A Venezuelan opposition lawmaker on Thursday denounced what she called a state policy of repression by President Nicolas Maduro and vowed to continue protesting for democracy despite the threat of imprisonment.
Maria Corina Machado told a crowd of more than 100 attendees at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., "that the fighters for freedom and democracy in Venezuela are not alone." Machado has been one of the most prominent opposition figures leading weeks of protests against rampant crime, inflation, and shortages in Venezuela.
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At least 30 people have died in the protests against Maduro’s rule. Machado said there are 59 official cases of torture by state security forces, mostly against young students.
She called the crackdown on protesters "a systematic and massive violation of human rights."
The current protest movement is different than previous ones because Venezuelans have begun to connect their deteriorating quality of life with Maduro’s policies, she said.
"At the end, it’s existential because it has to do with values, human values," she said. "When you see these kids coming out and risking their lives, and when you talk with some of them that are hurt, badly hurt, in the hospitals—and I’ve been with them and their families—they let you know how they want to get well fast, in order to go back and keep on fighting."
"Venezuela has awakened," she added. "The world should know well that this process is not reversible."
Machado recounted her meetings with Venezuelans who she said have been persecuted by the state.
One single mother was beaten by a National Guard soldier after she photographed the protests outside her house. She was detained at a military facility for two days and charged with instigating violence, but the soldier that beat her is still free.
"Today she represents the dignity, the courage, and the huge struggle that mothers in Venezuela have to endure," Machado said.
Another mother’s son, 33-year-old Jimmy Vargas, died after falling from a building in the southwestern state of Tachira, the original locus of the protests. National Guardsmen fired at the building while Vargas was on the roof.
Machado spoke with Vargas' mother a week after his death.
"She was standing beside me, she told me, ‘Look, don’t cry, fight. Let me know that my son’s dreams will be fulfilled.’"
Machado noted that Maduro has used state media outlets to promote confrontation and even deliver instructions to paramilitary groups known as "colectivos." She stressed that the protesters desire a peaceful solution to the country’s problems and that Maduro’s repressive measures are only intended to provoke more violence.
Maduro has called the demonstrators "fascists" and has lately referred to opposition leaders as "Chuckys," an apparent reference to the homicidal doll from horror movies. He continues to urge the opposition to attend "peace" talks, which demonstrators say they will not participate in until he releases jailed protest leaders.
Leopoldo Lopez, the country’s most visible opposition leader, has been confined to a military prison for more than a month on charges of instigating violence. He can only communicate with his wife, parents, and lawyers.
"He’s well, he’s strong, and he’s as hopeful as we all are, and as proud as we all are of the way this great movement is moving along," Machado said.
Machado could be next in terms of jail time.
Venezuela’s National Assembly, controlled by Maduro’s socialist party, on Tuesday ordered the attorney general to strip Machado of her legislative immunity and place her under criminal investigation for charges including criminal conspiracy, homicide, and treason.
National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello called Machado an "assassin" and said "you’ll never be president of this country … Come down off your cloud."
Machado said she would remain undeterred by the prospect of imprisonment.
Venezuelan authorities have also jailed two mayors who they said have failed to keep their cities functioning during the protests and remove barricades erected by protesters.
Machado will address the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C. on Friday at the request of Panama, where businesses are raising an outcry about more than $1 billion in debts owed to them by the Venezuelan government. The OAS has been criticized for pledging not to interfere in the Venezuelan crisis.
Machado’s efforts drew support from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) on Wednesday.
"I plead total solidarity with the brave and passionate leader Maria Corina Machado, who wants to focus global attention on the crisis in Venezuela where peaceful protesters are being brutally repressed by the regime of Maduro," the congresswoman said in a statement.
Ros-Lehtinen has introduced legislation that would levy sanctions against Venezuelan officials, similar to those imposed on Russian officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged Maduro to "end this terror campaign against his own people" but has not said whether the administration supports sanctions.
Machado pleaded with U.S. officials to "place your trust in us, the Venezuelans" and noted that Washington had supported them "reluctantly" in the past. Her speech elicited a standing ovation.
"If you could see with us the passion and the conviction that is shared in these huge mobilizations we are seeing in every single day throughout the country, I am sure you would be as I am, hopeful and proud to be part of this process," she said.
"We don’t have tens of leaders, we have millions of leaders, and even if some of us are put aside, we are absolutely convinced that others would take our place."