We always say Nazis and East German Communists should have said “No!” to commands from the armies of their dictatorships. But how do we treat someone who has sufficient conviction and guts to say “No!” to a dictator we abhor?
Venezuela descended into a crazy dictatorship. We've imposed sanctions; The OAS accuses the Maduro regime of “crimes against humanity,” and the International Criminal Court is investigating human rights abuses. The U.S. calls the dictatorship “a failed state,” and our Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is talking about “regime change.”
So imagine you're Helegner Ramón Tijera Moreno, a Venezuelan soldier. You agree that the Maduro regime is beyond the pale, a dictatorship destroying its people. You try to resign from the army. The response is physical and psychological abuse. Finally you flee to the U.S., a bastion of freedom and a strong opponent of the evil you're resisting. You don't sneak in. You present yourself to Border Patrol at a port-of-entry in El Paso. It's September 2016. You figure you'll get a fair hearing, maybe get asylum, and at worst get help relocating elsewhere.
You don't know that the rate of denials of asylum cases in El Paso (95%) is one of the nation's highest.
You don't expect your U.S. ally to keep you in prison. At your hearing, you don't expect the hearing judge and the prosecutor to tell you to go back to Venezuela, face desertion charges, and be tortured. (Under a new law, they could jail you 10-20 years just for your political opinions.) The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the OAS human rights arm have issued resolutions saying no one should be involuntarily repatriated to Venezuela.
You appeal. Even so, ICE takes you to an airport and attempts to deport you. You tell them you want a lawyer. ICE says “no te queremos acá” [“We don't want you here!”] and stops short of deporting you only because your lawyer provides proof of your pending appeal.
Helegner remains in jail, with no release imminent, and may even be deported despite his pending appeal. I have no basis for saying how that appeal should come out; but under our laws and traditions, Helegner deserves to be heard.
Why are we treating this man so badly, when his only mistake was to resist a dictatorship we say he should resist and to believe that our rhetoric might have some meaning?
It makes no sense. The law and simple humanitarian values would suggest treating him better and at least trying to help resettle him elsewhere if his asylum appeal is denied. Our treaties regarding refugees may legally require us to treat him better than we have. Logically, he doesn't deserve to be in jail, since he did not even enter the country illegally. Add to that the fact that our government purports to be against the Maduro regime, and has even said it won't recognize the results of a recent sham election, and we should want to encourage Venezuelans who agree with us.
ICE won't tell me what it's thinking. But one quick guess is that the ethos within ICE (to which Mr. Trump's regime is one contributing factor) is so mindlessly, almost viciously anti-immigrant that no one stops to make a reasoned decision, let alone a wrongly reasoned one. So a guy rots in jail for doing what we think is right.
Please, guys, not in our name!
[The above column appeared this morning, Sunday, 17 June 2018, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG's website. A spoken version will air periodically on KRWG Radio and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM, our community radio station (streamable at www.lccommunityradio.org.]
[I have not researched the law on this, but our conduct toward Mr. Tijera Moreno seems likely to have violated U.S. law. The U.S. has entered into treaties meant to ensure the protection and safe passage of refugees. These include the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. Under these, which the U.S. has implemented with laws and regulations, the United States may not return an individual to a country where he or she faces persecution from a government or a group the government is unable or unwilling to control based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A separate treaty, known as the Convention Against Torture, prohibits the return of people to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe they may be tortured. Without prejudging Mr. Tijera Moreno's case, there does at least seem to be "substantial grounds to believe [he] may be tortured" if returned to Venezuela. ]
[A friend emailed me to comment:
Since I'm not aware of the facts of the case presented in today's column, I'll assume your point is well taken. With regard to your assessment of Venezuela, I suggest you contact Jimmy Carter and ask his assessment. Having had a long term curiosity about Latin America, I think the only dictatorships in Latin America have the Made in America stamp of approval. They always let Wall Street loot their countries. Mr Carter is competent in Spanish, has shown a deep interest and understanding of the area and has participated in international audits of the Venezuelan elections since 2000. His assessment might be very interesting. Take care and thanks once again for all your efforts to help us.
