Brief History of Political Persecution in Venezuela

Suppressed voices of dissent can be found all throughout Venezuelan history. From the time we were a Spanish colony to the 21st century, governments haven’t been precisely tolerant or open to independent thought or opposition.

Photo: El Carabobeño retrieved

Political persecution isn’t new in Venezuela. Ever since we were called Capitanía General de Venezuela, regent governments have always tried to unvoice political adversaries and any dissenting vote. But when we look at this (not so brief) history of political persecution, certain prerogatives stand out: Is history repeating itself? Why are Venezuelan politicians so prone to criminalizing the divergence?

Today, the response to social protests has been the arrest and persecution of students, citizens, and political leaders. During the Chávez and Maduro regimes, we have witnessed the normalization of events such as the arbitrary detention of citizens without court orders; violation of due process of detainees during demonstrations; the opening of criminal proceedings against protesters and public harassment by representatives of institutions of the National Public Power to the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition. It’s safe to say that criminalization of protest; the physical and psychological mistreatment of citizens by SEBIN officials and the Bolivarian National Guard during detention is the new normal.  

Why are Venezuelan politicians so prone to criminalizing the divergence?

For those who do not remember, Chávez gave clues about what his government would be like in 1992, during the coup d’etat when he was released with a presidential pardon. In 1998 he began his political career promising to “fry the heads of the adecos”. Not a very peaceful way to try opponents. But how did he manage to get away with it? Was it something in our political history that enabled him to persecute dissenting citizens?

Maybe we should start at the beginning.

In the 17th century the process started against José María España with a command by the Real Audiencia due to high treason, instructed authorities to “be removed from jail, dragged from the tail of a pack-saddle beast and driven to the gallows”. Including, of course, the confiscation of all property. Does it sound familiar?

Some years later, the son of a Spaniard who was not accepted by mantuanos, Francisco de Miranda was accused of being an English agent. Sold to the Spanish authorities by Bolívar, properties confiscated and abandoned to die in La Carraca. Even today his ashes haven’t been found. While being handed over to the Spanish authorities, he said one of his most famous phrases: “Bochinche, bochinche, these people don’t know how to do anything but bochinche“.

Juan Vicente Gómez himself had been exiled in Colombia, but once in power, he used repressive policies to consolidate his control while developing the country through oil wealth and a strong army. The citizen’s discontent with the government is expressed openly in the student demonstration that took place on February, 1928. During Youth Day, Jóvito Villalba gave a speech where the gomecista dictatorship was openly criticized. With the imprisonment of students, the Caracas community perceived the youth’s political action as heroic. There is a collective handing over to the authorities to accompany their leaders in prison. Sadly, this is also a recurrent episode in our history: idealization of political fellows, regardless of their political party. For some mysterious reason, we think someone who fights for their rights deserves homage. But, it was not all bad news: 

Sadly, this is also a recurrent episode in our history: idealization of political fellows, regardless of their political party.

He had to experience the ideological crisis in an agitated socio-political panorama marked by student demonstrations, persecutions, imprisonment and the failed military coup of April 1928. Even as we aim for democracy, we haven’t taken a peaceful path. Politicians faced difficulty as conspiration outbreaks sparked from right and left wing alike.A worthy representative of the Generation of ‘28, writer Arturo Uslar Pietri, showed the ideo-political crisis that characterized Venezuelan society in the first half of the 20th century.

Another representative of the Generation of ‘28, Rómulo Betancourt, student leader exiled after the failed coup attempt of Gómez. That Youth Day ended with the incarceration of Betancourt (who was only 20 years old) and of the group of university leaders in the Cuartel El Cuño, later transferred to the Liberator Castle in Puerto Cabello. The young opponents were kept in dark rooms without windows, where they were forced to use “grillos” (chains) on their feet and subjected to cruel conditions. Once released, Betancourt participated in another subversive movement against Gómez, that resulted in police persecution, the exile of opponents and the closure of the Central University of Venezuela.

Years later, Betancourt was elected president. One and a half months after the Cuban Revolution triumphed, Betancourt, who had been a leader of the Communist Party in Costa Rica, openly rejected communism, leftism and anti-imperialism because he considered it an obsolete ideology.

Also motivated by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the guerrilla movement launches into an armed struggle and begins an urban and rural violence plan that marks the decade of the 70s in Venezuela. Betancourt’s response was not legal or democratic, and many crimes, tortures and assassinations were committed by the armed and police forces.

The constitution was violated with a court-martial and orders to capture parliamentarians from the MIR and the PCV, as well as the illegal persecution of professors and teachers who belonged to these leftist parties.

Thus begins the armed resistance (mostly middle-class students, young peasants and women) of leftist orientation that ended with El Porteñazo, the most horrendous and medically projected massacre in the Venezuelan democratic trajectory.

In addition to the political violence of the 19th century, in the dictatorships and in the 20th century democracies, strong expressions of political and social violence are present through persecution, torture and political murder. The most remembered cases? Leonardo Ruiz Pineda and Jorge Rodríguez (yes, the father of those creepy siblings).

Strong expressions of political and social violence are present through persecution, torture and political murder.

Time has passed, and dissident voices have been treated with the same disdain. Do you see any difference? Maybe that we plant fear and isolation through Facebook Live. In the last 20 years, the lack of democratic institutions has contributed to the political polarization that leads to the repression of opponents.

Is our way of pursuing political dissidents something learned, justified by precedents from the past?