The below letter, directed at Latin American human rights organizations, was published on April 18, 2013 by Venezuelan human rights coalition Foro Por la Vida and signed by a group of well-known Venezuelan advocates. It should be noted, the National Electoral Council has since granted a full recount over the next 30 days, although the scheduled swearing-in of President Nicolas Maduro nonetheless took place today. [WP] Since the election, Venezuelan human rights groups have reported instances of arbitrary detention of protesters and opposition politicians, excessive use of force by government agents, and politically-motivated dismissal (or the threat of dismissal) of public employees. The letter presents these human rights defenders’ perspective on the electoral process and asks other organizations to consider their views, which have largely been left out of the international media coverage. We reprint it here, in English (unofficial translation).
Open Letter to the Human Rights Organizations of Latin America
You know us. Some of us have been human rights defenders for more than 20 years. We have seen each other in many international seminars, we have co-signed countless statements and press releases, we have shared joys and sorrows, doubts and tools for strengthening the organizations of which we are a part. In full responsibility, we submit to you this communication so that you may know a summary of our view of recent events in our country, Venezuela.
You know that, in 1998, we welcomed the election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency as an opportunity to work toward a national human rights plan. We recall that we were even able to meet with him when he pledged to work together to strengthen human rights in the country. In 1999, we actively participated in the drafting process, sharing our collective experience which contributed concretely to the final drafting of Title III relating to human rights and guarantees which enshrines civil and political rights and human rights, and of the provisions included in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. While we thought then that the conditions were ripe for collaboration with the State in designing and monitoring public policies that emphasized human rights, political polarization led the executive branch to make the poor decision to declare that we were his enemies and that he would no longer engage in dialogue with our organizations. In recent years, we have documented and reported on the difficulties surrounding access to public information, as well as the different strategies aimed at criminalizing our work and, in general, the [challenges around] exercise of the right to protest in the country, in particular around social rights issues. We have also denounced the bills and laws that seek to criminalize receipt of international assistance in connection with our work serving victims of human rights violations.
Following the death of President Chávez, elections were scheduled for April 14. Inequalities in the exercise of the right to participation in the election process have been documented by organizations participating as observers in these events. For several years, human rights organizations have expressed concern over the imbalance in election campaigns due to the use of State resources to support the government’s desired outcome. Despite the official advantage, the various political actors agreed on elections as the means for resolving their differences, rejecting the undemocratic pathways of our recent past. The day of the vote, as we confirmed through our own monitoring of the situation, the use of public resources to support the government’s position continued and various irregularities took place, as we are documenting for our reports. The monitoring body, the National Electoral Council (CNE), announced at 11:00p.m. that Nicolas Maduro was the winner by a 250,000-vote margin, or less than 2% of the vote. With a result this close, and taking into account the allegations of electoral irregularities, it seemed likely that a recount would be requested to dispel any reasonable doubt about the outcome. After the announcement of the results, the candidate Henrique Capriles challenged them in a mechanism that is not only provided for in our election laws, but which has been used in various local and regional elections to reverse results that had been falsified and manipulated. When President-elect Nicolas Maduro announced that night that he would accept an audit of 100% of the votes, we thought we were witnessing the institutional strengthening of democratic tools of reconciliation and conflict resolution. However, we were wrong.
The next day, various high-level government spokespersons, in addition to the CNE rector Tibisay Lucena, rejected a recount, a position which was then repeated by President-elect Maduro, contradicting his statement from 24 hours earlier. This denial, which closed the political avenues for resolving the conflict, created the conditions for violence. While not illegal, it was politically awkward that – with a recount request pending – Nicolas Maduro was declared the president of the country for the period 2013-2019, thereby increasing the tension among a significant sector of the country. The “cacerolazo” [pot-banging protest] of April 15 was organized by candidate Capriles to demonstrate opposition to the rejection of a recount and it was carried out on a wide scale in major cities across the country, as well as in various small and medium-sized communities and, significantly, in areas traditionally supportive of the ruling party. That night, in the absence of mechanisms for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the disagreement, there were excesses on both sides, resulting in assaults, intimidation, violence, injuries and deaths in different parts of the country.
The candidate Capriles, in legitimate exercise of the right to participation and peaceful demonstration, had called for a demonstration in Caracas on April 17 in order to formally request that the CNE activate a recount. In a televised address, Maduro prohibited the march from taking place, de facto suspending the constitutional guarantee of the right to protest.
Several top government spokespersons, amplified by the national public media at the national level and internationally by the Telesur network, argued that non-government actors were attempting to reenact “the script coup” of 2002, a statement that began to be repeated even by networks of which we are part. In this way, the true trigger of the current crisis – the denial of a democratic, institutionalized mechanism [the recount] – was deliberately concealed, giving way to violence. Yesterday, April 16, President Maduro summoned his followers to face off in the street against the “coup supporters,” which increased the human rights violations against citizens who participated in opposition marches. The government line of action has been to promote confrontation and not to engage in a dialogue with half of the country. Against this background, we organizations have declared a state of emergency. As a consequence of Maduro’s announcement, the candidate Capriles suspended the planned demonstration, in his words, to avoid acts of violence that would draw the debate away from his request for a recount of 100% of the votes. This decision helps to lower the levels of confrontation in the short term but we cannot know for how long. And, the President of the National Assembly, Lieutenant Diosdado Cabello, vice president of Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) denied the right to speak to opposition (non-PSUV) deputies who wished to speak in a plenary session of the Parliament today and, by order of President of the Assembly, those deputies were suspended from their posts as presidents of special committees of the National Assembly. All this adds up to a resounding lack of recognition of the popular will that put these opposition deputies in office during the elections of September 2010 and whose mandates were not subject to any valid legal discussion.
Amid the polarization we have experienced in this country, we as organizations are committed to a peaceful and democratic solution to conflicts and the promotion of tolerance and we believe that – in light of the ongoing political crisis – a solution that ensures governability, strengthening of institutions and dialogue is of fundamental importance.
Out of respect for our shared work, we ask you to consider this summary of our views on what is happening in Venezuela. We believe it is fair, in view of the right to political participation, that the government agree to count the votes, showing that the popular will has supported it as before. Our organizations support this request, in line with our representation of victims of human rights violations and rejection of violence and intolerance, no matter their source. We are confident that, as we have done in the past, we will never make use of undemocratic shortcuts that violate the rule of law in our country. We know that the state of polarization makes it difficult from the outside to have the best information about what is going on, so we recommend you read contrasting views on the situation in our country, without losing sight of the protection of human rights. As much as is possible, we will try to increase the flow of information coming from our organizations.
In this climate of confrontation and criminalization of peaceful protest, anyone who has not uncritically and unconditionally endorsed the official election results is being labeled as “right wing” with the same ease with which in the past we [human rights defenders] have been called “leftists” or “defenders of guerrillas and criminals.” We hope these words will help you discern what we have always been and we will continue to be: defenders of the fundamental principles of a democratic society, the rule of law and human rights.
In gratitude for the willingness to broaden the perspective on the situation in Venezuela, we sign off with warm regards.
Ligia Bolivar O.
Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andrés Bello (UCAB)
General Coordinator Venezuelan Program of Education – Action in Human Rights (Provide)
Founding member of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the events of February and March 1989 (Cofavic)
Executive Director, Citizen Action ACCSI Against AIDS
Father Raul Herrera
Director of Center for Peace and Human Rights Central University of Venezuela
President Civilis HR
José Gregorio Guarenas
Manager DD.HH Vicar of Caracas
Sister Maria José González
Caritas Los Teques Justice and Peace
Venezuelan Observatory of Human Rights of Women