Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Democracy under attack in Venezuela

A demonstrator throws stones at riot policemen who have launched tear gas canisters at the crowd during an anti-government protest in eastern Caracas in February.
A demonstrator throws stones at riot policemen who have launched tear gas canisters at the crowd during an anti-government protest in eastern Caracas in February.
Juan Barreto / GETTY IMAGES

A scathing new report on human-rights abuses in Venezuela that indicts the government of Nicolás Maduro for mistreating its own people should make the Obama administration rethink its hands-off policy on the political crisis in the Andean nation.

According to Human Rights Watch, in a report issued on Monday, Mr. Maduro’s security forces have shot protestors at point-blank range, beaten others, subjected detainees to “severe physical and psychological abuse, including in some cases torture,” and otherwise resorted to a variety of extra-legal means to stifle anti-government demonstrations.

The report demolishes the excuse often voiced by Mr. Maduro’s supporters in and out of Venezuela, including in this country, to the effect that any excesses can be blamed on a few individuals. The 45 documented cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the report said, amount to a pattern of abuse sanctioned by the government.

“The scale of rights violations we found in Venezuela and the collaboration of security forces and justice officials in committing them shows these aren’t isolated incidents or the excesses of a few rogue actors,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW.

In some instances, protesters themselves have resorted to violence by hurling rocks or Molotov cocktails at security forces. But the report found that “security forces have repeatedly used unlawful force against unarmed and nonviolent people. Some of the worst abuses were against people who were not even participating in demonstrations, or were already detained and fully under the control of security forces.”

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone following developments in Venezuela over the last few months. But the imprimatur of Human Rights Watch validates the long-standing complaints of the regime’s critics. Mr. Maduro and his cohorts have been branded wholesale violators of international standards of human rights not by their adversaries, but by respected outside observers whose accusations cannot be easily dismissed.

Recently, Mr. Maduro agreed to sit down with opposition leaders to explore ways to ease tensions, under the auspices of the Catholic Church and neighboring countries. Aside from buying the president and his allies some time, however, the talks have been mostly unproductive.

The Bolivarian government has been unwilling to make even minimal concessions — releasing political prisoners, for example — as a gesture of good faith. At this point, the talks would seem to be going nowhere while repression continues without let-up. Every passing day reaffirms the view that the regime created by the late Hugo Chávez is incapable of allowing freedom of expression or otherwise making the sort of fundamental changes required to restore genuine democracy to Venezuela.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings on the crisis in Venezuela that will fuel the effort to adopt pending bipartisan legislation imposing sanctions on anyone involved in human-rights violations.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to take decisive action up to now because of the ongoing talks between the government and its opponents. But unless the talks yield tangible results soon, the administration should either throw its support behind the Senate bill or take action on its own before Venezuela’s advocates of democracy come under further assault.

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