The damage the Venezuelan government is doing to the country’s democracy is happening now: jailing political opponents, intimidating judges, beating protesters, abusing detainees, censoring journalists, and filling the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts of the president denouncing his critics as “criminals” and “fascists.”
In February 2003, the mayor of a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast stood up at a nationally televised meeting with then President Álvaro Uribe and announced his own murder. “Señor Presidente, I am the mayor of El Roble,” Tito Díaz said as he walked toward the stage where Uribe sat with several cabinet ministers and officials. Singling out several local officials, including the governor, Salvador Arana, seated at the President’s side, Díaz declared: “And now they’re going to kill me.” Within weeks, the national police stripped Díaz of his bodyguards. On April 5, 2003, he disappeared.
For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent years, the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?
The Cuban government has announced it will release fifty-two political prisoners who have been locked up since 2003—a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro. The announcement is certainly good news for the prisoners and their families, who have been through a very difficult seven-year ordeal. One might hope it also signals a new willingness by the Castro government to tolerate dissent—or at least to stop locking up dissenters—which would be very good news for the entire country.
But we’ve seen such negotiated releases before. Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson secured the release of three in 1996, and Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released in 2002. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. The most successful was Pope John Paul II, who obtained the release of more than eighty jailed dissidents in 1998.
For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent years the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?
Some have hoped that Raúl Castro would begin a process of political reform in Cuba. In fact, more than one hundred political prisoners locked up under Fidel remain behind bars, and Raúl’s government has used sham trials to lock away scores more. These include more than 40 dissidents imprisoned for “dangerousness,” a charge that allows authorities to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit one in the future. Yet when outsiders hear of Cuba’s political prisoners, many think first of what the US embargo has done to Cuba, not what Cuba has done to its own people. The effect is to seal Cuba’s prisoners off from international sympathy and reinforce their prolonged solitude.
On September 18, we released a report in Caracas that shows how President Hugo Chávez has undermined human rights guarantees in Venezuela. That night, we returned to our hotel and found around twenty Venezuelan security agents, some armed and in military uniform, awaiting us outside our rooms. They were accompanied …