Photo: El Nacional, retrieved.

“The dialogue table, made up of different opposition figures, has managed the release of fourteen political activists who were unjustly incarcerated. We continue to fight so more Venezuelans can go back to their families.”

Thus spoke pastor Javier Bertucci when addressing the media on January 6th, 2020. The “dialogue table” he mentions is made up of eight “work tables” with tasks that go from electoral guarantees to the national economy, and is supposed to be a group of agreement between chavismo and the opposition; in reality, the present “opposition” are groups with no real political influence, with spokesmen like Claudio Fermín and Timoteo Zambrano (widely perceived as PSUV satellites), and all logistics come from the chavista agenda.

Three of the fourteen “freed activists,” for example, were gang members. Renzo Fuenmayor Miquilena, Jesús María Ocando Duarte and Nataly Aurora Gallego Pereira were imprisoned in Rosario de Perijá, Zulia, in June of 2019, for violating the law against extortion and kidnapping. They were members of the Alirio Cara Cortá gang, according to the EsPaja.org website, specialized in verifying data and information.

In reality, the present “opposition” are groups with no real political influence, with spokesmen like Claudio Fermín and Timoteo Zambrano (widely perceived as PSUV satellites), and all logistics come from the chavista agenda.

The actual political prisoners were Jormanth Linares Ramírez, detained since October 2017 in Miranda, accused of attacking police units with explosives during the protests in Altamira; Michael Vargas, arrested in his house on October 17th, after protesting against Nicolás Maduro’s government; Jesús Medina, a reporter taken by SEBIN agents in August 2018 while covering the hospital crisis; Manuel Chacín, arrested on October 2017 for his alleged connection to rebel police officer Óscar Pérez; Emilio Boulanger, who used to be the president of the Chacao Municipal Market, accused of taking part in the military uprising of April 30th, 2019 (his arrest was carried out by a brigade of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES); lastly, Nelson Guzmán Castellano, employee of a security company owned by CNN producer Rafael González, incarcerated in March 2017 at the Maiquetía International Airport. He was accused of accessory to commit a crime and conspiracy.

According to Marino Alvarado, a well-seasoned human rights activist, what the regime did was take the opportunity to release some common criminals in the midst of the freeing process for political prisoners. Someone must have lobbied for them, he believes, because it’s hard to be released without influence at the top. “I don’t think it was a mistake or that someone in the lower ranks cheated at the last minute.”

Last September, Rafael Romero, director of NGO Foro Penal, said in a radio interview that, usually, common criminals are included in the list of alleged political prisoners to be freed. Rodolfo Montes de Oca, a Provea lawyer, says that this has been a constant practice in different administrations; during the ‘80s, political prisoners linked to the Bandera Roja political party would be released as a show of good faith on both sides to start conversations. In the chavista regime, though, you have political prisoners arrested for tweeting, sharing jail with dangerous criminals, with an utter mockery to due process. Many of them haven’t been sentenced yet, and suffer flawed case filings and unjustified court deferrals.

And while the regime insists on dialogues, it releases a group of people through one door and arrests a new group through another.

And while the regime insists on dialogues, it releases a group of people through one door and arrests a new group through another. In December, they presented a list of releases while National Assembly deputy Gilber Caro and his reporter associate Víctor Ugas were detained.

The government releases common criminals, according to Montes de Oca, by commuting the sentences of some inmates, usually during the holiday season. This time it was a present brought by Baby Jesus, one day after the siege of the National Assembly, by a small group of dissenting and expelled opposition deputies.

Probation periods are “typical of the dictatorship,” Montes de Oca says. “It contradicts the constitutional principles that go against degrading sentences. To be subjected to a follow up procedure after being released in a situation where even traveling to a courthouse is complicated, and ban you from international travels, gives continuity to your sentence.”

Jackeline Sandoval de Guevara, director of the Fundación para el Debido Proceso (literally, “Foundation for Due Process”)  states that political prisoners “are treated like hostages, so they aren’t favored by the Penitentiary Affairs Ministry, unlike common criminals that even though they aren’t guaranteed due process either, they do receive a better treatment.”

Sandoval claims that those detained for political reasons are subjected to cruelty and torture, and authorities gamble with their physical and mental health, both in common and military prisons. “It’s similar to 1950s dictator Pérez Jiménez, the difference being that this regime calls itself ‘humanist.’ It’s still a violator in every sense and I don’t think there has been anything alike in this country.”

The non-certified lists of political prisoners allows chavismo to announce the release of people who aren’t jailed anymore, artificially increasing the number of “freed” political prisoners.

Foro Penal has said that the non-certified lists of political prisoners allows chavismo to announce the release of people who aren’t jailed anymore, artificially increasing the number of “freed” political prisoners to generate a stronger media impact. The release of the inmates happens, Sandoval says, during special circumstances: when there’s international pressure or a dialogue has been declared, you have episodes like the time Daniel Ceballos, mayor of a town in Táchira, was taken along with twenty four other inmates from SEBIN cells in El Helicoide, to the Casa Amarilla to broadcast their “release” as a part of a “national reconciliation” process. There are cases of those that, even with release papers in hand, aren’t let out for no explicit reason at all.

Up until December 30th, 2019, there were 388 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to Foro Penal. They’re accused of terrorism, financing terrorism, manufacturing explosives, and are basically behind bars for protesting against Maduro.

Ever since the High Commissioner for the United Nations, Michelle Bachelet, demanded in July the release of political prisoners (which she has repeatedly requested in her oral updates), 300 people had been freed, until last September. At the same time they also let out prisoners accused of aggression, fraud, and homicide.

Rubén González, secretary general of the Ferrominera syndicate (and a civilian), was court-martialled and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison. González was arrested on November 30th, 2018 during protests and complaints so that their collective agreement and salary scales were kept in place. Bachelet herself rejected the sentence and mentioned it in her report, but González wasn’t released on January 6th as expected.

Instead, three members of the Alirio Cara Cortá gang were.

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