Q&A with Maria Alejandra Aristeguieta

Maria Alejandra Aristeguieta is the former Ambassador-designate in Switzerland of Venezuela interim President Juan Guaido. 

Interviewed by Hilary Miller.

Editor’s Note: More than having a meticulous and full understanding of the policy failings and economic turmoil in Venezuela, Maria Alejandra Aristeguieta (GS’20) feels deeply how the humanitarian crisis is affecting Venezuelans on the ground. “We’re talking about a huge crisis in all different aspects of daily life where the human rights of the Venezuelan people, in one way or another, are being violated,” she said. In our conversation, Aristeguieta–the former Ambassador-designate in Switzerland of Venezuela interim President Juan Guaido–shared how global institutions must continue to put pressure on Caracas, and why it’s critical that countries that believe in democracy and the rule of law must hold the Maduro regime to account. 

As a former ambassador and multilateral specialist, you’re an expert on how the human rights situation in Venezuela is being handled by high-level institutions and decision-makers. You’re also a human rights activist who is very much attuned to the suffering of people on the ground. Can you share how the economic and humanitarian crisis is affecting the daily lives of the Venezuelan people? 

Well, thank you Hilary. To start with, I think the most important thing is to understand that there’s a multidimensional crisis going on. We’re not talking just about an economic crisis; we’re talking about a huge crisis in all different aspects of daily life. So, the human rights of the Venezuelan people, in one way or another, are being violated. I think that’s the most important thing to establish.

People have hardly any access to food. Food, too often, is very scarce. For example, people do get pasta, but without tomato sauce. Same thing is happening with medicines because medical equipment, and in most cases, all medical facilities have been destroyed throughout the last 20 years. There’s hardly any electricity. There’s not one day that goes by that at least one city or one state, if not the whole country, will go into a blackout for a couple of hours, or even longer. Two weeks ago, there was a “celebration” on the date that we had the longest blackout that lasted for more than one week in the whole country. To be clear, we are not talking about a country that is at war and had no electricity for a whole week. Think about it. The whole country, 25 million people, without electricity for a whole week. That’s the kind of hardship that people are enduring in Venezuela right now.

COVID, of course, has made things even worse. We don’t have exact data on how many people have contracted the disease, or have been treated, or how many have died. We have no idea. There’s no statistics in Venezuela because the regime decided not to have statistics since 2014. We don’t have statistics in many areas including, on poverty levels, malnutrition, and death tolls. We have NGOs, civil society and universities getting together to try to get some information to at least have some kind of data. But, all the data that we have is unofficial, or it’s just estimations.

That’s what life is like back in Venezuela. It’s very hard. There’s no gasoline. The regime says it’s because of economic sanctions but it’s actually because there has been so much corruption in the last 20 years and so much disinvestment from the oil industry that we have to import oil or we have to import gasoline from Iran–of all countries. We are actually an oil-producing country, among the first oil-producing countries in the world, and now all of a sudden we have no capacity to produce neither oil nor gasoline. This is not because of the economic war against Venezuela; this is because of the lack of management, the lack of investment in infrastructure and elsewhere, and because of the huge government corruption.

On top of all of this, we’ve had an increasing reduction of civic space since the very beginning of the revolution in the early years of the Chavez era. Most of the media outlets were expropriated, cancelled or shut down by different means.We don’t have any newspapers or radio stations or television channels. What we do have is mostly Twitter, Instagram or any of the social media platforms. Some Venezuelans that are using those media platforms are arbitrarily detained because of their opinions or because of what they are saying, including physicians, doctors, nurses or just people that are trying to raise awareness, be it on COVID or any other issue. I’m referring to COVID because this is the time of the pandemic when we most need information, and Venezuelans just don’t know anything about it. So, when we speak to our family back home we try to explain how contagious the virus is, and that social distancing and washing your hands are important. And we tell them not to go out, because we know if they get sick, it’s going to be very difficult for them to be healed.

You hear many testimonies from victims of the Maduro regime, including family of human rights defenders who are now political prisoners. What have you learned from these testimonies? Which groups are the most vulnerable in Venezuela right now?

