Venezuelan Opposition Tries to Demean Law against Silence and Forgetting

Yesterday Iris Varela of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) accused the Venezuelan opposition of trying to throw ‘a cloak of immunity’ over those who carried out massacres and torture during the era of the 4th Republic (1958-1998). Varela made the comments after members of the opposition tried to deride the proposed Law Against Silence and Forgetting, which was approved in first discussion by parliament yesterday. 

By Rachael Boothroyd - Venezuelanalysis.com

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Iris Varela of the PSUV party says that torture and murder became ‘state policy’ during the 4th Republic (CorreodelOrinoco).
Iris Varela of the PSUV party says that torture and murder became ‘state policy’ during the 4th Republic (CorreodelOrinoco).
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Coro, June 23rd 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Yesterday Iris Varela of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) accused the Venezuelan opposition of trying to throw ‘a cloak of immunity’ over those who carried out massacres and torture during the era of the 4th Republic (1958-1998). Varela made the comments after members of the opposition tried to deride the proposed Law Against Silence and Forgetting, which was approved in first discussion by parliament yesterday.

The law, which is expected to be passed later this year, seeks to hold to account the perpetrators of human rights abuses between 1958 and 1998. During this period at least 4000 people were murdered and perhaps more than 1000 were ‘disappeared’ in a campaign of terror sustained against the left.

“The idea of this law isn’t to sow hatred, it is to carry out justice and put an end to impunity in this country, to see if one day we can truly build organisations with equal rights and duties, in which discussion is a constant dynamic,” said the president of the national assembly, Fernando Soto Rojas, whose brother was tortured and killed during the 4th Republic.

 Collective Memory

One of the main objectives of the law is to ensure that these events are remembered in the Venezuelan collective memory.

“It is about demanding justice, about recovering memory. The Venezuelan people have been made to believe that the act of remembering is pointless, but one of the most important actions for a human being is memory,” said Venezuelan journalist José Vicente Rangel.

A chapter in the legislation entitled “historical memory” stresses the importance of raising awareness of these events through “public and academic institutions”. According to PSUV legislator Jesus Farias, the law should become a “political instrument and mechanism to link the people to their history”.

The legislation also proposes the establishment of a “Truth and Justice Commission” - an investigative body made up of 8 representatives from different state institutions and 9 representatives from the Family and Friends Front for the Victims of State Crimes between 1958 and 1998.

Popular power has played an important role in pushing for the development of the law since it was initially proposed in 2009 – most notably in the popular consultation which took place at the end of May this year. The consultation acted as a space in which those who were affected by the violence of the 4th Republic could directly contribute and make proposals to the formation of the legislation. As well as the Front, the Venezuelan Human Rights Foundation and victims of the 4th Republic were also in attendance.

If the law is passed, important military and police documents will also be declassified for investigative purposes, so that families might finally know under what circumstances their relations were killed.

Opposition Reacts

The period of time that the law refers to is commonly known as the era of the Punto Fijo Pact – when political power was monopolised by the two ruling parties COPEI (Christian Democrat Party) and AD (Democratic Action Party). The two parties banned the Venezuelan Communist Party in the early 1960s, effectively driving the left underground. Radical peasant groups often bore the brunt of repressive state policies.

Some of the most notorious massacres of this period were; the Cantaura Massacre (1982), the Yumare Massacre (1986), the Massacre of El Amparo (1988), the Caracazo (1989) and El Reten Prison Massacre (1992).

The Venezuelan opposition has rallied against the new law. Specifically the time period outlined by the legislation.

Juan José Caldera (PJ - Justice First-Miranda), William Dávila (AD-Mérida); Walter Márquez (Copei-Táchira); Luis Barragán (PJ-Aragua) and Freddy Valera (Causa R-Bolívar)  were some of the opposition members who voted against the law in parliament and accused the Chávez government of committing human rights offenses of equal measure to those of the 4th Republic.

“The opposition are trying to distort Venezuelan history, with respect to the thousands who were disappeared, tortured and murdered during the years of the 4th Republic,” said Varela, who described the violence of those years as “incomparable” with the current government’s record.

Farías stated that, unlike the Perez Jiminez dictatorship that immediately preceded it, the state in the 4th Republic constitutionally guaranteed the right to life, but in reality “this was systematically violated”.

Venezuelan Exceptionalism

Similar laws and/or ‘Truth Commissions’ have been implemented in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, where military dictatorships were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 2005 the latter two overruled unconstitutional ‘Amnesty Laws’ established in the aftermath of the dictatorships to protect government and military officials from prosecution.

However, the Venezuelan Punto Fijo government has been lauded internationally as the hallmark of Latin American democracy at the time, prompting international observers to talk of “Venezuelan exceptionalism”. Despite this ‘supposed democracy’, incidences of “disappearances, murder and torture” became “state policy” said Varela.