The former presidents of Chile, Mexico and Colombia — Sebastián Piñera, Felipe Calderón, and Andrés Pastrana respectively — took to the stage in Venezuela on Monday to discuss the risks facing democracy and human rights in the South American country, while President Nicolás Maduro accused them of terrorism.
The former heads of state spoke on January 26 as part of the Citizen Power and Democracy of Today forum, organized by politicians, students, and civil-society organizations opposed to the government. Piñera, Calderón, and Pastrana shared their impressions of a tight schedule of visits, designed to familiarize them with realities of the economic and democratic crisis confronting Venezuela.
The three had the chance to see the long lines outside stores with their own eyes and listen to journalists sharing the latest threats to a free press, although their plans to visit jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López were not to be.
Their visit was meanwhile strongly criticized by the Chavista government. On the previous Friday, Maduro told supporters at a rally that the former presidents were financed by drug trafficking and were seeking to back a coup d’etat in Venezuela.
In the citizen’s forum on Monday, however, Pastrana responded to the Venezuelan premier. “If he wants to be respected, he has to learn how to respect,” the former Colombian president (1992-2002) said. “We haven’t come to Venezuela to support any coup d’etat. Nor are we supported by dirty money. We came here invited by democrats.”
No Guests for Leopoldo
On Sunday, Pastrana and Piñera attempted to visit opposition leader Leopoldo López of the Popular Will Party, imprisoned in the Ramo Verde military facility for the past 11 months. After half an hour of remonstration with Venezuelan Vice-President Jorge Arreaza, however, they were turned away.
As the former presidents journeyed to Ramo Verde, dozens of people protested their attempted visit in the nearby city of Los Teques. Carrying placards bearing the image of late President Hugo Chávez, demonstrators shouted insults and hammered on the vans carrying the visitors.
Then, after returning from their failed visit, the three reunited at Caracas’s Plaza Venezuela to observe the line of people waiting to buy food from government store Bicentenario. Pastrana published a photo on his Twitter account of the growing line.
— Andrés Pastrana A (@AndresPastrana_) January 25, 2015
The former presidents subsequently met with representatives from the media and broadcasters who related multiple instances of state censorship, intimidation, and self-censorship related to their work. Among them were managing editor of El Nacional Miguel Henrique Otero, journalist Tamoa Calzadilla, presenter and broadcaster Luis Chataing, and representatives from Venezuelan newspapers Tal Cual and Correo del Caroní.
They also spoke with the families of victims during repression towards anti-government protests that began in February 2014, members of human-rights organizations, lawyers of imprisoned students, and relatives of political prisoners.
Backing Freedom in Venezuela
During the Citizen Power forum the trio exchanged their thoughts on liberty, totalitarianism, and human rights, criticizing the isolation that the Venezuelan government keeps political prisoners in. “I want to request freedom for Leopoldo López,” said Pastrana. “He’s a political prisoner, and for them to not allow us entry to visit him only confirms it.”
Calderón also lamented the government’s refusal to allow López visits from his wife and children. “For a wife not to be able to see her imprisoned husband, for children to not be able to visit their father, this shouldn’t happen in any country in the world,” the former Mexican president (2006-2012) said.
Former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) meanwhile expressed solidarity with those Venezuelans who have been victim of censorship and mistreatment. “I prefer the noise of freedom of expression to the silence of the cemetery,” he said, reiterating the need for the international community to remain “alert and committed to what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Pastrana criticized the indifference of regional governments to the Venezuelan situation: “It falls to all non-Venezuelans to pull down the dividing walls that isolate the Venezuelan people.”
Conference organizers also read out a letter from former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, in which he expressed his solidarity with the country and support for freedom and democracy.
“I trust that Venezuelans will be able to recognize that the Chavista regime may have had, at its beginning, noble intentions, but its failure is beyond discussion.”
The former leaders agreed, nevertheless, that the defense of democracy lay in the hands of Venezuelans themselves, who were urged to pursue change through peaceful and non-violent means.
A Rival Chavista Conference
Across town in the Teatro Principal district of Caracas, the Maduro government offered its own international conference, entitled Neoliberalism and Human Rights: The Victims Speak.
Among the participants were Colombian activist Piedad Córdoba, Chilean student leader Camila Donato, and Uruguayan journalist Carlos Fazio.
Vice-President Jorge Arreaza made reference to the visit by the three former Latin-American presidents, indicating that they were denied access to the Ramo Verde prison because they hadn’t sought permission from the Foreign Ministry or any other state body.
Arreaza accused the opposition of promoting the visit by the former presidents in order to “make a spectacle.”
Elisa Vásquez contributed to this article. Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.