"Speak up for the Venezuelan people" - An interview with Feliciano Reyna

4 March, 2014

Feliciano Reyna1Feliciano Reyna is a human rights advocate working on HIV and AIDS related issues in Venezuela since 1995. He has been involved in CIVILIS since 2009, a non-profit organisation in Venezuela promoting and defending human rights.

CIVILIS´ mission is the development of information and capacity building skills for organized citizen actions aimed at the promotion and defense of human rights, based on multidisciplinary approaches and on civic, democratic values. CIVILIS seeks to contribute to the expansion and strengthening of frameworks of respect, and guarantees to the dignity of human life, in their civic, political, social, economic and cultural dimensions. 

Feliciano Reyna speaks to CIVICUS about the ongoing protests and the fragile political situation in Venezuela. 

1. What prompted Foro Por La Vida and other Venezuelan organizations to issue a call for urgent international action to support human rights, justice and peace in Venezuela? 

The impetus for the call arose from the pattern of criminalization of protests in Venezuela, which started in 2005, that led the government to suppress protests in the Western part of the country in early February. The largest protest to date took place on February 12 this year in the capital, Caracas. During this protest, three people died, many were wounded and others were detained. This was then followed by an information blackout where TV stations and media were heavily censored or self-censored themselves. 

This environment of criminalization has not just been about criminalising protests but also takes the form of government officials, from the President down, condemning the protests as part of an “attempted coup” and as “fascist movements sponsored by foreign agents and enemies of the state.”

Instead of promoting dialogue with the protesters, the state resorted to extreme use of force, arbitrary detentions, cruel and degrading treatment of detainees, which include some cases of torture, denying due process of law, as well as utilising state terrorism laws against protestors. In effect, many of the close to 1,000 arrested are forbidden now from exercising their right to freedom of expression and to protest. 

2. What are your own experiences of civil society interaction with President Nicolas Maduro’s government since President Chavez's death? 

The national government has become increasing difficult to talk to and this has been reported by many different civil society organizations, including environmental organizations, indigenous groups and human rights advocates. However in the health sector, and for the first time since 2008, there is new management in the Ministry of Health which has opened up some space for dialogue. 

It should however be noted that in 2013 there were over 4,100 protests in Venezuela (a slight decrease on 2012 as President Chavez was ill for 2 months and people stopped protesting). The protests are mostly about labour rights, public services, the health crisis, and personal safety issues. Since 2008, protests doubled year after year, and they are not just from one sector of society but many, mostly from workers and low-income communities, demanding social and economic rights. They are legitimate actors who are asking for dialogue.

3. How serious is the interference in Venezuela's affairs by western countries ideologically opposed to the Venezuelan model?

This has been said by government officials wherever there are protests or denunciations that they do not agree with. There are 16 cities in which there have been protests by people including rural farm workers, fisherfolk and labour unions. The Venezuelan people clearly have their own minds and this sort of official rhetoric implies they do not.

The Venezuelan protestors want to exercise their right to freedom of association and to freedom of expression and assembly. One of our frustrations with international political spheres, and in some cases, civil society, is that where an ideology is prevalent, the independent actions of Venezuelan citizens are then labelled as driven by the far right and international movements of fascism. It implies that the Venezuelan people don’t have their own will or ability to stand up for themselves. However, what the world has seen is an autonomous expression seen in the different demands and stances taken by the protest movements, not just those taking place presently.

4. What meaningful steps can the Venezuelan government take to restore peace?

There were major problems for President Chavez in 2007 when the proposal to reform the Venezuelan constitution in 2007 was defeated by popular referendum.  The reform aimed at imposing a “Communal State” or the State of Popular Power.  It meant that Chavez’s project for developing the nation was significantly different from the version of a democratic state, based on rights and justice enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution. It fails to recognise the half of the population that disagree with this imposition and the majority that rejected it during the referendum in 2007. Simply put, the Constitution contains many enshrined rights that are now being ignored such as the lack of any independent autonomous participation by the people.

It is my view that the government must open up for dialogue with the people and recognise unconstitutional core issues – such as the lack of independence of the justice system and the ombudsman expressing support for the Government, as well as the armed forces pledging allegiance to the “revolutionary process,” blurring any kind of independence. The government must recognise the space necessary for the expression of discontent and start to solve many of the problems around economic and social rights and the expression of civil liberties.

5. How can regional and international civil society offer support to colleagues in Venezuela? 

We are calling for our colleagues in the international arena working in the areas of democracy and human rights to speak up for the Venezuelan people. To let them and state institutions know that there is an international community that is concerned by what is going on, and that will call on the Venezuelan government to reject any form of violence by law enforcement or paramilitary groups of armed civilians.

Our colleagues can offer support by asking the Venezuelan government to create channels for dialogue and to recognise the peaceful nature of the majority of Venezuelan protests.