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Dispatch From A Former Venezuelan Political Prisoner


Now we hear from Francisco Marquez, a dual American-Venezuelan citizen who got caught up in the upheaval. He was arrested in June while collecting signatures for the recall petition of President Maduro, and he spent four months in prison. He was released last Tuesday and is now in the U.S. We reached him in San Diego, and I started by asking him how he's doing.

FRANCISCO MARQUEZ: It's very much bittersweet. I'm obviously incredibly grateful and very happy that I'm with my family again because they have been, quite frankly, through hell. But I cannot just think about myself. I can't help but think about all of my friends who are still living in these horrible and deplorable conditions.

MARTIN: Let me hear a bit more about the circumstances. As I understand it - that you were working - you got a degree here, a graduate degree here at the Kennedy School - Harvard Kennedy School of Government and that you were working in Venezuela as the chief of staff for a mayor...


MARTIN: ...Who was running for election in western Venezuela. You were also - do I have this right? - collecting signatures for the recall petition.

MARQUEZ: Yes. Besides being chief of staff, I was also a political activist in my party. And so in this dual role, I was - the political coalition, the opposition coalition, put me in charge of helping reach their goal in a western state of Venezuela for the petition to recall Nicolas Maduro.

MARTIN: Can I just understand this? It's my understanding that this is a constitutionally protected activity, isn't it not? That there is a recall process. So...

MARQUEZ: ...That is correct. So this is not something that should be subject to so much, you know, blocks by the government.

MARTIN: So what happened? Can you just tell us - the day that you were arrested, what happened?

MARQUEZ: Sure. So we were stopped by a national guard checkpoint. It was a routine procedure. They saw that we had cash. There was nothing illegal about having cash. We - it was the equivalent of $3,000. It was just basically to pay for transport and basic expenses. But what really changed the attitude of the national guard was when they found 150 pamphlets that had the face of Leopoldo Lopez, which is my party leader, who's also in jail.

And that change of attitude was really striking to me because immediately, the national guard called the captain. The captain asked me to go to a close-by headquarters. And then brief hours later, at 1:00 in the morning, we had the intelligence police arrive.

And they proceeded to threaten to torture us if we didn't speak. They proceeded to threaten to say that if we didn't speak, they were going to make sure that we were charged with terrorism, that they were going to say that we were conspiring to destabilize the republic. And at that moment, it was very clear to me that this was a political situation, a political decision, that my detainment was not a legal decision.

MARTIN: Can I ask you what the conditions were? I mean, they - you say that when you were originally arrested, you were threatened with torture. Forgive me, but I have to ask - were you tortured?

MARQUEZ: No, no, I was not physically tortured. I witnessed torture. Some of the conditions - the regular conditions in Venezuela are horrible, not just what you live through in terms of where you sleep. There's constant mosquitoes. One of the first jail cells that I was at I had dengue fever because it was just so full of mosquitoes. The - it was full of solid feces. And we wouldn't have signs. So maybe a week would pass and we wouldn't receive sunlight and we wouldn't leave our jail cell.

MARTIN: So you say you weren't physically abused yourself, but you witnessed this. And what do you mean by that?

MARQUEZ: You would hear - I heard one time someone saying, please, God, don't beat me. I don't know anything. This poor man, he was handcuffed to the fence. He was facing up and he was surrounded by, let's say, about six, seven custodians. And what they would do - they had these military boots on, and they would step on his knee and on his ankles. And, you know, you hyperextend the knee towards the floor because he was facing up. And they did this for about a half-hour. And you can just see and hear the incredible pain this man was in. I was very surprised. I had never really understood how much it can impact you, hearing the screams of pain, right?

MARTIN: Do you have any idea why you were finally released? It seems to have come as a surprise when you were finally released.

MARQUEZ: It was quite a surprise, almost a miracle in my mind. All I know is it was through diplomatic pressures and discussions. Obviously, I know that the dual nationality played a role. And the thing is it's really hard to understand why the government makes these decisions.

MARTIN: What are the conditions in Venezuela that have led you and others like you to this level of activism where you feel that the only solution is a recall?

MARQUEZ: Yeah, I'll give you, I guess, maybe some objective standards. We've had three-digit inflation for two years in a row. We've had a 10-point reduction in GDP two years in a row. It's not just social and political. It's the economic disaster that we lived through. And it's also very personal. You know, I had a goddaughter who lived on bread for a week. People are not eating well in my country. And it's almost survival mode. I want to have family in Venezuela. I want to come back. And I want in the future, hopefully, to - us to be together in my country. It's my home.

MARTIN: That was Francisco Marquez. He was imprisoned in Venezuela for the last four months. He's a dual Venezuelan-American citizen. He was just released, and we are speaking to him now from San Diego. Mr. Marquez, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MARQUEZ: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.