By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS -- Embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro had released 21 political prisoners by Wednesday, the day the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Chile Michele Bachelet, arrived in Caracas.
Maduro´s “beau geste” was didn't fool many, including the Organization of American States (OAS), which says Maduro still has almost 700 political prisoners, as well as plenty other human rights abuses to answer for. Local NGO “Foro Penal”, whose figures the OAS uses and validates for their reports, stated Wednesday that there are still 693 political prisoners.
The largest batch of 18 prisoners was released as Bachelet arrived at the Maiquetia airport. The rest, including opposition lawmaker Gilbert Caro who should be protected by Parliamentary Immunity, were released between Monday and Tuesday.
As expected, Bachelet arrived in Venezuela at around 6 p.m. on a flight from Panama. Plainclothes security prevented awaiting journalists from even approaching Bachelet. The High Commissioner has scheduled a press conference for Friday night, the last day of her visit, also at the Maiquetia airport.
Bachelet is scheduled to meet with Maduro as well as with National Assembly President Juan Guaido, the opposition lawmaker who has the mantle of acting president since January 23rd. Guaido's January move triggered a severe Constitutional crisis which has resulted in deadly riots, high-profile defections from Maduro´s ranks and a severe crackdown against the opposition, inlcuding the arrest of the first Vice President of the National Assembly, Edgar Zambrano, another elected opposition official who has Constitutional Parliamentary Immunity but who is right now one of the 693 political prisoners Maduro is keeping in jail and Bachelet came to ask about.
Some 13,000 Venezuelans have been arrested for demonstrating against Maduro, according to “Foro Penal”, for opposing his rule and sometimes even for only tweeting criticism or attending anti-government protests. And while only 693 remain physically in jail, the rest have had to face a panoply of judicial and para-judicial restrictions, including beatings, physical abuse, house arrest, exile, gag orders, withdrawal of their passports, etc.
A nascent humanitarian crisis, marked by one of the highest murder rates in the world, hyperinflation and a chaotic deterioration in public services, has triggered an exodus of more than 4 million people since Maduro took over in 2013, also according to the United Nations.
“Michele Bachelet arrives in Venezuela with 22 states suffering from interrupted electricity service, an oil nation without gasoline, with limited internet access and an unprecedented exodus”, was how Colombian TV station NTN24 summed up the situation. But they had to sum it up on Twitter, at least in Venezuela, because Maduro had banned NTN24 in 2017.