Our Voices

I felt better protected after receiving RFK Human Rights Award, says Venezuelan activist Alfredo Romero

Alfredo Romero never planned to be an activist. With a degree in Law, a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University and another master’s degree in Banking Law from the London School of Economics, taking up the fight for human rights was not on his radar. “It was actually not something I was thinking about. I wasn’t prepared to do it actually,” he said in an interview over Zoom. But on April 11, 2002, the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old boy by police in Caracas, during a mass protest against the Venezuelan government, marked a turning point for Romero.

Enraged by the development, Romero (who at the time was a legal assistant at the Supreme Court of Venezuela) took up the case and, in collaboration with other lawyers, filed a suit on behalf of the family of the deceased. More victims soon emerged and, ever since, Romero and his organization Foro Penal Venezolano (FPV) have represented more than 13,000 victims of political repression. “Right now, we have more than 5,000 activists and we have representatives of the NGO in all the different states of Venezuela and people working, representing victims in all the different states and also in 25 cities of the world,” he said.

Despite the success of his work and the growth of this large network of volunteers and activists—some of whom have been victims of repression themselves—Romero believes there’s more work to be done. In a country where the government is the leading rights abuser and the judicial system is a tool of repression in the hands of political leaders, thousands of Venezuelans depend on the pro bono legal representation provided by Foro Penal’s nationwide network of lawyers. But this important work has made Romero, his colleagues and the organization in general targets for persecution by Venezuelan authorities. “I was attacked in the streets of Venezuela with a gun pointed in my face. Many things have happened. They sometimes refer to me and Foro Penal as terrorists and they try to discredit us, even using state television,” he said.

For Romero, fighting for human rights in Venezuela also comes with an imminent threat of arbitrary arrest and detention. He said that every time he returned to the country after a trip abroad, he felt like a fish trapped in an aquarium and then forced to swim with sharks. “It’s crazy to go back, because at any point, I can be jailed. It’s just a decision. They don’t need to start a trial or an investigation.”

But Romero said his selection in 2017 by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights as the recipient of the organization’s prestigious Human Rights Award has raised the political cost of being detained or attacked by the Venezuelan government. Beyond the international recognition that came with the award, he said it has made him feel safer and better protected. “To have this organization looking at what I’m doing, I feel more protected,” he said.

This article is part of #RFKStories—an ongoing series of reports from interviews with past Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureates.