Thu. Aug 22nd, 2019

Venezuela’s Maduro Cracks Down on His Own Military in Bid to Retain Power

repeatedly declared their allegiance to the Maduro administration. But over the past two years, as the oil-rich economy crumbled and a majority of Venezuelans were left without sufficient food and medicine, factions within the security forces have staged at least five attempts to overthrow or assassinate the president.The government claims to have foiled at least…

Venezuela’s Maduro Cracks Down on His Own Military in Bid to Retain Power

repeatedly declared their allegiance to the Maduro administration. But over the past two years, as the oil-rich economy crumbled and a majority of Venezuelans were left without sufficient food and medicine, factions within the security forces have staged at least five attempts to overthrow or assassinate the president.

The government claims to have foiled at least a dozen more plots in that period, including a scheme in which Captain Acosta and five others under arrest were accused of participating.

The Venezuelan state media calls the stream of real and imagined threats “a continuous coup.” Mr. Maduro’s Socialist Party is resorting to this siege mentality to justify ubiquitous surveillance, arbitrary detentions and the torture of perceived enemies, including those inside Venezuela’s 160,000-strong armed forces, according to the United Nations, human rights advocates and victims’ families.

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CreditVenezuelan Presidential Palace

“The abuse of military officers has grown because they represent a real threat for Maduro’s government,” said Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, Venezuela’s former head of intelligence, who defected in April and spoke from the United States.

There are now 217 active and retired officers being held in Venezuelan jails, including 12 generals, according to the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, a Caracas-based nonprofit that represents several of the men.

The coalition has documented 250 cases of torture committed by Venezuelan security forces against military officers, their relatives and opposition activists since 2017. Many of the victims have spent years in jail without trial. Few have been convicted of crimes and most have not even been charged, according to the organization.

The weaker the government is, “the stronger is the torture against the people they consider dangerous,” said Ana Leonor Acosta, a lawyer with the coalition. Ms. Acosta is not related to Captain Acosta.

These abuses were brought to international attention last month, when Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights commissioner, published a scathing report that said the Venezuelan government subjected prisoners seen as political opponents to “electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures.”

Since Mr. Maduro took office, Venezuela has lost two-thirds of its gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. Conditions worsened after the Trump administration, angered over Mr. Maduro’s rhetoric and repressive tactics, backed the opposition and imposed sanctions that crippled the oil industry.

The United Nations estimates four million Venezuelans have fled the deteriorating conditions. While Mr. Maduro has sought to ensure the loyalty of the military’s top brass with promotions and lucrative contracts, middle- and lower-ranking officers and their families are increasingly affected by the crisis. That makes them restless.

“The hunger came to the barracks and the military ranks became infested with dissidence,” said Ms. Acosta, the lawyer. “The armed forces are gripped by paranoia, suspicion and division between those that support this government and those who don’t.”

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to detailed questions about torture allegations sent by The New York Times for this article. The attorney general’s office, which handles criminal and human rights investigations, declined to comment. In the past, the government has denied accusations of systematic torture, blaming specific cases on isolated excesses committed by rank-and-file agents.

In Captain Acosta’s case, the government detained the two low-ranking soldiers who signed his detention order. Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s governing party, said a government investigation found that the two soldiers had used excessive force when the captain resisted arrest.

“These are those responsible, but this is not a state policy,” Mr. Cabello

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