Why Venezuela’s Repression Is Reaching Unnerving Levels

Chavismo is arresting high profile activists and increasing its harassment of organized civil society, hoping to crack down on its organizational and mobilization capabilities before the presidential elections.

In early February, Rocío San Miguel—a recognized expert on Venezuelan military issues and the director of watchdog NGO Control Ciudadano—was arrested in Maiquetía Airport when she was about to take a short trip to Miami with her daughter. For days, her whereabouts and status were unknown. Then, San Miguel’s two brothers, daughter, her daughter’s father and her former husband also vanished. For human rights activists, and even the United Nations, Rocío San Miguel and her relatives were being subject to a “forced disappearance.”

Days later, Prosecutor General Tarek W. Saab announced she had been charged for terrorism, conspiracy, and treason and sent to the Helicoide—a notoriously brutal detention center controlled by the SEBIN intelligence agency. Her brothers, daughter and one of her former partners were released on parole. Her former husband remained imprisoned, accused of “revealing military secrets.” According to the Prosecutor General, San Miguel was part of “White Brazalet”—a putschist plan by rebel sectors of the Armed Force to murder Nicolás Maduro.

San Miguel’s arrest shocked Venezuelan civil society. Not only because of sippenhaft against the family of a well-known activist, but because her eminence wasn’t enough to protect her. A prominent and well-respected expert, San Miguel was thought to have sources within the Armed Force and had won a case against the Venezuelan State in the Interamerican Court of Human Rights when she was fired from the National Council of Borders after signing the petition for a recall referendum against Hugo Chávez. And yet, she was a moderate who even promoted participating in the controversial Esequibo referendum. But now she was a new political prisoner.

And San Miguel’s arrest had consequences. Soon after the Fact-Finding Mission of the UN Human Rights Council criticized San Miguel’s arrest, the government expelled its Office from Venezuela and gave its personnel 72 hours to leave the country. According to Foreign Minister Yvan Gil, the Office had become “the private law firm of the putschist and terrorist groups” and it should’ve “publicly rectify its colonialist and abusive attitude” or leave the country.

“This is an expansive wave of repression seeking to break the will of civil society,” Oscar Murillo, coordinator of human rights organization Provea says, “This time it’s not against a specific group but against public sector workers, teachers, journalists, union leaders… every space that can represent the discontent in an electoral year.”

The fact that Chavismo is crossing new lines in repressing organized civil society and in narrowing the spaces in which NGOs, independent digital media, universities, and civil associations operate has been unnerving for journalists, activists, aid workers, pundits, and the academia. Even Mary Pili Hernández, a former Chávez minister-cum-journalist, is now openly saying she’s scared. In the words of Laura Dib, director of the Venezuela Program at WOLA, “If this happened to Rocío San Miguel, then what’s left for everybody else?”

The end of the pax bodegonica

San Miguel’s arrest and the expulsion of the UNCHR office are happening amidst a new wave of repression against the political opposition and organized civil society following the success of the opposition primaries in October. 

There were a series of precedentes about what was to come in 2022 and 2023: the mass closure of radio stations mostly outside Caracas, the crackdown on labor groups and far left parties, and a couple of anti-NGO law proposals in the National Assembly.

These incidents were the dark underbelly of the pax bodegonica—a term coined by political scientist Guillermo Tell Aveledo to describe the relative political and economic peace that imports and dollarization have built in Venezuela, to Maduro’s favor, since 2018.

During this period, following the unpopularity spiral of Juan Guaidó’s interim government, it seemed the mainstream opposition was over. After the 2021 regional elections, in which the traditional Democratic Unity Roundtable had to compete with a series of co-opted “opposition” coalitions to its detriment, it seemed that a “non-ideological, non-tribal, pragmatic [force] focused not on the abstract, vague dream of restoring democracy (…) and campaign[s] on the hope of economic recovery and normalization” had surged to take its space, as Caracas Chronicles wrote back then. It was the parties and leaders of cohabitation according to the rules established by Chavista hegemony; all the Manuel Rosales and Fuerzas Vecinales and Alianzas del Lápiz which exist in a system with PSUV at its center.

