The Blog

Horror in Venezuela

Jesus Soriano and the price of dissent in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

11:00 PM, Jan 22, 2003 • By THOR HALVORSSEN
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VENEZUELA IS NOW an abyss where there is no rule of law. A rogue government tortures innocent civilians with impunity while paying lip service to democracy and buying time at the "negotiation" table set up by the Organization of American States. Venezuela's foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, has funded an effective multi-million dollar public relations campaign to smear the opposition as coup-plotters and fascists intent on bringing about violence.

Jesus Soriano has never met Roy Chaderton or Hugo Chavez. Soriano supported President Hugo Chavez's meteoric rise, volunteered during the election campaign, and is now a second-year law student in Caracas. His law-school peers describe the 24-year-old as a cheerful and happy young man.

Soriano, a member of the Chavez party, is part of a national student group called "Ousia," a group that brings together moderates who support the government and opposition members seeking a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.

On December 6, Soriano witnessed the massacre that occurred during a peaceful protest in Altamira, a neighborhood in Caracas where the opposition has a strong presence. The killer was Joao De Gouveia, an outspoken supporter of Chavez who has an unusually close relationship with mayor Freddy Bernal, a Chavez crony. Gouveia randomly began shooting at the crowd. He killed three--including a teenage girl he shot in the head--and injured 28 people. As Gouveia kept shooting, several men raced toward him to stop the killing. Soriano was one of the men who wrestled Gouveia to the ground and prevented further killing. Soriano also protected Gouveia from a potential lynch mob that swarmed around the killer.

Soriano's heroic accomplishments did not cease that day. He became a national figure in Venezuela when he brought a small soccer ball (known in Venezuela as a "futbolito") to a sizable protest march organized against the rule of Lt. Col. Chavez. Soriano and other pro-Chavez partisans made their way towards the march intending to engage the opposition members in dialogue.

That hot afternoon, Soriano kicked the futbolito across the divide at the members of the opposition. They kicked it back. The magical realism of the event is evident in the extraordinary television footage of what occurred next. By the end of the match the anti-Chavez protestors and pro-Chavez partisans were hugging and chanting "Peace! Unity! We are Venezuela! Politicians go away! We are the real Venezuela!" In one particularly moving part of the footage, Soriano and a member of the opposing team trade a baseball hat for a Chavez-party red beret.

In one hour this sharply divided group of strangers accomplished more than the high-level negotiation team that seeks to defuse a potential civil war. Chavez was reportedly furious with the televised soccer match and even angrier that the reconciliation was a product of the efforts of one of his supporters. Soriano was declared an enemy of the revolution.

Last week Soriano organized another soccer match. On Wednesday he visited the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the main university in the capital, to attend a meeting of the student government. Violent clashes erupted as members of the Circulos Bolivarianos, an armed militia sworn to protect the revolution, began throwing rocks and tear gas grenades at the students. The militia identified Soriano and captured him. They then tied his hands and feet, lifted him up, and paraded him through the street like a sacrificial lamb chanting "Judas! Judas!" The entire spectacle was recorded by a cameraman who works for the official government television entity. Soriano was beaten so severely that he was left at the hospital emergency room. At the hospital he was detained by the DISIP, Chavez's secret police, and taken to their headquarters for questioning.

During his interrogation, fingernails in his left hand were torn out. After being further tortured and injected with drugs, the secret police took him into the bowels of the building and placed him in a cell. His cellmate: Joao de Gouveia.

Gouveia has the keys to the cell and comes in and out of the secret police headquarters at will. His only restriction is that he must sleep in the precinct, lest Chavez's police are revealed as allowing a confessed killer to roam free. Soriano's mother (who is also a Chavez supporter) tearfully claimed that Gouveia sodomized Soriano and beat him with such force that Soriano cannot open his eyes.

Soriano was released last Friday afternoon after Roy Chaderton advised Chavez that the case could filter out of Venezuela and could become a "human-interest story" with the potential to derail their PR campaign.