Tomorrow, opposition leader María Corina Machado will go to the National Prosecutor’s Office to be indicted as an alleged conspirator in a plot to assassinate the President. Hefty charges that, if proven, carry the maximum penalty of 28 years in prison. In any other country, the “if proven” part of this sentence would be the most important. In Venezuela, proof is completely irrelevant.
Writing this piece was daunting, not because information is missing, but because it has become increasingly difficult to make sense of it. Political persecution in Maduro’s Venezuela is difficult to describe, and that’s exactly the way the government wants it.
Take the build-up to tomorrow’s summons. Many will remember the asinine press conference, broadcast on national television last June, when the “High Command of the Bolivarian Revolution” unveiled a ludicrous Presidential assassination plot based on bogus emails linked with construction paper arrows. Late-night TV host Luis Chataing paid dearly with his job for this much more illustrative recounting of the story.
Back in June, María Corina was subpoenaed as a star witness to this conspiracy, and summoned to the National Prosecutor´s offices for a deposition. What followed were weeks of State-sponsored intimidation tactics joined by a veritable circus of speculation that she would be arrested on site, accompanied by an equally impressive outpouring of high-level international support.
María Corina spent 8 hours in the judge’s chambers, and left the interview without having been asked even a single question regarding an assassination plot of any sort. Google certified the emails as forgeries. The ousted Diputada went back to her daily business of organizing civil society through town-hall meetings and building a coalition in support of the National Citizen’s Congress.
And just like that, the voraciously over-publicized story of an alleged President-Killer-Who-Threatens-To-End-The-Bolivarian-Revolution-And-Ruin-Venezuela-Forever … receded into obscurity, never to be mentioned again.
Fast-forward five months. On the morning of November 26th, María Corina demanded the resignation of the National Electoral Council directors who are open chavista loyalists, and who are bidding for renewed appointments to their office. Hours later, agents of the state security police (SEBIN) showed up at her private home, and served her a summons to appear before the National Prosecutor, except not as a witness, but as an indicted suspect in the same far-fetched assassination plot.
This latest attack on Machado is the latest in a long list of targeted and systematic harassment. She was accused of terrorism for whistleblowing the government’s negligence in the Amuay refinery explosion of 2012. She was kicked in the face by a chavista colleague during a parliamentary session last year. She was stripped of her legislative seat for denouncing human rights violations before the OAS in March. She has been barred from leaving the country for never-quite-specified reasons. And now, she’s being charged with conspiring to assassinate Maduro in the absence of minimally credible evidence.
Needless to say, the due process violations are too many to count. And the accusations get less credible with each notch on the belt.
So, why is the government doing this? What can it gain from these obviously egregious affronts to constitutional order, and, in the case of María Corina, from victimizing an internationally recognized figure whose groundless detention will surely rouse an onslaught of regional condemnation?
Well, for one, it succeeds in generating “persecution fatigue.”
The strategy is to chip away at the morale of dissidents, who grow weary after each crisis results in an “anticlimactic” outcome. It would be the authoritarian version of “crying wolf,” except in this case, the alarm is not false: it achieves its objective of rendering oppression commonplace.
Secondly, this persistent game of carefully parceled repression gives the regime a laboratory of sorts, to test the limits of publicly acceptable impunity.
With each new human rights violation – cases like the murder of Bassil Da Costa and Robert Redman by State police, the ousting of several Members of Parliament from elected office, the jailing of Leopoldo López and two elected mayors, the political imprisonment of Jugde Afiuni and Simonovis – all the other ones fade distantly into a muddled notion of “qué bolas este gobierno.”
Maduro’s government sucks at governing. But it gets away with cloaking its dictatorial practices behind a guise of shoddy administration because it understands timing, and thrives on hyperbole. It operates in the realm of the sporadic and the absurd just enough to make their next desperate move completely undecipherable.
Much in the same way that the Venezuelan regime has mastered the art of rationing basic staples just enough as to elicit a tolerable resignation from its people, so has it mastered the art of rationing political persecution to remain thiiiiiiiis bit shy of becoming a dictatorship in the eyes of the international community. All year they’ve been cautiously dialling up cruel repression: obvious enough to send a message to those who dare to openly dissent, yet comfortingly spaced out for those who conveniently need to see it as legitimate.
Maduro’s go-to response to mounting discontent has been repression. Repression was his answer to this year´s nationwide protest movement. Repression and torture allowed him time to devise a strategy to face a growing governance crisis. Repression was duly silenced with petro-bought complicity and costly, Security Council-worthy lobbyists. Repression was a messy means to a submissive end. Repression did the job.
But what worries me about this latest iteration of that strategy is that María Corina’s summons have received almost no attention in the state propaganda apparatus. Diosdado didn’t even mention it during his must-watch weekly political persecution TV show. It’s a far cry from last June’s Magnicidepalooza.
So if its not a PR tactic to distract from our deteriorating quality of life, or to further silence dissidence, then it has to be personal. The government wants to neutralize María Corina Machado.
Except they already have. She is currently barred from leaving the country, and a ban from political office is just a signature away. Why go through the dirty business of jailing her when you can elegantly write her off with half the political cost?
María Corina is a polarizing figure, even within the opposition. Say about her what you will, it is undeniable that the government sees her as a threat. They would not go through the motions of detaining her if this were not the case.
The fact that they do it in a deliberately haphazard, purposefully incredible way, does not detract from the seriousness of what she, and all Venezuelans are facing. In fact, it only underscores the point further: we live in a dictatorship, and it will stop at nothing to convince you that we don’t.