As election nears, Venezuelan government keeps arresting opponents allegedly tied to criminal plots

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — As Venezuela’s government would have it, President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle have been the target of several conspiracies since last year that could have left them injured or worse.

Few details have been released about the alleged plots. But the government has cited them in the arrests of more than 30 people since January including a prominent human rights attorney and staffers of the leading opposition presidential candidate.

Local and international nongovernment groups, the United Nations and foreign governments have described the crackdown as a pretext to stifle political opposition ahead of the July 28 president election in which Maduro, in power since 2013, will seek a new six-year term.

The latest arrests took place Wednesday shortly before the country’s top prosecutor announced arrest warrants for nine people working with Machado’s campaign whom he accused of participating in one plot.

Oscar Murillo, general coordinator for the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, said officials are coordinating actions of the police, military and civic groups to tamp down on any anti-government activity.

“This has translated into greater political repression and a deepening of the policy of persecution that seeks to break civil society at a time when perhaps the ideal thing would be to be talking about the public policies needed to reverse poverty or inequality in Venezuela,” Murillo said.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab has described the plots variously as aimed at attacking military installations, killing Maduro and other officials and de-stabilizing the country. He has publicly presented alleged confessions, planning documents, laptops and other items he has characterized as evidence.

Saab on Wednesday accused the nine members of the opposition, including Machado’s campaign manager, of being part of a “destabilizing” plot that included demonstrations, a media campaign and plans to attack military barracks. He said two of the nine people, Dignora Hernández and Henry Alviarez — Machado’s political coordinator and national coordinator respectively — had already been arrested.

The arrests of Hernández and Alviarez brings to at least six the number of Machado staffers who are in custody over their alleged participation in the plots the government claims to have foiled.

Allowing free-market proponent Machado to run in the July election would offer Venezuela its best chance of a competitive race because no other candidate has anywhere near the level of support, money or political machinery to challenge Maduro. But the self-described socialist government has barred her from office for 15 years — an administrative order upheld by the country’s top court in January.

Other members of Venezuela’s opposition have urged Machado to stand aside for another contender, but she has insisted on continuing her candidacy — perhaps hoping that international pressure could force Venezuela’s establishment to relent on the ban.

“If the regime believes that with these actions they are going to isolate me, let me be clear: My team is Venezuela,” she told reporters Wednesday. She added that her campaign continues organizing across the country and expects “much more than just well wishes” from the international community.

Machado defended her staff, stressing that all allegations against them are false.

The government has not made public any charging documents detailing allegations against the dozens of defendants in the conspiracy cases. Under Venezuelan law, court hearings are open, but in practice people, journalists and sometimes even the defendants’ counsels of choice are barred from the courtroom.

Maduro has alleged the U.S. government is behind the plans to assassinate him.

Among the dozens of people taken into custody earlier this year over accusations stemming from the alleged plots is also human rights attorney Rocío San Miguel, whom Saab has identified as a “spy” for one of the conspiracies. Saab has also accused her of having more than a dozen maps that highlighted sensitive military locations that she should not have known about.

“Should the state lower its guard and let these operations go forward, to bathe the country in blood?” Saab said days after San Miguel’s Feb. 9 arrest.

San Miguel’s attorney, Juan Gonzalez, said he has not been allowed to see her since her arrest but that she denied all allegations during an initial hearing.

Wednesday’s detentions came hours after an independent panel of experts investigating human rights violations in Venezuela told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that Maduro’s government had increased repression efforts against real or perceived opponents ahead of this year’s presidential election.

“The mission confirms that, as has happened in the past, the authorities invoke real or fictitious conspiracies to intimidate, detain and prosecute people who oppose or criticize the government,” panel head Marta Valiñas told the council, which authorized the investigative mission. “At the same time, the Attorney General’s Office continues to operate as part of the government’s repressive machinery to grant the appearance of legality to the persecution of critical voices.”

The panel last year reported that Maduro’s government was using defamatory campaigns, detentions, arbitrary criminal proceedings and even torture to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of the election.

“In some cases, the acts of torture or ill-treatment were intended to extract fabricated confessions or false statements,” the panel said in its report.

Maduro became interim president in March 2013 after the death of charismatic leader Hugo Chávez’s. He narrowly won election weeks later and was re-elected in 2018 in an electoral process widely criticized as fraudulent.

The country has not been without conspiracies against the government in the past.

Less than three months after his re-election, Maduro tied opposition leaders to what the government described as an assassination attempt against the president in which drones with explosives detonated when he was delivering a speech live on television. In 2020, his government foiled an attempted armed invasion to overthrow him, an effort that ended with six insurgents dead and two former Green Berets behind bars.

The latest wave of arrests threatens to unravel a political accord negotiated last year among the U.S. government, the opposition faction it backs and Maduro.

The October agreement focused on conditions for a free and fair election and earned Maduro some relief from U.S. economic sanctions on the country’s oil, gas and mining sectors. But hopes for a more level playing field began fading shortly afterward, and the U.S. already reversed the relief on the gold-mining industry due to what it considers Maduro’s noncompliance.

The administration of President Joe Biden has given Maduro until late April to comply with the deal or expect an end to the remaining relief, which would hurt the country’s oil-dependent economy.

Brian Nichols, a U.S. assistant secretary of state, earlier this month told attendees of a Washington-based think tank panel that the “incentives” the U.S. and other countries have put forth “have not been sufficient to motivate” Maduro to move toward a competitive election. On Wednesday, he called for the immediate release of “all those unjustly detained.”

“Maduro’s escalating attacks on civil society and political actors are totally inconsistent with Barbados Accord commitments but will not stifle the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” Nichols tweeted.

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