Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue 28 - Evidence - Meeting of June 4, 2015


OTTAWA, Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 11:15 a.m. to examine such issues as may arise from time to time relating to foreign relations and international trade generally (topic: current situation in Venezuela).

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

[Editor's Note: All evidence from the witnesses was presented through a Spanish interpreter.]

The Chair: Honourable senators, welcome to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Today, under our general authorization, we are continuing to examine such issues as may arise from time to time relating to foreign relations and international trade.

Under this mandate, we have followed the issues in Venezuela recently, and today we are taking a look at the current political situation in Venezuela again. We were hoping to start this morning's hearing with the wives of three political prisoners in Venezuela, but we encountered technical difficulties and a failed video conference test that made it impossible this morning. We will continue to look into this issue.

That said, we are pleased that, on our second panel, we have by video conference and in the room some members who will give us perspectives on the current situation in Venezuela.

Before I proceed, we are working in three languages today. If you turn to zero on your console, that will be the floor language. Number one will be Spanish, number two will be English and number three will be French.

I hope the witnesses also understand the communication issues.

We are going to start with the witnesses before us in the following order: Dario Eduardo Ramirez Ramirez, Councilor of the municipality of Sucre, Miranda State, member of political party Popular Will. He is here by video conference. Also by video conference we have Tamara Suju Roa, Venezuelan lawyer, International Director of Foro Penal. Present with us here in the meeting room is Anna Alessandra Polga Cedeno, Venezuelan resident in Canada and a human rights activist.

Welcome to the committee. We ask you to make short opening statements, and the senators no doubt will have questions for you. We have limited time, as we have to go to another issue. Please make the opening statements brief, and I'll endeavour to have the senators be brief also so that we can get everyone in this morning.

I'll start with you, Mr. Ramirez.

Dario Eduardo Ramirez Ramirez, Councillor of the municipality of Sucre, Miranda State, member of political party Popular Will, as an individual: Good morning, first and foremost. Thank you for taking an interest in our country and in the situation that it is faced with. I would like to tell you what is going on in Venezuela and how human rights are violated in that country.

My name is Dario Eduardo Ramirez Ramirez, and I am a councilor of the municipality of Sucre. However, as it stands, I'm in Panama in exile. Elections are a pillar of democratic —

The Chair: If you could speak slower for the interpreters, that would be appreciated. Please proceed.

Mr. Ramirez: Democracy is more than a simple election, which is not enough on its own. It's just one step in a process. Human lives are much more important. Democracy is more than a vote. Of course, elections represent the will of the majority, and this majority must be heard and listened to. With elections, the majority can condemn or congratulate leaders for their work. Our society can work.

There have been over 20 elections in Venezuela over the past 16 years. Many people vote, but they trust the system and the electoral system less and less, and more and more people are being censored.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected thanks to a majority of electors who had had enough of traditional political parties, and then every year we have had elections for one reason or another. We have had referendums, consultations, councillor elections, member of parliament elections, mayoral elections, presidential elections, et cetera. These elections are now part of the everyday life of Venezuelans.

As time has worn on, this process has moved more towards the governing party. The opposition parties had a mere three minutes on daytime television every year, but the governing party had up to six hours a day. Of course, the opposition also suffered from violence and abuses, and certain polling centres have been victims of sabotage.

The people have risen up against the government and laws have been adopted to make this land less totalitarian and Communist. The president said the system had to be changed. This was new hope for a population that had already been shocked by corruption. This hope led the opposition parties to victories at the municipal and gubernatorial levels, and the opposition parties received more votes than the official governing party at the national level.

There were historic elections in 2012. After the elections, Mr. Chavez died and new elections were organized — new elections that were not independent or fair and brought Nicolas Maduro to the presidency.

Democracy was not, however, completely dead. There were elections in December of last year for mayors and city councillors. At these elections, many young people joined the political landscape. Some colleagues of mine were elected as mayors, and other young people were elected into public office throughout Venezuela.

