President Nicolás Maduro was recently sworn in for a new six-year term of office. No democratic country recognises him as the legitimate leader of the country, but that doesn’t stop the regime. The leaders in Venezuela have during the last year imprisoned opponents and cleansed social media from critical comments. PEN/Opp has spoken to the net activist Melanio Escobar in Caracas who refuses to be afraid of the regime.
TEXT: HENRIK BRANDÃO JÖNSSON TRANSLATION FROM SWEDISH: STEPHANIE GIESECKE JANUARY 22 2019
When the 32-year old Melanio Escobar last year tried to access the webpage El Pitazo he couldn’t get in. He got a message that the page couldn’t be found. He thought that something had gone wrong. The regime´s state owned Internet service provider CANTV has had the monopoly for the last four years. They provide the Internet signal, which in spite of being the weakest in Latin America, is the only way of accessing the Internet in this oil rich country. The connection worked when Melanio Escobar tried to access other webpages. That’s when he understood that the regime had blocked El Pitazo (elpitazo.com). He started investigating other pages and realised that the regime that abandoned democracy a few years ago has blocked 4000 pages in Venezuela.
“We’re living under a systematic censorship”he says.
Melanio Escobar lives in the district Parroquia La Vega in the poor and dangerous eastern part of Caracas where the pro-government mafia called Los Colectivos, the collectives, rages. They were set up by Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s after a Cuban model to spy on the neighbourhood. The spying was taken one step further and the members of the “district counsel” were chosen from the criminal environment fraternity. The collectives are today a lawless gang making a living from extortion, kidnapping and selling food on the black market. The regime allows the collectives to operate outside of the law in return for stopping the working classes joining the middle classes’ protests.
“Los Colectivos are a mafia that does whatever it wants”he says.
Melanio Escobar is the head of Redes Ayuda, an organisation for human rights. He also runs the radio station Humano Derecho Radio Estación and is one of Venezuela’s leading net activists. He monitors the regime’s censorship and how the regime handles social media.
“If someone posts that there are no medicines in a hospital and I comment something like ‘Maldito Maduro’ (bloody Maduro), it’ll only take minutes before one of the regime’s trolls on the payroll answers “You bloody US lackey”. He will then be supported by other trolls writing similar things. The original discussion about the lack of medicines has in minutes turned into something completely different.”
He thinks that the only way of criticising Maduro is through groups using WhatsApp where messages can be sent between the users.
“There are no critical newspapers any longer. They’ve all been bought and closed down.”
Even the conservative newspaper El Universal which for a long time was the most critical of the regime, has stopped doing journalism. Today the paper writes propaganda and many journalists have left to avoid being used by the regime. Those who have chosen to stay are forced to censor themselves. Another problem for accessing information is the quality of the state owned Internet provider.
“There are whole areas of Caracas without Internet access. The cables have been stolen and the state owned supplier doesn’t bother to replace them. The Internet is a threat to the regime. They don’t want everybody to have access to it.”
Society’s collapse in Venezuela affects everybody. Old people die prematurely from simple diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Infant mortality has according to the latest statistics, two years old, increased by 30 % and maternal mortality rates by 66 %. The numbers are probably higher now. The average Venezuelan has lost eleven kilos due lack of food. But the young are hit the hardest.
“There is no future for them. Those with rich parents try to take their university degrees before escaping the country. The poor don’t have this opportunity. There are no permanent jobs. The young get by on casual jobs or become criminal”says Melanio Escobar.
He himself has considered escaping the country many times, but has chosen to stay. He has a six-year old son and a 14-months old daughter. His wife doesn’t work and he supports the family by his job as head of the human rights organisation Redes Ayuda. He’s sometimes paid for lecturing abroad. He was in both France and Canada last year. He uses the fee from the lectures to buy medicine and food from the black market in Venezuela.
“I buy all sorts of things each time I go abroad. Nappies, medicine and clothes.”
His main criticism of the regime is that they are not elected.
“The government has created their own general assembly which has been authorised to bypass the elected parliament. This is completely unlawful, but the regime claims that it is democracy. Everybody in the general assembly is a member of Maduro’s party. No one else is allowed.”
One of the laws created by the general assembly is Ley contra el Odio, the law against hate.
“This law is completely arbitrary. There are 20 people on the committee that adjudicates the cases, they are not lawyers nor do they have legal training. They arbitrarily decide what is hate and what isn’t.”
Five people, two of them students, were imprisoned last year for criticising the regime. Their criticism of Maduro was considered to be hate.
“It’s forbidden to speak ill of Hugo Chávez and Maduro. This makes people frightened. Many censor themselves.”
Aren’t you frightened?
“I know that the regime may knock on my door at any time. But I’m not afraid even though I’m conscious of the risks I’m taking.”
I can hear his 14-months old daughter in the background.
“If something happens that forces us to escape, then we will flee. We can walk across the border to Colombia where we can stay. We can also go to Brazil.”
Last year’s presidential election was a political theatre that only enticed 20 % of the voters to the ballot boxes. No one from the opposition was allowed to take part, no international election observers were allowed to attend and the people was threatened with food shortages if they didn’t vote for Maduro. The only countries that accepted the result were countries who themselves have a problem with democracy, such as North Korea, Cuba, Turkey and Russia. The so called Lima Group that consists of 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries has called upon Maduro to transfer power to the elected parliament that wants to call for a new election where the opposition may take part and where international election observers can attend. Maduro doesn’t listen to them but continues to drive the oil rich Venezuela towards the abyss.
It’s not about politics to me any longer. The regime is made up by criminal men and women who have become billionaires on the back of people’s suffering. They have become rich from cocaine smuggling from Colombia to Europe and don’t even consider giving that up. They know that the day the regime falls they will be brought to justice. This means that the will continue their oppression till death.”
“I’m not in favour of war, but I think that if the USA, Colombia and Brazil started a military action, things could happen. Otherwise we’re just standing still and die a little every day.”
Henrik Brandão Jönsson is a Swedish journalist and writer, working as a correspondent in Latin America for Dagens Nyheter—Sweden’s and Scandinavia’s largest newspaper. He has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2002 and has written several books about Brazil.