For more than a decade, Alfredo Romero has been keeping tabs on people that Venezuela authorities have been doing their best to bury: political prisoners languishing in jail.
The number this week: 342.
“Since 2014 until now, there have been 11,903 people detained for political motives,” Romero said this week as he traveled to the U.S. to receive the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on Thursday. “You go to any political rally and ask anyone if they know someone who has been arrested for protesting and they will all tell you they do.”
Amid the country’s spectacular economic collapse and political turmoil, detentions have become a key strategy for the socialist administration to sideline and cow adversaries. Political arrests also have become one of the factors forcing hundreds of thousands to leave the country in recent years — an exodus that is reshaping the hemisphere and South Florida.
South Florida exiles
The Miami-based organization Politically Persecuted Venezuelans Abroad, or Veppex, estimates that there are anywhere from 45,000 to 50,000 Venezuelans in Florida who have been granted, or are seeking, some type of political protection.
Romero and the group he founded, Foro Penal Venezolano, began tracking arbitrary and political detentions in 2005. In a country where official information is hard to come by, the organization relies on more than 4,000 volunteers to hunt down and identify prisoners.
That job has been particularly crucial during periods of street protests, most recently in April, when authorities in President Nicolás Maduro’s government tossed hundreds of marchers in jail without hearings or notifying relatives. At one point, there were more than 700 people behind bars for participating in largely peaceful street demonstrations.
While the total number of prisoners is down from those highs, Romero said it’s not necessarily a sign of progress.
The government seems to be imprisoning more people but for shorter periods of time, expanding the “intimidation impact,” he said.
“There’s a revolving door effect. While some are being detained others are being released,” Romero said. “The government is trying not to have a lot of people in jail at any one time, in order to avoid the political costs.”
The government insists it doesn’t punish political dissent. Rather, it says high-profile prisoners like presidential candidate Leopoldo López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who have been jailed or under house arrest for years, are there for good reason.
“None of them are in jail because they are political leaders or because they’ve been promoting their ideas, but because they broke the law,” Maduro said this week, in an interview carried by state-run media.
What’s missing from the picture of how the government handles dissent, Romero admits, are the number of Venezuelans who have fled the country due to political persecution.
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in 2016 tripled from the previous year to 34,200 people, according to U.N. figures. And most of those applicants — 18,300 — sought refuge in the United States.
Currently, Venezuelans are either the top, or among the top, asylum seekers in the United States, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Spain, Romero said.
“And that doesn’t count the more than 3 million people who have fled the country for economic reasons,” he added.
Thursday’s ceremony in Washington, D.C., recognizing Romero’s work comes as the South American nation is trapped in a deep economic and political crisis that shows no signs of abating. The country is teetering on the edge of outright default amid $180 billion in foreign debt and declining oil revenue.
While Maduro is scrambling to renegotiate the debt, U.S. financial sanctions are making that nearly impossible. The resulting cash crunch will likely make things harder for average Venezuelans as the country struggles to import enough food and medicine.
Jose Colina, the president of Miami-based Veppex, said his group wants to see Washington turn the screws even tighter — including cutting off crude imports from Venezuela.
But the Trump administration also needs to match its Venezuela sanctions with open door policies that will allow Venezuelans to ride out the storm in the United States, he said.
“The Trump administration has implemented a great number of sanctions, which we’ve been demanding for the last six years,” Colina said. “They recognize that Venezuela is a dictatorship and have implemented sanctions against more than 50 people, but there’s not an immigration policy that reflects that.”
The Venezuelan exile community has been pushing for migratory relief, including Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, in the United States. But as that same protection is being pulled from Nicaraguans and Hondurans, they admit that’s unlikely.
Romero also said that the U.S. and neighboring countries that denounce Venezuela need to be more welcoming to exiles.
“If there’s the absolute clarity and understanding that there are human rights abuses [in Venezuela], then there should be the clear understanding that people need protection,” he said. “Even if it is temporary.”
The volunteers at Foro Penal have paid a price for their work, Romero said. Some have been jailed. Many have been intimidated.
In 2015, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission demanded the government of Venezuela provide protection for Romero and another Foro Penal member, saying their “lives and safety are in jeopardy.”
Romero said he hopes that winning the prestigious human rights award will keep up international pressure on Venezuela and encourage more volunteers — even those in other countries – to work with his organization.
“One of our achievements has been our ability to register everyone who has been detained, to have that database, and that’s thanks to our 4,000 volunteers identifying people,” he said. “And that’s had a political cost for the government.”