Photo: El Mundo retrieved
As you already know, Lorent Saleh was released and sent to Spain last week, after spending four years under SEBIN custody, first in The Tomb, an underground prison in downtown Caracas, and then in El Helicoide. His testimony for Cayetana Álvarez from Spanish newspaper El Mundo is probably the most detailed and frightening description of what it’s like being a political prisoner of the Nicolás Maduro regime.
“The Helicoide is the criollo thing, the bludgeon, the broken rib, the baseball bat. It’s the sequel to the decadence of what once was the Venezuelan Fourth Republic. The building is old and sordid, yes. Plaza Venezuela is different. The institution is the same, but the aesthetics and the methods are different. The Tomb is about the technology and the psychological torture. Everything is shiny, everything is clean and white. The silence is absolute; the loneliness is complete. It looks like a futurist madhouse. The Helicoide is the overcrowd, the stink, the cockroaches and the rats. The Tomb is the mirrors, the white walls. You can perfectly sense the foreigner smell.”
This prison represents a new form of torture in Venezuela. One heavily influenced by Russian and Cuban techniques designed to break the prisoner’s mind, rather than his body.
In the Tomb, Saleh was crushed by the weight of a totalitarian State, while he felt the country had forgotten about him. This prison represents a new form of torture in Venezuela. One heavily influenced by Russian and Cuban techniques designed to break the prisoner’s mind, rather than his body. One of these techniques, the so called “white torture” is a particularly disturbing method, a dystopic mixture between George Orwell’s 1984 and George Lucas’ THX 1138.
“-Would you say I’m being tortured right now?
– They took a picture of me like this. Anyone would’ve said “Lorent isn’t in such a bad shape”. But what happens after 12 hours in this position handcuffed and with an intense white light on your face? After 24 hours? After a week? (…) Human rights protection mechanisms have evolved in the last 70 years, but not as fast as torture methods. (…) I learned the value of the essential things that seem invisible (…) How much is the color green worth, what about blue? How much is the conscience of time worth? (…) I couldn’t tell if I had slept an hour or ten minutes. How much is a mirror worth? When you don’t look at your face for long enough you forget how you look. The first time I looked at myself in a mirror it was a shock. I touched myself, I whispered… This is me. The sky doesn’t exist. The Sun, the Moon, the rain, the stars. (…) I fought so much, like a madman, to get things that would seem irrelevant to anyone. I made a hunger strike for 18 days just to get a clock. The ombudswoman used to tell me: ‘Where is it written that a clock is a human right?’”
I made a hunger strike for 18 days just to get a clock. The ombudswoman used to tell me: ‘Where is it written that a clock is a human right?’
Saleh got to The Tomb after being deported from Colombia by Juan Manuel Santos in 2014. Two years before the former Colombian President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A prize that according to Saleh, influenced his decision.
“Santos’s personal project—-the agreement with the FARC and the Nobel Prize—clashed with the cause of democracy in Venezuela. Santos needed to please Maduro, who blackmailed him through the guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, the narco-terrorist groups with which Santos sought an agreement all make part of the Venezuelan regime. Maduro had the capacity to blow the peace process to pieces.”
While in custody, Saleh tried to kill himself four times. But according to him, rather than a desperate measure, it was the need to somehow fight his jailers what drove him to it.
“I knew the regime wouldn’t let me go and that I wouldn’t give up. So I made a decision: My jailers wouldn’t sleep well, they wouldn’t watch TV calmly while I remained there. And so I let them know ‘I’m ready to kill myself. And if I do, you are going to jail. Your bosses won’t care. They will sacrifice you like insects.’”
Lorent Saleh tried to hang himself once, and cut his wrists other three times. As a result, a guard had to remain with him in the cell at all times, watching him, unable to sleep, scared he would finally kill himself. “That’s the real resistance: to challenge them,” he says.
He was eventually transferred to the Helicoide in 2016, where he witnessed other prisoners on their knees, begging for mercy, while guards hit them and laughed. People were left hanging, crucified from their cells for days while other prisoners ignored them, scared of being punished too.
He was eventually transferred to the Helicoide in 2016, where he witnessed other prisoners on their knees, begging for mercy, while guards hit them and laughed.
“Some are used to beat, subdue and torture others. But the worst part is that some get used to get beaten, subdued and tortured. It’s like the baby elephant tied to a nail in the floor with a little chain. The elephant grows, gets huge, but remains there, chained. Because it ignores it has the strength to break the chain with a single movement. (…) Now, is torture human? Think about it… I thought it wasn’t, but maybe I was wrong. The Man is not a noble savage. Rousseau was wrong. Socialism and communism too, of course. By the way, why is nazism forbidden but communism isn’t? Have you ever thought about it?
Four years after being imprisoned Lorent Saleh was released by the Venezuelan government in the aftermath of Fernando Albán’s death. The exact causes may be a mystery to many, but not to Saleh himself, who assures that his mother’s constant fight along with the support of journalists, lawyers and pressure from the European Union took him out of jail. According to him, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had nothing to do with his release.
Now, he’s in Spain, free but with scars that will take years to heal, if they ever do. His words however can be heard all over the world, as an indelible record of the cruelty of Maduro’s regime. It’s also a reminder that no matter how hard the government tries, no matter how hard they step on us, they can’t break us all.
“When we were little, they told us that worthwhile things can’t be achieved without sacrifice and effort. And this for which we are fighting for is worthwhile. As a matter of fact, it’s the most worthy thing we have. It’s democracy and freedom.”
You can read the full interview for El Mundo here.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.