He got out of a new Toyota truck. He had bodyguards. He has to have them. Though a young man, Saleh has had to endure unspeakable trials and tribulations at the hands of the Chavista regime. Lorent Saleh is a survivor.
Today he is a human rights activist: founder of the organization Operation Freedom and winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament in 2017. He spent two years and three months in the coldest, most inhumane dungeon of Nicolás Maduro’s regime: La Tumba. There he tried to commit suicide and gave in to delirium. What he went through, those brutal moments…he discusses with a heartbreaking literary beauty, in an interview he gave to the newspaper El Mundo. Saleh recently sat down with the PanAm Post to talk about the current situation in Venezuela and those responsible for the crimes against him.
“If countries are going to use force against Maduro, let them do it,” Saleh said in this interview. He speaks with precision, but also taking care with his words because of the responsibility he now has. Since leaving prison – since he was expelled from Venezuela – he has not stopped meeting with heads of state and delegations from different countries. He is a banner, a symbol, and walking testimony of the true nature of the Nicolás Maduro regime.
Juan Guaidó was able to enter Venezuela. He did it at the Maiquetía Airport. He went through immigration and customs. That is to say: he went through all the security checkpoints of the regime and, despite the threats, was able to enter. He was able to get to Las Mercedes. What does that mean?
It means that the transition is under way. That there is indeed a new president in Venezuela called Juan Guaidó and that we are already in the post-Chavista era.
You were in the bowels of the regime’s horror. You met Chavista officials, you saw how they behaved. How do you evaluate the defections, the fact that Juan Guaidó has entered the country and walks freely?
It is the result, on the one hand, of the natural attrition of a regime that failed; on the other hand, the result of armed and police forces listening to our message, which is that of reconciliation, which is amnesty. But above all, of reconstruction of the country. That message is penetrating within the Armed Forces.
And not only within the Armed Forces but also with government employees, in Venezuela. Public officials are already recognizing, not only legally and politically but also in conscience, a new president and a new transitional government.
Public officials are human, they are Venezuelans, with problems and shortcomings like all Venezuelans. And they also want a change. Perhaps they have not felt represented in the political leadership as today they are represented in this transitional government.
I think that the events today, in Maiquetía, suggest this. Do you think that Maduro lost control of the country? Does he even have the capacity to give orders?
Indeed, while Guaidó is consolidating his power, nationally and internationally as president, Nicolás Maduro seeks to consolidate his power as a usurper. And the usurpers lose power by the minute…
And is it happening? Do you see it?
Absolutely! Absolutely! The defections of the Armed Forces. Look, today was an example. Today the policy in Venezuela was pressured. And they did not even have the authority to prevent the entry of Juan Guaidó through the Maiquetía Airport. This means that there is a displacement of power. The forces of power are shifting.
I agree, but what does it take? What is needed for the military – because, yes, defections are important, but in the end there has to be a pronouncement from someone of much greater weight – the military high command, or generals, to defect as well?
More international pressure is needed.
It is necessary that the international community, the governments of Latin America and the European Union, press for change.
And what is pressure? More sanctions?
Personal sanctions against members of the regime responsible for crimes against humanity and acts of corruption; that the investigation of the International Criminal Court be promoted. Let it be known that this is serious.
And, at the same time, on the one hand the pressure that is rendered through the sanctions, the Criminal Court and all these diplomatic actions; on the other, continue to promote reconciliation and amnesty. So that you can channel the force towards a path, which is that of the transition.
Either they put themselves on the side of democracy and freedom and respect for human rights or they must confront international justice. And in that case the support of the world is fundamental.
For me, the word “sanction” is odious. We have had more than two years of sanctions after sanctions. You have the top leadership in Venezuela sanctioned, civil and military, and change has not occurred. And at the same time you tell me about the International Criminal Court, and this process takes a long time. You know that the time frame of the Court, those of diplomacy, is not the time frame of Venezuela. Isn’t it necessary, when you speak of pressure, to speak of something else? Something more forceful?
