The political dissident was detained, without charge, upon his arrival back into the country. He’d just returned from the United Nations where his party leader had addressed the General Assembly denouncing the violent repression of opponents of their authoritarian state. (His family, like so many others, had been forced to flee to a nearby country.) Once detained, he was forcibly taken to the dreaded down town headquarters of the intelligence service from which he never reappeared. He was not officially charged – although the official version was that the interrogation was over his part in an alleged plot to assassinate the president. Seventy-two hours later, he supposedly requested to go to the bathroom – and then threw himself from the 10th floor of the building.
These events are not from 1971 when the extra-judicial killing of Ahmed Timol occurred, much as it felt to us South Africans as if it was a macabre retelling of that spine-chilling episode. It was actually last week, and it related to the death of Fernando Alban, a councilman of the Primero Justicia opposition party in Venezuela, at the hands of President Nicolas Maduro’s henchmen.
Alban’s political colleagues from Primero Justicia, Miguel Pizarro and Jose Manuel Olivares Marquina, got to hear of his death only after arriving in Johannesburg. If they felt shocked, they hid it well. Rather, while their demeanour carried the cloak of numbness and weariness, it was covered by a hardened resolve which, I suppose, had grown like a carapace as a natural defence mechanism to survive life under authoritarianism. Astonishingly young and courageous, Pizarro and Marquina represent the “Generation of 2007”, the student protest movement from which so many youth leaders have emerged in opposition to the Batista regime. Pizarro is 30, having been in politics for a decade after he spearheaded a campaign against a referendum that would reform the constitution, affording Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez his first and only campaign loss. Marquina, who is 33, is a doctor who was elected as congressman for the state of Vargas in 2015.
Primero Justica’s leader, Leopoldo Lopez, is under house arrest. His co-leader, Julio Borges, lives in exile in Colombia – as does Marquina, who was forced to flee after his brother was detained for 10 months. Another prominent leader, Maria Corina Machado, in an interview with Professor Lyal White of the Johannesburg Business School, says of her time as opposition leader: “I hold two records as a member of Congress – I am the one with the most number of votes ever. And the one, too, with the shortest number of days in Congress,” having been expelled days after taking her position on account of her appearance at the Organisation of American States (OAS) summit. How strange, I thought, speaking to the baby-faced Marquina, to be simultaneously an elected Member of a Parliament which has not met for a year and a half (the National Assembly was effectively dissolved in March 2017, being replaced by an unelected National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution) as well as someone whose last sight of their country was as you surreptitiously crossed the border with your wife and three-month-old son after driving for 18 hours?
Marquina wears his patriotism with obvious pride. A reluctant exile, he is evidently more at peace knowing that his family is safe in Colombia. Speaking softly yet with much emotion, he carefully, with a doctor’s precision, outlines the health implications of Venezuela’s collapse under Chavez and Maduro. Four out of 10 children now suffer from some sort of malnourishment, having insufficient protein in their diet. Hospitals lack even the most basic medication to function– the Venezuelan Medical Federation estimates hospitals lack almost 98% of medical supplies needed. Surgery, births and heart treatment are out of the question. Chemotherapy is non-existent – the onset of cancer is now almost a death sentence if you cannot go over the border for treatment. Pharmacies are unable to provide medication for fever or flu. The country now accounts for the world’s highest number of infections and death from malaria. “What Africa was in the 1940s, before the mass introduction of vaccines, is where we are now. Effectively, when I was still in the country, the conditions were such that I was doing medicine (medical procedures) from 50 years ago.”
Earlier in the year, the doctor Marquina attempted to work on a humanitarian bill which would allow the country to accept humanitarian aid. It was never passed. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, whose country has borne the brunt of refugees, was particularly scathing. “I want to repeat to President Maduro – this is the result of your policies…and it’s the result of your refusal to receive humanitarian aid which has been offered in every way, not just from Colombia but from the international community.”
Venezuela’s slide into disarray has been well documented and makes for a melancholic catalogue of woe. What is less well known and more powerful is to hear, first-hand, the voices of student leaders who have lived through the situation on the ground and who have turned against the regime. Miguel was elected in the district of Petare in the state of Miranda, as a representative of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition. Petare is a Caracas suburb of over half a million, regarded as one of the largest slums in the world. At the height of Chavez’s popularity, it was Batista stronghold. As a student leader with family links to working class opposition and trade unionism, the young Miguel had begun his political life as an ardent supporter. Yet by the time he was elected to Parliament in 2010 at the age of 21, when he had come to see the true nature of what his country’s polity had fatefully slid into, he won with over 60% of the vote.
The two opposition leaders were in South Africa to seek solidarity with others, but also in the hope that their experience could serve as a warning to others. While Miguel is sombre, and empirical in his analyses, the passionate Marquina is aware of the irony of his current position compared to where his political journey began. He quotes Chilean socialist politician Salvador Allende, “to be young and not revolutionary is a biological impossibility” to explain rather than ignore his roots as an early supporter of Chavez. But, he says, “we’ve learnt the hard way, that nothing is for free” to show how the culture of hand-outs and state patronage has crippled the country in two decades.
“I started out as a Marxist. I never thought I’d end up here, in a different place. But the reality([in Venezuela today) is that people are dying before our eyes (because of the regime’s policies). There were 85 of us in our class of medical graduates. There were three us left (before I was forced to flee). Now there are two! We are a complete kleptocracy. What you in South Africa call state capture, is what we now call government. Faced with this – me and other student leaders who all graduated together around the same time – our only rationale response as Venezuelan citizens, is to try to oppose such an authoritarian regime.”
Marquina is quick to disabuse easy notions of parallels to either a current Zimbabwe or an imminent South Africa, and he carefully explains that he is respectful of each country’s unique circumstances and conditions. Yet the plainly visible signs of populism especially around expropriation without compensation do worry him, he concedes. I explain to him that while most thinking South Africans are fully committed to land reform to redress historic and deep-rooted inequality, many remain deeply concerned about the opportunities expropriation without compensation hold for nefarious corruption to flourish. Does his experience offer any insights to us as we contemplate this long and difficult road?
“We’ve heard the same speech before. We were told something similar about returning land to the people. The reality has been different for us.” DM
Kalim Rajab met the opposition leaders along with other commentators and journalists. Hennig Suhr of Konrad Adenhauer Stiftung arranged the interview.