Six union leaders have been detained for more than a year. The reason: leading the protests for decent wages and other labor demands, requests that in Venezuela are recurring and common across different sectors of public administration, that is: health, education, basic companies, among others.
Pableysa Ostos // lapatilla.com
The trade unionists Reynaldo Cortés, Alonso Meléndez, Alcides Bracho, Néstor Astudillo, Gabriel Blanco and Emilio Negrín were participating in the mobilizations to demand respect for labor human rights, fair wages and the repeal of memorandum 2792 and subsequent instructions from the National Budget Office (Onapre).
These six men were arrested in July 2022: five of them were held at the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), in La Yaguara headquarters in El Paraíso Parish (Caracas), and one was imprisoned in Zone 7 of the Sucre Municipality. After a year and almost two months in detention, on August 1st, 2023 they received a sentence of 16 years in prison for the crimes of conspiracy and criminal association.
What is the evidence against them? Cellphone screenshots and messages posted on the social network X (formerly known as Twitter) were the only things presented by the prosecution as evidence during the trial.
“The six remain in La Yaguara, awaiting the publication of the written sentence that must determine which detention center they will be sent to,” said Eduardo Torres, lawyer in the case.
Torres pointed out that the sentence is “an aberration, because they “associated” to defend labor rights and they are protected not only by the Constitution and the laws, but also by ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention 87 on freedom of association.”
The lawyer, who has accompanied the six unionists since their arrest, concludes with this statement: “It is a political retaliation and also a message of intimidation against the labor sector, workers and unionists who are fighting for fair wages. Let’s remember that they were arrested between July 4th and 7th of last year, when the fight and protests for wages, collective agreements and against the “instructive” (memo, executive order) by the ‘Onapre’ (National budget office) were at their highest and widespread throughout the country.
The NGO Venezuelan Human Rights Action Education Program (Provea), through its account on the X social network (fka Twitter), rejected the court’s decision. “An arbitrary conviction for ‘conspiracy’ using alleged screen captures of WhatsApp. The only witness who denounced never came forward in 1 year and 2 months. Social fighters remained in the streets to demand decent wages in Venezuela and against the Onapre. A new blow to the social protest, union freedom and their fundamental rights.”
Who are the detainees and how were they arrested?
– Gabriel José Blanco Flores is a trade unionist and humanitarian worker with the NGO ‘Éxodo’. He collaborated with NGO Provea and is a leader of the Independent Trade Union Alliance (ASI). He also supported the ASI-Caracas media. He was for a time in the ranks of the left-wing ‘Bandera Roja’ (Red Flag) party.
Blanco was apprehended on July 7th, 2022 at dawn, specifically at his residence, located in the Caracas Parish of Caracas, by officials of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB). The day before, on the night of July 6th, 2022, he had been approached and intercepted by members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dgcim). Blanco refused to accompany them for a supposed “interview,” as the officials did not present any type of court order linking him to any ongoing criminal investigation.
– Néstor Astudillo is a trade unionist and delegate of the ASI Trade Union Central in Miranda State and also a political activist of the Red Flag party.
He was detained in the ‘Valles del Tuy’ on July 6th, 2022, by officials of the State security agencies, who did not have any identification. They wore black clothing, carried short and long weapons, according to what he told his lawyers. Astudillo was imprisoned in 2014 for participating in protests against the economic and social policies of the Chavista regime.
– Reynaldo Cortés is a member of the Regional Council of Workers of the Guárico State within the organization chart of the ‘Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela’ (Venezuela’s Confederation of Workers, CTV). He is also a leader of the ‘Bandera Roja’ party in Guárico.
He was arrested at dawn on July 7th, 2022, presumably by order of a court in Caracas, in San Juan de los Morros, capital of Guárico State. They transferred him to the headquarters of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dgcim) and presented him before a court, which declined its jurisdiction on the case. They took him to Caracas for his presentation before another court.
– Alcides José Bracho Vivas is a member of the Union of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers (FVM) affiliated to the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV). He is a professor of Chemistry and Plastic Arts. He is also a member of Bandera Roja.
Bracho was apprehended on July 4th, 2022 at his house located in ‘El Junquito’. At least 10 PNB officials participated in the arrest. According to what was reported by the lawyer Eduardo Torres, the officials forcibly entered his apartment without a warrant, completely searched the house and seized two computers and two cell phones, including his wife’s.
“In addition, they ransacked the house taking money, watches, jewelry and other household utensils. He was transferred to the PNB headquarters in ‘La Quebradita’, Caracas,” added the lawyer.
– Alonso Meléndez is a fisheries engineer and has degrees from the ‘Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador’ (Libertador Experimental Pedagogical University) in University Level Teaching and in also Labor Law and Human Talent Management. He was studying for a master’s degree in Public Management at the ‘Universidad Nacional Experimental Francisco de Miranda’ (Francisco de Miranda National Experimental University). This leader worked at the Amuay and Cardón refineries, in the Paraguaná Refining Center, as an assistant for planning and assessment of works and contracts, and as a mechanical foreman. He is part of the ranks of Red Flag.
