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Michelle Bachelet, Nicolás Maduro, and the U.N. Report on Human Rights in Venezuela

Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile who now serves as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave an interview last November to the journalist Fernando del Rincón, of CNN en Español, to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. He began by asking about two letters she had recently received—one from family members of dozens of political prisoners, the other from the parents of young protesters who had been killed by security forces—requesting that she personally visit Venezuela to report on the human-rights violations committed by the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Bachelet told him that these were not the only letters she had received making that request. “Today, I also got an official invitation to visit Venezuela,” she said, from Maduro’s government. Rincón, who was visibly surprised, asked if, in accepting Maduro’s invitation, she could be seen as collaborating with the government, and noted that “accepting this invitation is accepting the invitation of the person accused of violating human rights.” Bachelet replied that she wanted to sit down with every side. “Listen, I’ve had many years of experience,” she added. “I’ve been Secretary and President of my country, I’ve worked with many governments and people from civil society, and I think it would be wrong to say that, because I am invited by one or the other, I would be non-objective.”

U.N. Human Rights Commissioners are, of course, expected to be objective, but, in this instance, the issue was a delicate one for Bachelet. In Chile, right-wing politicians have criticized her for not taking a stronger stance during her first term (from 2006 to 2010) against President Hugo Chávez, who led Venezuela for fourteen years, until his death, in 2013, when he was succeeded by Maduro, his Vice-President. Chávez and Bachelet both rose to power as part of the “pink tide” of socialist-leaning Presidents that swept into office across Latin America. He spoke highly of her (“Michelle is a good friend; I know how brave she is. She’s an extraordinary woman”), and she of him. (She told CNN that he had “always been a great friend, and a great colleague.”) In 2006, she reportedly considered supporting Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the U.N.’s Security Council; her foreign minister and other politicians protested and, in the end, Chile abstained in the vote.

Bachelet was not completely blind to Chávez’s undemocratic practices or the political crisis that they were creating in Venezuela. She once rebuked him, when he said that Chile’s Senate was ruled by fascists,” after legislators had denounced attacks on the press. During her second term as President, she tried to mediate between the Venezuelan opposition and the Maduro government. But the invitation from Caracas suggested that she was still seen as a possible ally. That possibility ended this month.

After interviewing nearly six hundred people, including Maduro, members of his cabinet, representatives from the opposition and from the Catholic Church, businessmen, academics, students, union leaders, human-rights organizations, and some two hundred “victims,” her office published its report, a document of just nineteen pages. Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-backed leader of the opposition, tweeted,The work of many Venezuelans denouncing persecution, torture and human rights violations for many years has finally paid off.” The government issued a lengthy response, in which it said that the report is partisan and full of errors, and faulted the commission for conducting most of the interviews with Venezuelans who had left the country. But it also released twenty-two political prisoners just before the document became public. “We welcome these releases and encourage the authorities to release others detained,” Bachelet said.

Most of the headlines focussed on the report’s allegations of torture and extrajudicial executions. Bachelet’s team followed a hundred and thirty-five cases of people who were arbitrarily detained. Most of them suffered “one or more forms of torture,” including electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, waterboarding, beatings, sexual violence, and exposure to extreme temperatures. The government acknowledged seventy-two cases of torture in the past three years. The team also interviewed the family members of twenty young men whom the security forces allegedly killed between June of 2018 and April of this year. According to the families, masked men dressed in black arrived in pickup trucks without license plates, entered their homes, and shot the victims in the chest. The men then planted weapons or drugs in the homes, so that it could later be argued that the victims had “resisted authority” before they were shot. In 2018, the Maduro government registered more than five thousand deaths under that category. In the first five months of this year, there have been more than fifteen hundred. “Many of these killings may constitute extrajudicial executions,” the report says. The government acknowledged knowing about two hundred and ninety-two cases similar to those described in the report, from 2017 to 2019, and said that it had already tried five men who were responsible for several killings in 2018.

The torture allegations were particularly timely, because, two weeks before the report came out, a Navy captain named Rafael Acosta Arévalo, who had worked with the opposition, was arrested and later died in government custody. A forensic exam revealed that he had sixteen broken ribs; hours before his death, he had appeared in a military court, in a wheelchair, and seemed barely able to speak. Bachelet said that she was “shocked” when she learned of Arévalo’s death—which was confirmed four days before the report was released—and asked for an independent investigation to bring those responsible to justice. (The government said that it had already charged two men working for military-intelligence services in connection with Acosta’s death.)

