In Venezuela, the torturers have won

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas in March. (Matias Delacroix/AP)
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas in March. (Matias Delacroix/AP)

Someone in power suspects you. And so, one day, you’re picked up off the street. It would be wrong to say you were “arrested,” since an arrest is a legal procedure. That’s not what happened to you. You’re just grabbed by men with guns and hauled away to a house on the outskirts of your city. It’s not really a jail, or any known public building at all. Just an old warehouse, far enough away that no one will hear you scream.

The interrogation begins. You’re beaten heavily, with either a baseball bat or sharp objects. Maybe some bones are broken, maybe there’s damage to an internal organ. The handcuffs you are weraing are so tight they cut into your wrists. Maybe you’re waterboarded or asphyxiated with a toxic substance. Or put in a stress position, or subjected to constant lighting, or to isolation in a dark room for days with no access to a toilet. Maybe you’re forced to stay naked, or threatened with rape, or actually raped. They threaten to kill you or members of your family.

No one knows where you are as this happens, and the questions just keep coming.

These are just some of the findings of the United Nations’ top human rights investigators looking at what’s happened in Venezuela since 2014. The detailed acccounts of torture in clandestine detention centers read like dispatches from the darkest days of right-wing military dictatorships in South America in the 1970s.

Its victims are the enemies, real or imagined, of the far-left regime of Nicolás Maduro.

The 411-page report of the UN Human Rights Council’s independentl fact-finding mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela alternates between the ploddingly bureaucratic and the harrowing. Written in the measured, careful tone of international human rights investigators, it is lawyerly in its language and scrupulous in reporting only that which can be proved. Its conclusions are devastating: the Venezuelan president and his inner circle gave orders and supplied resources for arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings — acts that constitute “crimes against humanity.”

The torture allegations are especially troubling. The U.N. investigators find it hard to believe what happened could have escaped the notice of top policymakers. “These acts took place in dozens of military and police detachments,” the report finds. “They repeated over the years, especially in 2014 and 2017. They were not isolated incidents, executed by individuals acting alone and beyond orders. They were continuous in nature and implied the cooperation, by act or omission, of many state agents at different levels.”

For years, I worried that democracy was slowly dying in the country where I was born and raised. But what Venezuela is seeing now is something much darker: not just “democratic deconsolidation,” but the consolidation of a police state. For two decades, Venezuelan activists have worked hard to prevent this worst-case scenario from taking root.

We’ve protested, banged pots, marched, signed petitions, voted in elections, boycotted elections, written columns, faced down volleys of tear-gas. We’ve taken risks. Some have ended up jailed, exiled, tortured. Or worse. We’ve fought like crazy to stop what has happened from happening.

It wasn’t enough.

Through its unrestrained brutality, the regime has achieved its goal: It has broken Venezuelans’ will and ability to fight back. The political opposition is split, marginalized and impotent. The young people who would have to be at the core of any revolt against the regime have mostly fled, or have been beaten into submission.

The realization is sickening but facts are facts. In Venezuela, the thugs won. The regime is now consolidated. That it revolts us will not make it less so.

The implications of this bleak observation are unbearable, but it no longer makes any sense to resist them. The United States’ sanctions policy, built on a theory that increasing the economic pressure on the regime would cause it to buckle, has been falsified by the facts. U.S. sanctions don’t do anything other than deepen the misery of a people already badly brutalized by its own government. The sanctionsshould be abandoned, not because abandoning them will hasten the fall of the regime —nothing is likely to do that, at this point— but because they serve no purpose and hurt the people they seek to defend.

In a just world, the torturers and murderers who destroyed Venezuela would be tried and convicted. But that is not the world we live in. In this world, the thugs won.

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.

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