Celebrities, activists, academics and lawyers issued an open letter, Mar. 28, to Congress urging members to oppose any sanctions on Venezuela and to get all the facts on the situation there. Among the signees are Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, SOA Watch's Lisa Sullivan and Father Roy Bourgeois. Readers should contact their congress members to urge them to vote "No" on the sanctions bill, H.R. 4229.
Dear Members of Congress,
We write to you out of a deep concern over the recent tragic events in Venezuela and because we believe that recent congressional action in response to these events is misguided and could actually worsen the situation. On Mar. 4, the House of Representatives passed Resolution 488 "Supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democratic change and calling to end the violence." The resolution is right to condemn violence and call for dialogue, but incorrectly portrays the government as the sole party responsible for the violence that has taken place and also paints an inaccurate picture of protestors' demands.
As The New York Times, Reuters and other outlets have reported, opposition protestors have engaged in acts of violence that have resulted in loss of life and injury. Rather than merely "protesting economic, social, and political concerns," as the resolution text states, many of these protestors are blocking roads, damaging public and private property and carrying out violent acts in a stated effort to provoke the immediate removal of the country's elected government. Given the passage of this resolution and the recent introduction of legislation that mandates targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials (H.R. 4229), we wish to share with you a few well-documented facts about these protests in the hope that you can help promote a more balanced vision of the situation in Venezuela within Congress.
In the last five weeks, over two-dozen people have been killed in violent incidents related to opposition protests. Some of these have been opposition protesters and some of them appear to have died due to the actions of government forces. However, it is important to note that more than half of the dead (as of Mar. 13), however, have not been opposition protesters, but have either been government supporters, National Guard officers, or people who have been killed at the barricades - either driving into them, or shot while trying to remove them. A few ghastly cases resulted in the decapitation of motorcyclists who rode into wire that opposition protesters had tied across the road. All such deaths and violence are lamentable. But recent statements and the text of H. Res. 488 focuses exclusively on violence carried out by those in the employ of the Venezuelan government, while ignoring the equally lamentable deaths of those who support the government, or who were essentially bystanders.
It is also commendable to denounce actions by the Venezuelan government or any other government that infringe on human rights such as freedom of association and freedom of speech. H. Res. 488 notes the number of people "unjustly detained" in connection to the protests, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, condemning "politically motivated criminal charges to intimidate the country's political opposition." Yet many protesters have not been peaceful, as clearly shown by much of the media coverage. Protesters have shot and killed people trying to remove barricades, including Chilean national Giselle Rubilar Figueroa on March 9, National Guard officers and others. They have burned buildings and Metro stations. They have assaulted journalists (as Reuters reported on March 12), government supporters, police and National Guard, among other activities that you would never support if carried out by protesters on U.S. streets.
Considering that not all the protesters in Venezuela are peaceful and engaged in lawful activity, the Venezuelan government may have legitimate reasons for arresting and detaining a number of them. This includes some higher-profile opposition figures. The Venezuelan government sought the arrest of retired General Angel Omar Vivas Perdomo in relation to his Tweets advising protesters to string wire across streets at a height of 1.2 meters in response to pro-government motorcyclists. After the deaths of two motorcycle riders from riding into wires, security forces went to Vivas Perdomo's house. He emerged on his balcony carrying a large assault rifle and engaged in a stand-off, and ultimately the officers left without arresting him.
Among those the Venezuelan authorities have arrested are 14 members of the security forces. It is also notable that as soon as evidence emerged that members of Venezuela's intelligence service (SEBIN) had been involved in shooting at protesters - apparently killing one - President Maduro fired the head of the agency and eight other officers were arrested. In another case, the driver of a truck who struck and killed a student protester was arrested and charged with homicide.
The concern for human rights in Venezuela expressed in the resolution is admirable, but to only focus on the deaths of protesters while ignoring the killings of pro-government and other individuals by protesters politicizes and undermines effective promotion of human rights. Targeting only the Venezuelan government and condemning it while depicting the protesters as uniformly "peaceful" and "non-violent" is akin to saying you want to break up a fight by holding back the arms of one brawler while the other continues to throw punches at him. This is undoubtedly why the U.S. administration's proposals for action on Venezuela at the OAS have fallen on deaf ears: the U.S. government's version of events seems far removed from reality and what has been reported in the international media.