Chavismo had understood “from very early on that to strengthen its lifelong claims it must grant zones of relief and autonomy for the apoliticized sectors and even for the adversaries,” journalist Alonso Moleiro wrote in 2022. But the era of limited repression following the collapse of Juan Guaidó’s interim government and the rise of a custom-made “oppositions” after the 2020 and 2021 elections is now giving way to the old days of persecution and harassment.

How did this happen?

The great catalyzer

Well, the mainstream opposition wasn’t over.

In October, surprising absolutely everybody, more than 2.3 million people in Venezuela went to vote in the opposition primaries and chose María Corina Machado: until then, a radical leader in the fringes of the mainstream opposition.

The surprise wasn’t that Machado had managed to completely sweep away the old party leadership of the G4 parties. Rather, the surprise was the high turnout: not only high for a primary election in normal conditions but high in self-organized elections that were completely censored by mass media. More importantly, as Delphos polls show, the primaries had raised people’s spirits and expectations of change. In fact, for the first time since 2019, Venezuelans who identify as ‘opposition’ are now the biggest self-identification block –back to 2019 levels– according to polls by Delphos.

But the primaries almost didn’t happen. The government sought to co-opt members of the regional boards of the National Commission of Primaries, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice started a case against the primaries and candidates like María Corina Machado, Henrique Capriles and Delsa Solórzano were physically attacked or harassed by the intelligence police throughout the country at least forty times during their campaigns.

The primaries, as both the opposition’s chief negotiator Gerardo Blyde and Machado have highlighted, were saved by the Barbados Agreements: accords signed between the government and the Unitary Platform, and mediated by Norway, a few weeks before the primaries. In exchange for a massive sanctions relief on oil, gas and gold by the United States, the government would commit itself to fulfilling a series of electoral conditions for freer elections. Among these, it would allow the opposition to undergo its internal process to choose its candidate. And so, the primaries happened.

A María Corina Machado rally in Valera, Trujillo -a former Chavista stronghold- in June 2023.

And Chavismo came out like a wounded animal, crying wolf (or fraud). A month and a half later, in fact, it organized its own referendum to reclaim the disputed Esequibo territory controlled by Guyana. Chavismo, it was clear, wanted to measure the strength of its weakened clientelist networks and how much it could mobilize its bases. The referendum, thus, was a direct response to the primaries’ success. And it faltered.

Once participation became obviously low, the government –losing its bases, unable to compete electorally, and facing a revitalized opposition– had to react before the 2024 presidential elections got completely out of their hands.  

The Nicaragua way

A week after the opposition primaries, Chavismo showed the first signs of the repression wave that followed. Its highest court suspended the primaries’ results and asked the National Commission of Primaries to hand out all documents and material related to the primaries. The Chavista coalition said that the opposition committed a “mega-fraud” to proclaim Machado as the Unitary Platform’s candidate in the 2024 presidential elections.

After days of accusations of frauds from the main Chavista officials and pundits, the case was brought to court by a member of the co-opted “opposition” who didn’t participate in the primaries. Multiple members of the National Commission of Primaries, and all the presidents of the regional boards, had to show up in the Public Ministry. For the following months, the move seemed symbolic.

But soon after, following the Esequibo referendum in December, the regime issued arrest warrants against a diverse group that included Roberto Abdul –the director of electoral NGO Súmate and a board member of the National Commission of Primaries– and three important members of Machado’s team. The Public Ministry accused them of having ties and receiving financing from ExxonMobil, the oil company exploiting oil in the disputed waters.

“Civil society and political parties did the primaries”, Guillermo Tell Aveledo, a political scientist and member of the National Commission of Primaries says, “They are now trying to press for less autonomous spaces.” For Aveledo, the state seems political parties and NGOs as one and the same and will try to generate fractures within these groups to affect their mobilization and organizational capabilities. “It also promotes a terrible argument: that it’s better not to organize or mobilize so as not to provoke [the government.”

