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VENEZUELA
Mike Ceaser
10/25/2002
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Six months after the coup atte

The months since the April 11 coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez have been marked by human rights abuses including illegal arrests, unconstitutional searches and alleged killings by police officers and government allies. Whether supporters or opponents of Chávez, most victims have one thing in common: they are still searching for justice.

On the evening of April 12, police arrived at the home of Tibisay Blanchar in 23 de Enero, a very poor, pro-Chávez neighborhood. Blanchar said the police had brought her husband, Nicolás Eduardo Rivera, beaten and handcuffed, accusing him of having fired on demonstrators from the Llaguno Bridge during protests the day before. Blanchar said police handcuffed her family, including the children, searched their home and beat some family members. Finally, she said, they used threats to force her to sign what appeared to be a legal document, which she was not allowed to read.

During the events of April 11-14, Chávez was detained for nearly two days by a group of military officers before being swept back into power by loyal officers and pro-government crowds (LP, April 22, 2002). Both supporters and opponents took to the streets in massive demonstrations.

April 12, the day of Pedro Carmona’s short term as president, saw numerous human rights abuses by anti-Chávez forces apparently eager to avenge their own alleged victimization. Deputy Tarik William Saab, who represents Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) in the legislature, claimed he was unjustly arrested and jailed for hours.

Not all of the abuses were against Chávez supporters. Anti-Chávez forces have accused a group of men, who were filmed firing from the Llaguno Bridge, of killing unarmed demonstrators. The gunmen, who are back in jail after having been briefly released, say they were firing at police in self-defense.

Blanchar’s family has filed charges with the police, but the case is moving "very slowly," she said. Rights violations "are not being investigated seriously," says Carlos Correa, general coordinator of the Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action (PROVEA), who was to serve on a government Truth Commission that was never actually established.

In Venezuela’s polarized political arena, ideology appears to have trumped unbiased investigation. The death of photographer Jorge Tortoza of the newspaper 2001, who was shot in the head while covering the protests, has become emblematic of the April 11 killings. It has also become an extreme example of the tug-of-war over the dead.

Caracas’ major newspapers, furious Chávez opponents (LP, July 1, 2002), published investigations "proving" that Tortoza was shot by Chávez supporters who allegedly fired from the Llaguno Bridge. But many observers believe that those videos were edited. Tortoza’s family is said to be divided over where to place the blame. His brother, Edgar, believes that anti-Chávez forces fired the shot.

The injured and relatives of those killed have split into two camps, hired separate lawyers and are accusing pro- and anti-Chávez forces.

Tortoza’s case was not the first in which a political faction has attempted to write its own version of history. On April 11, a group of military officers announced that they had detained Chávez because they "could not tolerate" that day’s killing of 18 protesters, which they blamed on the president’s supporters.

After Chávez returned to power and independent observers studied the events, however, history changed dramatically. According to witnesses and participants, a variety of gunmen, some loyal and some opposed to the government, were at work during the protests, and many of the dead turned out to be Chávez supporters. Nevertheless, both sides have tried to make the dead their martyrs.

"The opposition wanted the dead of April 11 and the government wanted the dead of the 12th, 13th and 14th," Correa said. "Blood has become the coin of political transaction."

Mohamad Merhi, whose 18-year-old son, Jesús, was shot on April 11 while participating in the anti-Chávez march, says he has evidence that pro-Chávez forces planned the killings of his son and others. Merhi leads a group that is charging Chávez with crimes against humanity. But no proof has emerged publicly linking Chávez to the April 11 shootings, and the Supreme Court appears to be as divided as the rest of the country. On Aug. 14, the justices — who were virtually hand-picked by a pro-Chávez legislature — threw out charges against four top military officers accused of rebellion in connection with the coup (LP, Sept. 9, 2002).

Meanwhile, a Truth Commission, which was to have been established to produce an objective account of what happened (LP, May 6, 2002), was never formed because the National Assembly could not agree on ground rules. Would-be commission members said that both pro- and anti-Chávez politicians had hoped to reap political capital from the commission’s final report. When the commissioners made clear their intention to work objectively, however, and demanded that their recommendations be binding, enthusiasm for the panel evaporated.

Several of the people named to the commission say that blame for the many human rights violations is widely shared. Ana María San Juan, director of the Central University’s Center for Peace, blames the media, most of which are rabidly anti-Chávez, for inciting violence during the weeks before April 11. Both sides "realized that our report wasn’t going to please anybody, so we were no longer the ‘favored children.’ They stopped calling us," she said.

San Juan doubts that a Truth Commission report would have been respected. From the outset, she said, the idea of a Truth Commission faced fundamental challenges. In other nations, such panels have been created only after the political situation had stabilized and agreement has been reached on certain facts — conditions not met in Venezuela.

"We analyzed the circumstances," she said. "Our conclusion was that it was impossible to create a Truth Commission in Venezuela."

The result has been a trend toward impunity that San Juan says could be "disastrous." Correa believes that trend was worsened by last month’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the military officers. "There’s a crime, but there is no responsibility," he said.

Many see in this a worrisome portent for the democratic system’s ability to resolve the current crisis. "The way things are shaping up," Correa said, "there won’t be a democratic resolution."

On Oct. 10, about 1 million Chávez opponents took to the streets again, demanding that the president call early elections and threatening a general strike for Oct. 21. Chávez refused, and his supporters staged a massive demonstration on Oct. 13. The Organization of American States has called for the two sides to sign a declaration of principles and agree to a dialogue.


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