[The following is an edited interview of human rights activist Feliciano Reyna, by journalist Hugo Prieto. It originally ran in Spanish on Prodavinci.com. Translated and published with permission of the author. DS]
The numbers, which in this case can be attributed to an coalition of civil society organizations, are horrifying: 12 million Venezuelans are going hungry and four million have enormous difficulty accessing medication. If this is not a humanitarian emergency, what is?
Feliciano Reyna, a human rights activist since the 90s and president of Accion Solidaria and Civilis Derechos Humanos, knows in depth the erosion of the constitutional rights that were established in the Magna Carta that was approved in 1999. In different areas—political, social, economic, environmental, indigenous—there has been a retrogression as a direct consequence of the conflict gripping Venezuelan society. The only solution is a consensus agreement, a good faith dialogue, as has been noted on different occasions. A demonstration that this process is serious would be to allow the opening of a humanitarian channel (food and medicine). “This should be done outside of [political] negotiations, it is a subject that cannot wait,” says Reyna. Saving the population from suffering should be a priority for those engaged in dialogue in the Dominican Republic.
HP: Cancer and catastrophic illnesses require expensive, prompt, and individual treatments that people do not have access to due to a lack of funds and health conditions. Something that gets my attention is that nobody keeps track of those deaths. These people have no faces, they’re not even a statistic. Who takes care of, or is on the side of, these victims?
FR: In 2003, various organizations created “Codevida” (Coalition of Organizations for the Right to Health and Life). Since then we have been recording this trend—the destruction of the health system—very rigorously. Something similar is being done by organizations working with the right to food, environmental organizations, and indigenous organizations. In the end I think none of this will be invisible. It is work to maintain the memory of what is happening. At some point there will be an opportunity to become much more public; it already is and it is being recorded. It will be possible, even domestically, to discover the truth about facts that are manipulated, precisely, to keep the truth hidden. That will be the moment when justice comes, just like what happened in Argentina, for example, with Operation Condor. Those responsible for abuses there continue to be named; they thought their crimes would go unpunished. It is very difficult because we find family members of people who have died who ask us: what are we documenting for? People who die young, because they do not have timely access to medication or medical assistance. We are trying to keep track of this situation.
HP: The problem is that many of these people abandon treatment because they cannot find medication or access to all the support a health system can provide. If your life expectancy is five or seven years it is reduced to two or three. For practical purposes it is an early death sentence.
FR: They also suffer intense pain that could be avoided. It is not just physical suffering, it is mental. It is very stressful for those who know that something very serious is happening and have no way of avoiding it. Our message has always been that these realities should not remain silent, because it is a fundamental tool for being able to point out who is responsible, and see to it that they are eventually punished for their negligence. That is why it is necessary to reiterate that what is happening is deliberate. There are concrete offers to provid aid to Venezuela. I want to make clear that States are obligated to act not only by mobilizing all of their resources, but also those that are obtainable, through international cooperation. This means authorities, from the President of the Republic, to those who have responsibilities in health, to the Executive Vice President, are individually responsible for not accepting this help. If you do not want to call it humanitarian aid, don’t. But you have to open the door.
HP: One of the themes that was clearly raised in October negotiations of last year was the need to open a distribution channel for medical and food aid. From that date until now, the crisis has worsened. Once again we’re talking about this need, since a new round of negotiations in the Dominican Republic has been revealed. It is the closest thing to a political slogan, a campaign promise.
FR: On several occasions we have talked about the good faith there must be in political negotiations, seeing the crisis of the country. At the root of the humanitarian emergency is the political conflict that has several characteristics. One of those is that authoritarian power loses its capacity for management, including dialogue with the population and with different sectors. But for us, the humanitarian issue should have been left out of that very necessary political negotiation. One understands that other issues—the recognition of public powers, political prisoners and the election calendar—are necessary, among others, because they are constitutional issues. But coming to agreement takes time and the humanitarian problems should be addressed today. For us it is frustrating knowing that we could be receiving help from 25 cities around the world, support in medicine, supplies, food. There are 13 countries where Venezuelans or non-Venezuelans have organized to help. But when you see the numbers and warn that there are at least 12 million people going hungry and four million people with health needs, what can come through an organization like ours is negligible in comparison to the needs of the country. This should be a response today. But it continues as just another aspect of the four demands the opposition sector has made. The possibility is open, as Antonio Guterrez, secretary general of the United Nations said this year, and his predecessor Ban Ki-moon also said it, there are international organizations that have enormous capabilities.
