“What’s happening in Venezuela is like a silent war,” Genesis Dávila, the director and founder of Defiende Venezuela, a human rights advocacy group, told America. She described a dramatic humanitarian and human rights crisis in her home country that is bringing terrible suffering to Venezuelans.
Ms. Dávila, 28, is one of the small team of lawyers who defend Juan Guaidó, the president of the country’s National Assembly. After declaring himself the nation’s interim president in January until new elections are held, Mr. Guaidó is now recognized by 54 governments, including the United States.
“Venezuela is facing a human rights crisis...that is affecting all the institutions in the country,” Ms. Dávila said, “and the main problem is that the [different] branches of the state lack independence.” She said, for example, that the judicial system “works for the executive branch” of government, so there is “no justice for people in Venezuela.”
According to Ms. Dávila, the executive branch headed by President Nicolás Maduro “lacks legitimacy” but has de facto power, while Mr. Guaidó has legitimacy but not executive power. Venezuela in effect has two governments. The apparent stalemate concerns her greatly.
“It makes me really worried to think we can get used to the situation,” she said. “I mean we got used to living with the chaos, to living almost without food or water, without medicines, without electricity and then with the government repressing people daily.
“I don’t want us to get used to having two governments at the same time because this would make us stay in the same situation for more and more years, and what we need is change,” Ms. Dávila said. “We need a government that has legitimacy and is able to rule the country. Right now, Guaidó is not ruling the country, Maduro is not ruling the country, and we are just waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
Ms. Dávila was in Rome to participate in a conference at the Italian Senate on the crisis. After pursuing a leadership development course at Georgetown University in 2017, she returned to Caracas, where she founded Defiende Venezuela. Her organization assists victims of human rights abuses who seek international protection when the national mechanisms of rights protection fail.
“It makes me really sad and frustrated when I hear people say they don’t want bloodshed in Venezuela,” Ms. Dávila said. “What do they think is happening now?
“People are dying because when they go to the hospitals there are no services; when they are sick, they have no medicines; when they are hungry, they cannot find food.” She added that government security forces “can kidnap you and nothing will happen.” She said the Maduro “colectivos,” as pro-government civilian militia are known, “go to your neighborhood and shoot at people, and if you are going into a protest the national guard can shoot you and you can die.”
According to Ms. Dávila, more than 200 Venezuelans were killed in anti-government protests in 2017, and while 2018 was not a year of protests, in the first two weeks after Mr. Guaidó’s declaration of his presidency this year there were over 100 “arbitrary” detentions and scores of deaths, “all due to repression by the government.”
“If you add to this the inflation rate and the number of people leaving the country, the figures are those normally related to a war,” she argued. In fact, she said, “I think this is like a silent war because one side has guns, the other side is just pacific and democratic and has been waiting for change, but people are just dying, so blood is already being shed in Venezuela.”
According to Ms. Dávila, the Maduro regime was taken by surprise when Mr. Guaidó declared himself interim president. Venezeula’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, known by its Spanish acronym, Sebin, detained Mr. Guaidó, but he was quickly released because of the international reaction. He was warned not to leave the country, but Mr. Guaidó visited Brazil to seek the support of its new president, Jair Bolsonaro, and was able to return in spite of the Maduro government’s objections.
There’s an urgent need “to push for change within Venezuela,” but Ms. Dávila also encouraged more pressure from outside “because we cannot bring change by ourselves. We need the support of the international community.”
The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization for American States has issued precautionary measures to protect Mr. Guaidó, she said. Those protections were extended to include key members of his team.
“While not taking direct action against him personally so far, Maduro’s government is seeking to undermine Guaidó’s leadership and has arrested his chief of staff [Roberto] Marero on March 21,” she said. It also forced Mr. Guaidó to leave the hotel that served as his headquarters.
“Time is in favor of the Maduro regime,” she said. Its strategy, she said, “is to let things just happen, to try to not react, to make people get tired of the situation. They are expecting the people of Venezuela to lose hope, and Guaidó and his team to get tired of the fight.
