In embattled Venezuela, human rights groups push legal escape hatch for Maduro regime

Anti-government demonstrators walk past a message written on the road that reads in Spanish: "Freedom. Down with the chains. 350 now." during protests calling for elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. The number 350 is a reference to Venezuela's constitution which gives to the right to rebel against injustice.
Anti-government demonstrators walk past a message written on the road that reads in Spanish: "Freedom. Down with the chains. 350 now." during protests calling for elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. The number 350 is a reference to Venezuela's constitution which gives to the right to rebel against injustice. AP

Do Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his cronies need a pardon?

Almost 40 human rights groups in the embattled country are trying to build support around the idea of a legal escape hatch that might make it easier for Maduro and other ruling party officials to step down amid increasingly lethal street protests that have stretched for more than two months and show no signs of abating.

Paz Activa, a Caracas-based rights organization, is promoting the idea of a “transitional justice” regime that might offer reduced sentences and penalties for officials willing to step down, recognize their victims and make amends.

“What we’re searching for, what we’re looking for, is a type of bridge that will allow a political transition,” said Paz Activa Director Luis Cedeño.

Talk of transitional justice is usually reserved for countries emerging from civil wars or brutal dictatorships, but Cedeño and others say Venezuela’s political crisis requires the same type of creative thinking.

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For the moment, the discussion remains largely academic. Paz Activa has tried to reach out to civil-society organizations that are aligned with the government with little success. But as pressure continues to build in the country, plans for a post-Maduro future are likely to gather steam.

The initiative comes as both the opposition and the Maduro administration are digging in amid widespread protests that have claimed almost 70 lives and brought large swaths of the country to a standstill.

Protesters are demanding early elections, the release of political prisoners and humanitarian aid. Maduro, in turn, is pushing an unpopular plan to overhaul the constitution, and says he will stay in power until his term ends in January 2019. He has also publicly dismissed the protesters, who have sometimes resorted to lethal violence, by labeling them as terrorists.

Vice President Mike Pence spoke out against the Venezuelan government at the Conference for Central America at FIU on June 15, 2017.

Even as there is an increasing number of defections within the ruling party — most notably the attorney general — analysts say many in the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are rallying around the president out of fear of what the legal implications might be if he loses power.

Some high-ranking officials would likely face civil and criminal charges for human rights violations.

Maduro came to power in 2013 after winning a tight and contested election to replace Hugo Chávez, who died that same year from an undisclosed form of cancer.

In a recent letter to subscribers, Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group, said that the political “exit costs remain high, and even if chavista leaders are uncomfortable with the current situation, a transition is not necessarily imminent.”

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And while the nation is ailing under hyper-inflation and food shortages, Maduro still has an approval rating of near 20 percent.

Marco Antonio Rodriguez-Acosta, a Caracas-based lawyer working on the justice initiative, said the idea is not to promote impunity or provide amnesty for serious crimes, but rather to explore forms of “restorative justice” instead of “punitive justice” as a way of overcoming the political impasse.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted out a video, on June 13, 2017, that allegedly shows a group of protesters jumping into a canal and swimming to safety as a Venezuelan official opens fire from the shore.

“Transitional justice is an answer to the systematic human rights violations that we’ve suffered for the last 18 years,” since Chávez first took power, he said. “The primary objective is to recognize the victims, promote peace and reconciliation and live in democracy.”

But the justice scheme also provides a release valve for officials — police officers, judges — who have committed crimes under orders and who now fear the repercussions.

“It’s a way to lessen the load for those who have to pay for their actions,” he said.

Even so, Rodriguez-Acosta acknowledges that Venezuela presents something of a chicken-or-the-egg problem.

“We have to have a political and social transition before we can have transitional justice,” he said. “That’s the first thing that has to happen.”

Latin America offers numerous examples of how transitional justice helped heal old wounds — for example, in the wake of military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Closer to home, Colombia is implementing an alternative justice scheme as it tries to reintegrate some 7,000 former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

In Colombia’s case, ex-combatants who confess to their crimes and make amends to their victims can avoid jail time, even as they serve alternative sentences similar to community service. The deal has been controversial, but President Juan Manuel Santos says it was the only way to bring the FARC to the table.

The Colombian model is one of the experiences Paz Activa is studying.

Jorge Narvaez is with Colombia’s Foundation for Reconciliation, a nonprofit that has been a pioneer in trying to help Colombia recover from more than a half century of civil conflict. He said that once political violence sets in, as it has in Venezuela, it can be very difficult to break the cycle.

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The organization promotes events where victims and their aggressors can meet face to face. It’s less about forgiveness and more about understanding each other and learning to live together, Narvaez said.

“When societies like Venezuela become so fractured by rage and resentment, [society] is destroyed,” he said. “You have to rebuild culture and civility.”

And those face-to-face meetings are key, he said. But in Venezuela, neither side is talking to the other in any meaningful way. The country’s security forces have stepped up efforts to break up the protests. Demonstrators are increasingly turning to violence, arson and looting as they try to defend their constitutional rights.

“We shouldn’t have to have a civil war to start talking about transitional justice,” said Cedeño, of Paz Activa. “We need to help create a change in the regime that doesn’t generate more victims.”

Anti-government protesters set fire to debris in an attempt to block roads in the Las Mercedes area of Caracas, Venezuela, on May 31. Members of the opposition party Voluntad Popular (People’s Will), leading the protests, say that President Nicho

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