Authoritarianism and Dissent: 21st Century Horizons with Tamara Suju

Tamara Suju, a Venezuelan lawyer and human rights activist, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Tamara Suju: Good afternoon. First of all, I’d just like to say thank you to the coalition for human rights and this summit on democracy and tolerance for inviting me. Mateo has asked me to make a presentation and I’d like just to say thank you for giving us an opportunity to express our views and bear witness.

Now it is very difficult to defend human rights in totalitarian regimes. And I’m not the only one, as a lawyer, fighting for these human rights. There are persons who are persecuted, who are just trying to prevent human rights, or allowing human rights to flower to achieve social peace.

I’m going to talk about what is happening in my country, in Venezuela. I’m going to start speaking to you on behalf of my compatriots and I just wanna say that Venezuela is asking [for] asylum from the democratic world.

We are in a terrible polarization situation, where there is hatred, divisionism and segregation, which is propagated by the president of the Republic, and this is being repeated by the officials of his government. We are now suffering from 11 years of repression and persecution, which is of course perpetrated against all the people who are against the regime. 

We cannot call our country democratic. In fact, for many years, there [have been] no independent institutions. There is no separation of powers, which is of course, the fundamental basis for a democratic system. Apart from the fact that Hugo Chávez managed to become elected president of the Republic in free elections, [] he has used a democratic system to carry out [an] attack on the constitution. In fact, he’s even organized a coup d’etat and he has adapted all the democratic institutions so that they fit in with his Bolivarian Revolution  in that they follow socialism for the 21st century. And now the whole legislative system, the legal system, all the supervisory authorities, which should be autonomous, but in fact are completely undermined. I think it is necessary to remember that the totalitarian system was rejected in a referendum, which was presented by the President in December 2007, by a clear majority of electors.

Now there is total control by Chávez of the institutions, and this means that justice or the justice system is used to punish and to put in prison all those persons who disagree with the government. There are persecutions for political reasons, there is also psychological terror perpetrated against the population. There is a high level of insecurity and we have become the most dangerous country in Americas with 115,000 homicides in 10 years, which includes political assassination or assassination by police officers, and other scourges of this nature. In 2009, there were 16,000 homicides. Only nine out of 100 assassinations have been cleared up, which means that the number of people who get away scot-free is 91%. The Venezuelan state violates the human rights of all its citizens, it doesn’t guarantee the right to life, and it doesn’t punish crimes, and makes people anxious and worried. More than 120 Venezuelans have been kidnapped and are in the hands of irregular groups; some of them have been kidnapped for more than eight years. In 2009, according to semi-official figures, there were 742 kidnappings, and in 2010 we’ve already got to 300 kidnappings. Insecurity in all its forms is a policy of terrorism perpetrated by the state, which doesn’t punish those who are responsible for it. This means that all Venezuelans live in a state of insecurity, and they just spend their time trying to live or survive on a day-by-day basis. 

There is a general internal war going on; the nationalization of major companies in entire economic sectors, for example: electricity, communications, the control of banks, etc., has destroyed the stability of the system. What the government has done is to nationalize some of the big petroleum companies. 

At the same time, even if a vote is taken, that doesn’t mean to say that a popular will is going to be respected. A lot of people are being persecuted, and they are being threatened by representatives of the state. There is a violation of the constitution. There is a violation of the laws of the Republic and the national assembly is not following constitutional laws, and is discrediting people who speak out against the government. There are a number of former mayors and governors who are now being personally pursued by the President and have been incarcerated. There is a lot of persecution. As a lawyer who’s a defender of human rights, I have been accused by the National Assembly of treason, which is a crime that can carry a maximum punishment of 30 years of prison.

