The Coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of just how important our personal and constitutional liberties are, and how essentially easy it is to take them away – or at least dwindle and restrict them. Without freedom of speech and the right to assemble, people feel (and essentially are) powerless against their governments. Venezuelans have been suffering through starvation, giving up their firearms, civil unrest, revolutions, and now being arrested for hate crimes simply for expressing disagreement about the country’s rulers.
In 2017, Venezuela’s Law Against Hate passed, but it wasn’t enforced too often until this year. In a horrifying display of what can happen when government officials censor the people, offenders have been taken from their homes, sometimes at gunpoint, and put into jail cells for days, weeks, and even months.
Belisario v. Urbaneja
Giovanni Urbaneja, 54, is a former lawmaker who has been very vocal in his criticism against a party mayor, Francisco Belisario, and President Nicolás Maduro. He and Belisario have had many clashes, including one last year when Urbaneja was discussing the public health system at a private local radio station. While on air, he claimed Belisario had not addressed the recent malaria outbreak. Within minutes, a “local councilman and ally of Belisario burst into the studio and punched Urbaneja repeatedly, yelling that he was tired of the criticism,” Reuters reported. He was beaten to the point of unconsciousness and then reported the assault to the state prosecutor, Jairo Gil. The councilman was never charged.
Belisario, 70, who serves as a powerful mayor as well as a retired general and a member of the ruling Socialist Party, sought to put an end to what he considered a “ferocious smear campaign.” He beseeched the prosecutor, Gil, via a letter in August to charge Urbaneja with hate crimes, saying the former lawmaker not only insulted him and the president but also violated Venezuela’s Law Against Hate, which makes it a criminal act to “incite hatred.”
According to Reuters, just a few days later, “several dozen masked officers raided Urbaneja’s home and took him at gunpoint for a ‘chat.’” As of Dec. 14, Urbaneja remains in jail, still waiting for formal charges and a trial. In a letter to his attorney, he said the guards were keeping him “totally isolated” to “keep him from becoming a bad influence” and that the guards “prevent him from speaking with other inmates.” Legal experts say the detention is illegal since suspects can not be held longer than 45 days without being formally charged with a crime. Urbaneja said his arrest is because of “desperation among officials concerned by corruption. They are trying to silence my voice.”
This is not an isolated incident. Reuters investigated 43 recent hate-law arrests and found that “in each case, authorities intervened against Venezuelans who had criticized Maduro, other ruling party officials or their allies.” The report continued:
“In most of the 43 cases examined by Reuters, police or intelligence agents seized suspects on false premises, claiming they wanted to discuss unrelated issues. And lawyers, spouses and relatives of those arrested typically said they went days or weeks unable to contact detainees, with little or no documentation from police or prosecutors.”
Urbaneja’s wife said it took two months before she was able to see him.
The hate law is being used to highly censor social media and anything that may make President Maduro not shine in the brightest light. As Reuters explained:
“The crackdown is low-tech. Targets are identified not by tracking software or other technology, but by loyalists and government technicians who point out disagreeable social media posts or text messages to prosecutors. Still, the effort is quashing discussion online and in messaging platforms that until recently were safe venues for Maduro critics.”
If convicted of breaking the hate law, the penalty could see the perpetrator behind bars for up to 20 years – in contrast, some murder convictions are only 18 years.
Coming to American Shores?
More often than not, Americans tend to see or hear happenings in other parts of the world with little concern because that is something that happens elsewhere, not in the free United States. That would never happen here, Americans would not allow it, right? But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are not as immune to government control and censorship as we thought.
Is Venezuela a vision of what Americans may face? The similarities are astounding. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even Instagram have been silencing the conservative voice for a while. If you’re naughty, you only get put into Facebook jail, but how long before Maduro’s edits are copycatted here?
Read more from Kelli Ballard.