At times, Bachelet seemed not just officially but personally invested in the report. “I, myself, had experiences regarding human-rights violations in my country, during the dictatorship,” she told Rincón in the CNN interview. In September of 1973, just before Bachelet turned twenty-two, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of President Salvador Allende. A few months later, her father, an Air Force general who had worked in Allende’s administration, was detained; he was tortured, and died of a heart attack in custody. She became an activist, and, in 1975, she, too, was arrested, beaten, and psychologically tortured. (Her mother was also detained.) Upon her release, later that year, Bachelet went into exile, first in Australia and then in East Germany. “I was so angry, I had so much pain,” she once told an interviewer. “How could this be happening in our country?”

A few years later, she returned to Chile, and became a pediatrician and a public-health advocate. After her first term as President, she became the executive director of the newly established United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. All that background is also reflected in the report. In a section on the inadequacies of health care, it points out the lack of access to contraceptives in several cities, and adds that, “due to restrictive legislation on abortion, some women and girls must resort to unsafe abortions,” which has contributed to a twenty-per-cent rise in cases of what it terms “preventable maternal mortality.” In a country where the political discussion is still mostly dominated by men, and reproductive rights are far from a priority, even a subtle recommendation of better access to safe abortion is one of the report’s most unexpected and important contributions.

Women’s concerns are also highlighted in the first section of the report, on economic rights, which describes the food shortages in supermarkets. It finds that the “lack of access to food has a particularly adverse impact on women,” who spend an average of ten hours a day queuing for food; in some cases, they are “compelled to exchange sex for food.” The report further noted that seventy-two per cent of local community councils are dominated by women, many of whom have protested the lack of basic services in recent years, and many of whom have received threats from the collectivos—groups that operate like paramilitary forces—for their activism. (The government’s response, on these points, noted that the report omitted the fact that Venezuelan officials had shown Bachelet two “food-retail establishments” that stocked plenty of food.)

The report also focusses on labor rights and issues of class. People were arbitrarily detained, but many of those were “trade-union leaders,” her team wrote, “protesting for decent salaries and working conditions.” Others were health professionals who were fired for speaking out on the heath-care crisis, and university professors who were “threatened with non-payment of salaries.” In describing the twenty extrajudicial killings by security forces, the report stresses that these were conducted in “poor neighbourhoods.”

The most incensed response to the report came from Diosdado Cabello, the vice- president of Maduro’s party and the president of the National Constituent Assembly. “Ms. Bachelet accuses Venezuelan women of prostituting themselves,” he said, in a speech during a party meeting, adding that the report was influenced by the interests of the United States. He tweeted, “Ms. Bachelet is following the orders imposed by her imperial bosses.” Maduro, for his part, assured Venezuelans that Elliott Abrams—the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela—had pressured Bachelet “and she gave into the pressure.” With the report, Bachelet proved that she would operate independently of Maduro; now she is accused of being an American puppet.

The report, however, is also critical of economic sanctions that the United States has imposed on Venezuela since 2017, saying they are exacerbating the crisis, particularly in regard to services in the health sector. In a press conference in Geneva, Bachelet mentioned meeting two mothers in Caracas whose children needed organ transplants, which were normally sponsored by the state oil company P.D.V.S.A. But P.D.V.S.A. is under sanction, so its payments to international health organizations were blocked, she said, and “the kids were not able to have surgery.”

In a letter to Bachelet, Maduro registered another complaint. “You met with the family members of victims who were violently targeted by the opposition,” he wrote, “and your report did not include even a minor reference of that meeting.” In Geneva, Bachelet admitted that the omission was an error. She had met the mother of a man who was burned alive during a protest by the opposition, and the mother of a policeman whose throat was cut by demonstrators. “We’ll put a little something in the report, regarding that,” she said. But she clarified that protecting human rights is primarily the obligation of the state. “Violence is unacceptable, it doesn’t matter where it comes from,” she said. “But states have always more responsibility.”

There is another clarification, along the same lines, in the report. Toward the end, it says that “for over a decade, Venezuela has adopted and implemented a series of laws, policies and practices, which have restricted the democratic space, weakened public institutions, and affected the independence of the judiciary.” The measures were taken “with the declared aim of preserving public order and national security against alleged internal and external threats,” but they just “increased the militarization of State institutions.” Maduro came to power less than a decade ago, so in that statement Bachelet’s report is referring to Hugo Chávez, without naming him. But it is a tacit acknowledgement that her old friend was also responsible for the crisis that has befallen Venezuela.


  • Camila Osorio is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.




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