Maduro Is "Good" at One Thing: Discouraging Defections

To understand how a regime with such awful performance can endure the steadfast calls for its demise, one must look at its capacity to punish treason, an old and effective tool in the dark arts of dictatorship.

Photo: France 24 retrieved

Leon Trotsky was crucial to the Russian Revolution of 1917. He founded the Red Army and was one of the victors in the civil war that helped consolidate the Soviet regime in 1922. But when he opposed Stalin after Lenin’s death, he was declared a traitor, forced into exile in 1929, and murdered in Mexico. Trotsky was erased from the official history until 2001, ten years after the Soviet Union collapsed.   

Huber Matos was one of the military leaders of the 26th of July Movement, the guerrillas that fought against the regime of Fulgencio Batista between 1956 and 1959. Once M26 triumphed and the Cuban Revolution took hold, Matos was assigned to command an entire province, but soon started to complain publicly about the Revolution’s shift towards Marxism. Fidel Castro accused him of treason, and Matos spent 20 years in a Cuban jail.

The fate of  those who fell from grace is more than a literary trope: punishing traitors is one of the key abilities in the authoritarian handbook. When a regime’s power depends on its capacity to hurt, jail, or kill those who don’t obey, it needs to send a clear message that all dissidence—and all dissidents—will be punished. This creates and reinforces the perception that public loyalty is sine qua non for survival.

It only works if a regime has the strength and will to punish so-called traitors without being displaced by them. If traitors and dissidents have the numbers and the capacity to coordinate an insurrection, punishing just some of them can spark a successful rebellion; but if they don’t have those resources, the regime can hold power for decades.

When a regime’s power depends on its capacity to hurt, jail, or kill those who don’t obey, it needs to send a clear message that all dissidence—and all dissidents—will be punished.

There are many precedents in the long history of authoritarianism in Venezuela. General Juan Vicente Gómez, for example, ruled the country for 27 years, in large part because he knew how to keep powerful friends happy and enemies terrified and weak. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, however, have enjoyed the tutelage of their Cuban and Russian allies—both valuable advisors when your goal is to hold power forever, even over a country in ruins.

Swift sentence, long jail time, unending torture

DGCIM headquarters, the seat of the Maduro regime’s military intelligence, isn’t a particularly grim place. Like an ordinary military facility, it’s well-ordered and clean, a nondescript gray and heavy building in Boleita Norte, a cluster of industrial buildings in the slopes of the Avila mountain, near a Catholic university, a church and a venerable publisher.

That’s the place where some soldiers and officers of the Armed Forces, accused of treason or conspiracy, are being tortured. Some journalists with insight on the murky military realm, like Sebastiana Barraez and Caracas Chronicles’ Political Risk Report have talked for months about the mistreatment of prisoners in DGCIM. On March 20th, Ronald Dugarte, Air Force lieutenant who worked there as a custodian until January, offered live video testimony during a press conference at Washington DC with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and Venezuelan lawyer Tamara Suju, executive director of the Prague-based CASLA Institute.

Dugarte showed a video he said he shot with a camera hidden in his uniform, where the harsh conditions of some known prisoners like colonel Oswaldo García Palomo and captain Juan Caguaripano can be seen. Although he didn’t record inside the facility where the regime tortures prisoners, Dugarte described the regime’s practices against the prisoners held in DGCIM headquarters. Prisoners can have their arms tied behind their backs for an entire month, and suffer beatings, electroshocks, asphyxiation and sexual torture. Tamara Suju shared on Twitter the names and faces of the officers carrying out the torture. Rocío San Miguel, a respected expert in Venezuelan military, demanded that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino arrest the DGCIM chief, Army Major General Iván Hernández.

Of course, no arrests were made against the officers accused by Dugarte. On the contrary, that very night the political police, SEBIN, went after caretaker president Guaidó’s right-hand man, Roberto Marrero, and the next day the country learned of a new development in the most public story of loyalty enforcement in an essential branch of the dictatorship’s tree of power: the judiciary.

