Venezuela: Amnesty lets down human rights defenders

An opposition barricade, as part of a sustained campaign of violent protests, in Merida on February 19. Photo by Ewan Robertson/

In a recent article, Amnesty International accused the Venezuelan government of a “witch hunt” when a right-wing opposition mayor Daniel Ceballos was arrested.

However, Amnesty has yet to use such strong language against the five weeks of human rights violations people in Venezuela have suffered at the hands of violent opposition sectors. The “witch hunt” term demonises the people’s right to bring such criminals to justice.

In its March 20 statement, “Venezuela: Arrest of local mayor signals potential 'witch hunt'”, Amnesty says Ceballos, mayor of San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state on the Colombian border, was arrested for his “alleged involvement in anti-government protests ... authorities in Venezuela seem to be setting the scene for a witch hunt against opposition leaders”.

It is important to counter the horrendous distortions contained in this article, because the private media will quote its positions as fact. Articles like this embolden the criminals and coup participants who are among opposition leaders. It also makes it harder for those of us who have suffered from opposition violence to demand arrests, and authorities to carry them out.

As I write here in Merida, I can hear constant gunshots coming from down the road. Violent groups, who demand elected President Nicolas Maduro resign, are firing at people, buses, and cars on a main city intersection.

They have set a bus on fire and two people have been shot, including a youth from the barrio where I teach. The other is a CANTV worker —reports coming in now that he has died. Four police have been injured. The driver of that bus has now lost his living.

That intersection has been like this, to different extents, for weeks. Because of the violent opposition blockades, people have not been able to exercise their human rights and to go to work, school, shops and hospitals.

There are similar blockades around the country, mainly concentrated ares run by opposition mayors. The blockaders verbally abuse, physically attack, and sometimes charge bribes to people who want to get through.

Some have not been able to get through and have been stuck inside their house, or outside of it, for weeks.

The blockaders have hung effigies of “Chavistas” (supporters of the process of change initiated by late president Hugo Chavez) in red shirts, and painted slogans in the road that involve anti-Cuban racism.

Journalists, including myself, have been physically attacked and threatened when trying to cover what Amnesty refers to as “protests”. If they were protests, the protesters would welcome the publicity.

At time of writing, 31 people have been killed, most by blockaders. Violent opposition sectors have destroyed buses, burned houses and shops, attacked the public buildings and media outlets, and destroyed public infrastructure like traffic lights.

By leaving out all context, and ignoring the opposition’s proven history of backing the rich elites, Amnesty probably believes it is being “neutral”.

In fact, the group’s limited and Eurocentric understanding of rights leads to it condemning a so-called attack on an individual facing criminal charges while being blind to the (failing) bid to overthrow a democratically elected government.

Ceballos has publicly supported that attempt. His level of involvement in the violence is up to the courts to decide.

Ceballos blamed the National Guard for the death of an opposition blockader, despite video evidence proving the contrary, then paraded the victim’s coffin through the town to support his political cause.

The Supreme Court ordered Ceballos to remove blockades in the city so people could exercise their right to free transit. He ignored the order.

Tachira governor has accused Ceballos of having foreign bank accounts with money made from supporting drug smuggling and contraband petrol. He also accused Ceballos o fallowing Colombian paramilitaries in the city, who have allegedly been supporting the far right’s campaign to remove Maduro.

Internal affairs minister Miguel Rodriguez said: “A mayor is obliged to comply with the constitution and the law, and to not foment violence, anarchy, and civil rebellion”.

Given that there is at least very solid evidence for his support for the violent barricades, is it some some basis for Ceballos to face court? If a mayor in Australia or the US or Europe were to actively encourage destruction of public property, chaos, closing roads so that people can’t get urgent medical care, and the overthrow of that nation’s government, would it be a “witch hunt” if that mayor faced charges?

Or is it only progressive governments that are not allowed to arrest criminals and put them on trial?

In the article, Amnesty’s Americas spokesperson Guadalupe Marengo concludes: “It is undeniable that authorities in Venezuela have a responsibility to maintain public order. However, unless they respect the human rights of all and exercise restraint, their actions will lead to even more violence.”

What Marengo fails to acknowledge, is the remarkable levels of restraint the Venezuelan government has exercised.

No other government in the world would be this restrained in the face of such intense and long lasting violence and human rights violations, as well as the threat to overthrow it.

There are 14 members of security forces who have been arrested for alleged abuses and excessive use of force. In Australia, not one police officer responsible for killing and Aboriginal person has ever been arrested — they tend to be promoted.

Further, despite putting up with constant verbal harassment, racism, injuries, and six deaths so far from opposition “protesters”, the National Guard has mostly remained calm. giving blockaders a workshop in human rights, then letting them go.

The Venezuelan people have also been incredibly patient and peaceful. In Merida alone, thousands of government supporters have marched for peace four times in one month, despite not being able to get into the city because the violent opposition threatened the bus union if they did not go on strike.

There has been up to 100 more marches around the country calling for peace. In Merida, government supporters have organised daily cultural events in the main plaza.

The national government and state governments have repeatedly called for, and held, peace talks, which the opposition, including Ceballos, has refused to attend.

Ceballos is being charged with civil rebellion, Article 143 of the Penal Code, and criminal association, Article 258 of the Penal Code.

Ultimas Noticias, a private newspaper, reported that Ceballos was arrested because of allegations made by citizens in his municipality who demanded “actions be taken because of the closing of roads and lack of rubbish collection”.

They claimed he had been leading the attacks on public and private property, on ordinary citizens and their right to free transit. They lodged a petition in the Third Court of San Cristobal.

The First Control Court in the city then put out the arrest warrant. National government authorities have commented on the arrest — as is their right.

Does Amnesty believe that the citizens of Ceballos’ municipality do not have the right to lodge complaints? Does Amnesty believe that if myself and others in Merida, facing a similar situation with the opposition mayor here, were to lodge a petition to have him arrested, it would be a “witch hunt”?

Does Amnesty believe we don’t have the right to defend ourselves, our human rights – our right to education, to work, to get health care, to walk freely in the streets, to public transport, to safety, which is being infringed by these violent barricades?

Impunity feeds crime. Nobody, not even mayors, politicians or police should have it.

[Slightly abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]

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