I tell you all of this to give you a bit of historical context of the situation and to deny the lies of the regime. The regime is completely undemocratic. These last years, Maduro and his little henchmen have frustrated the will of the people and have organized unfair elections. Maria Corina Machado was elected as councillor with a record number of votes. She was therefore leader of the new assembly. However the Prime Minister decided to oust him and install his friend, a member of the governing party. Leopoldo Lopez then made a proposal. He said, "Let us find a demographic solution to the current situation, this current dead end.''

In March 2014, the answer was the imprisonment of Mr. Lopez, a unilateral decision struck by the Speaker of the assembly, Mr. Cabello. He decided to make an announcement in the media to repress the people once again. The courts were impotent and could do nothing.

A very popular mayor was arrested the day after the announcement was made because he simply did not respect the process. He was "destituted'' and thrown into jail.

Antonio Ledezma proposed a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis. He was elected Mayor of Caracas in 2008 and 2013. In February 2015, after one year of Mr. Lopez's imprisonment, in the national press there was an article where a transition towards democracy was proposed. This was signed by Machado, Lopez and Ledezma. The day after this, armed personnel launched an assault on the opposition headquarters and arrested the Mayor of Caracas. All this was because of an open letter.

Daniel Ceballos is a young leader from the Andes region. He was elected in 2008 in the state of Tachira, and in 2012 he was a candidate for Mayor of San Cristobal. He was elected mayor with over 50 per cent of all votes. In March 2014, he was invited to a meeting of mayors in Miraflores, and a few hours later, 15 armed members of the public service seized him in his hotel under the pretense that he had not respected a certain time limit of a few hours. He was thrown into prison and destituted from his position as mayor. His spouse ran for the next elections and won with 76 per cent of the vote, but her husband is still in the same prison as Mr. Lopez.

In May of 2015, Mr. Ceballos became a candidate for parliament. Given the security and economic crisis in Venezuela, there is only one escape route for the people's will — national assembly elections that had to happen this year and haven't been organized so far. This is a stark irregularity. The two people I mentioned, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ceballos, decided to go on a hunger strike until the electoral minister announces a final date for these elections. They are on the twelfth day.

The government's answer to this was even more repression and violence. Mr. Ceballos was sent to a prison where the other inmates are delinquents and murders. These prisoners and other Venezuelans are in solidarity with Mr. Ceballos. Political prisoners are tortured. No one can visit them and they can't communicate with their family.

On May 30, hundreds of thousands of people descended onto the streets of Venezuela and in over 25 cities around the world, including Canada, in order to support Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ceballos. They have requested dates for a parliamentary election, and they have demanded an end to repression and demanded respect for freedom and human rights.

Mere hours ago, the supreme court destituted mayors linked to the opposition parties of the country because they did not respect time limits. The socialists are now in power in those municipalities. However, the case is still open.

Venezuela is a transit point for drug traffickers, and now mayors are being accused of being part of the drug trafficking rings. Not only are they accused of being drug traffickers, but there is also violence against public servants at the municipal level. A member of the Popular Will party was followed, despite having a very transparent and productive mandate.

The government has not respected and recognized election results for years.

Today, Mr. Ceballos and Mr. Lopez are on hunger strike because they dared to ask for something as simple as election dates and elections that would be observed by international observers. We know that 80 per cent of Venezuelans want change. However, of course, the government does not want this be.

The Chair: Mr. Ramirez, I'd asked for short statements. We appreciate that you have more evidence and you can certainly file it, but I want to give an equal opportunity to the other panellists. So, if you have one final comment, please make it.

Mr. Ramirez: Yes, of course. I was just finishing.

There are prisoners on hunger strike in prison, as I said, and this is clear evidence against the Venezuelan government. There is no democracy in Venezuela. Canada has defended democracy and human rights. As you know, these elections are more important than simple elections. We ask the Canadian government to pressure the Venezuelan government to organize elections for a specific date so that most Venezuelans can go vote for a change of regime. Freedom must be defended and advocated every single day. We ask for your solidarity and support today, tomorrow and forever more.

Thank you.

The Chair: I'm going to give the same admonition that I want to give everyone a chance.

I will to turn to Ms. Roa now.

