In Venezuela, political prisoners a growth industry

The NY Times published an opinion piece today which highlights the growing practice of using the nation’s justice system to control enemies of the socialist government. This is not new behavior and was also seen under the rule of socialist strongman Hugo Chavez, but the practice has taken off under his successor Nicolás Maduro. From the NY Times:

Political arrests are a rare growth industry in Venezuela. When Nicolás Maduro became president after Hugo Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013, there were about a dozen prisoners of conscience, according to Foro Penal, a local nongovernmental organization. Today, the number hovers at around 100, and some 2,000 people are the subject of politically driven judicial prosecutions.

The government’s latest targets are Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel, two civil servants working in a mayor’s office who were summarily arrested at a highway checkpoint in a remote area of northern Venezuela on June 19. Along with hundreds of other activists, they were traveling that day to help collect signatures to petition for a referendum to remove Mr. Maduro from office…

The recall referendum is aimed at removing President Maduro from office, a legitimate political activity protected by the Venezuelan constitution. But Maduro has been working the system to discourage the opposition and to lend credence to his claims about a U.S. led attempt to bring down his government.

In Mr. Maduro’s more heavy-handed and more paranoid understanding of the Socialist revolution, political arrests are no longer just a mechanism for party discipline. They have become a tactical tool for controlling the national conversation. Acting through pliant prosecutors, judges and the secret police, the Maduro administration has used arrests to feed conspiratorial narratives about plots to overthrow the president, sow discord among opposition factions and, more recently, as bargaining chips.

The arrests of Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel in particular may have been intended to give the socialist government a bargaining chip in ongoing discussions with the United States. One of the features of those discussions are requests for prisoner releases by both sides. Last November the U.S. took custody of two nephews of Venezeula’s First Lady on drug charges. The NY Times reported:

Two nephews of the wife of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela were arrested this week in Haiti and flown to the United States where they will face drug trafficking charges, according to a person with knowledge of the matter…

The two men, Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, are nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Mr. Maduro, the person with knowledge of the matter said. Mr. Maduro, a leftist, calls Ms. Flores the country’s “first combatant” rather than its first lady. Ms. Flores is one of the most powerful people in the upper echelons of government and is frequently seen at her husband’s side.

So if the “first combatant” wants her nephews released she needs bodies to trade. As the Times’ piece concludes, “When it barters political prisoners for its own gain, the Venezuelan government is, in effect, turning them into hostages.”