The diplomatic outlook for Nicolás Maduro is rather bleak. His recent reelection on May 20 was condemned as a sham by the US, EU, Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and more than a dozen other countries. His access to international financial markets has been blocked by broad international sanctions imposed by the USA, Canada and the EU. With few friends in the international sphere, he has resorted to using political prisoners as currency in exchange for legitimacy and recognition.
At the beginning of June, Maduro’s recently appointed vice president Delcy Rodríguez announced the release of 80 political prisoners, including former mayor Daniel Ceballos and members of parliament Gilber Caro, Wilmer Azuaje and Renzo Prieto. The regime’s functionaries and propagandists sprang into action: what a magnanimous gesture on the part of the government!
But this situation is opaquer than it seems. First of all, freed prisoners are not fully free. There are severe restrictions on their liberty. Second, Maduro’s overall strategy is one of “catch and release.” He imprisons large numbers of people for political reasons—Venezuela has the most political prisoners in the region—and releases them strategically, in exchange for concessions or the repeal of sanctions.
Venezuela’s prisons, you could say, have revolving doors: while some political prisoners are released, others are jailed or harassed. For six years now, the regime has incarcerated thousands of political opponents and has used them as currency in waves of excarcerations, while ramping up persecution against other political leaders, the media, NGOs, and private investors. The regime held, on average, 89 political prisoners in 2016, 114 in 2017 and holds at least 276 today.
So what’s the story behind this most recent prisoner release? It was pretty clearly an attempt to prevent oncoming sanctions imposed by the EU, US, and Canada—and one that did not succeed. The initial release of 80 prisoners announced on June 1 and 2 was increased over the following weeks to a total of 120. But those 120 were not all political prisoners. For example, two were members of colectivos (pro-regime militias) who had been caught in flagrante attacking members of opposition candidate Henri Falcón’s campaign, while a handful were common prisoners jailed for corruption scandals and money laundering. Three of the “prisoners” present at a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry had actually been released over a month earlier. In total, the number of prisoners released on the first two days was really more like 38. Meanwhile, 88 people had been imprisoned for political reasons in May alone. The revolving door keeps spinning.
It’s not only Venezuelan nationals who are at risk. US citizen Joshua Holt was jailed on spurious grounds and held for nearly two years without standing trial. Eventually, Senator Bob Corker succeeded in freeing Holt in May 2018—claiming not to have offered anything in return. Additionally, on June 6 the regime released two executives from Chevron who were arrested two months before after refusing to sign a contract with PDVSA overpriced by 1,000 per cent.
This pattern of strategic prisoner release also goes way back. In 2016, Rosmit Mantilla, an activist from the political party Voluntad Popular, was freed just as Maduro was trying to persuade the Vatican to continue its participation in a dialogue process. Last December, meanwhile, the regime excarcerated 36 political prisoners in order to pressure the opposition to resume a dialogue held in Dominican Republic that had run into trouble when the regime refused to guarantee minimal conditions of electoral fairness.
The regime’s cynicism goes even further. While the media reports that Maduro has ”freed” political prisoners, this is frankly wrong. Prisoners are usually released by injunctive reliefs (or precautionary measures) that deny any possibility of full freedom. The political prisoners’ criminal proceedings remain open, they are barred from leaving the country and must report to court every 15 or 30 days, and they are barred from speaking to the media or from using social media. And this limited measure of freedom can be revoked at any time, returning them to jail. This is why the NGO Foro Penal uses the term “excarcerations” instead of “releases.”
It is in the regime’s interest to keep potential enemies in this legal twilight state. Today, there are 7,300 people in Venezuela with open criminal proceedings for political reasons. At least 800 are civilians who are being tried in military tribunals, violating their rights to be judged by a civilian court. The trials of over 2,700 remain open, meaning their liberties are still restricted via “precautionary measures.” If any one of these individuals does something the regime doesn’t like, it has a ready-made excuse to throw them in jail.
The effects on the opposition have been dire. Consider the case of Voluntad Popular. Over the past four years, the Venezuelan government has imprisoned Leopoldo López, its founder; driven its number two, Carlos Vecchio, into exile; persecuted Freddy Guevara, its next leader, until he fled to the embassy of Chile; and gone after regional leaders like mayor Daniel Ceballos (excarcerated in June) and mayor David Smolansky (now in exile). In 2017 the party was simply banned. Similar things have happened to other parties. The regime’s strategy is to chop off the leadership of the party, harass the middle rank into submission, and instill fear in the grassroots.
Luckily, with the exception of former Spanish PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the international community has viewed the latest prisoner releases with appropriate skepticism. The US and EU show no intention of repealing their sanctions. On the contrary, the EU applied further sanctions on June 25, freezing assets and imposing travel bans on 11 high officials of Maduro’s government.
Ironically, one of the sanctioned officials was Delcy Rodríguez, the same newly-appointed vice president who had announced the “release” of 80 prisoners back in early June. It would appear that the propaganda stunt was not exactly successful in its aims. Maduro can play his revolving-door game—the international community is no longer falling for it.