I feel that there are still many things that can be done. For example: there are very few sanctions that have been issued by Latin American governments compared to the United States or Europe. I think there’s a lot that can be done there. And sanctions not only as punishment for those responsible for crimes, but also as a necessary action to dismantle that great transnational criminal empire that represents the Venezuelan tyranny.
For example: in Europe and Latin America there are important logistic and financial operators within the regime and its criminal structure. They are people that you have to identify and neutralize legally and politically.
And, without a doubt, Juan Guaidó has a great challenge in terms of how to handle the support within the Armed Forces that is growing in his favor. You have to command. Command the Armed Forces and do it clearly and quickly.
Assume full responsibility as Commander-in-Chief of the National Armed Forces?
Assume the command. Clearly! Give orders. Assume and command. Indicate to the Armed Forces that today support him, what their responsibilities are.
There are those who have suggested that Juan Guaidó must begin to appoint a new military high command. Do you agree with that?
I think so. Juan Guaidó must govern. He must appoint government authorities, including the Armed Forces.
What happens then, Lorent, if the military, of the high command, never turns on Maduro? To think that the military must solve the problem, to leave it to them, don’t you think this is placing too much faith in some individuals who have already shown which side they are on?
The military must return to the barracks. I think that part of the transition is to make Venezuela a country of civilians. Political power resides in the hands of civilians, and the Armed Forces should occupy their natural and relevant space, which is caring for national sovereignty.
I believe that the Armed Forces and the police forces are going to have a lot of work to do dismantling the criminal gangs in Venezuela – and the terrorist groups – they have other responsibilities beyond getting into politics. The policy must be made by politicians; trained politicians who can lay out a roadmap based in the morality and ethics of their actions. And the Armed Forces have to do their job. And they have a lot of work ahead of them.
And I believe that to the extent that we give due credit to the Armed Forces, in the space that corresponds to them, and the Armed Forces are vindicated by the country, and go from being the villains to the heroes, Venezuela will advance.
But, again, what happens if that does not happen? Because today we continue to place the hope that the Armed Forces, the high command, will defect. And that means leaving the ball in the opponent’s court, waiting for an own goal. It means leaving everything to an alien entity, to come and solve the problems. It is not assuming an agenda of your own. What happens if the military never turns?
Well, we will never stop fighting.
That is to say: it has been a game of power. They will not give you that power. You have to take it. You defeat them. And the political struggle is, among other things, recuperating the spaces of power. And the military will assume roles in healthcare, the economy, and education, and go back the barracks. Well, you have to get them there.
What happens if that does not happen? It has to happen! And that is our job. If we achieve it in a year, in two, or ten, I do not know. But I do know that we can not give up that job of making Venezuela a nation of civilians.
But Lorent, people can’t wait even a year. There are no alternatives?
The alternative is to fight. The other is, what? Kill him? We can not kill him.
Do we agree that the only way these guys are going to leave is by force? Or internally, that people come from the inside and tell them “up to here”, or by an external force.
Look, it’s just a perception well driven by the regime, but that’s a perception: the percentage of hard-core Chavistas is very low, not to mention that almost none of them would be willing to give their lives to defend Nicolás Maduro or Diosdado [Cabello].
So, fortunately here there is no fundamentalist, ideological, or philosophical struggle.
This is not the Middle East.
Neither religious nor anthropological nor anything.
This is not going to lead to a civil war
That’s right! This is a money issue. And the saying says it clearly: “Love with hunger does not last.” Run or hide. Either they flee and leave everything or they settle in – and by this I mean they put themselves on the side of the transition.
Strength and pressure is necessary, but in the end, in the end, everything will be resolved in a negotiation. In a negotiation
Agreed. Negotiating with those who really need to talk.
And the negotiation is not what we are going to do with Maduro – because that is already known: Nicolás Maduro must be out of power, period. What we need to do is generate the conditions, politically, from the hand of the international community and the internal political forces, so that the military can free us from Maduro and allow the change.
