In 2007, Linda McQuaig wrote a book entitled, Holding the Bully’s Coat, describing and denouncing the enabling of what she characterized as belligerent and lawless state bullying. It is thus as disappointing as it is ironic that she would now be the enabler of such behaviour. Indeed, “holding the bully’s coat” would be an apt description of her advocacy recently in The Toronto Star in support of the rights-abusing Venezuelan regime, “Canada on wrong side of Venezuelan conflict,” (The Toronto Star, March 15, 2018).
The Nicolás Maduro regime has spearheaded a program of mass domestic repression and humanitarian deprivation that is unprecedented in Venezuela’s history. There has been an increase of more than 65 per cent in maternal mortality, and more than 30 per cent increase in infant deaths. There is a resurgence of diseases that were once nearly eradicated in Venezuela, and a critical shortage of medicine necessary to treat them. There is skyrocketing malnutrition—seven out of 10 homes do not have enough food—with children being the most vulnerable to stunted growth and starvation. The UN highlighted in its Global Report on Food Crises that the situation in Venezuela is veering towards an even greater absence of basic consumer goods like food and medicine. Nonetheless, international efforts to address and redress these shortages are blocked by the regime.
This is not a “bitter class war,” as McQuaig described it, of rich versus poor; it is a struggle for dignity and justice for the Venezuelan people in the face of oppression from Maduro’s violent and kleptocratic elite. It is poor Venezuelans who have been on the front lines of this struggle—more than 80 per cent of Venezuelans live under the poverty line, and hundreds of thousands of them have taken to the streets to protest the Maduro Regime. Indeed, those opposing the regime constitute a broad and inclusive cross-section of Venezuelan society—urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old—united in common cause.
In response to this grassroots democratic movement, the regime mobilized to murder, maim, or jail its opponents. Since January 2014, more than 12,000 Venezuelans have been arbitrarily detained. Those who are unjustly imprisoned for their anti-regime views are often tortured, including through the use of electric shock, severe beating, suffocation, or sexual violence. In a recent report, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights concluded that there are “extensive violations of human rights by national authorities,” highlighting that they “systematically used excessive force to deter demonstrations, crush dissent and instil fear.”
This offensive launched by the regime against the people of Venezuela is underpinned by a full-scale assault on the institutions of democracy that are meant to serve them. Democratic opposition members are either violently intimidated, in exile, or in prison. The elected legislature has been disbanded, the independent judiciary dismantled, and civil society dismembered.
The plight and pain of imprisoned democratic opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez—with its compelling Canadian connections—individualizes and humanizes this widespread and systematic assault. Lopez—whose ancestors immigrated to Venezuela from Fredericton, N.B.—was imprisoned on trumped up charges in February 2014. He had been a leading prospective presidential contender against Maduro, with a poll indicating Lopez would receive 52.5 per cent of the vote to Maduro’s 20.5. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention among many others has determined that he is a political prisoner and has demanded his release.
The judge who issued the arrest warrant for Lopez, Ralenis Tovar, had testified that she was forced under threat of imprisonment and torture to sign the warrant. She has since fled and sought refuge in Toronto.
Similarly, the prosecutor in the case, Franklin Nieves, has stated that it was a “sham trial” orchestrated by Maduro for political reasons, and that “after examining each and every piece of evidence” it was clear that Leopoldo Lopez is innocent. Nieves, too, has since fled and sought refuge abroad.
As well, the witnesses in the case were tortured, and under the threat of murder were forced to sign false statements incriminating Lopez.
This one case—a microcosm of the larger state-orchestrated assault on Venezuela’s people and institutions—is illustrative of the attacks on the democratic political leadership, independent judiciary, public prosecution, and the rule of law.
If popular support for the regime remains as strong as McQuaig claims, Maduro would not need to engage in such dictatorial behaviour—his political opponents would be free to run in elections, the people would be free to exercise their right to peacefully protest, and the Courts would be free to carry out their duties.
Even the Chavistas have come out against the Maduro regime and its abusive policies and practices. Recent Venezuelan ambassador to the UN Rafael Ramirez and who was described as one of Chavez’s closest confidants, criticized Maduro for his role in the humanitarian crisis and restrictions on freedom of expression. Luisa Ortega, the Chavista and former attorney general in Maduro’s regime, denounced their attacks on democracy, their rampant corruption, and accused the regime of perpetrating crimes against humanity, filing a complaint before the International Criminal Court.
The condemnations of the Maduro regime and its crimes have been nearly universal—emanating from the Venezuelan people, leading human rights organizations, multilateral and international institutions such as the UN and the OAS, and democratic states spanning the globe. The outliers are those fellow authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s Russia, and marginal fringe figures. It is interesting to note that the contrarian claims of the experts that McQuaig cites have been challenged by the NGO, UNWatch.
Faced with such a depth of human suffering—perpetrated and perpetuated by the Maduro Regime—Canada should be commended for joining the chorus of voices in support of the Venezuelan people, and for being a leader in that regard. Canada has been independent in crafting its policy and stands at the forefront of driving the global agenda on this issue. In particular, Canada’s targeted sanctions on Venezuelan human rights abusers adopted under Global Justice for Sergei Magnitsky legislation are an effective and efficient tool to combat the culture of corruption and impunity that underpins these violations.
But there is always more that can be done. As chair of the G7, Canada is in a unique position to advance this smart human rights sanctions framework among key allies, and should put it on the agenda, with view to engendering a more concerted and comprehensive global sanctions network re targeting Venezuelan abusers.
As well, as an active member of the UN Human Rights Council, Canada should ensure that the institution respects its mandate in pursuit of peace, justice, and human rights. Namely, in accordance with its founding resolution, Canada should mobilize the community of democracies to vote to remove Venezuela from the Human Rights Council. The Council should be a venue to expose and unmask violations, rather than a place where they are rewarded with opportunities to obscure and obfuscate them.
Domestically, Canada should add Venezuela to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is well-documented that Venezuela has been working to export its human rights abuses, including collaborating with listed terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and states such as Iran and Syria, which are already listed by Canada as state sponsors of terror. Adding Venezuela to the list would fill existing loopholes and further empower Canada in the pursuit of justice and accountability.
We will not miss this opportunity to send a message to the people of Venezuela, and to the regime that oppresses them. Neither should Canada.
To the Venezuelan people: we stand with you, your just cause is our cause, and we will not relent until you are free.
To Maduro and his criminal regime: the world is watching—your impunity will soon come to an end—and you will be held accountable for your crimes.
In the end, justice will prevail.
Alessa Polga is a Venezuelan-Canadian community leader and human rights activist. She heads the Canadian Chapter of the Casla Institute for Human Rights in Latin America. Brandon Silver is the director of Projects at the Canada-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which has taken up the cases and causes of imprisoned Venezuelan human rights and democracy leaders.
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