Venezuela's leaders give new meaning to the phrase “¡Ay, Caramba!”
Elections in Venezuela will take place this Sunday, April 14, when Hugo Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, faces a united opposition lead by Henrique Capriles. Subsequent analyses will center on whether the voting was free and fair, or unfree and unfair, or a mixture of both. But for an accurate bellwether, we need look no further than the status of dissent in the country.
Much as the imprisonment of Pussy Riot perfectly symbolizes the insecurity and viciousness of Russia's autocracy, one example of political persecution in Venezuela is enough to tell us whether we should accept the country's election results as legitimate.
Consider the little-known case of Miguel Ángel Hernández Souquett, a 51-year-old Venezuelan auto mechanic.
On February 5, 2010, at a baseball home game between Venezuela and Mexico, Hernández was arrested by agents of Venezuela's military for the alleged crime of "offenses against the head of government." His crime? Hernández was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the cartoon character Bart Simpson, depicted with his trousers down and exposing his buttocks. Printed in black capital letters it read "Hugo, I shit on your revolution."
Hernández spent the night in a military jail and was then turned over to Venezuela's notorious secret police, the SEBIN. The next morning a public prosecutor requested measures alternative to pre-trial detention, and stipulated that Hernández be tried summarily.
The government allowed Hernández to return home but has since required him to report to the authorities every 30 days while the trial is ongoing. The process has stretched due to at least six trial deferrals because of the prosecution's repeated inability, or unwillingness, to show up in court. Rather than dismissing the case, the judge simply defers the case to a new date. He knows full well that a dismissal might be considered a betrayal of the revolution -- and Venezuelan judges who rule against the government have been known to end up in prison. As a result, Hernández has lived in legal limbo for more than three years. What's worse, a conviction could lead to a prison sentence of up to two and a half years. Venezuela's prisons are no picnic: They are among the most violent prisons in the world, with shockingly high murder rates. Hernández's next hearing is in June.
The Venezuelan authorities who made the accusation against Hernández possible, as well as those in charge of his trial and potential conviction, have violated the international standard for the right to freedom of expression. That standard has bound Venezuela since August 9, 1977, when the country ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.
The alarming erosion of freedom of expression in Venezuela has been thoroughly documented through reports, press releases, and public statements issued by international human rights organizations. Since 2008, both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have condemned Venezuela repeatedly. In response, Venezuela has ignored their legally binding pronouncements and gone so far as to rule that the Inter-American Court is no longer legitimate and that its standards of freedom of speech are no longer valid under the Chávez revolution.
Hernández has stated to the press: "If we live in a democratic country, I have the right to state what I don't like. I was not referring to Chávez, but to his revolution because I don't want it and I will never want it." His case is a microcosm of what Venezuelans live through on a daily basis, and it reveals the environment that the current electoral campaign occurs in.
There are millions of Venezuelans who share Mr. Hernández's position, even if they do not engage in his "offensive" form of communication. The government's actions send the unmistakable message that disliking the Chávez revolution, and expressing this, is a crime punishable with years of trouble and a prison sentence in the world's deadliest jails. Unfortunately, even if the chavista government were to abandon its demonstrable and long-standing electoral fraud and manipulation that makes the Venezuelan contest Putin-esque, this climate of fear and mandatory obedience to the caudillo is sure to guarantee that Venezuela's nightmare will continue for another six-year term.