On Wednesday, perhaps the most senior socialist leader in Latin America stood up in front of the world and highlighted the shocking human rights situation in Venezuela. Speaking formally, in the measured language of big-time diplomacy, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, painted a detailed picture of the collapse in human rights guarantees in Venezuela over the past nine months.
Bachelet was unsparing. She denounced the collapse of Venezuela’s health and education systems, noting fast rises in maternal and infant mortality, and the shocking fact that some 1 million children have stopped going to school. She detailed the use of Venezuela’s Orwellian-named Law Against Hatred to bully and silence the government’s media critics. She described the unprecedented migration of some 3 million Venezuelans to neighboring countries as “a direct result of this far-reaching human rights crisis.”
Most significantly, she put the Maduro regime on notice that her office is now investigating the more than 200 extrajudicial killings that have taken place since last year. In particular, she described the chilling circumstances of some 37 police killings this year that appear coldly calculated to terrify regime opponents into submission.
“It appears that some of these killings have followed a similar pattern,” she said. “They take place during illegal house raids carried out by the FAES [police special operations units], which subsequently reports the death as resulting from an armed confrontation — although witnesses report the victims were unarmed. In some cases, relatives of the victims have alleged that the Attorney General’s Office explicitly refused to initiate investigations against members of the FAES. Most of the victims lived in poor neighborhoods and participated in anti-government protests, and I am particularly concerned about reports that indicate that this type of operation is used as a form of reprisal and intimidation.”
Bachelet did not use the term “death squads,” but to Latin Americans well versed in our region’s dark history of police abuses, there was no need. When masked police units burst into a poor neighborhood, pick out political opponents and murder them in cold blood, we know exactly what we’re dealing with.
The specificity in the report took Venezuelans by surprise. In fact, when Bachelet was appointed high commissioner for human rights, many who have suffered under the Maduro regime were skeptical. In her previous role as president of Chile, Bachelet had taken special care not to antagonize the Venezuelan government, first under Hugo Chávez and, later, with Nicolás Maduro. Bachelet was, after all, leader of Chile’s Socialist Party, and while her government had been far more moderate than Venezuela’s and her own democratic bona fides were not in doubt, Bachelet was still a leftist, and plainly loath to pick a fight with other leaders on the left.
Venezuelans long ago figured out that the regime will just laugh off any criticism that comes from its ideological opponents. Any report, no matter how well-documented, that comes “from the right” will be dismissed, at best. At worst, it will be used by state propaganda to prove a vast right-wing conspiracy is afoot to discredit the Venezuelan government. That’s why attacks from the Trump administration and figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) do little to discomfit Maduro and his henchmen. Just the opposite: They give his propaganda makers a rich vein of material to mine in the regime’s favor.
When criticism comes from the left, though, it’s different. It’s far harder for the regime to deny and obfuscate the words of Bachelet than those of Mike Pompeo. When someone with the democratic and leftist credentials of Bachelet speaks up against the now obvious human rights disaster unfolding in Venezuela, it matters.
It matters to the regime, which is no longer able to hide behind generic allegations of a far-right conspiracy against it. It matters to Venezuela’s neighbors, who need increased support to help care for and absorb the millions of desperate Venezuelans fleeing across the border. Most importantly, it matters to the millions of Venezuelans who are victims of Maduro’s unfathomable cruelty. It makes their pain visible, reaffirms their humanity, breaks their isolation and beats back the sense of powerlessness that the regime is determined to impose on them.
The duty to apply universal values to all nations, Venezuela very much included, falls on everyone — but it doesn’t fall on everyone equally.
Criticism from ideological opponents inevitably carries less moral weight than criticism from those on the same side of the ideological divide. It takes just as little courage for an American socialist to criticize Brazil’s far-right president as it does for an American on the far right to criticize Venezuelan socialism. Ulterior motives plainly visible, such words carry little weight and are quickly forgotten.
What has impact, and takes courage, is calling out human rights abuses from those with whom you broadly agree. This is the true test of commitment to human rights. This week, Bachelet proved that she was up to the task. It’s time that every politician on the left followed her lead.