In an unusually brief hearing, former judge María Lourdes Afiuni was sentenced to five more years of home imprisonment for “spiritual corruption,” something that, along with Marrero’s detention, was perceived by the public as counterattacks to the oral report at Geneva from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former socialist president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. But this new chapter in Afiuni’s horrific story, while it shows the regime’s aggressive efforts to show who’s boss, goes way back.

No arrests were made against the officers accused by Dugarte.

Afiuni was detained in December 2009, when she released Eligio Cedeño, a banker awaiting trial. Afiuni was under pressure to keep him detained, but she found cause to release him; Cedeño immediately left the country and Afiuni was swiftly punished by the Comandante Presidente himself, who had a special interest in Cedeño and now found himself without his prey and with a judge that dared to challenge him. Live on national radio and TV, Chávez ordered maximum penalty against her, 30 years of jail, remembering that Simón Bolívar recommended the execution of judges who failed to punish corruption.  

Since then, Afiuni spent several years in prison in two separate periods, and her trial has been reopened twice. Once she was under house arrest in 2014, she told a journalist that she had been raped by National Guards in prison, an attack so brutal that she had to go through surgery to reconstruct her anus and vagina, and she also had to be treated for necrosis in a breast, after being kicked by a female guard.

The Afiuni Effect


Judge Afiuni has been the victim of many abuses common in Venezuelan jails, increasingly reported by political prisoners. When the regime decided to blame security commissioner Iván Simonovis and several police officers for the deaths of April 11th, 2002, or when it accused and detained Leopoldo López for the deaths in the protests of 2014, the courts displayed similar tactics of delays, ignored the requirements of due process and produced decades-long sentences. However, the brutality involved in the case of María Lourdes Afiuni has been even worse than the normal abjection in the chavista justice system, and served to keep judges in line.

It’s what some have called “the Afiuni Effect”: having seen what the regime has done to her, it’s better to obey. The same thing happens to men and women in uniform, not only because of the tortures reported at the DGCIM, but also because of the powerful cautionary tales of two Army generals who were old pals of Hugo Chávez: Miguel Rodríguez Torres and Raúl Baduel.

Rodríguez Torres founded SEBIN and was Interior Minister. He supposedly knew everything about everyone, as the nation’s spy-in-chief; maybe he assumed he would be safe, like Lavrenti Beria, when he started to criticize Maduro and to promote himself as the new leader of chavismo. He even started talking to part of the opposition. A year ago, he was detained on charges of conspiracy.

As long as the regime can brutally punish the disobedient, it stalls its collapse.

Now he grows a beard in a SEBIN cell, just like another man who looks like a Venezuelan Trotsky. Raúl Isaías Baduel was one of the officers who took an oath, along with Chávez, to fight for the Bolivarian dream at the Saman de Güere, an ancient tree near Maracay where, it is said, Bolívar liked to rest with his troops. It was Baduel who rescued Chávez from his captors and ended the coup attempt of April, 2002. Baduel was rewarded with the new rank of general-in-chief and commanded the Armed Forces from 2004 to 2007, as a very powerful Defense Minister, until he lost his post and began to criticize Chávez’s efforts to reform the Constitution and rule for life through endless reelections. In 2009, Baduel was detained, accused of corruption, and has remained jailed or on house arrest since. Many observers of the military realm say Chávez did this because Baduel’s leadership of the military had created a sense of loyalty to him—and not to Chávez—among the ranks.   

In Venezuela and abroad, we tend to see these cases only as human rights violations, which they undoubtedly are. Afiuni, Baduel and Rodríguez Torres are among the almost 900 political prisoners of the Maduro regime, 91 of which come from the Armed Forces. But their cases are also like the heads on pikes at the gates of a medieval castle—or during the “war to death” in 1814’s Venezuela. Theirs are the horror stories PSUV tells every night to their people in courts, barracks and bureaucracy.

As long as the regime can brutally punish the disobedient, it stalls its collapse. And the more urgent the menace to the regime, the more cruelty it’ll use consolidating its power.

It’ll fall only when traitors are too many to handle.