This time, the will to save the Barbados Agreements seemingly avoided something worse. While Abdul was arrested, he was released a few weeks later alongside a handful of political prisoners that included the union leaders arrested in 2022. In exchange, the United States released Maduro’s close crony Alex Saab. Similarly, the persecution against the three members of Machado’s team was seemingly swept aside.

But the Barbados Agreement finally reached a wall in January. While the government had agreed to the Americans’ petition for a mechanism for opposition candidates to appeal their bans and have them lifted, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ratified the bans on Machado and Henrique Capriles in late January of 2024. The opposition, once again, found itself in Chavismo’s labyrinth. The United States responded by reimposing the gold sanction and threatening to reimpose the gas and oil sanction in April if the government doesn’t back down.

Clearly, all the new bridges were falling apart. And the government, as it was seeing in the euphoric rallies led by Machado in rundown rural towns like Varela and Sabaneta, realized that hyper-popular Machado –banned or not– was something beyond the Unitary Platform’s candidate: she was a political phenomenon, revitalizing the opposition’s political force and Venezuelans’ hope for political change.

Thus, the ratification of the disqualifications came alongside the new wave of repression started. Following Nicolás Maduro’s announcement of the creation of Furia Bolivariana, a “civil-military-police plan” to “confront conspiracies,” the headquarters of at least seven opposition political parties and several civil associations were vandalized on the morning of January 23. These include the main headquarters of Vente and around six local headquarters, houses of regional opposition activists and union leaders, the headquarters of the NGO FundaREDES, at least three colleges of engineers and regional headquarters of Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular, Encuentro Ciudadano, Copei, Acción Democrática and Un Nuevo Tiempo.

Three regional coordinators and an activist from Vente, María Corina Machado’s party, were also detained in Vargas, Trujillo and Yaracuy. The previous week, a Vente member and union leader –participating in teachers’ protests and assemblies– was also arrested in Barinas, Chávez’s birth state. A few weeks later, Machado’s supporters were violently attacked in a Charallave rally by Chavistas. Machado was forced to leave.

Protests in Barinas against the detention of a union leader.

The original Furia Bolivariana intimidation campaign took place a day after the Armed Force (FANB) denounced the alleged coup plot called “White Bracelet” and issued arrest warrants against a group that includes human rights activist Tamara Suju and journalist Sebastiana Barraez. The government also detained a former officer in Táchira, who “confessed” on camera, and allegedly 31 other people involved in five conspiracies. Subsequently, the FANB announced the expulsion of 33 of its members and Attorney General Tarek W. Saab accused the arrested Vente members of being part of a “terrorist” operation. San Miguel and her family are the newest chapter of the White Bracelet story.

Despite the United States’ threats, the government hasn’t backed down. Just like it did six months ago by forcing the resignation of the members of a previously negotiated National Electoral Council that included respected opposition-leaning figures in its board, the government is now not only expelling the United Nations Mission in Venezuela but moving forward with the demolition of the Barbados Agreements: the bans remain, the Assembly is defining a date for the elections with loyal candidates and without the Unitary Platform and the chances of an European electoral observation mission are getting slimer as Chavismo publicly fights with the European Union.

But Chavismo’s fears on civil society mobilization and organizational willpower aren’t limited to arresting Súmate’s and Control Ciudadano’s director. Rather, it has kept the anti-solidarity bill in its 2024 legislative agenda and has revived the discussion of the anti-society bill – which was already approved in first discussion and is undergoing the “public consultation” phase since January 2024. NGOs, guilds and civil associations –if the bill moves forward– could be bulldozed.

The Anti-Society Law will limit “the work of organizations and will increase censorship and self-censorship to avoid being an object of retaliation”, human rights defender Rafael Uzcátegui says, “And of course, it will try to limit the reports on the different human rights violations in the country. Nevertheless, we have the compromise to keep resisting and defending the civic space in Venezuela.”

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.