HP: The report prepared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, points out that Venezuela may have committed crimes against humanity during recent protests, marches and clashes in the streets. As such, Al Hussain calls for an international independent investigation that is capable of coming to a precise conclusion. On the one hand, the issue is at the level of the United Nations, and on the other, Cuban diplomacy is moving its chips, its influences, to prevent Venezuela from being punished. Is there really an opportunity to establish what happened here and who are responsible?
FR: If anything was demonstrated in the work done by the Office of the High Commissioner, it is that you do not need to be inside the country to know what is happening and to document the facts. This was very exhaustive, very rigorous work that was done from the outside by a working group appointed by the High Commissioner, 135 in-depth interviews. What he points out there is that in the context of the demonstrations there were behaviors that might be considered crimes against humanity. But Al Hussein also says, in a very responsible way, that this requires an even more exhaustive and rigorous criminal investigation. There were human rights violations which, as was said in that report, were widespread and systematic. In the end, I hope this report will sound the alarm among those responsible, in that in many cases they are effectively causing damage to vast sectors of the population for political reasons, and in others by simple omission, as could be the case of the opening of the humanitarian aid channel. More than 150 dead in the context of demonstrations. But there are thousands of people who have died from preventable causes, or those who die from violence. This is a dossier that merits that documentation, and that can be used at some so that it is not, as in the inter-American human rights system, a case in which the State is recognized as responsible and is eventually condemned to repair the damage caused, but rather people who can be individually identified.
HP: In other words, let these people look in the mirror of Operation Condor. There is no beginning and no end. Only responsibilities. That is what the work that was done on human rights violations in the countries of the southern cone demonstrates.
FR: There are people here who cannot protect themselves by saying it was a state issue. No, here there are individuals responsible for grave damage inflicted on the population, whether it be for practices of repression of political dissent, or practices that seek to create fear by leveling residential complexes. The damages are not only physical, they remain long-term. I do believe they should be in that light, because these crimes are not subject to amnesty. Criminal persecution is all over the world. Although there are countries that try to protect their own responsibilities, Cuba or Belarus, in the end Venezuela is not hidden. It is recognized throughout all of Latin America. We have always been in contact with other organizations in the world who, at first, were hopeful about a project that was said to be progressive, of the left, of social justice and the guarantee of human rights, I think it is not a secret to anyone anymore that this is a militaristic project, aiming to control power, exorbitantly corrupt and inflicting extensive damage on the Venezuelan population.
HP: This same week as well, the International Commission of Jurists issued a declaration, in which it stated that the Supreme Court of Justice is not only co-opted entirely by the executive branch, but also that since 2005 it has made a series of decisions that dismantle the constitutional order and the rule of law in Venezuela.
FR: In fact, last Tuesday (September 12) was an interesting day. On Monday during his speech the High Commissioner, Al Hussein, spoke about a series of patterns of human rights violations in various countries in the world and he mentions Venezuela. On Tuesday he spoke more in-depth regarding the report on Venezuela. There he read the Lima Declaration, which has a lot of support. And that day, in parallel, was the event of the International Commission of Jurists to which you refer. Again it shows how the institutions and those who direct them are erecting barricades to protect themselves while completely ignoring the people. It is not a secret to anyone and that is why Venezuela does not mobilize the same kind of support. The corporatist Constituent Assembly was something that was done completely behind the backs of the population.
HP: The Constituent Assembly is fully functional, enacting laws. One of them, the law against hatred, might contain provisions that penalize some of the things said here by you or perhaps some approach formulated in the questions. Are we going to speak through signs? Are we going to use pictures to be able to refer to what is happening in Venezuela?
FR: We here, at Accion Solidaria and allied organizations, see day to day the suffering, the pilgrimage of people, a lot of them elderly, that do not have access to medication and that cannot feed their children. Given this situation, there is no way to mitigate this without opening the doors to international cooperation. One feels a responsibility to keep talking, to keep documenting and also to continue recommending. Here is a recommendation to those in power. They have a responsibility and for that same reason they have to allow in international aid. They have to act now to prevent major damage to the population. And without a doubt, those who are in the space of political negotiation have to move forward in that process. I’m not going to shut up. The result of this is the need to listen and understand that what is at stake is enormous for the population. The only possibility is to find a solution through negotiation and in good faith.
Translated by Paloma Fernandez, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde.