On July 18, two functionaries in the western state of Yaracuy received calls on their cell phones, supposedly from a government minister, asking them to go to a local hardware store that they had recently sanctioned for price gouging. They complied. It was a set up. When the two men, Johnny Moreno and Hernan Marín Pérez, arrived at the hardware store, they were escorted to the Bolivarian Intelligence Agency (SEBIN), under the guise of filing a report. When they arrived at SEBIN, the two men were informed that they were being detained. There was no proof of any misdemeanor. Moreno was placed under house arrest because he is paraplegic, and Marín was put into solitary confinement. Moreno and Marín were targeted because of their role on the frontlines of the economic war in Venezuela.
Johnny Moreno has been a long time activist in the Caracas parish of El Valle. I came to know him when I stayed with him and his wife Yajaira for long periods while carrying out research for my book on urban social movements in Venezuela, Who Can Stop the Drums? As I describe in my book, Moreno worked for many years in community-based organizations defending the rights of people with disabilities.
When Hugó Chávez came to power in 1998, Moreno connected his struggles in the community with the broader Chavista movement. Under Chávez’s successor Nicolas Maduro, Moreno was appointed as the head of the National Superintendency for the Defence of Socio-Economic Rights (SUNDDE) in Yaracuy as part of a battle to confront companies engaging in destructive economic sabotage.
Between October and December 2013, Moreno, along with the prosecutor Hernan Marín Pérez, sanctioned numerous companies involved in economic sabotage known as “guarimba” who were deliberately causing shortages through hoarding and speculation. Moreno and Marín always clearly followed legal guidelines in their prosecutions. But on July 18, they were arrested on trumped up charges of extortion and conspiracy, punishable under Articles 60 and 70 of the Anti-Corruption Act and Article 37 of the Law Against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing. The charges are clearly retribution for their role played in attacking the destructive practices of regional businesses.
Institutions like SUNDDE are currently sites of struggle between opposing forces in the economic war – pitting those who wish to preserve commercial interests against those working to build alternative socially managed economies. Much media attention has focused on recent political clashes between the opposition and government supporters. But in the economic war the party lines can be blurred, with high ranking government and military figures sometimes defending commercial interests who seek to destroy local economies and create scarcities.
Some critics might point to backing of commercial interests by high ranking state officials as evidence of the depths of corruption that exist in Bolivarian Venezuela. There are undoubtedly problems of corruption that have plagued the Bolivarian project. But at the same time, there exist honest functionaries like Moreno and Marín who are dedicated to fighting against those who wish to destabilize the economy. They confront not only the commercial interests that are openly attacking the government, but also those inside the government who prop up those commercial interests and are willing to defend them at any cost.
Moreno and Marín remain in detention. In a statement they released on August 5, they make the following demands: for a transparent and impartial process of repeal to examine the false charges made against them; wiping these accusations off their records; and a full investigation into those responsible for making the false charges. Despite their battles to carry out the job they have been assigned, Moreno and Marín remain committed to the Bolivarian government. In their statement, they call on all of the revolutionary forces within the PSUV, social movements, organizations of people with disabilities, and others to stay true to the legacy of Hugo Chávez. We should be paying attention to this case as it can tell us much about the dangers that currently face the Bolivarian project from within.
It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to powerful economic interests and corrupt state officials, to carve out a path of integrity and do what you believe to be right. I have always known my friend Johnny as this kind of brave individual. He once told me that having suffered a major car accident in his youth, which was when he became a paraplegic, he believed that the worst thing in his life had happened and nothing worse could ever happen to him. In some ways that belief gave him the freedom to act without fear in pursuit of what he believed. Johnny is a remarkable individual who rose above his difficulties to compete as a basketball player in the Pan American Games in Toronto and to participate in the New York City Marathon, among other achievements. It is imperative that we now call for his freedom, as one of the key grassroots actors who are defending the Bolivarian process.
Sujatha Fernandes is the author of Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Duke University Press, 2010). The book was published in Spanish this year by Editorial Imago Mundi.