Photo: Guernica (1937), Pablo Picasso. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

The Voice of a Victim

Six years ago, Lissette's father died at El Helicoide prison. Her family is amongst those directly affected by political violence—and she refuses to believe in revenge

Six years ago, on March 12th, my father, Rodolfo González, died. He committed suicide at El Helicoide prison ten months after his house in Macaracuay, Caracas, was raided following his unlawful arrest, triggered by the anonymous tip of a “cooperating patriot.” When he died, the trial for the crimes he was being charged with hadn’t even begun, and it still hasn’t started, six years later. In theory, my mother (who was also detained for those first 48 hours) still has an open case, but she hasn’t been summoned to a hearing since late 2017. This uncertainty still weighs on her, and on many other Venezuelans who have been detained for political reasons during the 2014, 2017, and 2019 protests.

In the midst of the news whirlpool stirring the country almost every day, most of those political detainees and their families are gradually forgotten, save for campaigns organized by human rights organizations or their own relatives. We know little about those released: there are big questions around who still has injunctions, how many trials actually began, how many are now part of the huge contingent of refugees wandering all over South America, and how many are in a sort of limbo, like my mother. In spite of all of this, “political prisoners”, as an abstract concept, are an important part of the political discourse. Rallies and abstention campaigns in elections are held in their name. Suggesting a dialogue between political sides is seen as a betrayal to these victims: the prisoners and those killed by repression. Truth is, we don’t really know what most of them think. It’s others who speak in their name.

So, I’m an atypical case. I’m a sociologist and I sometimes write, so my position is publicly known. Besides, in spite of the pressures brought by polarizing speeches, I’m still betting on an agreement which will lead to a way out of this crisis without violence and without opening bigger wounds that will take decades to heal. It isn’t a position that generates sympathy in the public eye, quite the opposite. And it’s a position that didn’t come from just reading about history and politics; it’s related to my personal history. Although I know it’s an arbitrary choice, I think the best way to explain my beliefs is to start when I was working on my doctorate.

The Basque Experience

I arrived in Bilbao only two months after Miguel Angel Blanco died. That kidnapping and murder by ETA became a turning point in Basque politics; up until then, Basque society was silent about terrorism. I thought it was out of fear, but the best way to describe the feeling can be found in Patria by Fernando Aramburu: the victims were suspects too (“they must’ve done something”), and the pressure surrounding them, above all, kept many away from empathy. Somehow, the accumulated pain by franquismo justified the attacks on police or Spanish government officials. But in July 1997, ETA kidnapped a young councilman from the Partido Popular in Ermua, a small village on the border between Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya. Later, through a radio announcement, they asked for the transfer of etarra inmates to Basque prisons; if those demands weren’t met in the next 48 hours, Miguel Angel Blanco, only 29 years old, would die.

Suggesting a dialogue between political sides is seen as a betrayal to these victims: the prisoners and those killed by repression. Truth is, we don’t really know what most of them think. It’s others who speak in their name.

With the slogan “Miguel Angel, we’re waiting for you,” protests in Ermua started, in the Basque capitals and all over Spain. These are the first demonstrations against violence in which Basque residents dare to show their faces uncovered. Peaceful protests and vigils coexist with protests in front of the pro-ETA party Herri Batasuna, and with attacks on the herriko tabernak in San Sebastián and Bilbao. It’s the first time those in favor of peaceful manifestations and those who favor the demands set by ETA clash on the streets and have to be separated by the police. In spite of these protests, which according to some sources were the largest in the history of Bilbao, Miguel Angel Blanco was executed on July 12th, 1997. It was the start of an open outcry for peace, though, which would result in the first unilateral truce by ETA on September 19th, 1998, which only lasted 15 months.

During my years in Bilbao and San Sebastián, I witnessed demonstrations and clashes. Just like anyone else, I was a potential victim, since there were attacks on journalists and even on the Universidad del País Vasco during those years. So my caraqueño fear of muggers turned to fear of abandoned suitcases in an elevator or a trash can. A fear so strong that I would call the police and report the possible bomb without daring to leave a name. Or I would walk at a quick pace after an evening of marching when I ran into the kale borroka painting their graffiti on some street of San Sebastián.

I have to add to this context that, from a young age, I’ve worried about injustice, and I would invariably side with the vulnerable and persecuted. In this case, the persecuted weren’t the nationalists anymore, but those who dared to defend different political ideas and those whose thoughts meant a death threat, forced to avoid certain areas of the city, hire bodyguards, or even leave their land. I’d watch this intolerance in awe, with memories of coexistence from Caracas, among adecos, copeyanos, and former guerrilla fighters who were friends and family with very different political opinions, but living together, even joking about it. I looked up and read with great interest about people like Fernando Savater or Jon Juaristi, who had to flee the Basque Country because of that persecution.

