, the General Police Council, and the National Commission for Disarmament. The pilot schemes demonstrated that crime could be reduced without criminalizing the poor and without affecting the population’s human rights.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in police violence. Official data from the Interior Ministry shows that “deaths due to authority resistance” rose from 1,091 in 2013 to 5,287 in 2018. Is the practice of criminalizing poverty being reinstated in Venezuela? If so, why?
The data you mention indicates that police activity in Venezuela – despite the attempt to create a new model – hasn’t overcome its discriminatory class nature. The figures to which you refer, which are official, show that the deaths caused by the state are growing at an alarming rate. Nobody should be indifferent to this situation, particularly the authorities in charge of citizen security.
We are talking about a 384.6 percent increase in six years. These figures don’t discriminate deaths caused by officials in the legitimate use of force (such as in confrontations) from other police-inflicted deaths. Nonetheless, it is obvious that there is a disproportionate use of force, thus reverting one of the central mandates of the police model implemented while Chavez was alive: progressive and differentiated use of force.
The 2018 data shows that 33 percent of violent deaths in the country were caused by police, whereas the number of officers who die as a result of these events bears no relation with the extreme use of force: a civilian has 99 percent chance of dying in a confrontation, while an officer has a one percent chance.
In Surgentes you have carried out an investigation on the police’s use of force. What were your findings?
We carried out an investigation through testimonies from family members and witnesses, and a pattern of behavior became evident: young people in the barrios are often executed once they are subdued, disarmed, and without the possibility of offering resistance. All this is often accompanied by the simulation of a confrontation, torture in some cases, threats to relatives, non-compliance with the protocols for the removal of bodies, and even the theft of belongings.
These operations take place in barrios. The targets are poor young men, linked or not to criminal practices. These police actions have a pedagogic objective: they seek to generate fear in the population and impede the pursuit of justice, while they condemn the victims (the poor) to silence and invisibility. Moreover, these practices are inefficient in the fight against crime, since they focus on the lowest links of the criminal hierarchy, leaving the bigger structures intact.
How and why did the police reform get rolled back?
There are several issues that explain this, but that doesn’t justify it. On the one hand, the police reform – still very weak when things began to be reverted – was put in check by a series of external circumstances, not least of which was Chavez’s death, which was followed by changes within the security forces’ leadership. The proposed changes required the leadership’s conviction, will, and commitment. The reform had not been consolidated or institutionalized to the degree that it could survive a change at the top.
We should also add that when the rollback began, there was a growth of organized crime (large, heavily armed criminal gangs). This made the government succumb to heavy-handed policies, revived in operations such as the OLP [Operation for the Liberation of the People, 2015-16], which later became the FAES [Special Action Forces, a police task force founded in 2016]. The  police law allowed for these tactical groups, but some five years ago they acquired a great deal of autonomy. They were no longer small and controlled, as the law mandates. Additionally, these police practices weren’t met with much resistance in society, which is generally inclined to accept heavy-handed policies against crime.
To all this we should add another issue. When the international siege on Venezuela intensified after Chavez’s death, the government took the pragmatic road. Conservative forces inside the government, which were intent on maintaining the logic of the bourgeois state, took advantage of the situation. The seriousness of Venezuela’s crisis has also meant that public scrutiny of the security forces has vanished. Finally, the victims of these policies are so poor and excluded that their voices are never heard.
The global crisis combined with the sanctions has had a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. In the face of this situation, the government opted, as you point out, for a pragmatic solution: liberalizing the economy and granting a bigger role to private capital. This has generated a reaction from some parts of society and the state has responded by imprisoning workers who struggle for higher wages or denounce corruption (as in the case of Aryenis Torrealba and Alfredo Chririnos) and arresting students resisting an eviction. What is your opinion?
Rights become a reality when they are incorporated into daily life. This also means that the struggle for human rights is a permanent one, regardless of contexts and conditions. Giving up rights in the face of difficult circumstances is not an option. A revolution that calls itself participatory and protagonic must maintain and respect popular struggles and steer clear criminalizing them even when circumstances are adverse.
