South America Can’t Let Venezuela’s Regime Get Away With Murder

World Politics Review, 22.04.2024
James Bosworth, fundador de Hxagon y analista político especializado en América Latina

In February, Ronald Ojeda was kidnapped from his apartment in Santiago, Chile, by armed men impersonating Chilean police. His body was discovered weeks later in a suitcase buried under cement, an obvious attempt by the killers to cover their tracks.

Chilean prosecutors likely have enough evidence to prove that Ojeda’s murder was an extraterritorial assassination carried out on the orders of the Venezuelan government. Ojeda was a former Venezuelan military officer who had been granted political asylum in Chile in 2018, after he fell out with the government of President Nicolas Maduro. While in Chile, he continued to be a vocal critic of the Maduro regime.

Chilean authorities believe the murder plot was hatched in Venezuela and carried out by operatives who may have used loose connections to the Tren de Aragua criminal gang on Maduro’s behalf. One Venezuelan suspect is currently under arrest in Chile, while two others have already fled back to their homeland.

Chilean officials, including President Gabriel Boric, have called for Venezuela to extradite the two who fled. After the Maduro government initially dragged its feet, with one official calling the Tren de Aragua “a fiction” created by the international media, Chile recalled its ambassador to Caracas for consultations. Venezuela’s attorney general has since said it will cooperate with the extradition request, but added that the Tren de Aragua gang had been dismantled. The bureaucratic cooperation between the two countries to advance extradition process masks the anger that many Chileans feel at the fact the murder was committed in their country.

Any repression is horrifying, especially the killing of a political opponent. But the fact that the Maduro regime had Ojeda murdered in a foreign democratic nation should be considered a massive violation of sovereignty and international norms. Amid South America’s numerous other high-profile crises and diplomatic disputes, the reaction from regional governments has been underwhelming thus far. But this sort of egregious misbehavior should break through the background noise and force governments to rethink their priorities and sympathies.

In some respects, the muted response from everyone except Chile is understandable. The region is already balancing a mess of priorities regarding Venezuela, including longstanding efforts to ensure this year’s elections are free and fair, a more recent diplomatic surge to prevent conflict between Caracas and neighboring Guyana, and the need to improve the country’s economy and political situation enough to reduce the outflow of migrants. Amid all of these urgent tasks, tackling the Ojeda case is tough, especially while the facts are still being investigated.

The fact that Venezuela’s regime had a political dissident murdered in Chile should be considered a massive violation of sovereignty and international norms. Instead, the reaction from regional governments has been underwhelming thus far.

Moreover, if public reaction to Ojeda’s murder has been restrained, it seems to be having at least an indirect impact on those other files. In the weeks following the murder, Brazilian President Lula da Silva became more forceful in his demands about the upcoming Venezuelan election. The news from Chile plus rumors of plots against Venezuelan dissidents in Colombia may also have pushed President Gustavo Petro to issue stronger statements about Venezuela’s election process and even become more personally involved. Last week, Petro flew to Venezuela, where he met with Maduro and opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales. But he was widely condemned for not meeting with Maria Corina Machado, who won the opposition primary in a landslide last year but has been blocked from running by the Maduro regime. His lack of judgment raises questions about how Petro’s government will manage any enhanced role it tries to play.

That Brazil and Colombia have ratcheted up the pressure a notch on Venezuela over the upcoming elections is a welcome development, but it’s nowhere near enough of a reaction to Ojeda’s murder. The region should be rallying around Chile and Boric, demanding a full investigation of the murder, while laying the groundwork for enhanced intelligence cooperation to prevent additional extraterritorial assassinations by the Maduro regime. That would demonstrate to Venezuela that the region was serious about preventing political violence and intimidation from spreading beyond its borders.

At the very least, the issue deserves a public reaction as strong as the diplomatic backlash against the Ecuadorian government for its raid of the Mexican Embassy in Quito earlier this month. Too many countries have treated the violation of Mexico’s diplomatic privileges as unforgivable but act as if extrajudicial killings of dissidents abroad by Caracas barely merit a shrug. In addition to being considered an act of terrorism under international law, assassinating political opponents on foreign soil is as flagrant a breach of sovereignty as can be imagined. It should provoke exponentially more furor and coordinated consequences than violating the sanctity of an embassy.

There is a historical precedent for this, coincidentally also involving Chile, but this time on the other side of the equation. In September 1976, the Chilean regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet used a car bomb to kill Orlando Letlier, a Chilean political dissident living in exile in Washington. The indignity over the breach of sovereignty among U.S. government officials and congressional leaders led Washington to distance itself from Pinochet, who was until then largely considered to be an ally. That shift in sentiment would gather momentum during the administration of former President Jimmy Carter and beyond, until Chile’s eventual return to democracy in 1991.

Given the Pinochet regime’s many other human rights abuses, it shouldn’t have required an extraterrestrial murder to lead the U.S. to distance itself. The same is true in the case of Venezuela when it comes to regional condemnation of the Maduro regime. The United Nations has documented tens of thousands of cases of political abuse, kidnapping, illegal detention, torture and even extrajudicial killing in Venezuela. In recent years, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet assisted in that effort while she was serving as the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights. Bachelet’s credibility as someone who suffered torture under the Pinochet regime made her particularly credible among South American leftists as a spokesperson on the issue.

Still, the parallels between the Ojeda and the Letlier assassinations should be clear. Rightly or wrongly, when it comes to global politics and relations between governments, a single extraterritorial murder counts for more than countless human rights abuses committed by a government within its own borders. Some leaders in South America claim that respect for “sovereignty” prevents them from criticizing Venezuela’s domestic conditions, including the rights abuses documented by the United Nations. Those same leaders lashed out at Ecuador’s government for the violation of sovereignty represented by its raid on Mexico’s embassy.

The question of sovereignty should also lead them to speak out in the case of Venezuela committing murder in another country’s territory. And while the reaction has been muted so far, all the details and historical precedents mean the Ojeda assassination has the potential to move countries in the hemisphere that have otherwise been reluctant to stand up against Venezuela’s abuses to finally do so.

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