Caracas, March 13, 2015: Alcedo Mora, a high-ranking employee in the Mérida state government, left for work on 27 February but never arrived. According to human rights defenders, Mora, a veteran leftwing activist, had been attempting to expose corruption in the national oil corporation, PDVSA. He had expressed concern that the government intelligence agency, SEBIN, was looking for him. Family members told the human rights organisation Provea that two other men had also vanished.
Mora’s disappearance comes after several other disturbing recent cases. Most chillingly, the bodies of half a dozen young men have shown up in different parts of the country after being bound, tortured and shot. Two of them at least appear to have been targeted for their political activities.
And in a basement complex known as “La Tumba” (the tomb), four floors below the headquarters of SEBIN at Plaza Venezuela in central Caracas, a handful of “maximum security” prisoners are submitted to sensory deprivation and chilling temperatures, with electric light 24 hours a day. The government has ignored calls by the Inter American Human Rights Commission to bring conditions into line with international standards. It has reportedly threatened other political prisoners with being transferred to La Tumba or to one of the country’s highly dangerous common prisons. Perhaps as a result of these threats, one prisoner – Rodolfo González – apparently committed suicide on last Thursday.
Amid this increasingly grim human rights picture, the United States government last week imposed sanctions on seven government officials – including the head of the SEBIN, General Gustavo González López – for corruption and human rights abuses. The response of President Nicolás Maduro was to appoint the general as interior minister.
Under Maduro, opposition politicians have faced increased harassment, judicial persecution and even imprisonment. Leopoldo López, leader of Popular Will (VP) and one of the two most popular figures in the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, languishes in the Ramo Verde military jail, accused of criminal conspiracy for a campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing Maduro’s resignation. The mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, joined him there last month after the president sent dozens of heavily armed state security agents to snatch him from his office.
Almost half the opposition mayors elected in 2013 are being prosecuted. Three MUD members of parliament have been summarily removed and a fourth – Julio Borges, leader of Justice First (PJ), one of the biggest parties – is likely to follow shortly. Along with Ledezma and López he is accused of plotting to overthrow the president.
Protesters are treated harshly: street clashes last year cost 43 lives, more than 3,000 protesters were detained, dozens remain in jail and over 2,000 were freed pending trial. Many complained of beatings and torture. The UN rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said this week that the government had violated international law by failing to prevent torture; he said the SEBIN was among the offenders. Defence minister General Vladimir Padrino López recently issued a resolution outlining circumstances in which troops could shoot to kill protesters. And on 24 February a member of the national police (PNB) shot dead a 14-year-old student caught up in a demonstration.
In the western half of Caracas, whose mayor Jorge Rodríguez is a leading member of the ruling PSUV, demonstrations are simply banned, as they are in many other key locations across the country. Anyone thought to be trying to whip up anti-government sentiment among people queueing for food, or even photographing queues or empty shelves, is liable to be arrested.
Little of the independent press remains. Last month the newspaper Tal Cual was forced to close its daily edition as a result of government harassment and lack of newsprint. There is now just one national opposition daily. The last opposition TV channel, Globovisión, was bought in 2013 by pro-government interests and its coverage neutered. Few independent radio stations risk broadcasting material that might displease the government. Human rights defenders, lawyers and even doctors face persecution and even jail time for exercising their professions.
The crack-down is not gratuitous. This is a government under severe pressure, facing a key election year with poll ratings below 20%. If Maduro has a 2015 wall-calendar, it is a fair bet that a couple of dates are circled in red. In late October and early November PDVSA faces debt repayments totaling almost $3.8 billion. Between them, the central government and PDVSA must pay out over $5 billion to service the foreign debt in October and November. That represents roughly a quarter of the country’s reserves of gold and hard currency.
Although most analysts now believe a default can be avoided this year, a minority – including economists at Deutsche Bank in New York – see no way of avoiding it. With or without default, or an adjustment package, the pain will be considerable: food importers say they have received no dollars for the past four months. Importers of medicines, medical equipment and other essentials are in a similar position.
By chance, legislative elections are also scheduled to be held in late October or early November. And with support for the PSUV down to just 16% according to one pollster, the government has good reason to be concerned. Even though identification with individual opposition parties is not much higher, anti-government sentiment as a whole is running a clear 10 points ahead, while Maduro’s personal popularity is around 20% and falling. The central bank has stopped issuing figures for the scarcity of basic goods, but independent sources put it at almost 60%. Despite crippling price controls, inflation for 2015 is predicted conservatively to reach 120%.
Maduro’s control of the entire state apparatus, including a compliant supreme court (TSJ) and electoral authority (CNE) gives him breathing space. By manipulating the electoral law and gerrymandering constituency boundaries, the regime obtained a 98:67-seat majority with less than half the votes in 2010. But if it is not to resort to outright fraud this time – and there is evidence that systemic electoral fraud may have been practiced for many years – exceptional measures are clearly required. Hence the president’s moves to close off much of the remaining democratic space he inherited from Hugo Chávez (1999-2013).
Despite widespread discontent, the MUD has failed to capitalise on desertions from government ranks and even many of its traditional supporters are disheartened and in no mood to vote. Recent MUD rallies have been poorly attended. Maduro, moreover, has more tricks up his sleeve. He has sought (and will get) powers to rule by decree. And already he has hinted that anyone deemed to be engaged in subversive activities will be disqualified from taking office. The regime has served notice that it does not intend to be voted out of power.