There are two areas that I think we find a lot of vulnerability. One of them is children. Children are being stunted because of malnutrition. It’s been going on for several years since 2014, which was the first time that it was recorded that people were losing weight in Venezuela, about an average of 11 kilos. This also affects the elderly, but the children are getting stunted, so we are seeing a whole generation of children that will grow up with cognitive difficulties and, of course, they will be more prone to infectious diseases and chronic diseases. That’s something that is very painful to watch, especially from outside because you cannot do as much as you would like to do.

On the other hand, with reference to the arbitrarily detained, my biggest concern is with those that are sick. I have heard many testimonies from people whose husband, brother, son, or nephew have been arbitrarily detained and they’re suffering from any kind of disease, or any kind of condition and they’re not getting any medical attention. 

For instance, I pushed a lot for the liberation of Juan Planchart. He is a young professional that was taken to prison for being the cousin of President Guaidó, and was accused of all sorts of different things like providing confidential information on oil experts to the National Assembly. He was detained for several months and he had a malign tumour on his neck. He was not released but he was put on house arrest and was recently allowed to get surgery. That person was in prison for more than six months before he actually got the medical attention he needed, and I’m talking about a success story here.

We can go into other stories that are far more sad and far more difficult, like those that have kidney conditions like Luis Humberto De La Sotta, a military political prisoner, or Jhoan Cedeño who also has a kidney condition. Neither of them are receiving medical attention or their medication. In the case of De La Sotta, I’m aware of the fact that he was urinating blood and, in spite of the fact that his condition was worsening, he was denied medical attention.

There’s one other case that really hits my heart. This is the story of Derbys Rodriguez who was taken to prison for no reason without due process. Derbys was taking care of his dad who is a parapalegic. His dad is in a wheelchair and Derbys was the primary caregiver for his father. Derbys had a heart condition, and his medication was retained by the authorities. They just simply refused to give it to him, even if the family tries to give it to him. He’s got both hypertension and a heart disease, and his family are asking to allow him to have medical attention or at least to have better conditions, and in both cases it has been denied. I feel gutted when I hear these things, because it goes beyond torture. It’s simple and plain cruelty.

Earlier this month, President Biden extended an executive order that deems Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US national security and foreign policy. He’s also maintaining maximum pressure sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. What more can Biden do to weaken Maduro and support the opposition? 

Biden was very quick in starting; it was like a sprint start. He arrived in office in January and now we’re at the end of March, and you can already see measures and see certain results. I think there’s never enough, we can always do more. There can always be more international pressure. There can always be more concrete actions.

For the time being, the US has returned to the UN Human Rights Council which is a very good signal. They’re coming back to most multilateral forums, so that’s a very good signal. The US is better coordinated with both the Lima Group and the Europeans, which is showing results. Last week, at the Human Rights Council, we had 56 countries sponsoring a declaration against Venezuela after the oral update. You could see the United States, the Europeans, the Lima Group countries and from other regions like Asia-Pacific getting together behind this declaration. I think that requires coordination and compromise which is what I’m seeing. I’m not saying that Biden has done a miracle—probably, it’s a combination of many things—but the fact that these groups can sit together and align more often is already a very good start.

The EU and US have both imposed sanctions on the Maduro regime. However, the US recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful leader of Venezuela while the Europeans no longer acknowledge him as interim president. Do you believe that it will require a unified approach within the international community to counter Maduro and rescue democracy in Venezuela? 

Well, the lack of coherence has economic strings attached. It’s well known that the Europeans have many economic interests in Venezuela and that they are trying to hold on to those interests, trying to protect those interests, and trying to protect their ambassadors there–which is also a good thing. I’m not saying that everything is just negative. On the positive side, the Europeans are trying not to get kicked out of Venezuela. I’m sure that you’re aware that when the EU published a new set of sanctions recently, in the following days, the EU ambassador in Venezuela was declared persona non grata and was expelled from the country. This is the kind of thing that happens when you try to be nice and gentle with a dictatorship, and pursue the more diplomatic and “let’s be reasonable” kind of approach and speech. In the end, they will respond in the only way they know how to respond. So, they just kicked out the EU ambassador in Venezuela. This has made the EU change their strategy to a certain extent. 