Tamara Suju Roa, Venezuelan lawyer, specialist in human rights, international director of Foro Penal, as an individual: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, honourable senators my name is Tamara Suju Roa, a Venezuelan lawyer, specializing in human rights, and International Director of Foro Penal. We advocate for victims of human rights violations.

From February 4, 2014 to May 31, 2015, 13,700 people have been arrested during protests, 370 of whom are minors under the age of 18, and 2,048 people are currently on criminal trial. They cannot benefit from freedom: They are not allowed to travel and they're not allowed to leave the country.

As of May 31, 2015, 31 remain imprisoned as a consequence of the protests of February 2014 and 46 people have hindrances imposed on their freedom because of their political ideas. A total of 77 people have been incarcerated for political reasons — 12 are students and 16 are women.

There are also people such as Ivan Simonovis, who has been in prison for nine years and is now under house arrest for his poor health condition. Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Caracas, has been in prison for conspiracy for quite some time. He is currently under house arrest after emergency surgery. These people have been duly elected.

Others such as Ines Gonzales and Victor Ugas, who have Twitter accounts, have also been imprisoned for complaints against the government.

These are all very intelligent people who took part in the aforementioned protests and who helped protesters.

As it stands, students have been arrested and been given these imprisonments. The right of defence has been flouted and it is now much more difficult to transmit information. The reasons for the incarceration of various prisoners are no longer communicated, among other things.

There are also civilian courts set up on military bases, so intelligence agencies are acting on behalf of the national executive and are not accountable to the Department of Justice. This led to the arbitrary detention of Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Caracas, who was detained without charges being laid before the courts.

There are some 138 cases of torture and cruel punishment. Amongst that type of torture, we have electrical shocks in at least 12 cases, sexual assaults and 8 cases of attempted rape. And there are other types of intimidation, such as 11 cases of asphyxiation with plastic bags over the face, and multiple fractures and trauma in 10 cases, including fractures of the cranium. There are cases where more than 10 victims have suffered permanent damage and, in fact, serious deformation, such as the loss of an eye.

There are different types of torture, such as anal rape, intent of anal rape with a hot screwdriver, and serious assault. There is lots of trauma and bruising, and three prisoners were burned with a hot screwdriver. In at least 9 cases, victims have complained that their hair was cut as punishment, including seven women and one minor.

Regarding prison conditions, in the last 14 years there has been cruel treatment against political prisoners on multiple occasions. Five of them — Ivan Simonovis, Lazaro Forero, Henry Vivas, Alejandro Peña and William Saub — have had house arrest during their imprisonment, and they suffered serious and terminal illnesses that were never treated.

Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was raped inside prison, physically threatened and assaulted, suffering injuries.

There are lots of cases of assault. Military intelligence has also threatened prisoners.

Last year we had a situation in one of the prisons called La Tumba, The Tomb, in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. It was also the site of SEBIN, the political police. It is an underground prison with five floors. In the first quarter of last year, a number of Venezuelans were subjected to what we call "white torture,'' which leaves behind no physical marks, but certainly leaves deep psychological ones. There is no protection for the youth detained there. Given the amount of time they have been incarcerated, they are suffering from different trauma. As an example, Gerardo Carrero was hung by his arms at the time of a hunger strike and hit with a wooden planks on his legs until he fainted. So far no investigations have been conducted with regard to this torture.

In another reclusion centre, Rodolfo Pedro Gonzales Martinez, age 64, committed suicide in March of this year from distress and anxiety regarding a potential transfer to a high-risk penitentiary.

Last year there were many victims of torture and cruel treatment, which has drawn the attention of Amnesty International. Even today there have been no investigations. Prisoners have suffered torture from cruel and inhumane treatment in different military regiment jails, and there is much danger for them in the jails where they are detained.

There have been assassinations as a consequence of torture: Geraldin Moreno, 21; Kluivert Roa, 14; beauty queen Genesis Carmona, 22; Bassil Da Costa, 24; and Jose Alejandro Marquez, 46. Some have been minors. There have been house arrests and some are in military jails, common jails, 17, and in municipal prison jails, 14. Those advocating for prisoners' rights are also being threatened and in some cases charged.