I appreciate the comment. Certainly there's a long history of the U.S. supporting Latin American dictatorships and opposing (even destroying) regimes that have more interest in their people's well-being and less in accommodating the United Fruit Company. Consider Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, and a host of other countries, during the past 75 years. Cuba's example is instructive -- and vivid in my mind because I was 12 or 13 in 1959, when Castro led the rebellion against the dictator Batista. As we often did in those days, we (a) misread any nationalism, or desire for independence, as hostility to us, and (b) assumed that hostility to us meant alliance with the Soviet Union, and (c) in this manner and by overreacting, pushed independent leaders into the arms of our enemies. (That's clearest, of course, in the example of Ho Chi Minh and Viet Nam.) I also lived -- breathlessly -- through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I certainly was and am glad the missiles went away. I do not know whether Castro would have looked to the Soviet Union for support if we had not been so hostile to Cuban independence from our domination. Certainly while he may have been personally ambitious, and some reports say he was always too ideological, he cared about the welfare of the common person in Cuba in a way Batista sure didn't. And we didn't. I remember from 1969 a pal who'd gone (illegally, I'm sure) to Cuba relating with wonder that Castro could walk among the people without the host of armed guards a U.S. President would need. Without justifying everything Castro did during his long reign, I felt over the years that we'd have been wiser to come to terms with Castro's (yes, Communist) rule in Cuba and try to help Cubans by not trying to destroy the country's economy to accomplish regime change.
Similarly for years Venezuela's leader, Chavez, though friendly to Castro and unfriendly to us, seemed to be doing (or trying to do) some very good things. A friend, now dead, visited frequently. A woman I knew went there frequently for medical treatment. Venezuela treated refugees from neighboring Colombia (where civil war and drug activities were destroying the country) well, and tried to help other nations with medical care and such.
Without our sanctions and other activities, isolating Venezuela, would that country have prospered or failed? Would it have become quite as dictatorial? I frankly do not know. I'll take my friend's advice and read Carter, and other sources.
For right now, my best guess remains that at this point Venezuela is a failed state, and a dictatorship, and repressive, but I lack the knowledge to assess the relative shares of blame to assign to the various players, including the U.S.]
[I remember from my own youth that when we felt strongly we wanted ethnic equality and an end to segregation, or questioned the Viet Nam War, many older folks responded by calling us Communist or asking, "What are you, a Communist?" (Somehow in 1970 or so a local service club, through the NMSU Journalism Department Chair, asked me to come and speak on how the disaffected young people like me felt about things. I did. I talked, not very eloquently but from my young heart, about seeing the pain of southern blacks, wanting peace, thinking we were making a huge and counterproductive mistake in Viet Nam. Then at some point, when I paused, the first question -- asked in a tone of outrage -- was "Young man, do you realize that the alcoholism rate in Russia is three times what it is here?" I hadn't mentioned the Soviet Union. I surely wasn't arguing that its system was better than ours. But that's how my questioning and criticisms sounded to him.)
The Soviet Union posed a threat to us. It was our enemy on the international stage. But from whatever mix of fear, honest concern, venality, personal ambition, incompetence, and greed, our leaders did us a terrible disservice forcing every human dispute into the "Soviet Union vs. U.S." or "communism vs. capitalism" tension. I like democracy, and never was a fan of the Soviet Union. "Socialism" and "capitalism" are two extremes in the spectrum of economic systems. To me, either extreme fails. Socialism is a great idea, except that it fails to take account of some persistent human imperfections -- and, perhaps for that reason, never quite works for any substantial period. (I wonder about Kerala, though.) Pure capitalism is brutal, ugly, and inhumane, and encourages the worst in us, and also turns so much of everything, even in human relationships, into buying and selling and viewing everything in terms of "what is it worth to me?"]