Because not only the will of the military is needed, but also the political conditions for it to happen. Now, what if people are not willing to put up with it? I believe that people, whether they want to or not, are going to put up with it.
Should it be fast? Of course! Does each minute count? Every minute counts! But the world is not going to end tomorrow because Maduro does not hand over power tomorrow. You understand me? And there are no last opportunities either.
But isn’t there a way to end this quickly? Today it was said that, in the event that Juan Guaidó was arrested, the Congress would be willing to activate the article that authorizes a foreign mission in Venezuela.
You have to discuss what it means to end this. Obviously, the United States could authorize a bombing of Miraflores and, at that moment, put an end to Maduro. Now, that would be to end Maduro, but not necessarily end the problem or change the system. Remember that this is about changing the system, beyond getting Maduro out of power. And that is what is already happening. There is a shift of power.
Ok, it’s true that merely getting Maduro out of power, not everything will be immediately resolved; but with Maduro, Jorge and Delcy Rodríguez, Diosdado, Padrino, etc; take out that group. There you leave a void that will be naturally filled by the government of Juan Guaidó. Don’t you think that an intervention will solve the problem?
What happens is that an external military intervention is the sign of the failure of politics. That is to say: “Politically, we failed you. Come on in, military.”
But haven’t politics failed? When they kill people in the streets, when they burn trucks with supplies, is it no longer the failure of the legal and the political? The evidence that now there is only room for force?
Sure, but there are always alternatives. There is always going to be an alternative to war. It’s called politics. And I am a human rights activist, I must speak as a human rights activist. If this interview were with a normal Venezuelan citizen, surely he would be telling you: “We need a US military intervention to put an end to these bandits and to take everyone to Guantánamo.”
Lorent, but tell me, as a citizen…
As a human rights activist I must always defend life. But also, as an activist and, let’s say, someone who has worked in foreign policy regarding Venezuela, I know that there are still many things that can be done. And military intervention ends up being an excuse for many who can do and do not want to do. Do you understand me?
For example, if there are governments that do not want to sanction or freeze accounts or prohibit the entry of officials responsible for crimes against humanity, we can not expect that same country to send soldiers to Venezuela.
So that’s why I say to more radical sectors: “You do not need ships or frigates but telephones with political will.” I say that phrase to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, the chancellor. Because in the meeting I had with him, the first thing he tells me is that he does not agree with a military intervention. I say OK, but there are many things that Spain can do that it has not done. For example: Spain has not supported the investigation in the International Criminal Court.
Where am I going with this? There are many alternatives which we can look at, there are many instruments that are there, where you don’t have to invent them but that they are already created, and they can give you notoriety.
But if the decision is a military intervention, that will overthrow the Maduro regime, well…Fortunately, it is not my decision. It’s not in my hands.
But you wouldn’t condemn it?
No, well, it’s not my decision. I will ensure respect for human rights. I will ensure respect for life.
Now, Lorent, you’re right: there are many governments that have stayed the course on the rhetoric but have not taken action. And here in Latin America we have seen: Governments that have proven to be strong allies but have not done anything else. But, now that you are referring to instruments, there is also an instrument, also endorsed by the United Nations: the Responsibility to Protect. An alternative that is there and that also forces the nations to make a decision. What do you think about this principle?
Look: in fact, at the meeting of the Lima Group, I stated that it was necessary to take into account the use of force. And I do believe that the governments of the world can not sit idly by in front of criminal groups that burn medicines that would have saved the lives of thousands of people.
So, I do believe that countries, if necessary, must use force to prevent people from being killed, to continue carrying out extermination. Because that is what is happening in Venezuela.
When you control basic and elemental supplies for human survival; and you control them to reduce the population, make it sick, weaken it… That’s an extermination. I believe that against this the international community can not remain silent with its arms crossed. And if countries have to use force, to guarantee life, then use it.
What I do not agree with is saying they say they are going to use it, and then not using it. Which has happened, right? If you are going to use it, use it. They should not merely threaten because then those who assume the consequences of that threat are not the governments but the people.