The Clash With 2002’s Venezuela

You could say that I’d become immune to polarization during those years and that’s why I got so alarmed when I returned to Venezuela in mid-2001. It wasn’t just the rallies or the repression, it was the fights and distancing among family members, the cacerolazos (beating pots and pans as a form of protest) against chavistas even inside the university. It all reminded me of what I had seen in Euskadi, that insurmountable gap that had once seemed inconceivable, had grown roots in Venezuela, too.

Many would think that because I’m a victim’s daughter, my political opinion should be different. My positions should be branded by pain and indignation, maybe even revenge. But I still believe what I believed before 2014.

I never voted for Chávez. It was impossible for me to vote for a soldier who had once tried a coup, no matter his speechbut that didn’t mean blind support to anything the opposition did. That’s why, in April of 2002, when all my family, as well as half of Venezuela, celebrated the self-proclamation of Carmona, I went to bed worried about the absurd decree dismissing all public authorities.

I never registered with a political party because I’m no good at party discipline. I was never close to a position of power, partly because I had decided to focus on university life, the doctorate, classes, and academic conferences, and also because I had small children and it was enough dealing with a full working day without adding the demands of activism. But all that would change when my days as school director were over. The growing need to generate other projects took me to social media and blog writing.

At first, my social media activity would center on an audience of sociologists, to discuss my research topics or classes in a friendlier format. The work paid off and the audience grew. I was invited to write for several digital media outlets and got the possibility of working as a consultant. But it was hard to keep up the formality in tumultuous times and to restrain from expressing strong opinions. The highest point came with the 2014 protests. An article posted on my blog, “No somos mayoría” (“We’re not the majority”), went viral, reproduced in several websites and printed a few days later in the popular journal Tal Cual. It expressed my disagreement with Leopoldo López’s #LaSalida, suggesting that any political solution needed the support of the majorities. During 2014, I only marched on February 12th, and in the following months I was against the stubbornness of sending hundreds of unarmed civilians to battles, lost beforehand, against security forces. I still believe that political change won’t come by dying for the cause. A thriving, democratic, and peaceful future won’t come out of clashes, but by tolerance and dialogue.

A Rough Path

My dad’s opinion was quite different: he always supported the protests. He marched on April 11th, 2002, was a regular at Plaza Altamira during the times of the dissident military camps, he never missed a rally and he supported the student demonstrations in every way possible. As expected, father and daughter had many differences, with a long history that goes back to my teens and my stubborn determination to talk about injustice. Like many other Venezuelans, our political opinions were overloaded with emotions, probably fear for the most part, so discussing politics would often lead to heated arguments.

My mom tells me off so I don’t write what I think on Twitter, or say it on a radio show. As if, because I’m a victim, Lissette can’t be free now, she can’t have her own voice.

For several personal reasons, in 2014, my father didn’t attend to as many marches as in other years. Even so, a “cooperating patriot’s” information put him under the radar of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), and he was detained. I spent over ten months visiting him and going to court hearings. Our different political views remained, but age and prison made me lower the tension, change the subject and even try to understand his point of view. I never thought that those discussions would be the last ones.

It might seem ironic that a defender of institutional and peaceful paths would end up with a father dying in SEBIN custody. Many would think that because I’m a victim’s daughter, my political opinion should be different. My positions should be branded by pain and indignation, maybe even revenge. But I still believe what I believed before 2014; it’s possible that I see those same ideas even clearer now than when I was 25, becoming an adult in Basque Country.

Because my dad died under SEBIN’s watch, yes. But in that same hallway, about 30 years earlier, Jorge Rodríguez Sr. died while being tortured during the investigations on the Niehous kidnapping. And every time I see his children Jorge and Delcy on television, very powerful chavista figures today, I remember how easy it is to go from victim to perpetrator. And that’s something I certainly don’t want to be.

To become the future villain is an easy path: stay close to your circle and keep the grievance and evil of others fresh. Live only to tell them off, always looking at the past. To stay there, as a martyr, is comfortable, maybe even gratifying because we all agree that the victim is always right. But I think that, in the long run, I might not recognize myself in the mirror. And I refuse to become what I have criticized so much.

I don’t believe in violence, I don’t believe in self-sacrifice or mass suffering as the means to a better future. The end doesn’t justify the means and history won’t absolve anyone. I don’t buy into invasions or sanctions, the same way I never bought into revolutions. I believe in the power of speech and human creations, so I bet on understanding and building a country where human rights violations will be looked into and brought to justice but, above all, where no one, even today’s political adversaries, will be persecuted, imprisoned or tortured because of their political views.

I often get insults on social media because of this. My mom tells me off so I don’t write what I think on Twitter, or say it on a radio show. As if, because I’m a victim, Lissette can’t be free now, she can’t have her own voice. Maybe that’s why I’m in so much need to write about all those things that no one wants to hear me say.

Lissette González

Is a PhD sociologist and researcher at Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales and Sociology Professor at Escuela de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Blogger and collaborator of SIC Semanal and ElUcabista.com.