For this week’s episode, host Muna Gasim and panelist Eddie Kembery speak to Alfredo Romero, one of the founding members of Foro Penal, a human rights organization that won the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for its work in Venezuela. Beginning with Alfredo’s own story, this episode is a masterclass in grassroots activism as we explore what has driven Foro Penal’s growth from four lawyer’s pro-bono work to an organisation of over 7000 activists. On the way, we discuss the difference between macro and micro resistance, activism without sacrifices, and Alfredo’s unconventional use of music.

Alfredo begins his story by speaking about the death of Jesus Mohammed on April 11th 2002 during the protests against Hugo Chávez which left 300 people injured. Alfredo’s effort to assist the family of the young boy pro-bono was one of the first actions he took against repression. He says he never thought of himself as a human rights activist – he had studied banking law – but as he has kept helping more and more families, and recruiting and educating more volunteers to assist him, Foro Penal has steadily grown.

“One woman, three years in jail without a sentence, her trial never ends… she was pregnant, and tortured… no one knows what happened to the baby”

Alfredo Romero

He then takes us through the range of actions Foro Penal volunteers are encouraged to take, formalised in his Legal Litigations Manual. The main emphasis is on taking direct local actions, including going to courts, raising attention of opinion makers, trade unions or local communities in order to precipitate a release. As he points out, the judicial system is only one of multiple systems they leverage to get a victim released. Next, he will often try and encourage international support – he suggests Foro Penal is the leading Venezeualan NGO in terms of leveraging international attention. Underlining this are “communicative actions”: posts on social media, press conferences and traditional media, once more organised by a colossal network of activists. Finally, Foro Penal will occasionally stage non-violent protests as a way of increasing the political cost of the repression. Later, we return to the topic, and Alfredo summarises the effect of having a clear formula with a drawing that captures how it streamlines decision making and avoids the necessity of extended experimentation:

“Concerts in the streets of Caracas, we play on the streets, music … And we start talking about situations

Alfredo Romero

Alfredo talks about one example of staging non-violent social events. In Caracas, for example, the stage street concerts, where people will gather and speak about community issues as well as human rights. Alfredo will often compose songs that specifically address relevant issues. This reflects Alfredo’s own personality, as both a certified lawyer at the international court and musician who plays the guitar and sings.

“Before being a musician I’m a human being, but before being a lawyer I’m a musician”

Alfredo Romero

We then talk about the viability of Alfredo’s strategy at decreasing large scale repression. Obviously Foro Penal has released many people, but why are they still being put in jail? Alfredo calls it the “revolving door effect” – for each person that comes out, another goes in. For Alfredo, taking a stand against this micro-repression is enough, because little achievements stack up, and often those released or effected by the activism become supporters of Foro Penal’s efforts, and in time become a macro-problem for the government. What will happen in the next five years? Alfredo isn’t sure – he says that he has always been expecting liberation, it’s a necessary part of the job – but he is hopeful that Foro Penal’s network will continue to grow and give hope to the unlawfully detained.

“We haven’t stopped the macro-repression – as I mentioned, repression has increased – but be have made progress on the micro”

Alfredo Romero

We talk about the universal applicability of the Foro Penal model. Alfredo has written about the models of repression (The Repression Clock) and Foro Penal operates with a clearly defined formal system. Could this work everywhere? Alfredo thinks so. He thinks all regimes go through the same stages – appeasement, awakening, hopeful and darkening – and outlines what those mean to him in more detail. For him, Venezuela is in an “appeasement” phase – and is about to wake up.

“They don’t care about what ideology they have, they care about controlling power”

Alfredo Romero

Finally, we return to Alfredo’s personal journey. Alfredo speaks of “”the embrace of freedom” – liberation is an amazing feeling, but it is also an amazing feel to liberate someone else. “There are many people around the world who are looking for this satisfaction”, so that asking them is a gift, rather than a burden. That is what he means by activism without sacrifice.

Who ever wants to become a billionaire, do not become a human rights activist. But there is something more valuable about being a lawyer, which is the satisfaction of helping someone.

Alfredo Romero

Political Context

In April 2002, Chávez was briefly ousted from power in the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt following actions by some of the military and media and demonstrations by the minority opposition, but he was returned to power after two days as a result of demonstrations by the majority of the public and actions by most of the military. However, political unrest continued during his term including a national strike that lasted more than two months in December 2002 – February 2003. He was elected for another term in December 2006 and in 2009 called for a referendum to remove term limits for all elected officials. Re-elected in 2012, he died in office in early 2013. He was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro (initially as interim president before narrowly winning the 2013 presidential elections). A combination of policy and oil price collapse caused a recession in 2014, and economic conditions continued to deteriorate in 2016. Maduro’s push to ban potential opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from politics in 2017 also escalated protests.

On 20 May 2018, President Nicolás Maduro won the presidential election amidst allegations of massive irregularities by his main rivals. His inauguration resulted in widespread condemnation; provoking the National Assembly to invoke a state of emergency and some nations to remove their embassies from Venezuela. On 23 January 2019, the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, was declared the interim president by that body, and recognized as the legitimate president by several nations, including the United States and the Lima Group. About 60 countries recognised him as acting president, but support for Guaidó has declined since a failed military uprising attempt in April 2019.

Today’s Guest

Alfredo Romero is the executive director of Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights organization composed of more than 100 well-known lawyers and a group of over 5.000 human rights activists who provide legal assistance to victims of arbitrary detentions in Venezuela, as well as assisting the families and victims of oppression.

Alfredo graduated as an Attorney in Caracas before obtaining a masters in Latin American Studies from Georgetown and another in Law from LSE. He went on to work as a professional lawyer, before starting humanitarian efforts in 2002. Since then, Foro Penal has helped over 10,000 people, and Alfredo recieved the Orden Bicentenaria del Colegio de Abogados in 2014, the highest recognition given by this entity in Venezuela, as well as the Robert Kennedy award in 2017.

Foro Penal’s website can be accessed here.

And Alfredo’s book, The Repression Clock, published by the Wilson Centre, can be accessed for free online here.

Panelist’s Comment

In a country that has been failed by multiple decades of political leadership, his seemingly modest focus on emotional resonance, story-telling and community cohesion (over, say, political signalling or insistent street protests) is deceptively powerful and something that traditional journalism might fail to capture because it isn’t as fast-moving or flashy as rioting or grand pronouncements. At the same time, Alfredo was unusually aware of the government’s reasons for repression. Although he generalises about tyranny, the Venezuelan government aren’t monsters – they are acting rationally and effectively – and his balancing of emotional story with appropriate utilitarianism (ultimately “to increase the political cost of repression”) shows that Foro Penal can act with the head, as well as the heart.

– Eddie Kembery