To be sure, the Europeans originally said they did not recognize Guaidó as president, but then they backpedalled in early January. After this incident, I think it was a tipping point; it has helped the Europeans realign behind Guaidó

On December 6, the regime rigged the results of the legitimate parliamentary elections. As you just mentioned, some of the recent EU sanctions released last month, targeted regime officials who participated in the illegitimate election. This is new; typically sanctions are levied against individuals involved in drug trafficking, rights abuses, money laundering, crimes against humanity, etc. Because these sanctions specifically target people involved in undermining democracy, what does this signal? 

Like you said, the recent EU sanctions were not just targeting human rights violators or individuals involved in money laundering; they are also sanctioning individuals who participated in the rigged parliamentary elections at the end of last year. I think it shows the Europeans moving away from their comfort zone into a more active zone in pressuring the Maduro regime.

Maduro claims that Western sanctions are the cause of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. In her new report on Venezuela, UN special rapporteur Alena Douhan backs up this regime talking point. In response, you published a detailed analysis explaining why the report is misleading and false. Can you debunk some of the falsehoods in Douhan’s report?

Well, for starters, we all know that this special procedure was put forward and negotiated at the Human Rights Council by Cuba to blame the West. So we all know that, from its birth, this rapporteur’s office was ideologically designed. Let’s put it this way: It does not address core human rights violations but rather ideologically perceived violations. So, when we talk about unilateral coercive measures, this is designed basically to address sanctions towards Cuba, sanctions toward Iran and, of course, now towards Venezuela.

The special rapporteur, Ms. Alena Douhan, is a former Belarussian ambassador who is also among the usual suspects. She’s part of that great ideological team that votes at the Human Rights Council in support of terrible human rights abusers.

Ms. Douhan also confuses and talks about sanctions generally, when what we are facing in Venezuela is many sanctions that have been imposed since around 2015. Most of them are individual and personal sanctions targeting individuals. Only as of 2017, and mostly in 2019, were there some sectoral sanctions on the oil industry. Now, given that Venezuela is an oil-exporting country, oil is the most important export commodity that Venezuela has. So, of course, sanctions will have effects on the Venezuela economy. But, it’s more complicated than that; you can’t blame sanctions alone for the economic turmoil. 

The regime destroyed the oil industry. They failed to invest in the oil industry. They fired 22,000 oil experts from the industry because they considered them not to be ideologically aligned with the revolution. You need to have experts, you need to have people with the right skills and capacities to run an oil company. This is a company, we’re not talking about politics here. So the disinvestment, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of the right people and, of course, the declining oil prices as of 2014 all contributed to the situation. And oil production in Venezuela had diminished greatly. We used to export 3.5 million barrels a day and right now it’s down to 700,000, and it’s been going down for years because of this lack of production and because of all of these elements that I have just mentioned—lack of investment, lack of infrastructure, and corruption, of course. 

All of these elements have taken Venezuela to the situation it is in right now, regardless of any sectoral or economic sanctions against the oil industry. What has happened is actually that those sanctions have accelerated the process because the process was already there. It might have taken longer, but we would have eventually come to the same situation. The current sanctions combined with everything else is a bit like COVID, in that it has accelerated so many other things. The way we work, the way we are coping with the disease, those were trends before. But now, because of COVID, these trends have accelerated and working online has become part of the new normal. In the same way, these sanctions have come to accelerate a process of deterioration that was already put in place by the whole lack of policies around the oil industry.

Essentially, blaming the situation on sanctions is a useful pretext or the regime. It’s cover for everything else that has been going on.

Exactly, but years before that it used to be the “economic war,” the regime would call it, coming from the “imperialist United States” and other “empires.” They would call it sabotage on the side of the opposition. I mean, they always have an excuse. They always have a pretext and they will never accept or acknowledge that they have a huge responsibility in what is happening right now.

UN experts defending the Maduro regime is not a new phenomenon. A few years ago Alfred de Zayas, the UN expert on the “promotion of a democratic and equitable international order” led a fake investigation in Venezuela arranged by Maduro. He posed with regime soldiers and posted propaganda photos of abundant food, even as millions faced mass hunger. How can people maintain faith that the UN will hold the regime to account knowing that experts like Douhan and de Zayas give the regime a false badge of legitimacy?

