CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leaders in Venezuela hoped the offer would be impossible to refuse: amnesty for military officials in exchange for their political support.
The country’s military had been a bulwark for President Nicolás Maduro even as the country spiraled deeper into an economic and humanitarian crisis. The armed forces have a lot to lose if the opposition’s weekslong quest to oust him succeeds: A new government could hold them accountable for well-documented allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and graft.
Opposition leaders view their effort to entice senior military officials to abandon Mr. Maduro as crucial to their plan to take over the government until new elections can be held. “This is not about twisting arms, but rather about extending out our hand,” the opposition’s leader, Juan Guaidó, said during a rally on Jan. 23.
But, some critics say, facilitating a transition to democracy in the short term should not come at the expense of a chance to put perpetrators of serious crimes to justice in the long run. Human rights activists, and Venezuelans who have been victims of abuse, say the amnesty bill at the heart of Mr. Guaidó’s strategy is immoral and unlawful.
Legal experts say it would absolve all officials who sign on of any crimes, which would go against Venezuela’s Constitution and the country’s commitments under international law.
“The vague and open-ended provisions in the bill could effectively grant blanket impunity to officials responsible for serious human rights abuses,” José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Any amnesty that guarantees impunity by absolving government and military officials responsible for the most serious human rights violations is incompatible with Venezuela’s international obligations.”
Amnesty offers have been at the center of several transitions from autocratic to democratic rule in Latin America and elsewhere, serving to calm political tensions as traumatized societies begin to reconcile and rebuild democratic institutions.
But there is also no historical precedent for what the Venezuelan opposition is trying to do, said Juan Méndez, an expert in international law at American University who served as the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other degrading forms of punishment from 2010 to 2016.
Departing authoritarian governments have passed amnesty laws or deals before surrendering power in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In Argentina and Chile, victims’ rights groups and the courts managed to try hundreds of people for dictatorship-era crimes despite the amnesty laws.
But Mr. Méndez said he could think of no instance in which the offer was made by those attempting to seize control of a nation — which puts its effectiveness in doubt.
“The military is always trying to gauge what way the wind is blowing before switching sides,” Mr. Méndez said. “In that sense this may be an effective tool.”
But unless Mr. Guaidó takes control of the country’s institutions, from a legal standpoint, the offer “means nothing,” he added.
Relatively few top officials have stepped forward to accept the offer, even as Mr. Guaidó’s allies have aggressively promoted an amnesty law, going as far as hand-delivering copies at military and police posts.
In an interview, Mr. Guaidó defended the amnesty proposal, saying it was meant to maintain stability during a period of transition. He and fellow lawmakers never intended to let grave violations of human rights go unpunished, he said.
“The purpose of amnesty is to enable us to govern in the short term, to stabilize the country in order to address the humanitarian emergency and rebuild institutions that can pave the way for a free election and allow us to contain the economic crisis,” he said.
Venezuelan lawmakers have yet to pass a final version of the law, which may be altered in coming days before a final vote. The National Assembly has had little power to enforce laws it has passed in recent years because Mr. Maduro and judges loyal to him have taken steps to weaken its authority.
Mr. Guaidó has yet to lay out a clear vision for how a future government would seek to investigate and punish serious abuses committed by the government.
“There is no easy answer in a country that has 20 years’ worth of deep wounds, a lot of pain,” Mr. Guaidó said. “But we must find a way to heal, no?”
Several Latin American presidents earlier this year urged the International Criminal Court in The Hague to consider charging Mr. Maduro with crimes against humanity. But as the political standoff between Mr. Maduro and the opposition has escalated in recent days, Mr. Guaidó and his most powerful foreign backer, the United States, have hinted that the amnesty offer could extend to Mr. Maduro if he were to leave power — and the country soon.
John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, on Jan. 31 urged Mr. Maduro to “take advantage” of the amnesty offer by going into exile as soon as possible, wishing him “and his top advisers a long, quiet retirement, living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela.”
The following day, in a radio interview, Mr. Bolton raised the possibility that Mr. Maduro could wind up imprisoned at the United States military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, if he didn’t leave power soon.
While Mr. Maduro’s ouster is by no means a given, the offer of amnesty — which covers not just the military but anyone in the country who renounces support of Mr. Maduro — has made Venezuelans who suffered under his rule begin debating how much they would be willing to forgive in order to see a transition.
On a recent afternoon, a group of former political prisoners shared stories of their time behind bars as they ate pizza at a largely empty restaurant in Caracas. Gregory Sanabria, 24, pulled up photos of his badly bruised face as he recounted a particularly horrific torture session.
Ignacio Porras, 48, looked ashen as he described spending agonizing nights hanging from a cable clipped to his handcuffed hands behind his back.
Rosa Virginia González Arizmendi, 26, recounted how one of her guards would dangle his penis in front of her face, demanding oral sex, and beat her when she refused.
“These were crimes against humanity,” Ms. González said. “These are crimes that cannot be forgotten.”
The three said they came under scrutiny for their activism in opposition parties that Mr. Maduro’s government accused, without evidence, of condoning acts of violence and terrorism. They support the idea of a restricted amnesty provision in the short term if it helps facilitate a transition to democracy, but would eventually want to see a system of accountability in place.
“To forgive is not to forget, but to reconcile,” Ms. González said during a debate on the bill. “To forgive what happened on a spiritual level, but ensuring and demanding the justice that is due.”
The parents of Juan Pablo Pernalete, a 20-year-old who was among the dozens of protesters killed during a monthslong period of anti-government demonstrations in 2017, have heeded Mr. Guaidó’s recent calls to take to the streets.
But they were stunned when they downloaded the amnesty law online and gave it a careful read.
“The law needs to be more specific and grant protections for the victims, not the offenders,” his father, José Gregorio Pernalete, said in an interview at their home, where their son’s room remains largely intact.
“There cannot be impunity,” he said. “There cannot be amnesty for crimes against humanity.”
Orignially published in NYT.