Venezuela’s de facto news blackout keeps us glued to social media to try to piece together what’s really happening on the streets. Last night phones and Twitter accounts went loco sharing a video that went viral the minute it was born. It shows a young man, by the name of Yibram Saab, talking to the country and to his father: Tarek Willam Saab, Venezuela’s Human Rights Ombudsman.
The young Saab condemned the repression he and others suffered at the hands of security forces. Yesterday, that repression took the life of yet another student. Looking at the camera he defiantly says: “that could have been me.” He then asked his father to put a stop to violence and to do what he is expected to do. “I understand you. I know it’s not easy.”
The basic contradiction in his role: he’s supposed to be a watchdog over the government, but he thinks of himself as a member of that government.
Yibran Saab is but the latest person to ask the Defensor del Pueblo to do what is right. He was a well-known attorney and human rights defender before the Chávez era. So people have been writing to him as if appealing to his former self, to the man he used to be, asking him to take the actions his role demands.
Journalist Mari Montes sent out a series of tweets reminding him of Mari Verónica Tessari, a reporter hit on the head by a can of tear gas during protests in Caracas in 1992, and whose case was denounced by Saab:
Siempre te dimos tribuna @TarekWiliamSaab, como cuando denunciaste el caso de María Verónica Tessari ¿te lo recuerdo?
— Mari Montes ⚾️ (@porlagoma) April 11, 2017
Another journalist, Mireya Tabuas, in a Carta Urgente a Tarek wrote to “(…) that disinterested and supportive boy who was the voice of those who didn’t have one, that carajito who would show up at the end of the afternoon in the press room of El Nacional asking for help in order to make public an injustice committed by the State against someone.”
To be sure, Saab père seems to be a reasonably kind man. He is a poet and loves rock and roll. During his time as governor of Anzoátegui, he unveiled a sculpture of now Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, in an attempt to give prominence to artists and intellectuals. He manages his Twitter account and responds affably to many of the comments people address to him.
People have been writing to him as if appealing to his former self, to the man he used to be, asking him to take the actions his role demands.
But he also seems to have a low threshold for criticism or confrontation. He’s been dubbed “bloqueador del pueblo” because he keeps blocking critical voices from his Twitter account, including many human rights activists who often tweet to him about violations or irregularities that demand his attention. He famously blocked Lilian Tintori when she wrote a few days ago demanding responses for the latest episode of isolation and punishment of her imprisoned husband, Leopoldo López.
— Lilian Tintori (@liliantintori) April 24, 2017
As an Ombudsperson, he has advocated for political prisoners and has helped victims of arbitrary arrests. Although his appointment originally garnered mixed reactions, one of his first actions in office was to hold a meeting with more than 100 human rights NGO’s: an unprecedented move, and a good signal.
A las 10am comenzó reunión entre Defensoría del Pueblo y representantes de 100 ONG de #DDHH
— PROVEA (@_Provea) January 22, 2015
Reunión comenzó con un discurso de amplitud y tolerancia, reconociendo el trabajo de todas las ONG de #DDHH presentes
— PROVEA (@_Provea) January 22, 2015
But Tarek can’t overcome the basic contradiction in his role: he’s supposed to be a watchdog over the government, but he thinks of himself as a member of that government. His ideological and political loyalties make it impossible for him to truly play his constitutional role. He came to the post after serving both in National Assembly and as state governor, both times elected under the ticket of the ruling PSUV.
Yibram Saab is but the latest person to ask the Defensor del Pueblo to do what is right.
In the midst of today’s severe institutional and political crisis, Tarek has chosen to remain true to his chavista values, and repeats many of the lines in the government’s script when referring to opposition leaders and even peaceful protesters. His office and his role have been degraded by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions for not speaking sufficiently “loud and clear” in condemning human right violations.
But most importantly, he is on record supporting both of the Supreme Court’s rulings that meant a de facto coup d’Etat. As president of the Consejo Moral Republicano — the three-member body he shares with the (recently wobbly) Prosecutor General and the (fully-PSUV-committed) Comptroller General — he could step in and remove the Supreme Tribunal judges who’ve created the crisis.
He hasn’t. And all indications are that he won’t.