In 2004 and 2005, I tried to collect the witnesses of a number of prisoners who were being caught by the regime, and we have, of course, denounced these violations to the international Human Rights Council. I’m sure that one day we will have a state based on the rule of law in my country, and these people will have to go and answer for their crimes in front of the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court is already looking at a number of cases which will be presented to it. I have been obliged to abandon my country, leave behind my children, my family, and I don’t even know if I’ll be able to go back. Some of the people here know that kind of situation and will understand what I’m going through. For many weeks, civil servants from the national government persecuted my family. They tried to stir up hatred against myself by speaking out against me on television and radio and trying to destroy my honor and reputation. 

Five months after, I decided  to take the step of going back home. We have foreseen a lot of situations where people are being threatened. I have been defended by one of my former students, Nixon Moreno, who is now exiled in Peru. But he was then subject to a lot of persecution by the government, and he was forced to seek asylum from the Apostolic Nunciature in Caracas, where he spent two years without the Venezuelan state accepting to fulfill its obligations under international conventions. We’ve had a number of attempts made against this diplomatic mission, even though the ministry didn’t investigate any of those attacks. 

Four months ago, I was accused of political destabilization and treason. Then there was a hunger strike that was organized in front of the headquarters of the OEA in Caracas. We asked the Human Rights Council to look at the situation of political prisoners and those who are persecuted for political reasons in Venezuela, but the Venezuelan government has not allowed the commission to visit Venezuela. I would also say that the commission has not been allowed [into] Venezuela, and the government has been asked for permission to enter the country, but that request has been refused.

More than 160 young people joined the hunger strike throughout the country and asked for Julio Rivas to be freed. He’s a student of 22 years of age and he was arrested after a student march. He was accused of inciting civil war and destabilization, and he was put in a maximum security prison. He’s only 22 years old, and a student. The National Assembly immediately opened an inquiry and put two other lawyers under surveillance. We are lawyers, of course, who look at ways of defending the rights of students and other persons who are involved in the same cause.

We’ve also seen the government presenting false news about us on television and on radio. We had two civil servants who were highly armed and who stole my Blackberry because they wanted to get access to my contacts. This is a form of psychological terrorism, which is perpetrated by totalitarian regimes.The same thing has been done to other people who defend human rights. 

We have also seen assassination of the owners of the media against a businessman, military personnel, students, as well as activists from political parties. It seems that the legal system is also just following slavishly, whatever the president says. 85 students have recently been arrested: those arrests have led to the violation of 14 different fundamental rights, as well as the use of toxic substance[s] against the demonstrations. 

As to political prisoners, there are 30 political prisoners who have been kidnapped by the legal system, and there is no due process of law and their human rights are being infringed. There are 2,500 citizens who are victims of criminal persecution, and we include 250 students amongst them. There is arbitrary detention in which the right to life is being undermined, as well as the assumption of innocence is also ignored. There is a violation of the right to defense, violation of the right to have [a]  just trial. There are other violations of, for example, over due process and people from civil society are not respected. In all cases, political prisoners do not have any opportunity to obtain justice. 

I’m going to talk about a judge called Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was defending a businessman called Eligio Cedeño. He spent three years in prison without any sentence being passed against him, and the lawyer was sentenced herself to a number of years in jail. This person is now in a prison and she has been condemned by her own court.

Do you have participants in this forum, at this Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy? I started my presentation by saying that Venezuela is living the last days of a system which claims to have freedom, but it doesn’t allow an open totalitarian system. Unfortunately in our modern system, because of economic interests between nations, those interests are placed above human rights.

Over the last two years, we have denounced a number of violations at forums such as this, and we have denounced what is happening in Venezuela- but Venezuela is seen as a tap for black oil. And in spite of the fact that we have signed a number of conventions on human rights, we see a violation of many of those rights on a day to day basis.

Let me just remind you I have a dream. I think that all those in Venezuela who love freedom and justice should remind ourselves of what we are living through today. I have a dream. I have a dream that we’ll be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this face we’ll be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. With this face, we’ll be able to transform. And when this happens, we will allow freedom to ring. When we let it ring from any tenemant in every hamlet, from every state and every city, we’ll be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children’s: black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, free at last.

Free at last. Thank God almighty.

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