A major split in the Frente de Todos coalition was exposed publicly this week, as the political crisis in Venezuela and a United Nations report denouncing human rights violations in the troubled nation prompted the resignation of a key ambassador.
At a vote in Geneva on Tuesday, Argentina threw its support behind a UN report on human rights in Venezuela under the direction of United Nations High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. The move reversed the unscheduled and controversial “double standards” objections presented by Ambassador to the Organisation of American States Carlos Raimundi last week, much to the United States’ delight, but the U-turn also triggered the resignation of Ambassador to Moscow Alicia Castro.
That mission’s report, presented in Geneva last month, concluded that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his main ministers were responsible for possible crimes against humanity, including evidence of extra-judicial executions and the systematic use of torture.
On Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Council criticised the "generalised" political persecution in Venezuela, voting to extend for a further two years its mission to investigate presumed grave violations of civil liberties in the troubled country.
The resolution extending the investigation for a further two years was adopted by 22 votes (among them, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Germany, Italy and Spain) with three (Venezuela, Eritrea and the Philippines) opposed and 22 abstentions.
Just prior the vote the Foreign Ministry defended its position via a press communiqué early Tuesday arguing that Argentina thus “maintains its leadership in the global defence of human rights while sustaining the principle of peaceful political resolution of the Venezuelan political crisis,” also asking the Caracas government for "speedy, exhaustive, independent, impartial and transparent investigations of the allegations of human rights violations, bringing the perpetrators to justice and guaranteeing adequate reparations for the victims.”
"Argentina values and forcefully supports the work realised by” Bachelet, underlined the communiqué, while urging the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela "to cooperate fully with the Council … and implement integrally the High Commissioner’s recommendations in her reports.” The Foreign Ministry text also advocated the need to install a permanent mission of the UN High Commission in Caracas “to find the appropriate solutions.”
The communiqué largely anticipated the words of Federico Villegas, Argentina’s representative on the UN Human Rights Council, when delivering Tuesday’s vote in Geneva, expressing “concern” over the crisis facing the country governed by the Maduro régime.
The Foreign Ministry also reminded Venezuela that “respecting its international human rights obligations together with guaranteeing social peace and political stability are even more necessary when facing an electoral process.”
However, the communiqué also balanced support for the UN report by adding: "Once again it is necessary to condemn the blockades and sanctions which, while claiming to pressure the authorities, especially attack the Venezuelan people, contributing to their even greater suffering, given their grave socio-economic situation.”
Meanwhile Raimundi backtracked strongly on his comments last week, when he affirmed that Venezuela had "suffered from and was heavily besiege by interventionism" along with "bias in the appreciation of what constitutes human rights violations in certain countries," denouncing them as a "press operation" against him.
This week, he said Bachelet’s report was “serious and on the ground, pointing to important violations of human rights. Argentina cannot ignore the facts nor cease to be highly concerned by them."
‘Dialogue and cooperation’
The Maduro government responded to the UN vote by expressing "commitment to dialogue and cooperation," though it added it "does not recognise nor will it recognise parallel and unnecessary mechanisms promoted by a group of governments with interventionist track records.”
The Venezuelan communiqué also charged the UN mission with being "biased and partial," as well as accusing "Washington and its satellite governments of manipulating human rights in a tendentious and ideological fashion, trying to convert them into a political weapon."
Apart from condemning such excesses as arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial executions and disappearances, the UN resolution also condemned "the violations of the Independence of the National Assembly and the interventions in the autonomy and make-up of various political parties."
The mission has been unable to visit Venezuela due to the lack of government response and the flight restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic but it has carried out 274 interviews with individuals remotely.
The UN mission renewed for a further two years is composed of Marta Valiña (Portugal), Francisco Cox Vial (Chile) and Paul Selis (Britain). Its inventory over the past years confirms 223 cases of serious transgressions of human rights in Venezuela, as well as examining “a further 2,891 cases of violations and crimes to be corroborated.”
The UN Rights Council urged Bachelet to continue monitoring, informing and providing technical co-operation with a view to improving the human rights situation in the country.
Civil liberties organisations in Venezuela such as Provea, which defends human rights, and Foro Penal, which acts on behalf of political prisoners, applauded the decision as bringing "justice" closer to victims.
"These decisions ratify the gravity of the human rights situation in Venezuela but also the incapacity of our state to investigate and sanction those responsible," said Provea co-ordinator Rafael Uzcátegui.
The decision to vote against Venezuela, whose socialist leaders had close ties to the Kirchner governments that lead Argentina from 2003 to 2017, poses a major headache for President Fernández, who was able to win last year’s election thanks to the support of former president Cristina Fernández de Kichner.
Figures linked to the now vice-president broke ground this week to criticise the decision, before Ambassador Castro resigned.