On July 5th, 2022, the PNB raided his house located in ‘Los Taques’, Falcón State. They arrested him at dawn on July 6th. They transferred him to Caracas, to the ‘La Quebradita’ police headquarters two days after his arrest, because the Falcón court where they had presented him declined jurisdiction.
– Emilio Antonio Negrín Borges is a lawyer, President of the National Federation of Judicial Workers. He coordinates the judicial area of the National Workers Union Coalition and is part of the ‘Central Sindical Confederación de Sindicatos Autónomos’ (Codesa, Central Union of the Confederation of Autonomous Workers). He participated as a Codesa delegate in the 1st Social Dialogue Forum in April 2002.
“He was kidnapped on July 5th, in the morning, by three presumed Dgcim officers, who appeared at his residence in ‘El Junquito’ (a working class suburb of Caracas) and asked him to accompany him to the PNB headquarters in La Quebradita for an alleged interview. They did not have an arrest warrant. He was deprived of his liberty for 72 hours and was not allowed to see his relatives. He remained in the custody of the State,” explained the lawyer.
Torres recalled that the UNETE-CODESA issued an urgent request for intervention before the former Director General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, a document that rests in the office of the DG-OIT and records it dated July 5th, 2022.
Then and there the arbitrary detention of union leader Emilio Antonio Negrín by the Dgcim was denounced, after the Dgcim proceeded to arrest him arbitrarily and specifically transferred him to one of the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin).
“We want to inform you that our UNETE-CODESA organizations have sent two documents to the ILO Administrative Councils and other control organizations denouncing the threats, harassment, surveillance and arbitrary detentions executed and carried out by the security organs of the Government of Venezuela,” as was stated in the document sent to the General Directorate of the ILO.
There are demands for their unconditional release
During the first semester of 2023, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) documented 4,351 protests throughout Venezuela, an increase of 12% compared to the first semester of 2022. The reports details that labor rights were demanded in 3,112 of the demonstrations, particularly the rejection of the official minimum wage.
On Monday, August 7th, the relatives of the six union leaders and the lawyers in the case demanded that the High Commissioner of the Office for Human Rights of the United Nations Organization (OHCHR), Volker Türk, rule on the statements of the regime’s prosecutor general, Tarek William Saab, who denied that they were union leaders and assured that they supposedly planned to carry out actions (violent acts) against the government, including assaulting a military installation to appropriate the weapons park.
For her part, Yorbelis Oropeza, activist and wife of Alcides Bracho, warned that the relatives of the 6 workers are strengthened despite the 16-year prison sentence. “We are sad, but we are not defeated. Nicolás Maduro, you are afraid of us.”
“We are harassed and persecuted by a State that intends to remain in power at the cost of (our, the citizens) suffering,” added Oropeza.
Ana Rosario Contreras, a nurse and union leader, expressed through videos published by Provea on the X social network (fka Twitter): “They can call us terrorists, we are not going to remain silent and we are going to continue on the streets denouncing hunger.”
For Gricelda Sánchez, a teacher and union leader, “… what all the workers in the country are going through is a tragedy.”
Three more leaders arrested
In Ciudad Guayana, 672.8 kilometers from Caracas, the reality is not very different. In less than four months, three union leaders have been arrested and all have ended up in a detention center in Caracas, the capital city.
Daniel Romero has four children (all minors). He has more than 12 years of service at Sidor (Government owned iron smelter), he had been classified as non-required (non-critical) personnel. He is a factory hand worker, deployed to specifically the billet area.
Romero has a stomach disease, so he needs a special diet. He was also a candidate for Mayor of the Sifontes Municipality in 2021, running for the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).
Leonardo Azócar, is a hot rolling worker, with 34 years of service, is the Secretary of Labor and Complaints of the Single Union of Workers in the Steel and Similar Industries (Sutiss). He has 8 children and is the fourth of seven siblings.
He is the son of Luis Azócar Malavé, the first president of that union. His father managed to sign the first collective contract with Sidor and the bases, as well as the collective contract for the other ‘basic companies’ in Ciudad Guayana. He was the first union leader to sue a state company and win the lawsuit.
Azócar and Romero were arrested in June 2023 and charged with the crimes of incitement to hatred, criminal association and boycott.
Provea assured that so far in 2023, at least 21 Sidor employees have been deprived of liberty for demanding job improvements and the payment of contractual debts.
“Daniel Romero, Juan Cabrera (released hours after his arrest) and Leandro Azócar join the list of workers victims of arbitrary arrests by the ‘worker’s’ government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela,” said the NGO, which also noted that in January, another 18 Sidor workers were arrested and later released.
In July, Bladimir Josué Tremaria, President of the United Front of Socialist Workers (Futseb) of Bolívar State, was arrested. He is the father of three daughters.
Tremaria was charged with conspiracy, trafficking of strategic material, criminal association and cover-up.
According to lawyer Torres, these arrests are a message to the workers and trade unionists who are demonstrating in the streets. “They used a ‘cooperating patriot’ (euphemism for government paid snitch), an anonymous whistleblower. Of course, a year and two months have passed, and the person who made the complaint didn’t even show up ever. But the protests continue in the streets, despite the prisoners, those who were taken away in Sidor, those from the Bolívar construction union, despite all these intimidations, workers continue in the fight”.