Good afternoon, Chairman Levitt, distinguished members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, and ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you, Irwin Cotler, and thank you, Jared Genser.
My name is Lilian Tintori. I am honoured to be able to testify today.
As I join you here, at this very moment, hundreds of thousands of people in my country of Venezuela are protesting peacefully in the streets. As of today, there have been 46 days of protests in the streets. They are exercising their constitutional rights to challenge a repressive dictatorship and to protest the lack of food and medicine, the high rates of violence, and government persecution.
Our demands should be simple for any democracy to meet: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the holding of general elections, the opening of the UN-run humanitarian channels, and respect for the national assembly. But we do not live in a democracy, and the Maduro regime is so afraid of its own citizens that it seeks to violently repress us.
For the past five weeks, I have been in the streets with these protestors and have experienced this repression first-hand. As we peacefully assemble, the government sends soldiers, military tanks, and helicopters to suffocate us with tear gas. The other day, when trying to stop our march for justice, the government tear-gassed an elementary school filled with schoolchildren, which ended up killing an elderly woman.
To further intimidate us, the government cowardly sends its armed gangs called colectivos, civil groups with arms, to shoot at us. Since the start of the protests on April 1, over 2,000 people have been arrested. More than 1,700 people have been wounded and, right now, over 40 people have died: today in the morning, one, and yesterday in the afternoon, two more.
There are currently over 180 political prisoners in Venezuela. As many of you may know, one of them is my husband, Leopoldo López, a leader of the opposition who has been wrongly detained for the past three years for calling for a change in our current government through peaceful democratic and constitutional means. He is serving 14 years in prison after a sham trial, which even the lead prosecutor admits was a farce.
Leopoldo is a prisoner of conscience. Though a civilian, Leopoldo is being kept in a military prison where he is routinely denied his legal right to see his family and lawyers. Just recently, he was held incommunicado for over a month: no phone, no newspaper, no communication.
When a prominent journalist tweeted a rumour that Leopoldo was poisoned and possibly dead, we could not confirm that because the military leaders who run the prison and the hospital refused to allow us entry.
I finally got to see Leopoldo last week and, thank God, he's all right. But we fear for his emotional and physical well-being.
With two young children, I spend many sleepless nights worrying about what might happen to their father. Manuela, my daughter, is seven. Leopoldo Santiago, my son, is four years old.
These soldiers know they are violating our human rights, but they do so under direct orders from the government, from the dictatorship. To shut down the protest, the government seeks to intimidate us with violence or arbitrary detention, but we will not be intimidated. We have too much at stake, and our love for freedom is greater than our fear.
Since the last time I testified before this subcommittee, on November 25, 2014, the situation in Venezuela has worsened dramatically. The Maduro regime has been ruling by emergency decrees in order to bypass the opposition-led national assembly. The supreme court rubber-stamps any action of the executive branch and in March attempted to dissolve the national assembly. We don't have a parliament in Venezuela right now. They backtracked on this attempt in the face of protests, but now the government seeks to develop a parallel citizens assembly or constituyente as a way to undermine the people's electoral voice. They want to block elections. They want to block people's vote.
I am concerned that as my country slips into a repressive dictatorship, it is also becoming a narco state. There is complete and total impunity in Venezuela, 99% impunity, which makes it a haven for narco traffickers.
Top government officials including the vice-president are linked to the drugs trade and thus have an incentive for us to become a failed state.
This systematic violation of human rights compounds the dire humanitarian situation of my country. Inflation, which is expected to reach 2,000% this year, has caused several shortages of food and medicine. Half of Venezuelan children do not get three meals a day, and over a million students have dropped out of school because of hunger. The average Venezuelan has lost 19 pounds in the past year. As too many people go hungry, hospitals are unable to treat curable diseases. Infant and maternal mortality are skyrocketing as are malaria and Zika virus.
Doctors regularly turn patients away because there are no medicines to cure them.
Our desperation has led to over 115,000 people fleeing the country. Already the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers to Canada has doubled over the past year. As our condition worsens, we can expect an even bigger exodus.
On the international stage, Canada has become an international beacon for human rights. We are especially grateful for its work with other regional leaders, such as Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, to hold the Maduro regime to account in international forums such as the Organization of American States.
That said, now we need Canadian leadership to help ease my people's suffering. Maduro has expressed a willingness to allow the United Nations to administer its humanitarian aid in the country, and I believe that Canada can be the key player in ensuring that this humanitarian canal reaches those most vulnerable.
First, we need, and independence needs, a sentiment in the country, and then we need to develop a plan for delivery that ensures independence and efficacy. The sad truth is that in Venezuela we no longer have a government that serves the people. Instead, the government only increases our suffering. I fear the consequences of the implosion of the state for its 30 million people, and thus I ask for your help and for Canadian leadership.
Before you today, I represent the voice of the suffering Venezuelan. Please hear our call. We don't have time for democracy. We don't have time for a statement in one or two or three months. We need action. We need help. We are in an emergency. We are asking for an emergency debate. We are asking for a debate on the Venezuelan case as an emergency. Please help us. Strength and faith.