Colombia’s Pastrana: Venezuela Is Nearing Humanitarian Crisis

EspañolThe visit of thee former Latin-American presidents to Venezuela in late January triggered significant diplomatic fallout, and drew attention to what the trio alleged were systematic human-rights abuses by the Venezuelan government.

But in a subsequent interview, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) has argued that democratic change may be around the corner in Venezuela — although the country’s dire economic situation will deteriorate still further before things improve.

Following his visit to Venezuela on January 26, Pastrana has condemned President Nicolás Maduro’s persecution of opposition leader Leopoldo López, imprisoned since February 2014. In an interview with newspaper El Tiempo published in February 1, Pastrana expressed his outrage at the high number of political prisoners in Venezuela and the government’s alleged torture of protesting college students.

Lilian Tintori, esposa de Leopoldo López, junto con Andrés Pastrana y Sebastián Piñera en su intento de visitar a López y otros presos políticos en la prisión de Ramo Verde.
Andrés Pastrana and former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera were barred from seeing Leopoldo López alongside his wife Lilian Tintori. (Leopoldo López)

“There are 83 political prisoners in Venezuela, and abhorrent cases like the ‘graves’, 2×2 square-meter cells underground with below-zero air conditioning, where students are locked up and don’t get to see daylight for three or four months,” Pastrana said. “How can such a torture exist in Venezuela?”

Finding basic goods like flour, milk, or diapers in Venezuela has become an odyssey: never-ending lines, intrusive frisking, and mistreatment at the hands of the authorities are now routine.

“A humanitarian crisis is coming because of the shortages, and we need to call the government’s attention to the plight of Colombians [in Venezuela], who are being discriminated against when they try to buy basic goods,” Pastrana said, claiming that when Venezuelan officials discover a Colombian in a line, they kick him out.

“Maduro alleges the widespread shortages and lines are not real,” the former Colombian premier added. “But it’s hard to understand how a country that has allegedly received US$800 billion in the last 10 to 12 last years now has barely anything to eat.”

In October 2014, López told friends and colleagues that guards in the Ramo Verde prison had tortured him. Of course, López is not the only one to have been mistreated in jail — hundreds of younger less-known students have it just as bad or worse — it’s just that he can get the message out.

“A 23-year-old young man came up and told us how a National Guard officer raped him with a rifle. All the complaints we received point to the existence of torture by the Venezuelan government,” Pastrana argued.

He has also no doubt López’s imprisonment is for purely political reasons. Venezuelan police prevented Pastrana from meeting with López, even during the prison’s visiting days, in a clear violation of his rights. “We’re very worried that persecution of political prisoners and Leopoldo will only increase,” he said.

Even though the delegation was not allowed to see Leopoldo, Pastrana pointed to one positive outcome: the Colombian government later officially requested that López be released, a shift in the neighboring country’s otherwise lenient foreign policy toward Venezuela. Mexican and Chilean legislators have made similar statements.

Asked about the need for a democratic alternative in Venezuela, Pastrana argued that such a transition must and is likely to occur, but that it depends largely on its people. “If Venezuelans are determined to carry out a democratic transition, there are mechanisms to do so,” he said, but emphasized that the current political system is the main cause for the country’s economic failures.

International opinion towards the Maduro regime is clearly changing towards condemnation: a process likely to only continue as news of new human-rights violations reaches international human-rights bodies. But as Pastrana noted, a transition will only come if the considerable courage of ordinary Venezuelans is enough to overcome government repression.

Adam Dubove contributed to this article.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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