In Venezuela, You’re a Critic One Day, and Arrested the Next

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Of all the government critics, few thought that Rocío San Miguel would be the one to disappear.

Ms. San Miguel, 57, has long been one of Venezuela’s best known security experts, a woman who dared investigate her country’s authoritarian government even as others fled. She is also a moderate, has international recognition and appeared to have strong contacts in the secretive world of the Venezuelan military, qualities that her peers thought might protect her.

But late last week, Ms. San Miguel arrived at the airport outside Caracas with her daughter, bound for what a relative called a short trip to Miami, when she was picked up by counterintelligence agents. Soon after, her family began to disappear, too. The daughter, two brothers and two former romantic partners. Gone.

For four days, the only public information about Ms. San Miguel came from Venezuela’s top prosecutor, who claimed on social media, without providing evidence, that Ms. San Miguel had been linked to a plot to kill the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, her lawyers said she had surfaced — and was being held in a notoriously brutal detention center. Her family was also in state custody.

The arrest of Ms. San Miguel, the head of a modest but influential nonprofit organization that monitors the armed forces, has triggered a small earthquake in Venezuela’s human rights circles, where just a few months ago many watched with guarded anticipation as Mr. Maduro signed a deal with the country’s opposition, promising to work toward a free and fair presidential election later this year.

Political change, if still a far-off possibility, seemed worth dreaming about.

Now, the small group of activists, aid workers, critics, analysts, journalists and others who have been able to hang on inside the country — despite years of repression and economic crisis — are watching the space in which they operate narrow even further.

And as a result, the path toward democracy looks as difficult as ever.

A new law proposed by Mr. Maduro’s party seeks to strictly regulate nonprofit organizations, prohibiting them from engaging in actions “that threaten national stability,” leading to concerns that it will be used to criminalize these groups.

The country’s leading opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, has been disqualified from running in the presidential election, several of her staff members have been arrested and a violent, government-affiliated gang recently interrupted one of her events, bloodying supporters.

“If this happened to Rocío San Miguel, then what’s left for everybody else?” said Laura Dib, who directs the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The jailing of people the Maduro government considers a threat is not new. There are 263 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to a watchdog group, Foro Penal, many of whom have been held without trial for years.

What distinguishes Ms. San Miguel’s case is not just how prominent and well connected she was — it’s that the authorities detained her entire family, and then kept all of them without communication for days, a tactic known under international law as “forced disappearance.”

Taken together, these measures are part a noteworthy shift in repression, said Gonzalo Himiob of Foro Penal, in which the government seeks out cases that draw media attention and uses detention tactics that are likely to escalate fear among those who challenge its rule.

“The government is crossing lines it had not crossed before,” he said.

At the heart of these actions appears to be Mr. Maduro’s own fear. Chavismo, the movement he leads, has governed Venezuela since his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, won a presidential election in 1998.

Mr. Chávez, and then Mr. Maduro, oversaw a socialist-inspired revolution that at first lifted many out of poverty. But in recent years, government mismanagement of the oil sector, as well as corruption and U.S. sanctions, have devastated the economy.

A humanitarian crisis inside the country has spilled out of its borders, with millions of Venezuelans seeking refuge elsewhere.

Mr. Maduro wants the U.S. to lift sanctions, which could help improve the country’s financial situation, and which Washington has said it will do if Mr. Maduro makes moves to support democracy.

In October, with cautious praise from the U.S. and its allies, Mr. Maduro signed a deal with the opposition to hold a presidential election.

Days later, the main opposition candidate, Ms. Machado, won a primary vote with turnout that exceeded expectations and was seen as sign of Mr. Maduro’s weakness.

The arrests of Ms. San Miguel and her family, Ms. Dib said, are a “message to civil society, that they are not going to get what they want.” Meaning, a real election.

Mr. Maduro, she added, “is not willing to lose power.”

Ms. San Miguel, a dual Venezuelan-Spanish citizen, is the head of Citizen Control, which has published an investigation on the number of people killed by state security forces and criticized a Venezuelan law allowing the use of deadly force during protests.

On the morning of Feb. 9, Ms. San Miguel had arrived at the airport outside Caracas with her 26-year-old daughter, according to Minnie Díaz Paruta, an aunt of the daughter.

Ms. San Miguel was approached by government agents and taken into custody.

Terrified, the daughter returned to Caracas. A day later, she returned to the airport to retrieve her luggage, but the young woman soon disappeared, failing to answer messages, said the aunt. Ms. San Miguel’s brothers and former partners were detained around this time, according to Ms. Díaz and other reports.

Two days later, Venezuela’s top prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, announced on the social media platform X that Ms. San Miguel was being held by the state, accused of involvement in an operation that he claimed sought Mr. Maduro’s assassination.

He assured the public that the detention had taken place in accord with “international standards for the protection of human rights.”

(Mr. Maduro’s government frequently claims to uncover assassination plots against him.)

Ms. San Miguel’s lawyers were not permitted to see her or told where she was.

A group of human rights activists toured some of the country’s detention centers, hoping to find her, Ms. Dib said, without success. It’s unclear how she was eventually found.

The U.S. Embassy to Venezuela, which is in neighboring Colombia, said the arrests followed “a worrying trend of apparently arbitrary detentions of democratic actors.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council, which in 2020 said that Mr. Maduro had committed “crimes against humanity” in his efforts to silence the opposition, issued a similar statement.

On Feb. 13, Ms. San Miguel appeared at a hearing the evening before, accused of treason, conspiracy and terrorism, Mr. Saab said. Her lawyers said they were not present.

Later that day, a member of her defense team announced online that she had been located: she was at the Helicoide, a 1950s-era building built as a shopping center that has since become a well-known detention facility.

The United Nations mission examining human rights violations in the country has interviewed Helicoide detainees and says that they have reported torture, including beatings and the use of electric shocks.

The mission also reported, in 2022, that the director of the country’s top intelligence agency, who holds significant power in the Helicoide, received direct orders from Mr. Maduro.

Ms. San Miguel’s lawyer said that one of her ex-partners, Alejandro González, would be held in another facility, and both would remain in custody.

The four other family members, Miranda Díaz San Miguel, Víctor Díaz Paruta, Miguel San Miguel and Alberto San Miguel, would be released on the condition that they did not leave the country or speak to the media.

News of the arrests spread quickly. Jairo Chourio, 46, who lives in the city of Maracaibo, said he learned about Ms. San Miguel’s arrest in a Telegram group, where he received information from the country’s socialist party. He cheered the detentions, which must have been “well-deserved.”

Others said the arrests were distressing signs of the state of the country’s democracy.

“In my family, we are all scared to speak out,” said Andrea Bracho, 28, also from Maracaibo.

Ms. Bracho had only decided to speak to a reporter, she said, “because tomorrow I am leaving the country.”

“For now, I have no hope,” she continued. “And I am so sad about it.”

Sheyla Urdaneta contributed reporting from Maracaibo, Venezuela.





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