UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet presented a damning report on atrocities carried out by the Venezuelan government, as thousands marched through Caracas on Independence Day demanding an end to President Nicolás Maduro's rule.
Ms Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday that the Maduro regime was guilty of "arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, killings and enforced disappearance" as well as a cover-up of the crimes.
"As our report makes clear, essential institutions and the rule of law in Venezuela have been profoundly eroded," she said.
The report said the number of apparent extrajudicial killings in Venezuela was “shockingly high”. By the government’s own admission, nearly 5,300 people were killed in 2018 for “resistance to authority” and more than 1,500 more in the first five months of this year. “Other sources suggest the figures may be much higher,” the report noted.
Ms Bachelet, the former socialist president of Chile, visited Venezuela last month, meeting Mr Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó as well as members of civil society, business leaders and the church. Her report was based on more than 500 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations.
It also examined the health system in Venezuela, describing it as “dire, with hospitals lacking staff, supplies, medicines and electricity to keep vital machinery running”.
“We should all be able to agree that all Venezuelans deserve a better life, free from fear and with access to adequate food, water, healthcare, housing and all other basic human needs,” Ms Bachelet said.
The Maduro government condemned the report as biased, saying the UN had relied on “sources lacking in objectivity” and had presented a “selective and openly partial vision” of the nation. The president says his security forces are trying to maintain law and order in the face of violent attempts to removed him from power.
As the report was presented, thousands of Venezuelans marked the 208th anniversary of the declaration of independence from Spanish rule by marching through Caracas demanding an end to Mr Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government.
“I’m here for the freedom of Venezuela, for democracy and to show my support for interim president Guaidó,” said 57-year old Juan Pérez as he marched with a throng of people waving banners and red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags. “The Bachelet report represents Venezuelan reality.”
Across town, the government marked the day with a military parade and in the building housing the Constituent Assembly – an alternative parliament set up by Mr Maduro in 2017 to bypass Congress and cement his rule – an admiral in chief from the armed forces made a combative speech condemning US-led “imperialism”.
July 5th is traditionally the day on which the president announces promotions and appointments in the armed forces, which have been key to ensuring he remains in power.
Caracas Chronicles, a local opposition-friendly online media outlet, recently quoted an unnamed source saying that the commander of the army, Gen Jesús Suárez Chourio, would be replaced by someone "that's committed to an iron-fist control of the army and will not hesitate to deploy them against civilians".
Venezuela has been in political turmoil since the start of the year when Mr Guaidó, the president of the opposition-controlled Congress, declared himself interim president. He did so, he said, on the basis of the constitution, arguing that Mr Maduro won power in bogus elections last year and was an illegitimate leader.
Mr Guaidó has the backing of the US and most of Europe and Latin America but despite months of campaigning has failed to dislodge Mr Maduro, who retains the support of Russia and China.
Venezuela is in the throes of a severe economic crisis. The economy has halved in size since Mr Maduro assumed power in 2013 and the country is gripped by hyperinflation. Oil exports – the only notable source of legal foreign income – have crashed to their lowest level since the 1940s.
Mr Maduro blames this on a US-led “economic war” and US sanctions.
The Bachelet report noted that “Venezuela was in crisis well before any sectoral sanctions were imposed” although it also acknowledged that “the latest economic sanctions linked to oil exports are further exacerbating the effects of the crisis.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019