In recent years many honest, hardworking people have been imprisoned and charged with crimes such as leaking information and terrorism. The Committee for the Liberation of Imprisoned Workers, made up of family members and friends of imprisoned workers, fights for their liberation. Here we talk to Thaís Rodríguez, one of the committee’s founders. Rodriguez’s work as a filmmaker includes Comandante Chávez, a documentary that narrates Chávez’s life in his own voice.
There was an important progress in human rights during the Chávez years. Can you talk to us about that?
We could say that there is a before and an after when it comes to human rights in Venezuela’s history. When Chávez came to power in 1998, Venezuela had endured decades of neoliberal policies. Those policies went hand in hand with the criminalization of protest and systematic state repression.
The 1999 Constitution became the first real tool to guarantee the Venezuelan people’s human rights. The Constitution opposed practices of state repression, such as violation of due process, torture and enforced disapearances that were all common in the 4th Republic [1958-99]. Further, the Constitution promoted social justice: a universal living wage, access to healthcare, housing, and education are rights that it ratifies. From a left perspective, these are basic human rights.
Chávez’s governments had an integral approach to improving the living conditions of the Venezuelan pueblo. This is evident when we look at the numbers. In 1998, roughly 44% of the population was living under the poverty line. This number went down to 27% by 2012, while extreme poverty dropped to 7%.
A society with more social inclusion is a society with fewer contradictions. To give you an example, popular demands rarely clashed with the state during the Chávez years; instead, the struggles got support from the government. This goes from the rights of campesinos to occupy idle land to the right of the workers to take control of factories.
Of course, the practices of repression so common in the pre-Chávez years did not totally disappear, but structural state repression vanished.
The Chávez years also brought an important police reform. A new security university was created and all police forces had to go through it. At its core was a curriculum teaching human rights, which would eventually transform the country’s security doctrine.
All spheres of life were transformed during the Chávez years. Although there were some pending tasks, we can say that human rights became a substantive value of the Bolivarian Process.
However, the 2013-19 Homeland Plan, which could be considered Chávez’s last political document, admits that there are outstanding tasks when it comes to overcoming the nation’s social debt. Chávez stated that the justice system, which still had a classist character, was due for a radical reform. Unfortunately that reform never happened.
What happened after Chávez’s death in 2013?
When Chávez passed away, Venezuela was plunged into a situation of political and economic instability. The right, both foreign and national, conspired to create a political and economic crisis, and they succeeded. This forced the government to retreat to a defensive position.
As the attacks went on, the government opted for pragmatic solutions, thus opening the path for neoliberal policies. So, where are we today? Venezuela has external contradictions with US and European imperialism, but the pueblo is also suffering the consequences of structural adjustment policies. The contradictions have their origin in the government’s agreements with the bourgeoisie and rampant corruption.
In real terms, diminished salaries have led to pauperization while a set of progressive measures implemented by the Chávez governments were done away with. Of course, these regressive policies have contributed to growing social unrest, which has been met by the criminalization of struggles.
In recent years several workers have been detained and prosecuted. Can you talk to us about this phenomenon?
In February 2020, Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba, two young Chavistas who worked in PDVSA, were arbitrarily detained. That is when the alarms began to go off in the Chavista rank and file. Alfredo and Aryenis had attempted to denounce corruption and other problems in the oil enterprise – these bad practices were damaging the nation’s interests. That is why they took steps to report the problems.
Instead of taking their reports into account, Alfredo and Aryenis were punished for their patriotic and principled actions: they were publicly accused of treason, leaking information to the CIA, corruption, and criminal association. Those are very serious charges but there was no evidence to sustain them.
Those of us who knew Alfredo and Aryenis know of their commitment to the Bolivarian Process and of their hard and honest work in PDVSA. It is all too evident that they were prosecuted because of the corruption reports that they had made.
When the prosecution’s files were reviewed, the defense found that there was no viable proof to try the two of them. On top of that, the files incriminated other PDVSA managers who have not been charged to date. This led us to the conclusion that Alfredo and Aryenis were scapegoats: the objective was to make a show, to make a news story about an anti-corruption process frameup while covering up the real problems within PDVSA.
As the solidarity with Alfredo and Aryenis grew within Chavismo, we began to see that they were not the only workers in this situation.
Alfredo and Aryenys are now under house arrest.
How many workers have been prosecuted and what is their situation now?