The politicization of human rights also seems apparent when U.S. members of Congress and U.S. officials speak out on Venezuela but not about, for example, protests in Colombia last year in which state security forces killed 12 people, or protests over mining in Peru in recent years in which three people were killed in 2012, and at least nine indigenous protesters killed by security forces in 2009, and perhaps hundreds more injured in a government crackdown. Why is the Venezuelan government being singled out, especially given that there is clear evidence of violent acts with lethal consequences coming from both protestors and the government? In short, by its lopsided portrayal of the violence - echoed and expanded on in additional testimony and other statements from Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and other members of Congress - the resolution's text undermines its own desire for (under point 4) "the United States Department of State to work in concert with other countries in the Americas."
Furthermore, it is important to note - as neighboring governments in Brazil and Chile have, for example - that the Maduro government has responded positively to domestic and international calls for dialogue to resolve the current protests and violence. Maduro has already done the main thing that H. Res. 488 asks of him and his government; it is opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles who have refused to answer the call, even as prominent opposition business leaders have participated, including Jorge Roig, the head of main business federation FEDECAMARAS and Lorenzo Mendoza of the major food and beverage company Empresas Polar. If U.S. members of Congress want to assist Venezuela in resolving this current situation of violent unrest, they should urge other opposition leaders to come to the table in good faith.
Venezuela is a democracy, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently affirmed in public statements on the situation, saying, "No one would argue that it isn't." Voter enfranchisement and participation has greatly increased in recent years, and former president Jimmy Carter has called Venezuela's electoral system "the best in the world." Freedom of the press is also alive and well in Venezuela, where the vast majority of media (including TV stations) remains privately owned and regularly gives voice to the opposition, as the New York Times recently admitted in a correction. Congressional resolutions steeped in hyperbolic rhetoric that portray Venezuela as a repressive government or even a dictatorship threaten to undermine the integrity of the U.S. Congress in the eyes of our Latin American neighbors, including such governments as Brazil and Chile, who have publicly referred to the protests as attempts to destabilize a democratic government.
Finally, we feel that targeted sanctions against the Venezuelan government - as stipulated in H.R. 4229 (introduced on March 13, 2014) - is both a gross over-reaction to the alleged repression in Venezuela and uncalled for given that, as mentioned earlier, authorities have taken judicial action - including arrests and investigations - to address alleged abuses carried out by security agents. Rather than contribute to peace and dialogue, this legislation will only create more tension between the U.S. and Venezuela and will weaken U.S. efforts to promote constructive dialogue between government and opposition actors. Thank you for your concern for human rights, peace and democracy in Venezuela.
Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Lisa Sullivan, Antonio Gonzalez, president, William C. Velasquez Institute; George Ciccariello-Maher, professor of Political Science, Drexel University; Arturo Escobar, professor of Anthropology, UNC, Chapel Hill; James Counts Early, Institute for Policy Studies Board of Trustees; Sujatha Fernandes, acting associate director, Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Daniel Hellinger, professor of International Relations, Webster University; Dan Kovalik, professor of International Human Rights, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Steve Ellner, professor of History, Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela; Nicole Phillips, human rights lawyer, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; John Womack, Jr., Harvard University Robert Woods Bliss professor of Latin American History and Economics, emeritus; Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of History, Pomona College; Sinclair Thomson, professor of History, New York University; T.M. Scruggs, professor emeritus, University of Iowa; Gilbert M. Joseph, Farnam professor of History and International Studies, Yale University; Gerardo Renique, associate professor, Department of History, City College of the City University of New York; Greg Grandin, professor of History, New York University.
Venezuela President Nicholas Maduro's opinion editorial, "A Call for Peace," in The New York Times can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/opinion/venezuela-a-call-for-peace.html
Photo: Capitol Building serves as the seat of government for the United States Congress. (CC)