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Venezuela: the grotesque human rights violations at Fort Mara and the attempt to cover it up

By Miguel Octavio

While I don’t want to rewrite stories you may have read about elsewhere, I can’t help but mention in detail the grotesque acts of lies and deceit staged by Chavez, Jesse Chacon and the Minister of Defense during the last two weeks. As Easter week had begun, the scandal dominating the news was clearly the fire at the military stockade of Fort Mara in Zulia state. There were basically two accusations, one that some of the soldiers were being punished for signing the recall petition against the President, the second one that the fire was set on purpose. Local press had given a lot of space to the story, while the Government ignored the case and attempted to hide from view those injured in the fire.

On Palm Sunday, April 4th. President Chavez in his Sunday program said that the “oligarchic” press had made a big deal out of a little incident calling it a “little fire”, denying that it was set on purpose and calling the injuries “slight’. To make matters even worse, Chavez spoke with his usual all-knowing authority, saying “we are not covering up anything”. Even more remarkable, Chavez congratulated his Minister of Defense, who was present that day with him as he spoke, for withstanding all these unfair attacks on him and the military, calling it another attempt to destabilize the country.

No sooner had Chavez said these words, when the relatives of one of those injured challenged the President to personally visit Angel Pedreanez who had burns covering 52% of his body rejecting the President’s statement that they were slight injuries. The sister of the soldier called her brother condition “critical” while his father said that his son had been unconscious for the first 72 hours following the incident.

And it was all downhill from there for a Government accustomed to lying and mostly getting away with it. On Monday, Orlando Jesus Bustamante one of the injured soldiers died of the burns he had received. His family charged that they were never able to talk to him after he was hospitalized and was moved to Caracas without their consent, something that the Minister of Defense clearly knew on Sunday as Chavez spoke, given the mobilization required to move the injured soldiers to Caracas. At the same time, it was revealed that two additional soldiers were severely burned.

After the news came out that day, Minister of Information Jesse Chacon resigned “irrevocably” for failing to provide the President with true information and once again accusing the press, which actually had revealed the details the Government was trying to hide and cover up, of presenting the facts in an irresponsible manner (!!).

By Tuesday, the Maracaibo fire department had presented its report saying that the fire had been provoked and not like Chavez had explained was due to a cigarette butt falling on a mattress. Even the representative of the Peoples’ Ombudsman in Maracaibo raised a number of issues about the fire, questioning the fact that the soldiers were not allowed out and are actually not allowed to smoke in the stockade.

To show even more how the Government was trying to cover up the incident, Doctors from the Maracaibo Hospital where the soldiers were first treated, said that the patients were moved against the opinion of the doctors. One Doctor said that she did not even think one of the patients should be moved from one floor to another for treatment.

By now, the Government began trying to spin events. On Sunday, Chavez asked for forgiveness for saying the injuries were slight, but clearly showed that Chacon’s resignation was simply a smokescreen by “not accepting it”. Thus, what was defended by Chavez’ supporters, like Tarek William Saab, as an ethical resignation became empty words with Chavez defense and reinstatement of Chacon.

While a lot of the news seemed to center on the Chacon resignation (or his purchase of a 140 thousand dollar (!!) painting by Venezuelan painter Armando Reveron), the truth is that the true grotesque aspects of the incident in my opinion seemed to have been missed. Here we have a Government where the President and two Ministers are lying through the nose. Not only were they doing this, but they were simultaneously trying to cover the events, by hiding the injured as well as minimizing what had happened, showing a total disregard for human rights and the law.

As if this were not enough, while the Zulia representative of the People’s Ombudsman acted promptly, the People’s Ombudsman has yet to make a statement on any of these events. Similarly, the Attorney General/Prosecutor Isaias Rodriguez has actually said absolutely nothing about the whole affair, from the violations of human rights, through the lies and manipulations and the fact that evidence, such as the report by the Maracaibo fire department, has disappeared in the hands of the military.

Thus, one more story of this corrupt, unethical and insensitive administration is being written as we speak. One of the soldiers remains in critical condition as his relatives charge that they are being pressured by military intelligence not to say anything else to the press. Chavez supposedly invited the father to meet with him in Caracas, but the father simply said: “I do not trust the Government or the military” adding that the General in charge of Zulia state General Silva is a liar that is simply twisting the truth.

By now, the Chavez administration is not capable of deceiving too many people. As all of this was taking place Human Rights groups in Washington such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were complaining to the Chavez administration for the lack of investigation into the charges of human rights violations. HRW even wrote a letter to Chavez asking for full and impartial investigations and saying that they had information they could trust that the tortures occurring during the February protests were not isolated or exceptional but the generalized behavior with apparent official approval. The letter even contained specific cases and accusations with names of those that were tortured. Thus, the same institution that used to defend Hugo Chavez two years ago, is now presenting a damning condemnation of the human rights violations by the Chavez Government.

Thus, just as two years have gone by and not one person has been jailed for the 19 deaths of April 11th. the evidence against Hugo Chavez and his cronies continues to pile up. And as it does, everyone should remind the leading figures of this administration that crimes against humanity never prescribe.

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