The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Venezuela’s detention of an opposition lawmaker is chilling. The world must act.

Supporters of Juan Requesens, a Venezuelan lawmaker accused of plotting against President Nicolás Maduro,  gathered at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Caracas, on Aug. 10. (Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Diego Scharifker is a former city council member and student leader from Caracas, Venezuela.

Venezuelans have every reason to doubt the events surrounding the mysterious “assassination” attempt against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on Aug. 4. The regime distorts reality every day, even refusing to recognize and address the economic and social collapse it has created.

But whether you believe the official version or not, there’s no question that it has served as a heaven-sent excuse to further crack down on civil liberties and the opposition.

A mere three days after the alleged attack, Juan Requesens, a 29-year-old member of the National Assembly, was dragged out of his home by masked men. At the end of the building security tape, you can see one of the men pointing the camera toward a wall to hide their actions.

I’ve known Requesens for many years. We were both student leaders at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). Between classes, we would sometimes meet for coffee and group discussions about politics and how Hugo Chávez’s government was becoming more and more authoritarian. We were committed to fighting for the democratic values we saw disappearing. We both served as presidents of the university’s politically active student government. Later I won a city council seat in Caracas, and he became one of the youngest members of Congress.

During the months of anti-government protests last year, we marched to the Ombudsman’s Office in Caracas. While opposition lawmakers read a statement to the media, hordes of violent Maduro supporters attacked us. Requesens was struck in the face and suffered a broken nose and cuts that required more than 50 stitches.

“They are members of the National Assembly; how can they be so viciously attacked?” a woman asked me the next morning at a different protest. “We elected them to make laws, but they are actually risking their lives.” Unfortunately, this would not be the only instance of violence against a lawmaker. During the following months of protest, many more would suffer violent attacks, including myself.

After Requesens was taken away on Aug. 7, no one knew his whereabouts for more than 48 hours. His family had no information, and his lawyer did not even know where he was being held. The first news about him came in a televised “admission of guilt” shown by the regime, where he is seen in a video speaking erratically, saying he knew one of the alleged plotters. Soon after, another video surfaced on social media, where Requesens can be seen half naked as he is asked to turn around by someone who is presumed to be a member of the regime’s political police. Requesens seems disoriented and weak; as he turns around, you can see that his boxers are soiled.

The humiliation drew condemnation, even from some Maduro supporters. Considering previous reports of torture and other crimes against humanity documented by the OAS, one can only imagine the type of treatment that Requesens is receiving.

Days before being detained, Requesens said during a speech at the National Assembly: “I refuse to lower my head before those that wish to break us. I don’t know if I can do this tomorrow, but while I can, I will raise my voice against Maduro’s regime and his oppression. Many of my friends are either buried or in exile because of you, Maduro, and you will have to pay for all your crimes.”

Requesens’s detention is arbitrary and unconstitutional. He was accused and condemned on TV, part of a macabre show meant to intimidate the political opposition.

Democratic governments all over the world must watch closely and keep the pressure on. The opposition alone doesn’t stand a chance against the oppression of Maduro’s regime. Now more than ever we need democratic change in Venezuela, and that change will happen only with the support of the international community.

The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has reached unprecedented levels. More than 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country into Colombia in the past year alone. Only continued sanctions directed at the regime’s leadership might ease the persecution against the population and political leaders.