- 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.
Soviet-style shortages of basic goods, looming legislative elections, plummeting approval ratings, stratospheric inflation and crime — Nicolás Maduro can be fairly said to have 99 problems, but being heckled by former presidents shouldn’t be one of them. After all, uniquely for the Americas, Venezuela has no living ex-presidents of its own. Yet now, even though neighboring governments remain shy of weighing in on Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian policies, ex-presidents from other countries are becoming the most vocal critics of Venezuela’s crackdown on human rights and civil liberties.
Unlike their U.S. counterparts — who traditionally hold their post-presidential tongues lest they undermine the institution — Latin American ex-presidents often remain highly relevant politically. On occasion this can prove a boon to their successors, as with Brazil’s much-maligned Dilma Rousseff, who draws legitimacy from her connection to a still-popular and highly visible mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula. More often, however, former presidents can be found spearheading the opposition, harrying the current administration, and sometimes plotting their own return to power — as did Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, re-elected in 2013.
Venezuela itself is something of an exception to the pattern. During the 1990s, nostalgic and recession-weary Venezuelans turned to reelecting elderly ex-presidents from the oil-soaked boom times of the 1960s and 70s to see if they could recapture the magic. They couldn’t, and Hugo Chávez swept into power, establishing a regime that has endured under his successor Maduro, however problematically, since El Comandante’s premature death in 2013. As a result, save for the odd “acting president” with mere hours or days at the helm during various coups or political crises, Maduro is the lone living Venezuelan to have ever ruled the Bolivarian Republic.
The lack of such ex-presidential voices (from either side of the aisle) is acutely felt in Venezuela, all the more due to the executive’s near-monopoly on political activity. A decade-and-a-half of populist centralization under Chávez has gutted the constitutional separation of powers, and the famously paranoid Maduro has suppressed most independent media into irrelevance, leaving no domestic mechanism to provide public feedback to the national executive, let alone hold it accountable. Meanwhile, sitting South American governments are loath to criticize one another’s internal matters, lest they themselves someday need to arrest political prisoners, shut down newspapers, or violently suppress protests.
Yet for neighboring ex-presidents, Venezuela’s rapidly worsening human rights situation is fair game — particularly when it draws a flattering contrast to the resounding silence from the sitting government. As Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma — the most recent high-profile opposition figure to be arrested — prepares for his upcoming trial, a veritable flood of former presidents have signed on to be his (and fellow political prisoner Leopoldo López’s) “defense team.” This initiative is the brainchild of Spanish ex-president Felipe González, who traveled to Chile in 1977, five years before becoming president, to defend two socialist political prisoners during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This time, González will be joined by eight colleagues (as of the weekend) including former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, as well as Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil, Andrés Pastrana (Colombia), Sebastián Piñera (Chile), Felipe Calderón (Mexico), Luis Alberto Lacalle (Uruguay), as well as Alan García and Alejandro Toledo (Peru). The invitation remains open, and more former presidents may join the group in the coming days.
While the gesture is largely symbolic (none of the team would be licensed to practice law in Venezuela), it goes some way towards undermining the government’s official narrative of Latin American solidarity against imperialist U.S. meddling. As is his wont when responding to international critics, Maduro has denounced González as a “coup-mongering lobbyist.” But, while this rhetoric may work against the George W. Bushes of the world, Gonzalez’s well-known history of defending political prisoners against a right-wing regime — to say nothing of his 23-year tenure at the head of Spain’s socialist party — means it is unlikely such accusations will stick to him. Some Venezuelan officials, such as Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, have hinted that the ex-presidents may not be allowed in, rather lamely pointing out that they would have to apply for “work visas” to work as consultants. But barring them entry to Venezuela would be a P.R. disaster for a regime still eager to prove itself as nominally democratic — even Pinochet did not allow himself such a move.
Other ex-presidents have raised their voices individually: former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, for example, warned Maduro last week that “human rights transcend borders.” It is unclear whether Lagos himself will join the González group. Colombian ex-president Alvaro Uribe is another notable absence, but this may be for the best: Uribe was the late Chávez’s regional nemesis, a constant and fierce critic of Maduro, and has long featured prominently in Maduro’s trademark conspiratorial news broadcasts. For this reason, his participation might have made it easier for Venezuela’s powerful government media to shrug the delegation off.
If history is any indicator, the Venezuelan regime is likely to tolerate another PR drubbing rather than risk releasing its political prisoners. Earlier this year, almost as a prelude, Piñera, Pastrana and Calderón visited Venezuela, publicly met with the wife of well-known political prisoner Leopoldo López, and called for his release. Piñera and Pastrana further embarrassed the regime when they unexpectedly showed up at Ramo Verde Prison to try to meet with López in person, only to be unceremoniously turned away. (In the photo, Pastrana and Piñera wait outside the prison with López’s wife and Venezuelan opposition leaders.)
In November 2014, the three ex-presidents had been among a group of eight prominent Latin Americans, along with former European Prime Ministers from countries like Greece and Italy, who published an open letter to Maduro requesting that López be released. For now he remains incarcerated — and the ex-presidentes are keeping the pressure on. On Sunday news began to leak of a new letter demanding the release of Venezuelan political prisoners, this time supposedly signed by no fewer than twenty-one former heads of state. This letter is due to be presented to the Venezuelan delegation at the seventh annual Summit of the Americas conference this week in Panama — with Maduro himself, alongside many of the region’s current presidents (including Barack Obama) in attendance. Awkward.
Venezuela’s revolution has thus far remained relatively impervious to international pressure when it comes to human rights. This makes it all the more heartening to see so many politically and geographically diverse leaders highlighting what really matters: human rights as an international cause that transcends the over-simplified grudges of the left-right spectrum that have divided Latin America for far too long.
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