AS VENEZUELA plummets toward economic and social chaos, the successors to Hugo Chávez are flailing in all directions. Some of their actions have the ring of pragmatism : With inflation nearing 60 percent and 30 percent of basic goods in shortage, the government recently modified its byzantine currency-exchange system to allocate more dollars for private-sector imports. Under pressure from Brazil and other Latin American governments, it has begun a political dialogue with moderate opposition leaders.
Mostly, however, the post-Chávez regime of President Nicolás Maduro has resorted to systematic violence against opposition students and other activists. Since the middle of February, opposition supporters in Caracas and other cities have staged near-daily marches and barricaded streets to demand an “exit” from the Chávez model of authoritarian populism. The regime’s response has been to shoot, beat, illegally arrest and torture the protesters and anyone attempting to document the abuses.
A new report by Human Rights Watch details 45 cases of abuse involving more than 150 victims. The organization said it found “a pattern of serious abuse . . . carried out repeatedly by multiple security forces in multiple locations across three states and the capital.” Security forces and armed pro-government gangs, the investigation found, worked together to beat or shoot unarmed protesters, sometimes at point-blank range. Nearly all the victims were also arrested and subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment while in detention. State prosecutors and the judiciary, the report says, “participated in or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees, including serious violations of their due process rights.”
Some of the protesters also have resorted to violence: Nine of the 41 deaths recorded in the unrest have been security force officers. But Human Rights Watch said none of the victims documented in its 45 cases was engaged in violence or criminal activity when attacked by security forces. In 13 of the cases, government agents attacked journalists or other bystanders who had been photographing or filming protests.
The government brutality, which is the worst Venezuela has seen in more than a decade, appears to be having the intended effect. The government claims to have eliminated protests in most cities, and disturbances in Caracas have started to dwindle. The opposition is divided: While moderate elements seek concessions from the government , a more militant wing has rejected talks. So far Mr. Maduro has conceded little. Government negotiators have agreed to a “truth commission” to investigate the violence but rejected freeing political prisoners — including opposition leader Leopoldo López, who, as Human Rights Watch notes, “has been held in pretrial detention on a military base for more than two months despite the government’s failure to produce credible evidence that he committed any crime.”
The Obama administration has been supporting the political talks in Caracas while hinting that sanctions could be applied if they fail. But the two are not incompatible. More pressure must be applied to the Maduro government if it is to agree to reforms that could break Venezuela’s free fall. Imposing a clear price on those officials who direct repression would be useful leverage.
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