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Venezuela’s Other Political Prisoners
Venezuela has several high-profile political prisoners whose mistreatment has shocked the world. But there are hundreds more. Here are a few of their stories.
On the outside, sociology professor Lissette González lives the life of a regular inhabitant of Caracas, Venezuela’s chaotic capital city. She struggles to make ends meet. She crisscrosses the traffic-clogged streets every day, raising two young boys on her own while juggling work and dealing with the oppressive scarcity of basic staples that plagues this country.
But on the inside, González is mourning the death of her father, Rodolfo, who took his own life inside Venezuela’s most notorious political prison after being falsely accused of conspiring against the government. The story of Mr. González and his family symbolizes the struggle of hundreds of Venezuelans who suffer from the government’s relentless pursuit of dissidents.
Prominent political prisoners such as opposition leader Leopoldo López, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, and recently jailed former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales help shine the spotlight on human rights abuses in Venezuela. But the publicity of their cases makes it is easy to overlook the dozens of ordinary Venezuelans — neither prominent nor powerful — that have also been unjustly jailed.
Rodolfo González and his wife, Josefa, owned a travel agency in the middle-class Caracas neighborhood of Chacao. While they opposed the government and participated in some opposition protests, they were not political activists — merely small business owners. But on April 26, 2014, Venezuela’s political police, the SEBIN, raided Mr. González’s home and took him into custody. They said they had been tipped off by an anonymous “patriot” who claimed without proof that González was the mastermind of the anti-government protests rocking the country at the time. His wife Josefa was also jailed.
Soon after, President Nicolás Maduro went on TV branding “the aviator” — as he termed González because he was a retired private pilot — the “brain” behind the protests. According to both the president and his second in command, Diosdado Cabello, González was the “financier” of the movement; the leader of an “insurrection.”
The prosecutor’s office charged both González and his wife with possessing explosives, illegally trading firearms, “conspiracy,” and “associating to commit crimes.” In spite of public claims that “incriminating documents” had been found in their computers, no evidence of their guilt has been presented. The prosecutor in charge of their case was one of seven people singled out by the Obama administration in an Executive Order imposing economic sanctions on Venezuelans linked human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
Lissette and the rest of her family were flabbergasted to hear their father attacked by the president on TV. They took to online media to describe how the family’s life had been turned upside down. They talked of having to visit Rodolfo in the notorious SEBIN prison, located in one of Caracas’ toughest neighborhoods. The family’s travel agency was ransacked by SEBIN; its files and equipment taken away without being returned. The family had to pay for renovations in the jail to make González’s life there a bit more bearable.
In March, Lissette learned via Twitter that her father had taken his own life.
Rodolfo’s ordeal had taken a toll on his psyche. The government had no evidence with which to incriminate him or his wife other than a couple of containers of gasoline they kept just in case — the origins of the “harboring explosive materials” charges. When rumors swirled that Rodolfo would be transferred to one of Venezuela’s most violent regular prisons, he decided to take matters into his own hands and end his life. He never got his day in court. (The government denies that González was being considered for a transfer.)
Josefa González is still awaiting trial. Though she is not currently detained, she has had her passport taken away from her. In a recent interview, Lissette told me that Josefa is in good spirits, but that rarely talks about her deceased husband in public. “She carries her widowhood with dignity … the worst moments happen when she has to go to court.” Josefa has moved out of their old apartment, which, Lissette tells me, has too many painful memories.
Lissette also told me of the other prisoners involved in her father’s case. The story of one of them, Yeimi Valera, is hard to forget.
A few days after apprehending González, SEBIN raided the offices of “Humano y Libre,” a civic organization that provided leadership and community engagement workshops for young people in troubled neighborhoods. The government claims that the group was involved in subversive activities. Since the organization’s leaders had gone into hiding, the authorities took into custody the only person they could find: Varela, the night watchman who was guarding the offices.
Varela is a man of humble origins who had lived in the home of Gustavo Tovar, the organization’s founder, for 20 years. SEBIN has since charged him of “associating to commit crimes,” along with Rodolfo and Josefa González. Lissette González tells me her father and mother had never even seen Varela until they met in court. She also tells me that Varela has no family members that she knows of, and that he receives very few visitors.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are 78 political prisoners currently in Venezuela. The local activist group Venezuela Awareness lists many more, because it includes people who have been released on parole under the condition that they stay inside the country and make regular court appearances.
But these statistics hide the many ways injustice disrupts the lives of people like Yeimi Varela or the González family. A few weeks after her father’s death, Lissette González gave an interview where she said she had “chosen not to be angry.” She repeated this to me in our conversation.
Lissette’s youngest son does not know what his grandfather died of, but she dreads the day she will have to tell him the truth. Her oldest son is fourteen, and he knows everything. “It is impossible to keep a teenager away from information,” she told me, all while worrying that he might grow up filled with hatred. “The challenge,” she said, “is preventing children from growing up with resentment in their hearts, as if they had a revenge they had to exact.”
In Venezuela’s persistently unjust society, that is a mighty challenge indeed.
In the photo, a Venezuelan opposition activist takes part in a demonstration in Caracas, on June 20, 2015 demanding the release of political prisoners.
Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images