Photo: Rayner Peña

Rafael Uzcátegui: ‘This is a Level of Control Chavismo Had Only Dreamed Of’

The general coordinator of human rights NGO Provea describes the methods used by the regime to use the COVID-19 pandemic to its advantage

As the general coordinator of Venezuelan human rights NGO Provea, Rafael Uzcátegui has devoted his life to analyze, record, communicate and condemn the dynamics of disruption of human rights, particularly in the social, economic and cultural arenas. Provea was founded on October 5th, 1988, with the goal of creating training programs for human rights activists in the whole country. Today, it’s an autonomous organization fundamental to understanding the decay of democracy in Venezuela. 

Rafael and Provea see the health emergency as a new critical layer in the complex humanitarian crisis that has eroded institutionality and severely compromised the day-to-day lives of Venezuelans, in and out of the country. 

Amid the arrival of coronavirus to Venezuela, Maduro has taken measures that fit more a need to show control than the logic of preventing infection. How would you qualify the dynamic to face the pandemic? 

The response that has prevailed in Venezuela has been military in nature, over a system that prioritizes the medical, technical, and scientific approach. One example is health minister Carlos Alvarado’s absence in press briefings. There are still parts of the country that are militarized to control the population, as we’ve seen in low-income sectors, and there’s also the use of armed irregulars, as is the case of the curfew installed in 23 de Enero (western Caracas). With this, they want to dominate, hide discontent and impose a single message: the pandemic is under control. The WHO recommends collaboration between sectors as a priority, but the military response in Venezuela has ignored contributions by other authorities like the National Assembly, independent humanitarian actors, human rights organizations, and most of the private business sector, which could contribute resources during this emergency. They’re also trying to erode political cooperation and they continue to persecute dissidents. 

What are the patterns of institutional abuse during the pandemic? 

In Provea, after tracking the first month after the lockdown was declared, we found out that out of 34 arbitrary detentions ten were media personnel. We’ve also detected 31 cases of threats and harassment, out of which 22 were press workers. Another situation has been the persecution of doctors and other health professionals who speak up about their poor working conditions and the lack of supplies in health centers, even those appointed as “sentinels.” One of the emblematic cases is the detention of 72-year-old Dr. Julio Molina, in Maturín (Monagas state, eastern Venezuela), who alongside Carlos Cardona and Marlí Mendoza denounced that the Núñez Tovar Hospital didn’t have enough resources to face the emergency. Molina was detained and charged with several crimes, like inducing panic and causing stress on the community and inciting hate, based on a Hate Law that’s ambiguous and arbitrary. He now has to show up in court periodically. We’re also worried about the detentions of team members of the National Assembly’s Speaker. We’ve registered five political detentions this month, and one of them feels significant because of the pattern of action it conveys: Andrea Bianchi’s case, Rafael Rico’s girlfriend—a member of Guaidó’s team. She isn’t a politician or an activist, and yet she was arbitrarily detained and subject to forced disappearance, held on the street by armed men without IDs, to try to force her partner into surrendering to the authorities. We’ve called this action terrorism of state and it isn’t the first case where we see the families of social leaders used as hostages to try and force people in the opposition to bend their will.

How is authoritarianism reflected in this dynamic? 

There’s a certain interest in preventing access to the best information available about the current state of the pandemic, ignoring that the right to health and the right to information come hand in hand. They also stop people who can’t comply with the quarantine from mobilizing. Thanks to the general confinement, they’ve created more possibilities for indiscriminate attacks and threats, to erode the citizen’s capability to maneuver and stop a post-pandemic Venezuela from reversing the current context of authoritarianism in our country. 

The response that has prevailed in Venezuela has been military in nature, over a system that prioritizes the medical, technical, and scientific approach.

What would happen if these new social control measures are not relaxed in the future? 

The quarantine, as Venezuelans have experienced it, represents a level of control that chavismo has only dreamed of since they’ve been in power. It’s one more step towards the fragmentation of Venezuelans. The mere fact that we’re permanently confined to private spaces instead of public ones, which is where you build a sense of community, is of great importance here. The quarantine has been done in a way that implies the maximum statization of daily life and it has deepened the dependence on state aid. Most of these elements have been present during the complex humanitarian emergency and we’ve diagnosed them as authoritarian. For instance, the way the military is fundamental in chavismo’s response, which actually does little to help the public hospitals network. There’s no democratic and inclusive dynamic for a response, as in other countries with isolation measures, and this puts Venezuela in an even worse position to face the pandemic, compared to other countries that have planned it with all sectors of society. 

There’s a narrative taking shape, probably from China, which implies that authoritarian regimes have more technological, social, and monitoring tools to face a pandemic than democratic states. 

I think the Chinese model is based on invisibilization of information and control over what’s communicated, which is one of the reasons the pandemic has expanded as it has. It’s precisely the countries with public accountability, independence between branches of power, and participation from all sectors, the ones that are in the best condition to tackle the situation. In this sense, more than the current handling of the virus, we have to think about the Venezuela we’ll have after the pandemic: how will this impact the economy, our workers, our education? What are the social, political, and cultural consequences of this process? How can we turn this negative into a positive where we can all live with dignity? 

However, we think that the democratic opposition alliance must build a narrative for the future, inclusion, and hope that isn’t only about cashing in on the discontent with the Bolivarian government.

Do you think the opposition could have done more? 

All Venezuelans are learning, the hard way, how to face a non-democratic government. Our entire society, including social and political leadership, has turned this situation visible, mobilizing, and denouncing it. This isn’t enough and it still challenges us as a society. We think, however, that the democratic opposition alliance must build a narrative for the future, inclusion, and hope that isn’t only about cashing in on the discontent with the Bolivarian government. We think that this lack of narrative makes many people who were once happy with chavismo but are now disappointed feel like they’re not part of the country this opposition wants to build. They have to strengthen a speech about people’s problems. We know the limitations of the National Assembly and the rest of the political leadership, but it’s important that people feel like they aren’t alone, which means doing politics in a broad sense: being with people in the same place people are suffering. With the quarantine this is really hard to do, but at the same time, I think that they have to strengthen a social movement that turns into votes, not the other way around—a political movement that turns into a social one. Reinforce the unions, the struggles, the conquests. Maduro’s government plays a game of fracturing our democratic society, and we should face that in the most democratic way possible. 

All of this happens three years after the 2017 demonstrations, that you considered a popular uprising back then. If we draw a line to describe the trajectory of human rights from those protests until this nationwide confinement, what’s that line like? When did we downgrade the exercise of our fundamental rights? 

When in 2016 the then-upcoming electoral events were suspended, Provea felt it was evident that (chavismo) wouldn’t call for elections unless Maduro’s government found a way to win being a minority, meaning, committing electoral fraud. After much consideration, we decided to call Maduro’s government a modern dictatorship, using Fujimori’s government as a precedent, since he didn’t get to power by means of a coup, but he used the tools of democracy to weaken the system. Starting in 2016, the most severe human rights violation period begins, because the government made a series of decisions that made many long-time officers step aside, as is the case with former prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Díaz. This motivated the protests of 2017. All of this brought us into a situation of institutional instability, a complex humanitarian emergency, an increase of the poverty rate, a migratory crisis, and a health emergency within a state emergency.