The video shows a Venezuelan state representative half naked, sitting in a squalid cell, shackled by an arm and a leg to a metal pipe. Open wounds on his other arm are loosely wrapped in tattered and bloody bandages.
The young man dispiritedly describes his plight and appeals to the Organization of American States and the United Nations for his freedom.
By that point, Wilmer Azuaje had already spent more than 100 days in the hands of the Venezuelan secret police without being charged, even though the law requires a defendant face a judge within 48 hours of arrest.
Azuaje’s surreptitiously taped plea has gone viral, the latest powerful evidence that the Maduro dictatorship is torturing and otherwise mistreating political prisoners.
The violent repression, oppression, and human rights abuses by the Venezuelan government have become so commonplace and the Venezuelan people have become so despondent, little is seen as shocking anymore.
But the Azuaje video stunned with its sad simplicity, as did an article by human rights activist Tamara Suju. It describes her most recent report to the International Criminal Court, listing 22 new cases of torture inflicted by agents of the Venezuelan government on 110 detainees.
In horrifying detail, she describes atrocities that include the rape of men and women, beatings, broken bones, psychological torture, starvation rations, and the withholding of medical treatment, including for malaria, a once-eradicated disease in Venezuela, but where 240,000 cases were documented last year.
Azuaje, Suju, and millions of Venezuelans are clamoring for the international community to take action and save the country from an authoritarian regime that has turned totalitarian since protests erupted against a power grab in March.
Children are starving, people are dying of treatable illnesses because of a scarcity of medicines, and the regime has taken dozens of television and radio stations off the air.
But international dysfunction is such that their pleas to the world may be a waste of breath.
The United Nations’ timidity on Venezuela has added another entry to the long ledger of its ineffectiveness. Secretary-General António Guterres has barely mentioned the crisis and when he has he’s avoided strongly condemning the human rights abuses by the government, limiting himself to tepid calls for dialogue.
In fact, his strongest statement on Venezuela was directed at the U.S., not the dictatorship, after President Donald Trump said military action in Venezuela is an option.
The Security Council has also been stymied, because permanent members Russia and China have become two of the dictatorship’s strongest allies. Infusions of cash from Moscow and Beijing have kept Maduro’s government afloat, while turning Venezuela into a vassal state. They would veto any move by the Security Council against the Maduro dictatorship.
Only the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken out strongly about the repression, arbitrary detentions, and torture of detainees in Venezuela, saying “the responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of government.”
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has doggedly documented the Maduro regime’s abuses and eloquently argued it should face consequences for many violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The OAS itself, however, has done nothing. At two meetings of the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, socialist allies of Venezuela and small Caribbean nations dependent on cheap Venezuelan oil blocked resolutions condemning the government, despite support from a large majority of OAS members that represent more than 90 percent of the region’s population.
The Trump administration hasn’t helped. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson skipped both OAS meetings. And, just as significant, when ad hoc groups of Latin American nations had started taking multilateral action against the dictatorship, Trump issued his extemporaneous and ill-advised military threat.
That undercut the efforts and forced those countries to turn their focus from condemning Venezuela to rejecting U.S. intervention. Also, the State Department and the White House have not had a unified strategy on Venezuela, weakening American efforts to solve the crisis.
That might be changing. On Friday, the Trump administration announced its strongest sanctions yet, severely limiting the ability of the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan oil company, PDVSA, to raise funds in international bond and equity markets.
The Vatican hasn’t helped either. It sponsored talks between the opposition and the regime last year, but Maduro negotiated in bad faith, sabotaging the process. The Vatican didn’t impose any preconditions, so the dialogue allowed the dictatorship to further consolidate power.
This year, as protests raged and thousands were being injured and arrested, Venezuelan bishops courageously stood up to Maduro. Pope Francis, however, was mostly silent. He waited until the last minute to ask Maduro to suspend the fraudulent and unconstitutional constituent assembly election, calling on the government to respect human rights and guarantee freedoms. Even then, the pope also called for dialogue, seemingly forgetting Maduro’s deceitfulness in negotiations just months before. This absence of strong papal leadership in the face of enormous human right violations has led to an unlikely result: The first Latin American pontiff is now relatively unpopular in an overwhelmingly Catholic Latin American country.
Given that internal negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition have failed repeatedly, international coordination and multilateral diplomacy are the only hopes for the Venezuelan people to see a return of democracy.
The U.S. policy of incrementalism, gradually turning the screws on the dictatorship with ever-broader unilateral sanctions is not enough. The EU needs to get on board with the U.S. and Latin America, backing up its words with actions.
Few doubt the Maduro regime is heavily involved in drug trafficking, supporting terrorism, and looting the country’s economy. The international community must treat the regime as an active criminal enterprise, using criminal investigations to pierce the veil of banking secrecy in places such as Andorra, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands in order to access the ill-gotten gains hidden there by Venezuelans made wealthy by their corrupt dealings.
Publicize who they are and how they live in luxury abroad. Revoke their visas, freeze their assets and make it clear that a comfortable exile will not be an option if democracy does not return soon to Venezuela. That will drive a wedge among members of the regime in a way that will hurt them, not the Venezuelan people.
Wilmer Azuaje finally faced a judge last week, only to be sent back to jail after hearing the trumped-up charges against him. His only real “crime” was dissent. Hundreds of men and women like him, of all ages, remain rotting behind bars for simply speaking loudly and bravely against Venezuela’s criminal dictatorship. The international community should have the same courage to confront a pariah government and stop it from trampling on the human rights of its people.