Living in Venezuela today is like being part of a bad Mad Max movie. Armed motorcycle gangs in the pay of the Maduro regime roam the streets and attack pro-democracy demonstrators. There is no electricity for much of the time, and, just like in Mad Max, water is a precious commodity. People hoard it at home in plastic bottles and some are forced to refill from sewage canals.
Looting is widespread due to the shortage of food. 350 businesses in the state of Zulia alone have been looted in recent days, incurring losses of over $50m. Many shops remain closed, exacerbating the shortages. Over 40 people have died in hospital over the last week as a result of the continual blackouts.
People are being picked up off the street by motorcycle gangs, known as collectivos. Many innocent people have been interned without trial, and some even killed on the spot. 32 journalists have been illegally detained this year, just for trying to tell the truth. Police arrested one journalist for reporting on the electricity crisis. For good measure, they also looted his flat of all valuables.
How did Venezuela get to this point? The warning signs were there early on but were ignored by many, who trumpeted Chavez and his policies. The Government under Chavez did not respect individual rights and regarded the state as being above the law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous body of the Organisation of American States, found the Chavez regime guilty of severe human rights abuses on 13 occasions up to 2011. In each case, the regime refused to comply with the court’s sentences.
Examining a few cases reveals very clearly the nature of the state that Chavez created:
In 2009 a judge, Maria Afiuni, decided to release on bail a citizen who had been held in pre-trial detention for more than the legally permissible period of two years. After announcing her decision, she herself was arrested without a warrant by the police. They were under orders from DISP, the state political intelligence agency. Chavez himself gave a broadcast denouncing the judge the following day, saying:
“I demand harsh treatment of this judge; I have said so to the President of the Supreme Court and I say to the National Assembly; there has to be a law, because a judge who frees a bandit is much worse than the bandit himself….I demand 30 years in prison.”
The judge was jailed, as was her lawyer, because, in the words of the Attorney General, “he sought to avoid the conviction” of his client. Judge Afiuni was released on parole in 2013 because of ill-health. She subsequently revealed that she had been sexually abused and tortured by guards and officials of the Ministry of Justice. This is not an isolated case. Several other judges were removed by Chavez for political reasons. Human rights groups accused him of creating a climate of fear so all judges would follow political instructions. That is how we have reached the situation we have today.
In 2007 the regime refused to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television, which was hostile to Chavez. Before this, the station’s journalists had been physically intimidated, and some were even wounded by gunfire. Following the closure of RCTV the state seized its broadcasting equipment without any legal process or compensation. As an example of Chavez’s policy of ‘expropriating’ private property, this was just one of very many cases. The Venezuelan think-tank CEDICE has identified over 3,300 state violations of property rights. The violations include seizures of companies, hotels, social clubs and residential buildings, as well as land invasions and forced acquisitions of many properties. During this process, the Chavez family itself has expanded its own holdings. Chavez’s daughter Maria is now a multi-billionaire.
In 2004 Uson Ramirez, a former finance minister and general who had fallen out with Chavez, was arrested after he made remarks about an alleged “flamethrower” incident. Ramirez was responding to a news article that claimed soldiers were using flamethrowers as a form of punishment, and as many as eight had been burned in this way. Ramirez said that if a flamethrower had been used it would be ‘very serious,’ and for this he was jailed for five years.
From the very beginning Chavez ignored individual rights and created a gangster state, intimidating all to bend to his will or suffer the consequences. Internationally, far too many tolerated or ignored this brutality. Some even applauded his regime. Such state oppression of individual rights naturally leads to the economic and social breakdown we see today. Only by tackling breaches of rights when they first occur can countries hope to avoid the Venezuelan path.