Yesterday, while the OAS busied itself with odes to dialogue in Venezuela, Voluntad Popular (VP) activists Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel sat in a holding cell in National Guard Post 321, in the rural state of Cojedes, uncertain of what would happen to them.
Twenty-four hours earlier, on Sunday morning, Pancho and Gabo had set out on the six hour drive to the state of Portuguesa. They had been designated MUD’s liaisons with the local volunteers in Portuguesa State working to validate the signatures requesting a Recall of president Maduro.
The National Guard stopped them at the Apartederos checkpoint, one of the many alcabalas along the way. When going through their belongings, the Guards found a significant amount of cash in the car. But the real reason they lay into them is that they realized they’re activist for Voluntad Popular, one of the main opposition parties.
This latest human rights outrage hits especially close to home. This is not the first time one of my friends has ended up behind bars for defending democratic principles, but it is the first time a Caracas Chronicles contributor has become a political prisoner.
Pancho and Gabo are the regime’s most recent political prisoners. They were taken into custody by simply transiting the roads of Cojedes. They weren’t participating in any demonstration, they weren’t part of a plan to do anything other than working to defend a right enshrined in the constitution their jailers are sworn to uphold.
Chavismo has gone into full blown conspiracy theory mode over the two. The story is old: MUD —in particular VP— is financing riots and looting. Decent Venezuelans are perfectly happy and content with the situation, but these evil folk, with their dirty money, coerce them into looting and rioting.
The truth couldn’t be more different. Pancho and Gabo are energetic, intelligent, engaged, and committed to the well-being of the country. They are folks with strong values. They’re the sort of people who dare call out the mistakes of those they agree with. The sort of people who work late for no pay. They volunteer in elections, and are willing to work hard with grassroots organizations everywhere.
It’s not like they don’t have other options: Gabo is a lawyer from Universidad de Carabobo. At 24 years old, he’s already pursuing a Master’s Degree in Constitutional Law. Pancho graduated with honors from UCAB, and went on to get a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. He passed up a chance of a career at McKinsey to be a public servant in El Hatillo Municipality.
Currently they are held as criminals. They were interrogated by the Intelligence Police (SEBIN) repeatedly. They were not allowed to contact their families, and they’ve been given minimal access to legal council.
They had cash —just under three million bolivares — which amounts to less than US$3,000. None of it was ill-obtained, nor its use had ill-purposes: it was earmarked for food, water, tents and pamphlets so that activists could work the signatures validation stations during the five-day process. A volunteer mobilization like this costs money, obviously: part of their job was to deliver it.
The prosecutor is pressing charges on money laundering and instigating violence, which could carry up to 15 years in prison. On top of that, the judge ordered that they be held in military custody until and during their trial at the National Guard post where they were taken. In spite of those instructions, the two were taken on a roadtrip to Tocuyito Prison, in Carabobo State (where they were refused admission — the joint is full), and then rerouted to San Juan de los Morros, to the garish Penitenciaria General de Venezuela jail where Vasco Da Costa is held before the confused authorities decided to send them back to their original detention facility. Un ruleteo judicial.
Their case is developing. We hope that both Gabo and Pancho know they aren’t alone. We want their families to know that good people are working hard to make sure that their sons, brothers, and friends are OK, and that soon enough they will find themselves amongst their loved ones. And once they are out, they will continue to fight against injustice, repression and the dictatorship that Venezuela has become.