On Venezuela’s national Independence Day, rival demonstrations kicked off in the capital city Caracas, fueled by a new UN report describing political detentions and thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country.
In the middle-class streets of Eastern Caracas, protesters gathered in large numbers at the call of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Their slogan: “No more torture.”
“There are no euphemisms that exist to characterize this regime more than ‘dictatorship’,” Guaido told reporters that day, citing the scathing report’s findings.
Meanwhile, as if in another world, embattled president Nicolas Maduro presided over a colorful military parade, where supporters shouted patriotic slogans as tanks rolled before them – an unusual sight even for the highly militarized country.
UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who oversaw the report, they said, had simply been following a script written by Washington.
The OHCHR report
Issued one day earlier, the 16-page report has renewed longstanding criticisms of the embattled Maduro regime. It was created by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a group Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has repeatedly criticized as “biased.”
The report vividly described a state that’s failing to deliver basic necessities to its people, including the right to food, medical care and freedom of speech.
Diseases that had once been eradicated from Venezuela are re-emerging, it said, and laid the blame at Maduro’s feet for allowing hunger to run rampant. “The Government has not demonstrated that it has used all resources at its disposal to ensure […] the right to food,” it said, noting that public food aid is unequally distributed to favor government supporters.
Earlier this week, a Venezuelan Navy captain died while in government custody, prompting the arrest of two military officers for murder. His wife has accused counterintelligence officers of torturing him — an accusation that OHCHR’s findings support: The report described arbitrary detention as a “principal means” of social control for the Maduro administration, and offered evidence of systematic torture for political detainees.
Based on a sample group of 135 people, the organization found that detained men and women were subjected to torture or “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” including “electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boardings, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures.” In interviews, women told the organization that threats of rape, forced nudity and inappropriate touching were among the tactics used to humiliate prisoners and extract confessions.
A shockingly high number of those who have run-ins with government forces never make it to detention. Venezuela’s feared Special Action Forces (FAES), a rapid-response government security unit, has previously been implicated in extrajudicial killings, and civilians told CNN earlier this year that the FAES killed their family members in apparently unprovoked raids.
Thousands of Venezuelans have been killed while “resisting authority,” according to government statistics, and the new UN report cast doubt on how “resisting authority” is defined in FAES operations.
FAES members fake crime scenes to justify killings, the report alleged. In interviews with the family members of 20 such victims, the report found that “in every case, witnesses reported how FAES manipulated the crime scene and evidence. They would plant arms and drugs and fire their weapons against the walls or in the air to suggest a confrontation and to show the victim had ‘resisted authority’.”
In 2018 alone, 5,287 Venezuelans were killed while “resisting authority,” the report said, citing the Maduro administration’s own figures.
From January to May 2019, an official count of 1,569 more were killed. Local organizations estimate that the death toll is even higher.
Maduro regime responds
The Maduro administration has fiercely rejected the OHCHR’s findings. In a statement on Thursday, it described the report as “a selective and openly partial vision on the real situation of Human Rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
It also criticized the organization’s methodology and accused it of omitting Venezuela’s achievements in murder reduction, which it credits in part to stronger low enforcement.
Before the report’s release, Bachelet had visited Venezuela in June. She held meetings with both Maduro and opposition leader Guaido, and said on Friday that her office had been advocating for the release of those detained in Venezuela for acts of non-violent dissent.
Twenty-two detainees, including the high-profile judge Lourdes Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, were indeed released in the wake of the report. But as months of nationwide protests and international pressure fail to produce change in the government or its policies, it’s unclear what one more report can achieve in the long-term. Jatar, who had been arrested after reporting on anti-government protests in 2016, tweeted today that his release came with “limited freedom.”
So far, Guaido’s much-heralded opposition movement has also failed to change policy or displace Maduro since it emerged in January. Friday’s protests appeared similarly inconclusive by mid-afternoon.
Asked by CNN’s Isa Soares if the country’s opposition movement had lost its momentum after failing to unseat Maduro, Guaido -— who has been recognized by the US and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader — nevertheless responded that “the momentum of liberty cannot be lost.”
“Our strategy has been to build a majority, to out into the streets, to have international recognition, to denounce the human rights violations, document them, the way they are being presented to the world today,” he said.
Pozzebon reported from Caracas, and Hu reported and wrote from New York. CNN’s Isa Soares and David McKenzie also contributed to this report.