We have to deal with the public scrutiny of arbitrary detention. The lawyer who has been helping us was abducted in 2014 and spent 10 months in a common jail. Now he's under house arrest. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has tried to intervene on our behalf.

We have had a number of victims. The head of our communications has suffered physical injuries. There are human rights activists who have been defended by the OAS Human Rights Commission, such as Alfredo Romero, Director of Foro Penal. Lawyer Marcelo Crovato was imprisoned for defending students arrested in a February 2014 protest and tried to commit suicide due to his poor health and the inhumane prison conditions. Some have been given exile. For instance, I am currently in exile in the Czech Republic.

Venezuela is on the edge of a human crisis. The country is ranked second in the world in terms of the number of homicides. There is a shortage of food and medicine. It is a social crisis.

It is difficult to protest because those who publicly denounce the government suffer terrible distress and anxiety. The discourse of hate against the Venezuelan people doesn't stop. We are on the edge of anarchy, impossible to govern.

We are seeking the solidarity of the governments of the Americas. Parliamentarians, we call on you to be vigilant about what is happening and to help us find real and legal solutions to try to save the state of our nation.

Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you.

I will turn now to our final panelist, Anna Alessandra Polga Cedeno. Again, we have the time admonition.

Anna Alessandra Polga Cedeno, Venezuelan resident in Canada and human rights activist, as an individual: Good day.

First I would like to thank you for this opportunity to explain the current humanitarian, economic and political crisis we are experiencing in Venezuela. Most especially I would like to thank the honourable senator for her support for human rights in my country.

I would like to recognize Canada's support for Venezuela, as well as that of its ambassador at the UN and ambassador at the Organization of American States. Canada's vote has always been in support of freedom and democracy. We think that a large part of the international community has forgotten us. However, Canada is one of the few countries that has remained at our side. We would like to thank you for all of the statements made during the John Baird period as well as thank Rob Nicholson.

At this time we need action more than statements. Our people need it. Our political prisoners call for it. Our noble people do not know any other way than the democratic way. We don't have any other tools than the vote, and now there are no reasons for anybody to polarize us into two factions. We all have the same needs in Venezuela.

The governing party is supported by only 20 per cent popular support. Nicolás Maduro, the president, is at 9 per cent, which means that 90 per cent of the population considers that this government is not respecting its duties as per our constitution and should be destituted.

The next step will be elections in the national assembly so that we achieve some balance. This government has taken all the powers. There's no longer any separation of powers. The president of the republic makes announcements on the nation's media, and the national assembly and the supreme court follow those orders immediately, violating all of the processes stipulated in our constitution. The president has shown cruelty. He has complete control over the army, as well as the legislative and legal powers, so there is no democracy.

We have serious problems with our currency, which is dropping in value. One bolivar is the equivalent of 0.002 cents, and the average Venezuelan earns some $30 a month. Could a Canadian citizen live on that kind of salary?

International companies have a lot of problems dealing with four rates of exchange. Last year, Ford Motors closed after suffering significant losses of $800 million. Many transnationals have closed because they went bankrupt, and the few that remain are cutting back. There are few sources of employment, increasing the economic crisis of the average citizen.

There is the economic factor, but there are also the problems with disrespect for private property and the legal system.

Our assessment of the situation is that it is terrible. Many have abandoned our country and others are contemplating leaving. There are problems in the labour market and a lack of investment in the country.

The government controls the currency, and there is a lack of cash flow. We're dependent on oil revenues, and the price of oil has dropped significantly. This, combined with commitments with Belarus, China and the IMF, means that Venezuela will have to deal with its debt problem. Venezuela owes about $5 billion in debt payments, the first of which is due in October. It has to deal with its debt problem, and we consider it unlikely that the government can honour those debts.

The outlook is not good. There's lack of hard currency. A lack of internal production means we have to import everything, but because of the drop in our currency, we cannot pay for it.

