This article is contributed by Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Each year we celebrate my father’s birthday by presenting the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to a champion of justice who shares Kennedy’s courage and vision for a just and peaceful world.
This year’s winner, Alfredo Romero of Venezuela, receives his award at a momentous time for his nation — and for the cause of free expression to which Romero has dedicated his life.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the great Venezuelan patriot, Francisco de Miranda fought side by side with our forefathers and mothers in the American war for independence. Fifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy set out to fundamentally transform American policy towards Latin America. No longer would we prioritize American multinational corporations or spend 90% of foreign aid on subsidizing military adventurism and mischievous CIA schemes to overthrow elected governments.
Instead, President Kennedy sought to align the US with those who shared our values and should have been our most ardent supporters: students, academics, trade unionists, progressive Catholics, and lovers of freedom.
President Kennedy said:
“...We propose to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom...Let us...awaken our American revolution not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man.”
Soon thereafter, my Uncle Jack welcomed Venezuelan democratic leader Romulo Betancourt to the White House. Betancourt’s fight for democracy, President Kennedy said, made him a “symbol of what we wish for our own country and for our sister republics.” Both President Kennedy and my father received heroes’ welcomes on their visits to Caracas, Venezuela.
Upon President Kennedy’s death, hatchet men Jack Vaughn and Thomas Mann turned Kennedy’s famed Alliance for Progress into a tool to prop up militaries and oligarchs. At Senate hearings on CIA interventions which led to the overthrow of popularly elected leaders in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, Daddy questioned Vaughn, saying:
“Well, Mr. Vaughn, let me get this straight. You’re saying that what the Alliance for Progress has come down to is that if you have a military takeover, outlaw political parties, close down the congress, put your political opponents in jail, and take away the basic freedoms of the people, you can get all the American aid you want. But if you mess around with an American oil company, we’ll cut you off without a penny. Is that right? Is that what the Alliance for Progress now comes down to?”
Vaughn answered, under oath, “That’s about the size of it.”
Today, both our countries are still dealing with the blowback from the abandonment of the idealistic vision of the Alliance for Progress and the heroic figures who championed a free and democratic future, which paved the way for a popular revolt in the election of pro-land reform and anti-American candidate Hugo Chavez in 1999. When Chavez died in 2013, he was replaced by his radical deputy, Nicolas Maduro, who has continued the savage attack on civil society and democratic institutions, started by his mentor and predecessor.
Maduro has choked out the flow of humanitarian aid to Venezuelan citizens while granting the military almost total control over huge swaths of the country’s economic life. He stripped authority from democratic institutions like the National Assembly, has disappeared and jailed tens of thousands of critics, and has bolstered organized crime in the sex, drug, and international arms trades. In just four months this year, over 5,000 people were arbitrarily arrested for peaceful protests.
Four hundred and thirty-nine people are currently detained, where they remain in legal limbo and face torture, sleep and food deprivation, sexual assault, and a raft of other human rights abuses.
Millions suffer from food insecurity and a total lack of basic medicine.
It is in this context that Romero and his organization, Foro Penal Venezolano, are taking on the forces of autocracy and defending people against arbitrary detention, political persecution, and inhumane treatment.
In Venezuela, existing as an NGO is a daily challenge as the government can revoke an organization’s status without reason and intimidate others into silence at any time. Yet Foro Penal’s 200 lawyers and 1,700 volunteers risk their lives to challenge secret jails, shifting court dates, and hidden charges.
Alfredo and his team use cell phones to document every second of contact with police, every transfer of a prisoner, every appearance of a dissident, thereby holding officials accountable, dramatically lessening opportunities to disappear critics of the regime, and increasing the political cost of the state’s repressive actions.
Alfredo’s approach depends on information flow — using cell phones as geo-locators to find where a student is being held, amplifying a message of engagement and empowerment on social media, analyzing individual detainee data to determine exactly where to assert pressure. All of these tactics shine a light on tyranny’s darkest hours. Monthly reports issued by Alfredo and Foro Penal have become the main and most respected source of information on the crisis in Venezuela.
Romero receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award
Alfredo Romero truly has a surplus of courage — a true courage that inspires those around him to help protect Venezuelans from disappearing into the procedural abyss of a police state. Alfredo possesses the kind of organizing courage my father believed would lead us to a more just and peaceful world. Happy Birthday, Senator Kennedy.