We cannot ignore the implications of the international blockade of Venezuela and the unilateral US sanctions, which deepen a crisis now aggravated by the pandemic. Nonetheless, criminalizing struggles, which is what is happening, only exacerbates the situation, distancing the protagonists of this process from their leaders. The very survival of the process is in danger.
We are seeing a progressive disaffiliation of the Chavista bases. This happens because people perceive that policies that go against workers are causing them to lose the rights they struggled for. Likewise, the practices of consultation and debate that once characterized the Bolivarian Revolution is also vanishing.
To give you an example, a debate recently took place regarding the need to increase salaries, and some proposals came out of it. But rather than listen, there has been an attempt to silence the voices that raised the concerns and proposals. The end result is a weakening of the popular consensus and sparks resistance.
A Surgentes investigation shows that in the past five years, there have been at least 22 cases of workers demanding fair wages, better working conditions, unionization or collective bargaining rights, which have ended up being judicialized. In these cases, there were arbitrary detentions, prosecution or the application of restrictive measures. As we speak, there are more than 50 workers affected, and the process of criminalization has picked up steam in 2020.
There are other cases of criminalizing workers, such as [PDVSA employees] Alfredo and Aryenis, who have been locked for almost six months without evidence, due process, or a preliminary hearing, in what many consider to be a retaliation for whistleblowing on corruption inside PDVSA. Or the case of the students of the Livia Gouverneur Residency, who were arbitrarily detained for several hours for resisting an eviction. The US blockade of Venezuela does not justify any of this.
Finally I would add that the discourse of human rights has disappeared from the public sphere. This, in turn, leads to criminalizing those who demand them. The government says that they do not understand the efforts that are being made to address the crisis… However, one thing should not be confused with the other! The government wants people to understand the complexities of the situation we’re living in, and that makes sense, but it does not try to understand those who are struggling for their rights.
Chavismo is now strongest in the campo. However, it is also there that the reorganization of capital is most evident. Old and new landowners allied with agro-industry are evicting campesinos who, backed by the Land Law, have legally and legitimately occupied vacant lands. What is your take on this?
The campo is not only where Chavismo is and has been strongest. It is also the campo that is keeping us alive in these times of crisis and blockade. Even though many companies have closed their doors, campesinos continue to produce – overcoming many difficulties – so that we can continue to eat.
Since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution, the struggle for access to land has been silent and bloody. We should remember that the [bourgeoisie’s] rejection of the Land Law was one of their motives for the 2002 coup. When the law passed, that sparked a confrontation with agroindustrial capital. It continues to this day and it has resulted in the murder of 370 peasants in the past 20 years. In fact, President Maduro recently ordered an investigation into those deaths.
The land reform that followed in the wake of the law is now being rolled back. Campesinos have denounced this as a systematic and violent return to the latifundio, and there is no evidence that could point to the government wanting to stop it. There have been hit-and-run actions against campesinos, small homestead evictions (and attempts to evict), prosecution of campesino leaders, etc.
According to a Surgentes investigation, there were almost one hundred court cases brought against campesinos from 2015 to 2020. Additionally, we have seen governors and other local officials supporting – openly or in a veiled manner – agroindustrial businessmen, while the security forces participate in raids against campesino homesteads. At the end of the day, this shows that the Revolution wasn’t able to consolidate the agrarian reform, just like it wasn’t able to consolidate the police reform.
Additionally, the pragmatic approach mentioned above has led the state to privilege delivering resources and inputs to agribusiness, thus hurting the campesinos’ productive capacity. This is contradictory because small and midsize producers deliver much of what we eat, and they do so at fair prices.
Even in this adverse scenario, campesinos are resisting through communal organization, building power from below. Amongst other things, there have been efforts to rescue native seeds and give greater autonomy to national production while collaborating with popular organizations in the city.
It is now up to those of us who are committed to Chavez’s legacy and the principles of the Bolivarian Revolution to denounce these situations in a constructive way. We must cast our lot with the historical protagonists of the process – the poor and excluded – and demand that those who hold political power today govern by obeying the pueblo.