A shortage of food, medicine and other consumer goods has given rise to much crime in the country. Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world. In Venezuela every month there are more than 350 victims of homicide. Every 20 minutes a Venezuelan is assassinated. Last year we lost 26,000 citizens, without counting those who die in prisons due to the terrible conditions. There's HIV, hemophilia, cancers, et cetera, and they are not treated.

Just a couple weeks ago, Dr. Jesus Reyes, a child cancer specialist, was kidnapped and assassinated. He was taking care of 1,300 kids; their lives depended on him.

In Venezuela, we also have an increase in fear of loss of life amongst the people. Professionals are fleeing daily because of the security problems. Hospitals don't have the proper equipment for treatment. Our country, which not so long ago was rich, is now impoverished. Citizens who are ill suffer from lack of treatment. The government has blocked any kind of humanitarian aid because this would show that they have not complied with their obligations to guarantee life pursuant to our constitution.

The men who are in a prison today and who raised their voices — Antonio Ledezma, Leopoldo Lopez, Daniel Ceballos, Raul Baduel, Alexander Tirado, Rosmit Mantilla, Lorent Saleh and some 67 other prisoners — are calling for your help. Leopoldo and Daniel have been on hunger strikes for more than 12 days and have not received any medical assistance. Daniel Ceballos was recently transferred illegally to the jail he's in now. He is gravely ill. He has lost more than eight kilos, and he's in a small cell with no air circulation. The average temperature there is 38 degrees. The Malta agreement is in no way respected when it comes to supervision during a hunger strike.

In addition, different provisions under UN agreements have not been respected. These people have been assaulted in a violent way. We're thinking of Daniel Ceballos who has been there the longest and whose health is suffering the most.

The reasons for the hunger strike are as follows: not getting a date for the forthcoming elections; the freedom of political prisoners and youth detained since 2014; and putting a stop to political prosecution of the media.

Two hundred and fifty radio stations have been closed, as well as television stations, and those that have been closed have been obligated to sell their communications equipment. We have a blockade in the country on media equipment. The only way we have to inform people in Venezuela is via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. There are no other means.

The signal for the TV station from Colombia was blocked in Venezuela. CNN in Spanish has been accused on numerous occasions and journalists not allowed into Venezuela.

Many international organizations have spoken out: the European Union; the Madrid Club; the IDEA group, presided over by Colombian President Pastrana; the ex-President of Spain, Felipe Gonzalez, together with Jared Genser; and the Honourable Irwin Cotler, part of the team of international lawyers who are trying to help Leopoldo Lopez.

At the Summit of the Americas, a statement was signed by many ministers, including more than 36 former presidents and prime ministers, including the former Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien. Chile's congress recently gave its support and is considering withdrawing its ambassador from Venezuela as it considers that Venezuela has abandoned democracy. Yesterday, the Colombian congress asked for the activation of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States.

The King of the Netherlands for the first time discussed Venezuela's case and wants more action. The Vatican expressed its concern to the U.S. Congress and Secretary of State. Even President Obama has expressed concern with the condition of Leopoldo Lopez and has supported the advocacy work for freedom and the restoration of human rights in Venezuela.

We would like to say that Canada's government needs to make a firm statement about Venezuela. We are living on the same continent, and Canada should join with other countries and ask for the next date of the elections because the lives Daniel Ceballos, Leopoldo Lopez and other men depend on it.

Venezuelans deserve a helping hand. They want peace. They want a future and all that we benefit from here in Canada. Simply put, they want a normal and dignified life. They want nothing more and nothing less. They want a health care system. They want to walk down the street whenever they want, day or night, without being attacked, kidnapped, incarcerated, raped, killed or tortured just because they think independently, just for their faith or for their sexual orientation.

We want to build bridges. As the Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela used to say, let's build a bridge to Venezuela. Many Venezuelans here in Canada will never be able to go back to Venezuela. However, we remain Venezuelan, and we will always be in solidarity with a country that was, in the past, democratic and helped other Latin American countries to leave dictatorships behind.

Canada is a country of immigration. Please, we need your help and support.

The Chair: Thank you.

I should put on the record that it was the Senate that passed a motion to take note of the situation in Venezuela and encouraged all political parties, government and opposition, to find a peaceful solution to the impasse within parliament and the election. So I think the Senate's work here should be noted. Thank you for reminding me of that.

