A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.
Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.
Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.
Trump and Venezuela
In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.
It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”
Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.
The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”
Trump and Brazil
The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.
In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).
Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.
Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.
This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.
But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,” making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.
Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.
In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).
It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.
Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil
It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.
The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).
Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”
Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).
The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.
Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.
By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.
In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”
“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”
It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 million residents).
Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.
Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”
Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”
Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.
Taking State Violence Seriously
The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.
In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.
A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.
If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.
All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.