Venezuela’s communists and political groups fear ‘witch hunt’ amid political turmoil

Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, speaks during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.
Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, speaks during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Bloomberg

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) has spent a third of its 86-year existence as an unrecognized and often illegal political party. And now it faces the prospect of losing official status yet again — even as its traditional allies, the socialists, remain in power.

“There are sectors of the government and within the party of the government that want to see the Communist Party of Venezuela disappear,” said Carlos Aquino, a member of the party’s executive committee, at the group’s headquarters in downtown Caracas.

He says his party provides an important “critical voice,” unafraid to denounce government sectors that preach socialist rhetoric in public but promote self-serving policy behind closed doors.

A military parade in Venezuela was interrupted Tuesday after objects were thrown at the motorcade of President Nicolas Maduro.

But the electoral council’s decision to require political groups including the communists to undergo a re-certification process — that includes naming its members — puts the party in a tough position. If the party doesn’t participate, it will lose its legal recognition and be prohibited from putting forward candidates on a communist ticket. But if it does, party leaders fear they will expose their members to discrimination or worse.

And the conditions for re-certifying a party will be hard to meet. Parties have been allotted just two days to collect one-half of one percent of valid voters’ signatures and fingerprints in at least 12 states. Significantly, the measure only applies to groups that didn’t participate in 2015 parliamentary elections — 59 parties in all, including the communists and opposition parties but excluding the governing socialists. Groups meeting the requirements will retain their spot on the ballot. But the measure threatens the legal existence of dozens of smaller parties, unable to meet the requirements.

Opposition parties have denounced the measure as an attempt by the executive branch, acting through a compliant electoral council, to further postpone gubernatorial elections that were supposed to be held last year. Until the re-certification process is completed, the electoral council has said, elections are considered “interrupted.” And given the country’s deep economic crisis, the government would likely lose any elections badly.

Police in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas clashed with protesters in April 2017.

The re-certification process comes amid deep political turmoil. Last week, the government barred Henrique Capriles — the governor of Miranda state and a two-time presidential candidate — from running for elected office for 15 years. The opposition has called the move a clear ploy to sideline one of President Nicolás Maduro’s principal challengers ahead of elections in 2018. That decision has also sparked days of increasingly violent protests.

The conflict with the communists also occurs as questions emerge regarding the strength of the socialists' governing coalition and raises questions about whether more government supporters will break with the official line as conditions in Venezuela continue to deteriorate. Earlier this month, Venezuela’s attorney general caused shock waves when she openly criticized a ruling by the Supreme Court that temporarily stripped the power from the legislature.

As part of the re-certification process, party militants must register as official supporters with the electoral council. Communist leaders believe that requirement could put their militants at risk and stifle a dissenting voice at an important moment.

“It could create a situation where an employer, or other neofascist sectors of the extreme right-wing in Venezuela, could verify who is a member of the communist party or other leftist organizations,” Aquino said. He believes the group’s members could face persecution as they did decades ago.

Venezuelan journalist Doricer Alvarado released video showing pro-government group members taking the belongings of an unconscious protester.

The PCV has a tumultuous and sometimes bloody past in the country, which included the support of a guerrilla group in the 1960s following the success of the Cuban Revolution. The guerrillas turned to violence, including bombings and kidnappings, in an attempt to foment an uprising but ultimately failed to gain popular support.

As a result, party members, involved or not with the guerrilla movement, faced heavy-handed repression and persecution from state security forces, with thousands reported detained, murdered, disappeared and tortured.

Today, the PCV in Venezuela remains a highly secretive organization. When asked about the party’s numbers and whether it could meet the party re-certification requirements, Aquino only said the group enjoys support and unity around the country.

“Our historic policy is to not let information get to the enemy about how many communists exist,” he said.

The PCV along with fellow pro-government party Fatherland for All (PPT) have appealed their case to the country’s supreme court, arguing the 1965 party re-certification law violates the country’s 1999 constitution.

Another pro-government party, REDES, has also objected to the process, with its leader, former mayor of Caracas Juan Barreto, becoming one of the most outspoken critics.

“People could lose their jobs and it could end in a witch hunt,” he said.

A violent clash between pro and anti-government supporters at the Basilica of St. Teresa in Caracas was captured on video on April 12, 2017.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court, also accused by opposition leaders of responding to government orders, has yet to respond to the appeal. Leaders from the ruling socialist party also have remained largely silent on the issue.

Communist party leaders, though, have promised to continue their operations “clandestinely” for the fourth time in their history.

“In the short term, we don’t expect to face the type of situation like those of the past,” Aquino said. “ But on an international level, it’s hard not to make a comparison between the previous periods of illegalization and this current period of illegalization — but with Chavismo.”

Aquino says his party won’t part ways with Chavismo over the re-certification process, but doesn’t rule out a split over other ideological issues.

“We’re not planning to blackmail the government over this,” he said. “But one of the big problems we’ve always had is that an abyss often exists between a revolutionary discourse and... a policy of social democratic reform.”

Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss contributed to this report.