What do you think about the fact that the Lima Group included in its last communiqué a point of making it clear that the use of force was off the table?
I think it was a mistake. I think it was too early to say that. But of course, they are sovereign decisions made by each government. I’m not happy with that.
And what happened there? The Venezuelan delegation, somehow, was not working to oppose that? Did they have any responsibility in it?
I think that maybe we focus a lot on the 22nd and the 23rd and not on the 24th of February and the following days. That was the fear, that we would only focus on that date, and not on the work to come.
Why was that point included in the statement?
I think it was a response from the governments of the Lima Group to the rhetoric of the international left and to the manipulation by many who try to give Nicolás Maduro breathing room. They use the rhetoric of war and the American invasion. And I think that the Lima Group wanted to respond with to that with a denial of the use of force. And I think it was a bad way to respond to them.
Fortunately, the United States has been very clear in pointing out that this was the Lima Group and that they are independent. Now, if the United States were to apply force to depose Maduro, what do you think the reaction of the Lima Group would be? Would they come out against it?
I don’t know. The United Nations took a stand on Iraq, yet the United States took action. I believe that the countries of the Lima Group – and I know that Costa Rica has an anti-military nature and tradition, and that it will continue to maintain it; I think that the governments of the Lima Group, apart from Costa Rica, have suffered a lot of social and political burden due to the Venezuelan crisis, so they know very well the need for this to be resolved – and resolved soon.
Although in a diplomatic sense they want to take care of themselves, look after their own well-being, and discard the use of force, I believe that internally, they are clear, and they understand that there are not many alternatives and that the use of force will surely be inevitable.
Lorent, changing the subject for a moment, we learned that they recently tried to detain you here in Cúcuta. What really happened?
There was a new attempt to capture me. They tried to kidnap and deliver me to Nicolás Maduro again. That was in the middle of a meeting I was holding with a Colombian intelligence official. We were already working on the issue of the military, that if they were going to ignore Nicolás Maduro and we needed to give them a guarantee that the Colombian government would respect their rights.
For discussing that, with the Colombian Foreign Minister, a meeting was agreed to with intelligence, in the city of Cúcuta. After two meetings the intelligence person was very nervous. We do not know who he was answering to. And this intelligence person ordered the police to stop me and deliver me to the border. Fortunately, this was quickly communicated to the government of Colombia, the chancellor, the vice president, and the Congress; and they managed to stop this.
It was unfortunate, but it was again demonstrated that in Colombia I am in a lot of danger. And that is typical of human rights activists. Those of us who have decided to defend human rights have always been uncomfortable with power, wherever we are.
The government of Colombia has apologized for the incident. Similarly, we formally requested, before the Attorney General’s Office, a thorough investigation into what motivated this intelligence officer to try to hand me over to the Venezuelan authorities – despite the fact that I have protection from the Spanish Government and that my situation in the matter is clear.
In the same way, we are filing a criminal complaint before the Supreme Court of Justice against Gustavo Petro and several senators, who promoted a campaign of defamation and slander, saying that I was arrested in a state of intoxication. That I was under the influence of drugs and that I had been trying to abuse women. All this is absolutely false, they have not been able to prove it and the same police denied it. That is why we are filing lawsuits before the Supreme Court for these people to answer for the slander and insults against me.
How do you know that the intention was to turn you over, again, to the regime of Nicolás Maduro?
Because they took me in a patrol car, they beat me up, and the patrol was intercepted by senators just fifty meters from the border.
You were close…
I was already there. Exactly in the same place where they turned me over in 2014.
Do not you know if on the other side there were already people waiting for you?
We do not know.
That would have been a terrible scandal for Duque’s government.
Very serious, very serious. And that’s why the government was suddenly on high alert.
Now, why did he do it? I do not know.
There are several things to consider: on the one hand there are officials responsible for the state crime that was committed against me in 2014 – and surely they are still within the structure of the Colombian state. We also know that the Nicolás Maduro regime has infiltrated many Latin American government institutions and the Colombian government has not avoided that.
Are you afraid to walk in Colombia?
