Who do you trust to figure out the truth? In Venezuela, a new commission has been formed for that purpose. Wracked by mismanagement and violence, the country urgently needs a truthful look at how it got to this point. Unfortunately, this commission will not deliver it—in fact, its purpose is the opposite.
The authoritarian socialist rule of Nicolás Maduro has sent Venezuela into a tailspin of rampant inflation, food and basic medicine shortages, and an ever-increasing violent crime rate, and has sent his own approval rate to a dismal 20 percent. In order to stem the tide of his increasing unpopularity, Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela convoked a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution and have stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of all its legislative powers.
The extralegal creation of the Constituent Assembly is a blatant power-grab in itself, and has been criticized by governments around the world. However, one of the most unsettling developments in this fiasco is the creation of a so-called “Commission for Truth, Justice, Peace and Public Tranquility.” Maduro and his cronies claim that this “truth commission” is necessary to punish the “right-wing opposition” supposedly responsible for all violence that took place during the massive, nationwide protests against his government.
The fourteen-member commission will be an independent “entity of public law of constitutional status” with a twelve-month term. On paper, its mission is to “profoundly investigate the grave acts of violence committed on political motives or motives of intolerance, and the associated criminal dynamics” going back to 1999, as well as the “grave attacks against the rights to peace and public tranquility, as occur with the massive diffusion of belligerent content intended to trivialize or incite violence for political motives or motives of hatred or intolerance.” If that sounds vague and expansive, consider that the commission’s agenda also specifically includes investigating instances of “damage to the environment, ecocide, and animal mistreatment.”
These essentially unlimited investigations will be carried out in secret, without public oversight. Refusal to cooperate on the part of any public servant will be grounds for dismissal. The commission will then provide the Constituent Assembly with a final report that will include a “list of persons and institutions declared morally and politically responsible” and a set of binding recommendations.
Despite its innocuous name, the commission’s true mission is obviously to conduct a political witch hunt of the political opposition, particularly their candidates for October’s gubernatorial elections. The commission’s overwhelming political bias is not even particularly veiled. The commission’s action plan states that it will be investigating deaths that took place “during the seditious actions convoked and financed by sectors of the opposition.” Delcy Rodríguez, the head of the Constituent Assembly, has announced that “we expect the Venezuelan opposition, responsible for these acts of violence, to join the Truth Commission.” In other words, rather than the presumption of innocence, the opposition will be enjoying the presumption of guilt. Is it any surprise that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable has declined the three spots on the commission allotted to them?
The “truth commission” is problematic from an international legal standpoint as well. It does not comply with the guidelines that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has set out: it does not enjoy clear legality or transparency; the confrontations going on in the country are not over; and the body does not enjoy any clear mandate from the victims of violence. On the contrary, the commission has been convened outside of normal legal procedures by a regime that currently holds over 500 political prisoners. Article 49 of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution even states that no person shall be “adjudged by exceptional courts or commissions created for such purpose.” With these factors in mind, the Truth Commission was recently denounced by 61 Venezuelan civil society organizations.
Unfortunately, this is not all mere political posturing. Maduro’s authoritarian socialist regime has been prompt in backing its threats up with action. The government is already accelerating its clampdown on free speech in the courts and in regional administration. Three judges have been arrested, and five have sought asylum in Chile’s embassy in Caracas. The Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who acted as one of the last institutional checks on the executive, was recently removed by the Constituent Assembly on charges of corruption, and since been replaced by Tarek William Saab, a Maduro loyalist. Ramón Muchacho, an opposition mayor, has been sentenced to 15 months in jail for failing to respond effectively to protests in his city. The Constituent Assembly has also recently proposed a bill that would prosecute of any form of dissent on vague charges of “hate or intolerance” with up to 25 years in jail.
Despite ongoing opposition by the elected National Assembly and international condemnation, including Donald Trump’s call at the UN for the “full restoration of democracy and political freedoms” in Venezuela and tough, calibrated sanctions against the regime, Maduro is showing no signs of relenting. The US, Canada, and many Latin American nations are hoping that the European Union joins their sanctions efforts. In the meantime, the Maduro regime’s actions are bringing Venezuela farther and farther away from real truth and reconciliation.