In a country ravaged by authoritarian socialism under dictator Nicolás Maduro, voicing opposition can be a death sentence. Freedom of speech and the right of expression are taken for granted where they exist, and it’s difficult for many in the West to envision a country whereby expressing a political opinion would endanger your own life as well as that of your family and closest friends.
For Ariana Granadillo, it was a ‘knock in the dark’. Government agents, without a warrant, detained Granadillo, confined, beat, interrogated and threatened to suffocate her. Granadillo’s only crime had been that she was related to a political opponent, her father’s second cousin. Secret detentions such as these are used by the Venezuelan government as a tool to control its population and discourage dissent. Human rights groups counted over 200 cases in 2018 but 524 in 2019, revealing how sinister the situation has become. As well as arbitrary detentions, Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute recorded 1,032 violations to freedom of expression and access to public information for citizens. This year, there were 326 aggressions and attacks on journalists, the nature of which includes detentions. More important than counting the number of violations is the lasting impact of such tyrannical governance – a deliberately instilled fear of fighting against the government.
Before Maduro, it was Hugo Chávez’s reign of destruction that plagued Venezuela, beginning in 1998 until his death in 2013. A damning report by Human Rights Watch in 2008 accused Chávez’s government of flouting human rights by ‘neutralising the judiciary’ with allies and increasing censorship in private media. The systemic abuse of freedoms has proven to have become entrenched by Venezuela’s worsening humanitarian crisis under Maduro. The government suppresses dissent through violent crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, and by prosecuting civilians in military courts. There remains no check on executive power by opposition groups. In 2019, a UN humanitarian affairs chief estimated that there were 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Venezuela – a quarter of its entire population. Whilst organisations send medicines and food supplies into the country, they are withheld by Maduro’s government and used to manipulate citizens into voting.
Yet, the same UN that recognises the perilous position of Venezuela’s people and its violations on basic freedoms, voted last year for the country to sit on its Human Rights Council. In fitting company, the council also hosts China, which has detained over 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in re-education camps; Saudi Arabia, which likewise carries out arbitrary detentions and continues to commit atrocities against the Yemeni people; and Cuba, whose government represses and punishes dissent and criticism. Countries which are guilty of committing human rights atrocities often seek positions on the council to prevent alarms being raised towards their own country. Whilst the Venezuelan crisis continues to unravel, its people remain afraid of speaking out for fear of arrest and torture, or worse, their own families being punished instead. Whilst the Venezuelan government enjoys another two years on the council, those that are brave enough to take action may only await a ‘knock in the dark’.