José Miguel Vivanco
On November 2, the Chilean Senate adopted a resolution urging the Bachelet administration to support the Vatican’s efforts to mediate the Venezuelan crisis, and to seek a special OAS session to evaluate Venezuela’s compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
This two-pronged strategy makes sense given that the dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition is not a conversation among equals. One side is a repressive government that has abused power and targeted opponents, and the other is a beleaguered opposition whose hard-earned control of the National Assembly has been made largely meaningless by government efforts to crush that institution’s power.
Without strong international pressure, including through continued close scrutiny by the OAS through the Inter-American Democratic Charter process, the Maduro administration will not feel enough real pressure to acknowledge its responsibility to end repression and do its part to bring an end to the political, economic, and social crisis that Venezuela is facing.
These two steps—supporting the dialogue and simultaneously pressing the Maduro administration—are indispensable and complementary measures, and could lead to concrete results. One of them should be the immediate release of Braulio Jatar, the Venezuelan journalist born in Chile who was arbitrarily arrested two months ago. The discussion of a dialogue has already secured the release of a handful of political prisoners in recent days.
As we know, Jatar, who directs the independent digital news outlet Reporte Confidencial in Nueva Esparta State, was detained on September 3 after covering a spontaneous pot-banging protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Villa Rosa, on Margarita Island. Jatar was intercepted by the intelligence services when he was driving to his radio show. Armed intelligence agents with their faces covered raided his home that evening, while his family did not know his whereabouts.
Jatar was brought before a judge two days later. He was only able to see his lawyer minutes before the hearing. A member of his defense team who had access to the criminal file told Human Rights Watch that a report by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) accused Jatar of allegedly organizing “destabilization” activities prior to a meeting of members of the Non-Aligned Movement that took place in Margarita later that month.
The prosecutor’s office charged Jatar with money laundering—which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison—for allegedly having approximately US$25,000 cash in his car. The only evidence against him, according to his lawyers, were two witnesses cited in a SEBIN report who allegedly told SEBIN that they saw that the money was found in his car. Neither could be found afterward to corroborate their initial testimony, the lawyers said.
Since September 10, Jatar has been held in a high security prison. He has only been allowed limited access to his lawyers and family.
The approach proposed by the Chilean Senate may well be the best formula to free Venezuela’s political prisoners and restore the rule of law. The Bachelet administration should keep up the international pressure together with other leaders, but it should also specifically address the Jatar case—including by asking the Vatican to mediate with the Venezuelan government to immediately release him and drop the charges against him.
It’s not just about the release of one more political prisoner in Venezuela; it’s also about protecting free speech and freedom of the press, which are key pillars of any democracy.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, is a general expert on Latin America. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Vivanco worked as an attorney for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States (OAS). In 1990, he founded the Center for Justice and International Law, an NGO that files complaints before international human rights bodies. Vivanco has also been an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. He has published articles in leading American and Latin American newspapers and is interviewed regularly for television news. A Chilean, Vivanco studied law at the University of Chile and Salamanca Law School in Spain and holds an LL.M. from Harvard Law School.