Venezuela Using Coronavirus to Crack Down on Dissidents

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores wave to supporters outside Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2109. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

(CN) — As Venezuelans struggle with drinking water and gasoline shortages, its government is cracking down on nurses, lawyers, doctors and journalists, jailing them and charging them with “incitement to hatred” for criticizing its Covid-19 response and publishing info about the pandemic, according to a new report.

Human Rights Watch, a Washington nonprofit, examined accounts of hundreds of arrests by Venezuelan media outlets and nongovernmental organizations for its report, “Venezuela: A Police State Lashes Out Amid Covid-19.”

President Nicolás Maduro declared a state of emergency in mid-March after the first Covid-19 cases surfaced and has implemented strict nationwide quarantines with curfews enforced by military troops, national police and armed pro-government groups called “colectivos.”

The government is now imposing strict restrictions for a week followed by one week of eased measures under its “7+7” plan.

The country’s official count is 42,898 Covid-19 cases and 358 deaths. But experts say it’s impossible to determine the true scope of the pandemic because the government does not publish info about suspected cases. 

According to the government, there are 46 hospitals taking Covid-19 patients and the country has thousands of ventilators.

But a national hospital survey done last year by the NGO Médicos por la Salud (Doctors for Health) found hospitals only had 84 of the machines, and only 9% of hospitals had “regular and continuous” running water.

Human Rights Watch says Maduro’s regime is using a 2017 law forbidding citizens from publishing messages of intolerance and hatred as grounds to charge critics with incitement to hatred for which the punishment is up to 20 years in prison.

Darvinson Rojas, a 25-year-old freelance journalist, started gathering info about the pandemic and posted it online in March, the report says. On March 20, he reported there were 47 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Miranda state.

The next night, five officers from a special forces military unit came to Rojas’ home without a warrant, claiming they had received an anonymous tip about a Covid case at the address.

“The officers hit Rojas’ father in the head, pushed his aunt to the floor, and threatened to confiscate the cell phones of neighbors who were recording these actions. They seized computers and cellphones, which have yet to be returned,” the report states.

They took Rojas to a military station where they demanded he share his case-number sources. He was released April 2 but is facing charges of incitement to hatred for publishing false info to destabilize the government.

Bioanalyst Andrea Sayago sent a WhatsApp message to her colleagues warning them to take precautions against the virus after running tests on the first patient diagnosed with Covid-19 in a hospital in the city of Valera, the report says.

The next day, the hospital’s directors forced her to resign. They said her messages constituted terrorism and if she did not resign, she would be arrested and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch says.

Despite her resignation, government agents took Sayago in for questioning and on April 6 she was charged with misuse of privileged info by a public official and put on house arrest pending trial, the nonprofit says in the report.

The report says defendants’ release from custody is being delayed because courts are only open every 10 days due to the lockdown

Lawyers are also being targeted by the government, Human Rights Watch says.

Two police stopped Iván Virgüez, a 65-year-old lawyer and president of DantaKultura, a civil rights group, on the street on April 18 and took him to their precinct.

Virgüez had criticized the government for housing Venezuelans returning from Columbia in quarantine centers.

An estimated 1.8 million Venezuelans live in neighboring Columbia and many started returning home this spring when they lost their livelihoods after Columbia instituted its own lockdowns against the virus.

The government is reportedly holding Venezuelans returning to the country in hotels, schools and bus stations for weeks or months in crowded windowless rooms with limited water and food and forcing some to take hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug, neither of which are proven treatments for the virus.

Venezuela only lets 1,200 people from the quarantine centers return through its main port of entry each week.

In some cities, police are searching for people who crossed back into Venezuela on backwoods trails, circumventing border crossings, and the military is calling them “bioterrorists” and telling neighbors to inform on them, the New York Times reported.

For speaking out against the quarantine centers, Humans Rights Watch says, Virgüez was handcuffed to a 2-foot metal tube in a jail yard for two hours before being placed in a small cell with seven other people.

“Virgüez appeared in court and was charged with public disturbance, contempt, defamation of authorities and instigation of rebellion,” the report states.

He is under house arrest and can only leave for medical reasons with police approval.  

Though Venezuela is one of the most oil-rich nations in the world, it is rationing gasoline because its state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., is only refining 101,000 barrels of crude a day, Reuters reported in March.

PDVSA’s income has dried up since President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions barring it from selling crude to U.S. refiners, once its biggest customers. American companies are also barred from selling Venezuela the light oil PDVSA needs to dilute its heavy crude and make it suitable for export, experts say.

The United States is one of dozens of countries that does not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president. They say opposition leader Juan Guaidó is the rightful leader.

Guaidó, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, claims Maduro’s 2018 re-election was unlawful because the regime jailed and disqualified opposition candidates.

A defiant Maduro has remained in power thanks to backing from China, Russia and Turkey, and his firm grip on the country’s military, national police and PDVSA.

The coronavirus has curtailed Guaidó’s efforts to build public support to oust Maduro.

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