Well, I’m always going to take risks. I repeat: when you decide to defend human rights, you will always take risks. Because the human rights activist threatens the prevailing power. And when one decides to defend human rights one must, beyond friendships or not, seek truth and justice.
Do you still have powerful enemies here?
Yes of course. Drug trafficking groups, guerrillas. These are powerful enemies.
And in the government?
I do not know to what extent they continue to have influence in the government.
Why do you think Juan Manuel Santos gave you up in 2014?
Because he needed the support of Nicolás Maduro in the peace agreement.
Was it a pact between both governments?
Yes. They let him know.
Are you sure about that?
Completely. I think it’s obvious. The facts have suggested it.
Was it a crime to have turned you over?
It was a kidnapping. It was classified as such by the UN and the arbitrary detention group of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The IACHR qualifies it that way, the law thus qualifies it as such. It was a state crime.
I mean, is Santos a criminal?
And should he pay for it?
Who do you hold responsible, here in Colombia, for what happened to you?
Mainly President Santos, the Foreign Ministry, and to the security forces that complied with this arbitrary and illegal order.
And who do you thank?
The Colombian people who during these years were always supportive, attentive to my family, denouncing what happened, and publicizing what happened with me. I am very fond of the Colombian people. I am very fond of this country and, regardless of the decisions that a political leadership may have taken, the people of Colombia have filled me with love and affection. And I will always honor that.
And have you forgiven, Lorent?
I must do it to be free.
At what point did you find out that Juan Manuel Santos had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
I was in prison. And that same year that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to me, they gave me the Sakharov. What the Nobel wanted to cover the Sakharov made visible.
And how did you feel when you learned about the Nobel?
That they have awarded him the Nobel Prize should not surprise us because in politics there are things that do not always conform to common sense.
Didn’t it hurt you? Wasn’t it a huge moral blow?
I expected it, I expected it.
What happened was that the personal project of Juan Manuel Santos, among other things, was to have that Nobel Peace Prize at whatever price. Although it would clash with the interests of a democratic Venezuela. Then, Juan Manuel Santos pursued this Nobel, although in his wake, he left a trail of suffering, pain, and tragedy.
But I trust in God. I trust the times. They could have given him a Nobel Peace Prize but I think his career was sputtering out. It was marked, not only by what he did to me, but what he did to Gabriel Vallés, to Fernando Balda. What he did to several Latin American activists.
But he’s in Boston, at Harvard, teaching, pontificating…
But I can hold my head up high, and he can not.
Would you like to see him imprisoned?
No. It’s no use him being imprisoned if you do not recognize what you did. It is not that he is in prison or not but that he recognizes that what he did was wrong and that it can not be done again, neither in Colombia nor in any country in the world. And I mean handing over a persecuted human rights activist to be tortured.
And they wanted to finish me off. Because if it had not been for the video that they recorded, they would have disappeared me. That saved my life.
Clearly! That’s why the Colombian intelligence and migration made it impossible for me to communicate with anyone.
They were going to kill you?
Of course, because there was no record, there was supposed to be no proof that I had been handed over to SEBIN.
And Juan Manuel Santos would have been an accomplice to murder.
Yes, or maybe nobody would have ever known.
Notice that that’s why there was never a legal or administrative procedure or anything. They did not let me talk to my lawyers or my family.
What they did not count on was that the information that I was landing in Cúcuta was going to leak, and that my friends were going to arrive and record, on the bridge, the moment of my delivery.
Incredible. Lorent, how do you imagine the end of Chavismo?
As we are seeing it. A rebellion, a weariness. They are becoming past and cobweb. And that is what is happening right now.
And what would you like to see happen to those who tortured you? Who were behind that crime?
I want to see them understand the need to respect human dignity. Be aware of it.
Where they have to be. That decision will be made by a judge. It is enough for me to have in your heart and in your conscience that human dignity must be respected. And that we all deserve respect and dignity.
Lorent, for you, what is the most valuable thing?
Family. It is the most valuable thing there is.