“Since last year there is shortage of food in Venezuela,” she said, “no medical supplies, hospitals can’t work, and the situation is even worse now because of blackouts—one cannot cook or preserve food, and communications is difficult.
“Some four million Venezuelans have left the country,” Ms. Dávila said. “They have been forced to do that because they cannot raise their kids in Venezuela; they cannot have a quality life; they have to find food.”
She pointed out that on one day in February “over 200 kids crossed the border alone into Colombia because they didn’t have food; they were age 12 to 16 years old and went without their parents.”
Electricity blackouts have made headlines in recent weeks, but such outages are already “really normal” in many parts of Venezuela, she said. “But because they are happening in Caracas they become national news, and the government is a bit more worried about it.”
“There are no signs that the regime is willing to let that happen because they know they would lose the elections.”
There’s an urgent need “to push for change within Venezuela,” but Ms. Dávila also encouraged more pressure from outside “because we cannot bring change by ourselves. We need the support of the international community.” She urged stronger sanctions against the regime’s politicians, the government and human rights violators.
She believes “legal processes” can assist too, urging an investigation of the Maduro government’s actions against protestors by the International Criminal Court, which she believes should dispatch a team of investigators to Venezuela with the authority to “request the detention of Maduro and those engaged in repression.”
Rodrigo Diamanti, 35, a supporter and longtime friend of Mr. Guaidó’s, is coordinator for humanitarian aid to Venezuela from Europe. He told America, “We are still receiving a lot of humanitarian aid and we send it to different collection centers” in the United States, Colombia and the Dutch island of Curaçao, “but we don’t yet have ways to get it into the country.”
He hailed an announcement this week that China and Russia were planning to dispatch aid as “a good step for us” because it meant the Maduro government was “accepting that there’s a humanitarian crisis, which they have denied so far.”
“We can continue to ask other countries to give the Red Cross the humanitarian aid that is needed,” he said, “and send it to Venezuela.” The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to discuss the humanitarian situation in Venezuela on April 10.
Mr. Diamanti said he recognizes that the provision of aid “will not resolve the electricity blackouts, the absence of water and much else.” Indeed, in some ways it might enable the crisis to continue.
He noted that “people are so desperate today at not having enough to eat or water to clean oneself that they are putting pressure on Guaidó to bring solutions,” but “it is very difficult for him to do so because although he is the legitimate acting president the Maduro regime still controls power, with the support of the military.”
Mr. Diamanti emphasized that humanitarian aid would not be enough to resolve the crisis even if it “can alleviate the situation a little.”
“We always say that the best humanitarian aid that we can receive is just ending the dictatorship in the country, and to do that we need political pressure to make sure that new presidential elections are held this year, so we can regain democracy.”
According to Mr. Diamanti, however, “there are no signs that the regime is willing to let that happen because they know they would lose the elections.”
Aid “will not resolve the electricity blackouts, the absence of water and much else.” In some ways it might enable the crisis to continue.
He believes Mr. Maduro has support at the top level of Venezuela’s military, “but not at the lower level because at that level they suffer like the ordinary people.” He added, “We have [more] military personnel in prison today than in any other country on the continent, persons whose loyalty the regime suspects.”
Asked who’s supporting the Maduro regime today, Mr. Diamanti replied: “Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua and Turkey, basically countries that are not democratic.”
Both Ms. Dávila and Mr. Diamanti expressed grave concern for Mr. Guaidó’s safety. Mr. Diamanti noted that the regime is taking “small steps” to prepare to arrest him. “First, they arrested his chief of staff, then they weaken him politically and ban him from running for [public] office, and [on April 2] they removed his parliamentary immunity.”
Mr. Diamanti noted that the government followed a similar strategy in its moves against previous leaders of the opposition like Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Caprile. And even though the Inter-American court declared this way of proceeding illegal, “in Venezuela it’s not about legality, it’s about power.”