- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
This story was updated as additional information became available.
The last time I saw my friend Pancho was in Caracas in January, just weeks after the opposition’s unprecedented victory in December’s legislative elections. Ever the optimist, he bet me a bottle of aged scotch – one I know to be far outside his price range – that, within a year, democracy would return to Venezuela. It’s a bet I very much hope to lose, and I look forward to sharing a drink with my friend — if and when I see him again.
It has now been over 36 hours since Francisco “Pancho” Marquez Lara (a political activist and Democracy Lab contributor), along with his friend and colleague Gabriel San Miguel, were detained by Venezuelan national guardsmen after a traffic stop on a rural highway. The two men’s documents were in order, but their car contained political posters, opposition paraphernalia, and the equivalent of $2700 in local currency for expenses. Apparently for that reason, the national guardsmen decided to bring them to a nearby base for questioning (though without stating a reason for their detention, as required by law).
At the time of their arrest, Marquez and San Miguel were on their way to remote Portuguesa State to support other oppositionists in the process of verifying signatures for a recall referendum against the country’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro. The 1999 constitution, written and ratified under Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez, allows for the popular recall of a sitting president and supposedly protects the rights of those who would petition for one.
But Venezuela’s chavista government doesn’t look kindly on the president’s political opponents. The two men have since been interrogated by various officials, including officers of the notorious Cuban-trained domestic intelligence forces, the SEBIN. Marquez retained use of his phone for several hours and kept his friends in Caracas abreast of what was happening, but around 10:30 in the evening officials took his phone away. By late Monday night, the two were taken away from the base, and their current whereabouts remain unknown. No charges have been announced, and the two have been denied access to a lawyer and kept incommunicado.
An opposition press release published on Monday afternoon has proclaimed the detention arbitrary and illegal and called for their immediate release. In response, Erica Farías, the chavista governor of Cojedes, the state where they were detained, took to the airwaves for a ritual that has become all too common in Venezuela. Citing “reliable information” she could not share due to the “ongoing investigation,” she decisively declared the two guilty of something “definitely not made up by Erika Farías” that involved shady international cabals bent on “attacking the people.” She also promised that they would be processed by the penal system to “set a precedent,” and that further evidence would be forthcoming.
Marquez is something of an oddity in Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition. A graduate of the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School, he has insisted on staying in his home country even as so many other members of the educated classes have opted to emigrate. In this respect he has much in common with Leopoldo López, Latin America’s best-known political prisoner, and the head of the Voluntad Popular party, of which Marquez is also a member. Unlike López, however, he has long eschewed the political spotlight, working behind the scenes as a civil servant in the municipal government for El Hatillo, a Caracas borough. He is that rare thing — the committed technocrat in the sea of would-be presidents that is Venezuela’s perennially squabbling opposition.
Fractious as it is, that opposition has had plenty of reason to act. The situation in Venezuela is becoming increasingly desperate. The economy is imploding. Shortages of basic goods are prompting food riots. A breakdown of public order has led to a rash of vigilante lynchings for petty crimes. Supplies of even basic medicines are running short. And, after winning a clear victory in last year’s elections, the opposition has seen its parliamentary majority annulled by a Supreme Court that is friendly to Maduro. And so, seeing few other options, the president’s opponents have launched a petition calling for a referendum to remove him from power. That campaign has since managed to collect two million signatures — about 10 times more than the minimum required.
But the chavista government, which holds all the administrative levers of power, isn’t going down without a fight. First it rejected about 600,000 of the signatures as fraudulent (without explaining why). Then it started inventing new obstacles to participation, such as requiring signers to travel to their state capitals to ratify their signatures in person. Their names have also been made publicly accessible, potentially opening them to reprisals. At the same time, the government has created a new “period of repentance,” which allows those having “second thoughts” to conveniently rescind their signatures online.
Of course, none of these measures are stipulated anywhere in the constitution, nor have any of them ever been required for previous referenda. But in practice, election officials can make up the rules as they go along — at least while the courts and the military remain on board. It was into this maelstrom that Marquez and San Miguel were driving.
David Smolansky, the mayor of El Hatillo (and Marquez’s boss), referred to the two men’s arrest as little short of a kidnapping, describing it as “one more arbitrary abuse within a system that uses violence and intimidation to remain perpetually in power.” He’s right. According to a withering report on human rights in Venezuela released last month by the Organization of American States, the country has nearly 100 political prisoners, and the European Parliament estimates that nearly 2000 Venezuelans have seen their liberties and rights abridged for political reasons. The number is growing quickly. With Venezuela’s economy in utter ruin, the Maduro regime is short on carrots — but its sticks can still strike at any time.
In the photo, taken by a supporter on June 20, Francisco Marquez Lara and Gabriel San Miguel are being transported from their initial place of detention in Cojedes state to an unknown destination.
Correction, June 21, 2016: Despite initial reports, it is unclear whether Marquez and San Miguel were personally interrogated by the governor of Cojedes state or by her staff after their arrest. A clause mentioning an interrogation by the governor has been deleted.