The crisis in Venezuela continues to unfold at a frenetic pace. As Nicolás Maduro’s regime moves forward with its efforts to govern through the newly-formed and all-powerful Constitutional Assembly, governments in the region and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, continue to draw attention to the many human rights violations taking place in the country, and calling for an immediate stop.
BA spoke to Mariela Belski, the director of Amnesty’s Argentine section, to hear their take on the Venezuelan people’s current situation in the country and the recent incidents taking place during Maduro’s grasp for power.
(Disclaimer: This interview was filmed last Friday, therefore the most recent events such as Venezuela’s removal from the Mercosur trading block were not discussed.)
While visiting our studios, Belski began describing the desperate humanitarian situation the Venezuelan people are going through. “There’s a huge lack of access to economic, cultural and social rights. People are on the streets not only because they don’t agree with Maduro’s policies. We fundamentally believe that what motivates them is the humanitarian situation. Especially the food situation and the lack of access to food. Since 2016, 53,000 Venezuelans came to the country.” she explained.
“Not everyone is able to access the food bags that the government is giving away because they only give it their supporters. Most people don’t support Maduro so there are a lot of complications to get food. There’s also a health crisis of an almost incommensurate dimension: access to medication is almost impossible and the situation in hospitals is deplorable,” she said, highlighting that these are all facts backed up by evidence and statistics that the Venezuelan section of Amnesty International gathers in the Caribbean country on a daily basis. In fact, a mission from the organization recently spent a week in Venezuela gathering information for a report, which is expected to come out soon.
When asked about the organization’s situation in particular, Belski stressed that it’s “very critical, to the extent that we had to present our annual report in Argentina, rather than in Venezuela.”
“It’s almost impossible to do our job there. A lot is done from home,” she explained.
Belski explained that her colleagues are exposed to high risk. In fact, the former director of the Venezuelan office was shot on the leg in one during a demonstration. Only a few days ago, she says the son of one of her colleagues was “hit hard” as well and had to get 25 stitches.
“What worried us the most was that if you are in a hospital after being involved in a situation like that, (the government) takes you… they detain you,” she explained.
In order to come up with the most objective, non-biased analysis, Amnesty does joint work with observers from the regional office.
Amnesty wrapped up its mission in Venezuela last week and Belski predicted they could possibly send a preview this week. The final report is expected to come out approximately in a month. “We have conducted many surveys throughout the years. We have been to the marches, interviewed and identified key people who we consider to be defenders of human rights,” she added.
Rosmit Mantilla and Marcelo Crovato have both been imprisoned by the Maduro regime and Amnesty assures that it was because of their political activism.
Last July 31, the Maduro regime held an election to select the members of a Constitutional Assembly tasked with reforming the Venezuelan Constitution, and therefore the state’s structure. Many governments and organizations supported the Venezuelan opposition’s stance, which assured that the Assembly is nothing but a sham with the not-so-veiled intention of avoiding the presidential elections that Maduro knows he will lose.
The Vatican was also criticized for its mild rebuke to Maduro’s plans, only issuing a statement urging his regime to refrain from moving on with the body on the same day they were planning on doing so, arguing that the warning came way too late. And while Amnesty regularly doesn’t weight in on issues such as these, she did say that the Pope “didn’t gesture a willingness to be a mediator between the two camps. Only [last Friday] he issued a release that, from Amnesty’s perspective, was a bit lukewarm. It came on a very particular day, at the request of the Venezuelan church,” she argued.
Considering that the Venezuelan opposition is not extremely fond of the Pope since that day he told journalists that he thought they were “fragmented and part of them didn’t want a dialogue,” Belski said it’s necessary to find a regional leader or government with whom Maduro would be willing to talk.
An option for that would be Cuba.
“Obviously the Cuban government is closer to Maduro. Other countries could talk to the Cuba and see if they can convince it to play role in this. Because if there’s a country that Maduro will listen to, it’s Cuba,” she said.
Regarding the Argentine government’s involvement in the crisis, Belski drew attention to two things: the need for the government to keep welcoming all Venezuelans that want to come into the country (regardless of whether Venezuela has been suspended from Mercosur or not) and that, despite having a laudable stance towards the crisis and always promoting dialogue, the Argentine government has somewhat of a double standard in its human rights agenda.
“Since 2016, 53,000 Venezuelans came to the country. The entire region is welcoming them. The stats might not be exact, but it’s in the vicinity of that number. Today, we can say that Argentina receives Venezuelan migrants because it subscribed to all Mercosur treaties regarding freedom of movement within the bloc’s countries. One would think that Venezuela being suspended won’t mean that Argentina will stop welcoming its citizens, but it is true that this crisis creates a lot of migration to other countries.”
When it comes to Argentina’s leadership in the region, Amnesty doesn’t think it’s strong enough. “There’s a a risk in becoming the standard-bearer of human rights in the region when the issue itself in your country is quite invisible, or pushed aside, or doesn’t have priority in your campaign or agenda,” she said. “We at Amnesty see a sort of double standard. We don’t think it’s right to use the Venezuelan crisis as a campaign argument for the midterm elections. We don’t think it’s right for the President to do it and we don’t think it’s right for some journalists to encourage this.”
During the past months, President Mauricio Macri hardened his stance on the Venezuelan crisis, to the extent of being one of the heads of state who spearheaded the Caribbean country’s removal from the Mercosur. As for the second part of her statement, Belski illustrated her point by making reference to an article published last week by La Nación journalist Carlos Pagni, titled “Macri is not seizing the Venezuela topic to attack [former President] Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] in the campaign.”
Despite a double standard problem, Belski said she “really values the stance Argentina has had all this time, which has been one of promoting dialogue.”
“We think that’s ideal. Argentina has played a key role in many similar processes through history,” she added.
As well as considering the possibility of tapping Cuba to negotiate, she considered that “there has to be an alliance between several South American countries to reach this goal.”
“We believe governments have to dedicate a lot of time to see how they can get to talk to the Venezuelan government, to make that dialogue happen. Figure out who the key people are to generate a healthy and constructive dialogue,” she concluded.