We have very little time. We wanted to have this session to put the facts on the record as all three witnesses see them.

We do have a few moments for questions. I am going to appeal to senators to make their questions very short, if possible, and I will start with Senator Fortin-Duplessis.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: I thank all three of you for your presentations. It is really touching to listen to you and hear about the difficulties you are facing. First, I would like to congratulate you, Ms. Tamara Suju Roa, for the award you received from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.

My question is addressed to Ms. Cedeno. Do you think that the multilateral institutions you have described could improve the human rights situation in your country, Venezuela?

[English]

Ms. Cedeno: Yes. As you know, Venezuela is a country with a government that doesn't respect its own laws or constitution. Violence occurs every single day. International agreements and laws are violated. However, given what has happened recently in countries like Ukraine, international support has been invaluable.

We now have relations with many other countries; we are no longer isolated. Canada is on the same continent as Venezuela, in the same part of the world.

We want to bring back freedom, which can only happen with international pressure so that the Venezuelan government respects statutes and international treaties, including those of the U.N. and the Organization of American States. We need these entities to act so that Venezuela respects and lives up to its obligations.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: It is extremely unfortunate that Venezuela has withdrawn from the American Convention on Human Rights. Thank you very much.

[English]

Senator D. Smith: Tamara mentioned Amnesty International, and you have the Organization of American States and different groups. Are they actively going after them, or are they just starting to appreciate how serious a problem it is? Are specific actions being taken? I was interested in your comments about Chile, for example.

The Chair: To whom are you addressing your question?

Senator D. Smith: To whomever wishes to answer.

The Chair: Who would like to answer that?

Ms. Roa: The international entities that we're a part of, such as the international convention of the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights, have asked the Venezuelan government to respect human rights and cease the violence. The European Parliament has enacted two resolutions on the subject and asked the governing powers to put an end to violence. They asked them to organize transparent elections. The United Nations High Commission answered as follows: They asked that all persecution of political prisoners stop. They also highlighted very significant concerns. They asked the Venezuelan government to free these political prisoners, not only in the case of Mr. Ceballos but also in the cases of those who defend human rights in Venezuela.

Organizations that advocate for international rights organizations have highlighted their concerns on the matter. Mechanisms do exist to allow pressure to be put on the Venezuelan government. Petitions have also been signed on the matter.

Senator D. Smith: There have been references to the elections. Is there much honesty with these elections? Are they rigged? How would you characterize how legitimate these elections are, or does it vary from place to place? What comment do you have on whether these elections have much legitimacy?

The Chair: I'll return to Mr. Ramirez. You had your hand up, and perhaps you could answer that question.

Mr. Ramirez: Elections in Venezuela did not lead to more trust from the Venezuelans. At the end of the day, they exacerbated the situation and did not help the opposition. They therefore consolidated the power of President Maduro, giving him a majority of 100,000 votes. We doubted the impartiality of the vote. Recounts were made.

We can say that even if there are elections, Venezuela does not wish to have the system that exists now. What they want is a democratic system. This is an evacuation valve that exists now — a possible solution. All those who want change in Venezuela can merely hope for a more objective electoral process. This is necessary to put pressure on the government so that everyone in Venezuela realizes that there is a will for change. A hunger strike, in any case, could be a solution. We are ready to run in democratic elections and accompany Venezuelans so they can go vote.

The Chair: We have run overtime. It's extremely important that we continue this dialogue. Unfortunately, we have another critical issue that was scheduled at the same time. I'm going to have to cut off the debate at this time.

We very much appreciate your perspectives and information. It is extremely helpful in our scrutiny of the situation in Venezuela. We can assure you that we will continue to examine and monitor this issue. Perhaps we can have you back to continue the dialogue at a later date.

We will continue to appeal to all parties to respect the law of Venezuela and to find a peaceful and meaningful resolution to the impasse that Venezuela is experiencing now.

Your perspectives and information are very important, and we thank you for being with us today.

(The committee continued in camera.)