The resolution extending the UN mission for two years after verifying evidence of crimes against humanity in their first year was, however, preceded by a more conciliatory resolution towards President Maduro, in which Argentina abstained while deploying practically the same rhetoric used to approve the former resolution.
Venezuela managed to secure approval of the less hostile resolution with 14 votes in favour, seven against (including Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay) and 26 abstentions, including Argentina and 10 European Union countries, but fell well short of a majority of the Council’s 47 members.
In this resolution Venezuela admitted to certain “restrictions of civic and democratic space, including the denunciations of supposed cases of arbitrary arrests and the intimidation and defamation of demonstrators, journalists and defenders of human rights” while pledging to release “all those illegally and arbitrarily deprived of liberty … in conformity with Venezuelan constitutional law and international norms.”
There was, however, no reference to the 8,000 victims of extra-judicial executions and disappearances or the massive and systematic application of torture documented by the Bachelet reports.
In her letter of resignation, Alicia Castro began by thanking the vice-president, rather than the president for “the honour of designating me ambassador to the Russian Federation.”
Castro, who had represented Argentina in Caracas between 2006 and 2011 before moving to London, presented her resignation almost immediately after the vote. She described the vote as a “dramatic shift in our foreign policy, showing absolutely no difference with how the [Mauricio] Macri government would have voted.”
The former lawmaker said that the top objective of her mission had been to secure Argentine entry into BRICS with Russian support but the government’s stance on Venezuela made it impossible for her to remain part of the Foreign Ministry.
She complained that Argentina “had voted together with a group of Latin American countries slavishly following the instructions of the United States to demolish Venezuela, thus qualifying them as spokesmen for human rights.”
“Argentina could have opted to abstain if it did not want to commit itself to either of the two resolutions [debated on Tuesday],” she argued. “But instead it voted with European recognising the self-proclaimed [Juan] Guaidó as president without a single vote, something placing Latin American democracy at risk, voting alongside Britain when Venezuela has been a constant and exemplary ally of Argentina in our struggle for Malvinas sovereignty.”
Castro said that the US drive to overthrow the Venezuelan government followed a common pattern to its interventions in the Middle East with the control of oil as the ultimate objective with dismantling the regional unity forged by the late Hugo Chávez together with the late Néstor Kirchner and current Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a further aim.
The former air hostess also blasted the UN resolution for expressing concern over the Covid-19 pandemic in Venezuela when its data – 80,000 cases of contagion and a total of 653 dead among a population of nearly 30 million – clearly demonstrated that the country had a much better public health system than any of the countries condemning it.
Nevertheless, Castro insisted that she would not be abandoning the "Frente de Todos y Todas" over this issue.
Strictly speaking, the ex-trade unionist was not resigning anything: her nomination to the Moscow Embassy had yet to be formalised by Senate approval although sent there last February and she has also been grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, postponing her plans to take up the post last April.
Castro’s criticisms were echoed by Ensenada Mayor Mario Secco, picket leader Luis D'Elía, journalist Cynthia García and other Kirchnerite voices.
“I want to ask the pardon of the people of Venezuela and [Nicolás] Maduro and also [Hugo] Chávez, who gave us a hand when nobody was giving us anything,” said Mothers of Plaza de Mayo leader Hebe de Bonafini in radio statements on Wednesday.
“I’m ashamed of what they did yesterday, ashamed of the Foreign Minister [Felipe Solá], who’s a guy who doesn’t know where he’s standing or what he represents ... pardon, Maduro, pardon, Venezuelan people, for what the minister did, pardon in the name of the Mothers and the millions of Argentines who are ashamed of this foreign minister. A thousand pardons,” she lamented.
The Frente Patria Grande, a grouping of social organisations that supported Fernández in the last election, called in a statement for “the principle of self-determination of the peoples is respected,” and for “coherence to be maintained with the denunciation of the blockade and criminal sanctions against the people of Venezuela.”
Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero defended the government in an address to the Senate this week, saying that "Argentina ratified the decision to preserve human rights in any area and in any government."
“We are also concerned about human rights in other countries in the region, such as Colombia and Bolivia. We are even concerned about the human rights of the African-American community in the United States," he added.
Foreign Minister Felipe Solá later dismissed accusations the government had shifted its stance on Venezuela.
“No one should be confused – the government has always maintained the same position on Venezuela. We want to help Venezuelans have a full functioning of their institutions without external interference, sanctions or unilateral punishments,” said Solá, who last week met with US Ambassador in Argentina Edward Prado.
Reports at the end of the week said the decision had been met "with satisfaction" in Washington, with Infobae quoting a spokesperson for the US State Department as saying the decision was “clear condemnation of the illegitimate Maduro regime and its human rights violations."