Venezuela ‘vexes’ its dissenters

President Maduro stands accused of ‘old fashioned’ repression

In the absence of common ground between government and protestors, the local Church is once again in the ‘space between’ in a story of protest and punishment.

Just as has been evident in Ukraine, the Church in Venezuela has attempted to reach out to greatly divided sides amid escalating violence there.

Coming something of a poor second to events in Kiev, the violence which began in Venezuela on February 12 has struggled to rise up international news cycles despite numerous deaths in clashes across the country and similar allegations of lethal tactics employed by police and national guardsmen in attempting to suppress the protests.

The protests actually pre-date February 12 and were sparked in January when the country was shaken by the murder of Monica Spear a former Miss Venezuela, who was shot dead along with her husband during a roadside robbery. However, it was on that date that matters became far more sinister as a protest turned ugly, with protestors venting their frustrations on the police, leading to three deaths and multiple arrests.


With the marker apparently set, protests have spread since then, with the number of fatalities rising (to six as The Irish Catholic went to press this week), with yet another famous beauty queen, Génesis Carmona, counted among the dead and a prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, among the hundreds now under arrest. Many more have been seriously injured in clashes.

With the protests showing no signs of abating, and government forces continuing with their hard tactics in response, the Venezuelan bishops stepped into the breach on February 18 with a letter of appeal to both sides “to work in the building of peace” while urging the government of President Nicolas Maduro to rein in its forces and the “disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force to maintain public order, vexing human dignity”.

Human rights

“We commit ourselves…in supporting and advising the victims and in following-up of the events that occurred, calling for an independent investigation, and the guarantee and respect of human rights,” the bishops stressed.

That the bishops felt compelled to support an independent investigation of events points to a mistrust of officialdom that has survived the era of former President Hugo Chavez, whose death last March led to the rise (by an extremely slim majority) of Mr Maduro.

Grounds for that mistrust appear well founded in the apparent ‘reversion to type’ on the part of government in its broader response to popular disaffection.

Even before the latest wave of protests, Mr Maduro’s administration demonstrated its reluctance to countenance criticism, moving to restrict those media outlets deemed to be ‘anti-government’ in their coverage. Through a slow process of manoeuvring, the government in 2013 built on its stake in the Globovision television network (long a thorn in the side of Hugo Chavez and seen as critical of his successor) to see the sale of the broadcaster outright to investors alleged to have friendly links to Mr Maduro. Critical coverage has since decreased.


Similar actions have marked the current tribulations. When it aired the violence involved in protests, including images of a dead protestor, Colombian news channel NTN24 was shut out of the cable network on the president’s orders, while US broadcaster CNN had equipment seized and was threatened with expulsion for its own coverage. On the internet, meanwhile, February 14 saw a shutdown of Twitter in an attempt to stop protestors communicating and sharing graphic images. Twitter itself confirmed the Venezuelan government was responsible for the shutdown.

On other fronts, the administration has tapped more ‘traditional’ tactics in its drive against dissent.


Seeking to deflect blame for the escalation in protests, on February 17 the administration expelled three American diplomats, claiming that they were working to fuel the demonstrations. America was quick to dismiss the allegation, with President Barack Obama himself stating: “Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people.”


Mr Maduro apparently does not feel he has to do so, given his denials that the protestors are in fact students with grievances at all, describing them to his own supporters as “fascists” bent on destroying Venezuela.

Mr Maduro was able to address his supporters directly on this as his government has not banned rallies for them, but has done so for the opposition. Supporters were also gratified to hear the claim that Ms Carmona was not killed by the forces of law and order, but shot by her own side. “This girl died from a bullet that came from her own ranks,” Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres said.

Regarding Mr Lopez, meanwhile, when he handed himself over to police custody on February 20, in relation to organising of protests, his prosecutors were quick to level charges of terrorism and murder, only to later reduce these to arson and conspiracy. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced concern about the Lopez case, with warnings of attempts “to silence dissent in the country”.

In this, the rights groups have echoed the bishops, who have decried “any initiative that tends to violence and distorts the peaceful will of the citizens to express their opinions, ideas and discontent”. The prelates have called on the government to furnish a full list of those detained in connection with the protests.

There is little hope of that with Mr Maduro now sounding off about martial law in the more troublesome areas and threatening to use troops against the protestors.

Hugo Chavez would be very proud.