Surgentes, a Chavista human rights organization, has documented 126 such cases since 2015. Some of them are in jail; some of them are under house arrest; others get probation or indictments pending.
In general, imprisoning workers is truly deplorable. Further, their condition weighs on family members who have to assist their loved ones with food and other expenses related to the defense process. This is particularly hard in times of crisis.
We became aware of the situation when we organized for the liberation of Alfredo and Aryenis. When their cause and the mobilization became public, many similar cases were brought to us by family members and friends. It became clear to us that there is a pattern.
Many of the workers who had cases against them had denounced corruption or were organizing in their workplace, and they were all charged with the same set of crimes: treason, leaking information, and terrorism. However, none of the prosecution’s files had viable evidence.
There is another situation that concerns us a great deal: procedural delays of months and even years are very common. Then, when the judge sees that there is no viable evidence against the accused, they will often claim that they are being pressured to condemn. In the end, the judge will often opt to convict, giving the accused a “benevolent” sentence such as house arrest or a probation regime.
There are some 100 of the 126 cases in this situation. Why does this happen? Because the state needs to cover up the mess, and declaring them not guilty after months or years in jail would generate even more criticism.
Let’s talk about some of the other cases that you are working on.
We are now celebrating a partial victory: the release of Eudis Girot after more than a year in jail. We call this a partial victory because he was released with an injunction. However, we are happy that he is not locked up any more.
Eudis worked in PDVSA for more than 30 years, and he was highly respected in the industry. In fact, he was one of the workers who fought against the 2002 oil sabotage. He was even decorated with honors by Chávez for his patriotic commitment to the oil industry on three occasions.
Because of his moral authority, Eudis became a labor activist and, in recent years, he also denounced corruption in the industry.
He was accused of terrorism, treason, corruption, and ilegal possesion of weapons in 2020 when he was locked down.
Since there was no evidence against Eudis, the pressure to release him built up. When this happened the charges against him were shifted to incitement, getting him a “lighter” three-year sentence. Eudis spent two years behind bars and now he is on probation. We consider this a partial victory of the popular movement.
Another emblematic case is that of Guillermo González, a young air traffic controller who worked in Maiquetia, the main international airport in Venezuela. Controllers have to report airplane arrivals, departures, routes and type (cargo or commercial).
Two years ago Guillermo got a call offering him a bribe in exchange for not reporting the arrival and departure of some airplanes. He didn’t accept the offer and reported the situation to his boss. This was immediately followed by an arbitrary arrest, and he was charged with terrorism, leaking information, corruption, and criminal association.
Once again, the prosecutor’s files hold no proof against Guillermo. On top of that, he has brought the attempted bribery to the judge’s attention, but the judge has not investigated the claim.
The fact that there is no evidence incriminating Guillermo – be it documents, recorded conversations, videos, or email communications – is evidence that his imprisonment is a case of retaliation.
You mentioned procedural delays before as a common occurrence. Can you talk to us about this problem?
Indeed, one of the main problems in the justice system are the procedural delays. We are working with cases with delays of four or more years. For instance Francia Mata Especier has been in jail for six years without a preliminary hearing.
In a preliminary hearing the judge reviews the evidence and, if there is no case, the accused is to be released. According to the Venezuelan Penal Code, these hearings are due to happen within the first sixty days of the arrest. Technically, if the accused does not have a preliminary hearing within the first two months, she should be let go… but Francia has been in jail for six years already!
There are other problems with the criminal justice system, including arbitrary detentions, isolation, and constant pressure to declare themselves guilty. In the case of Alfredo Chrinos, he was physically and psychologically pressured to declare himself a CIA operative. They even showed him a fake US visa to his name so that he would accept the charge. This is really outrageous, because Alfredo has never left Venezuela and doesn’t even have a passport.
Unfortunately, pressure on detainees so that they declare themselves guilty outside of court is very common.
Can you tell us about the Committee for the Liberation of the Imprisoned Workers?
We first began to organize for the liberation of Alfredo and Aryenis. However, that struggle brought to our attention many similar cases. That is when we decided to create the committee.
Who participates in the committee?
Family members and friends who want to make the situation of their loved ones known. It also includes activists from different left organizations, many of them Chavistas.
The Committee is committed to the revolutionary process: we struggle against imperialism and its local agents, but we also understand that there are internal contradictions and that there are currents within Chavismo that go against the common interests of the Venezuelan pueblo.