It was 5:30pm on Thursday, October 1st, and just like every weekday Marino picked up his 9 year old kid from school and got off at a crowded western Caracas metro station to walk home. Marino is usually on the lookout for threats – for starters, he knows his phone and email are being spied on – but that day, he didn’t realize he was being followed.
Shortly after getting home, three men broke into his flat and tied him and his son up at gunpoint. Then they pressed Marino for his computer and for his phone, his tablet and his camera. When Marino was slow in responding to their demands, they beat him up and left him with an open gash on his head. It felt like the longest 40 minutes of Marino’s life.
Just another victim of Venezuela’s crime pandemic? Maybe. Except the Marino in question is Marino Alvarado, one of Venezuela’s highest profile human rights defenders (HRDs).
So there are many more questions: “what did I do or say that could motivate this? What access will they have to my computer files? Are more colleagues going to be attacked or is it just me?” – When you have been mentioned (well, slandered) in Diosdado Cabello’s TV show Con El Mazo Dando for five weeks in a row, you have damn good reasons for concern.
So far this year, Con El Mazo Dando – the weekly TV show hosted by the all-powerful chairman of the National Assembly – has attacked and slandered 58 separate human rights activists from at least 30 different NGOs, according to a statement by IPYS Venezuela at the InterAmerican Human Rights Committee session.
But the government’s reaction to Marino’s attack has been uncharacteristically quick: Tarek William Saab, Defensor del Pueblo (Ombudsman) and a former supporter of PROVEA’s work, tweeted almost immediately condemning the attack. The Chief Prosecutor also tweeted that a prosecutor had been appointed to investigate the case and the Vice President, Jorge Arreaza sent a CICPC group to Marino’s house on the day of the attack.
“I can’t complain about the response from the government,” Marino told me, “but I do wonder what will happen next.”
If you know anything about impunity in Venezuela, you would also be suspicious: Why has this particular case drawn such speedy attention from the government? Well, Marino, unlike other HRDs, has enjoyed some respect from some revolutionaries for being engaged with indigenous people’s land demarcation issues in Zulia state, for being the lawyer of Arturo Cubillas, the so-called head of ETA in Venezuela, and for helping Jose Manuel Ballestas, the ELN member before his extradition to Colombia.
He was PROVEA’s executive director and has had a sort of love-hate relationship with the revolution: while he supported some misiones, he also sharply criticised the government’s catastrophic handling of the 2014 La Salida protests.
Marino is cautious when speaking about the robbery he was victim of: “I do not have sufficient evidence to say that the attack is a form of reprisal for my work as a human rights defender (…) but I cannot rule out the possibility that this could be politically motivated either” he tells me over the phone. “During the Maduro administration the anti-human rights defenders discourse has worsened and the tactics have shifted: they turn to their State-run television and social media to attack us and our work”.
Elements of the attack give rise to suspicion: the burglars’ insistence on getting all of Marino’s electronic devices is just the kind of thing we have seen before when a human rights activist is robbed.
(Then again, you can imagine why regular burglars would want such high value, easy-to-fence items too.)
Attacks against activists are not new: other 72 less well-known HRDs were killed during the Chavez era. Other high profile cases include Carlos Correa in 2010, who was hit on the head while handing in a letter at the National Assembly and his NGO office was later robbed in rather strange circumstances. In 2011 Tarek El Aissami blamed Humberto Prado, a prominent defender of prisoners’ human rights, for the infamous pranes vs pranes riots in El Rodeo 1 y 2; and in 2014 Tamara Suju, a lawyer from the Foro Penal fled the country after being summoned by SEBIN.
More recently, Marco Ponce, a former PROVEA staff and now head of a protests-monitoring NGO, was also slandered on Con El Mazo Dando when a patriota cooperante published a picture of Ponce at Maiquetia airport boarding a flight to Washington to attend an Inter-American Commission session. He was later accused of infiltrating chavista unions in Guayana, promoting violent protests and destabilising the country.
What these cases have in common is that they all have helped investigations of human rights violations in Venezuela at the UN or OAS, have dared to criticise the government in national and international media, and have also lobbied states to prevent Venezuela from earning a seat at the UN Human Rights Council when the Venezuelan mission to the UN took an army of 11 delegates (and even Dudamel) to stage their own human rights show.
This new phase of intimidation aimed at human rights defenders will have a chilling effect on those who still work in the country in even more hostile conditions. Maduro will keep punishing them for cooperating with regional and international organisations on cases that are unlikely to be investigated any time soon, and Venezuelans will be left sin el chivo y sin el mecate.