At dawn last Friday, a group of hooded men — hidden, but unmistakably officers from Venezuela’s Military Intelligence — burst into the cell of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. They repeatedly punched him, then tied him up and took his belongings.
For almost five months, Lopez, an opposition leader jailed after the Venezuelan government accused him of inciting violent student protests, had awaited trial in Ramo Verde prison.
Lopez, 43, the Harvard-educated leader of Voluntad Popular, or the Popular Will party, already had been stripped of his rights by a regime threatened by his fast rise. He was not allowed to present evidence or speak at his closed-door trial, which began two days before the assault in his prison cell.
“He’s strong,” Pedro Vasquez, the Miami-based U.S. coordinator of Popular Will, said of Lopez, a marathon runner known for his physical fitness and voracious reading. “He believes that this was needed — that he can prove by being a victim of this government that it is violating human rights.”
Two days after the assault, Venezuela’s government again flexed its might — to the embarrassment of American diplomats.
The United States failed to secure the extradition of Hugo Carvajal, a former Venezuelan general who is wanted here on drug charges and had been detained on the Dutch island of Aruba.
Indictments filed in federal courts in New York City and Miami charge that Carvajal, military intelligence chief under former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was on the payroll of Colombian narcotics traffickers. He coordinated the transportation of drug shipments, the court papers say.
Authorities in Aruba last week arrested Carvajal, sparking accusations from Venezuela that he had been “kidnapped,” and warning that Aruba would suffer economic consequences. On Sunday, they freed the general when the Dutch government determined that, as Venezuela’s appointed consul in Aruba, he has diplomatic immunity.
Coincidental in its timing or not, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday announced it had imposed travel restrictions on Venezuelan government officials for human rights abuses alleged to have occurred during the anti-government protests, in which 43 civilians were killed. The officials, who were not named, will have their U.S. visas revoked.
“With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, adding:
Our message is clear: Those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States.
In the U.S., Off the Radar
As the Obama administration faced crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza, among other places, Venezuela mostly has stayed off the radar. This despite being the top oil-producing country in Latin America and a major transit source for U.S.-bound drugs — led by an anti-American regime.
Previously, the State Department had opposed U.S. action, arguing for the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro and its opponents to arrive at a diplomatic solution.
But Congress has pressured the Obama administration to become more directly involved.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of nine senators led by Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the administration to levy “targeted sanctions” against Venezuelan officials linked to human rights violations.
The House of Representatives adopted a resolution in May calling on President Obama to revoke or deny visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials involved in the crackdown on protests. The issue stalled in the Senate.
Opposition leaders who had braced to confront the Venezuelan government alone told The Daily Signal that they welcome the news of the travel restrictions.
“What’s happened over the last few weeks has been devastating for a population that keeps getting bad news that the bad guys always win,” said Pedro Burelli, former director of Venezuela’s state oil company, who lives in Washington, D.C. Burelli added:
It’s a step in the right direction to say that there are consequences here.
Burelli has been involved in a separate, stranger confrontation with the Venezuelan government.
In May, top Venezuelan officials accused him, others in the opposition, and U.S. diplomats of conspiring to assassinate Maduro — who has struggled to win public support since replacing Chavez, the longtime president who died last year.
Most analysts dismissed the government’s claims of an assassination plot as an attempt to distract attention from its problems. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in South America and has suffered shortages of electricity and water.
“It was almost laughable,” Burelli said of the charges in an interview with The Daily Signal.
Ana Quintana, research associate on Latin America at The Heritage Foundation, said Maduro — like Chavez before him — continues to be a direct threat to U.S. security interests and regional stability, championing an aggressive anti-American foreign policy and pursuing relationships with U.S. adversaries Iran, Russia, and Syria.
The Venezuelan government previously provided clandestine support for Iran’s energy sector in violation of international sanctions, she said.
Venezuela also subsidizes the Castro regime in Cuba. Caracas gives Havana an average of $10 billion in subsidized oil and petro dollars yearly, according to research by Quintana. She said:
There’s always been violence against the opposition and the [U.S.] Department of Treasury has long known that significant officials in the government traffic drugs. It took the U.S. to be caught with their pants down, where someone who we had a warrant for their arrest was let go, for action to occur. The sanctions are a good thing, but they are incomplete. They should also target illicitly obtained assets.
The Opposition Stands Strong
Burelli, the opposition leader and former oil executive, said the Obama administration has been reluctant to assert itself in Venezuela for reasons similar to why it has been hesitant to become too involved in helping the Syrian opposition topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Many disparate opposition group are active in Venezuela, each with its own strategies.
“The issue is not that they’re not united,” Burelli said. “The issue is that there are differences in opinion about the purpose, the strategy and the diagnostics.” He added:
Some see the government as a dictatorship that will not cede power through the electoral route. Then there are people who believe this is a crooked, twisted democracy and that you have to fight to try to unseat them. The next opportunity to do that is the parliamentary elections in 2015, and therefore you should not do something to disrupt that. Because, by the time elections come, the electorate will be so angry at Maduro that you have a good chance at unseating him electorally. Arguing and discussing is a part of democracy.
In a bid to align strategy, in 2008 many of the groups joined a coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (known as MUD).
The Popular Will Party, which Lopez founded in 2009 on the principles of progress, democracy, and social action, is known as the most “reputable” group in the faction, Quintana said.
The previous year, the government barred Lopez, former mayor of the municipality of Chacao, from public office for six years — even as he planned to run for mayor of Caracas. Two years into his first term as mayor of Chacao, Lopez had helped to remove Chavez temporarily from the presidency.
After leading the protests that began in February, Lopez was arrested on charges of arson, terrorism, and homicide — charges that human rights groups decried as politically motivated.
Vasquez, the Popular Will official responsible for promoting the Venezuelan story in the United States, says the party remains strong even while its leader — who has a wife and two children — is behind bars.
The corruption is his home country prompted him to leave 23 years ago for Plantation, Fla., Vasquez said:
You have two types of people in Venezuela. Some don’t leave because of the situation and some don’t come back because of the situation. I didn’t see a future for my kids in Venezuela.
Vasquez develops the party’s strategy along with Carlos Vecchio, a Yale fellow who is Popular Will’s national political coordinator.
In February, Venezuelan authorities hit Vecchio with similar charges: arson, public instigation, damaging public and private property, and criminal association. He went into hiding before fleeing to New York in June.
“The government persecuted him, so he flew the country,” Vasquez said. “Now you have a leader outside Venezuela coordinating an international movement. He was directly involved with what’s happening.”
With their friend Lopez imprisoned, fellow opposition leaders hope the new U.S. action becomes impetus for larger change.
“The goal is not to get Maduro out of power,” Vasquez said. “We have to change the system that implemented him to power. The issue is not him. It’s socialism.”
We are trying to take control of the country in a democratic way because that’s the way we know how to do it. But we have to realize this is not a democratic government. When we digest that information and change the strategy to do anything in our power to get our country to democracy, then we will be successful. We will do whatever it takes.
This article has been modified.