Our Voices

‘This country’: A Venezuelan’s reflection on her country’s challenges and RFKHR’s work to guarantee freedom of expression

“This country,” the adults used to say when I was a kid growing up in Venezuela, leaving a blank space mid-sentence, hovering in the air. “This country needs!”, or “this country will eat us!” they would say, while slowly swinging their heads from side to side as if to accentuate their disbelief in what they thought couldn’t get any worse. Like those times when asleep in the car, I would wake up to my dad’s voice shouting “this country!”, together with the name of the president and a rude word, I’d immediately know he had hit one of the many potholes on the road. With its everyday tragedies, the adults in Venezuela carried their country everywhere. But this was all before 1998, when things still looked slightly “normal,” in a semi-functional, semi-democratic society, and when no one seemed to fully understand what was to come next.

Years later, following the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro regimes, I inherited the same habits as my parents. I too now carry my country everywhere. But the burden is heavier because I also carry everything this country has lost; I carry its past full of longing, and also its hollow future that looked promising, but never came to pass.

A report published by RFKHR and Foro Penal in 2020, found that the use of enforced disappearance in Venezuela as a tool to silence political opponents had increased from 200 cases in 2018, to 524 cases in 2019, showing a worsening pattern of human rights violations, in a country whose human rights crises had begun years before. Since 2015, more than six million people have fled Venezuela, some for economic reasons, others escaping from political persecution and other threats. They all have different stories, but they have one thing in common: they all carry the country in their suitcases, in their accents, and in their memories; a country that used to be and no longer is, a country that was to be, but now never was.

We all have something in common, though. We hope that one day things will get better. A lot has been said about that. Some say that Venezuela is improving, and that there is more money in the streets, and more food available in the supermarkets. Some even say that if you’re lucky enough, you can get by. Yet, the fundamental problem with this way of thinking is that it ignores the gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity that are currently occurring throughout the country. These acts include the arbitrary detention of innocent people protesting the lack of basic services, the systematic use of enforced disappearances and torture to repress and force confessions, as well as a wide array of due process and other human rights violations.

RFKHR together with Foro Penal has published a new report documenting the use of the criminal justice system as a tool of repression in Venezuela. The report reflects a specific state policy: engaging in the systematic practice of enforced disappearance, torture, and other human rights violations carried out by State agents to criminalize, repress and terrorize anyone perceived as a critical voice or political dissident. We documented 481 cases, each of them had a name, and each of them carried its own version of the country. They were arbitrarily detained and their human rights violated, just because they dared to raise their voices to criticize the government.

“This country” the adults used to say, when I was a kid, leaving a blank space, mid-sentence, hovering in the air.

Now I can complete the sentence: “this country tortures, this country disappears, this country violates human rights.”

Roby is a staff attorney for Latin America at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.