I’m hoping that the UN Fact-Finding Mission will be able to expose the truth of what is going on in Venezuela. Other mechanisms for justice will be through the judiciary branch of the UN, like at the ICC in the Hague or through universal jurisdiction, meaning that countries can bring to justice those perpetrators that they find in their territory. I believe that there is a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still far away. 

But, what really strikes and concerns me is that the two rapporteurs that you mentioned are put on the same playing field as other very high-level international experts with very clean records and impeccable reputations. When you put them side-by-side with these two special rapporteurs who we all know are politically motivated, it speaks tons about the flaws and the shortcomings of the UN as an institution.

Of course, the institution is made by governments, and if those governments don’t respect the rule of law, we cannot expect them to respect the rules of the organisation and to play by the rules. Through different procedures, they will always try to find ways to sneak in issues that will weaken the system and that will make us lose faith in it. So, it’s very much up to those countries that do uphold the rule of law and human rights standards to put up the fight. 

Despite its shortcomings, how do you see the UN system addressing the Venezuelan crisis? Is there more that can be done by UN member states in Geneva, for instance?

Well, this is very much what I’m seeing right now in discussions taking place at the International Labor Organization’s governing body. There was a commission of inquiry, which is a very similar mechanism to a fact-finding mission. It’s the equivalent of a commission of inquiry or a verification mission at the Human Rights Council. This commission of inquiry was established in 2019 after employers presented a complaint for Venezuela’s non-compliance with several ILO agreements, which have to do with economic and social rights. So there’s a huge connection between human rights and labor rights.

Now, this inquiry put out its report with some recommendations for the Venezuelan government, and the regime had three months to either accept them or take them to the International Court of Justice and appeal. They have done neither of those things. They have been very defiant to the ILO. The regime says, just like they do at the Human Rights Council, that it does not accept this commission of inquiry, calling it ideologically and politically motivated to interfere in internal affairs. You hear this all the time at the Human Rights Council. It’s the very same script, the same narrative taken from one forum to the other.

At the ILO the regime is being put under the spotlight because of its non-compliance. If we reach that agreement to adopt that decision, it will be yet another tipping point and we will see that this is part of what we spoke about in one of your first questions about if Biden or the international community is doing enough. I think that if member states do reach a decision at the ILO where Maduro is held to account it will show better coordination, which is good for the system, and for Venezuelans. 

I think that it’s about time that the ILO membership realizes that Venezuela, among other bad countries, will go from one forum to the next saying exactly the same thing, and that bluff needs to be called off. If you don’t like the UN system, just get out of it, but do not undermine the work at the UN. Either you comply with it or you step out. Do not continue to undermine it under a pretend North-South discussion, or a developing country discussion, or finding their own political solutions to their problems which is something that we hear all the time from all of these countries.

That’s what I see about the UN that is not working. I’m not sure how it could be spelled out in one way or another. I’m not the one to do it. I’m not a negotiator but I am seeing all those, in French saying “fall within the cracks,” and that’s helping undermine the whole system. That was designed in the era after the Second World War and it was very much a different world. We had a bipolar Cold War environment and that’s not the case right now. We have 193 agendas that bind together in different, smaller groups and it’s very difficult to negotiate. It becomes very complex for negotiators to reach an agreement. That said, there must be at least certain rules, like if you are in this organization and you have agreed to these agreements, that all countries must comply with them.

You’ve spoken at the Geneva Summit on multiple occasions and your NGO, Iniciativa Por Venezuela, is a co-sponsor. What does this platform mean to you?

Personally for me, the Geneva Summit has meant the world. It’s been a place of learning so many humbling lessons from the testimonies of rights activists from around the world. Some of them are very tough, very difficult. Many of them are very sad. They have shown us a way forward in many areas. They have also reminded us that we’re not alone, and that our problem is not the only problem around the world. This has made me and other Venezuela rights activists more humble and patient, having to accept that progress comes slowly. You cannot improve the situation as fast as you would like but you have to continue pushing for things to move forward. It’s been a huge long lesson for us to work side-by-side with the Geneva Summit.