CARACAS, Venezuela — Belkis Barrios de Torrealba, aged 65, has been fighting for the revolution all her life. As a public school teacher in rural Venezuela, she felt seen by Hugo Chávez, the country’s late socialist president. For the past 20 years, she has been a proud self-proclaimed Chavista and a supporter of the current government headed by Nicolás Maduro - the preferred successor Chávez picked out as he was dying of cancer.
But today, Belkis is fighting for justice for Aryelis, her daughter, and Alfredo Chirinos, Aryelis’ partner. Both, like her, were staunch Chavistas. Both are now in prison under terrorism and corruption charges.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, there have been over 30 arrests for dissent by Maduro’s government. The majority were charged with violating the vague anti-hate law, often used to facilitate censorship. This uptick in detentions is fuelling discontent among grassroots Chavistas, who are calling Maduro’s government “bourgeoisie” - a direct contradiction to the ‘people power’ that Chávez empowered.
Family members hold a sign that says Aryelis and Alfredo are innocent. Photo: Lexi Parra for VICE News
But despite this new wave of repression, people are speaking out. A recent Twitter campaign #LiberenALosTrabajadoresPresos (Free the Imprisoned Workers) from the Chavista activist base called out the arbitrary arrests, which directly affect working-class people.
The case of Aryelis and Alfredo shows how far the government will go to suppress dissent, whether it be from the left or the right. Local Chavista groups are wondering who might be next.
In the past few years, Venezuela, which is in the grip of a punishing social and economic crisis, has been accused repeatedly of systemic human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions and torture.
Alfredo, aged 32, and Aryelis, aged 39, come from revolutionary, working class families in rural Lara. Alfredo’s father is a former guerrilla, and passed on his leftist ideology to his son, who left home in 2002 at 15 years old. As his mother, Mercedes, recalls he left a note on the fridge that said “I am going to find Chávez.” He joined the youth division of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela - dedicating his life to the anti-imperialist fight.
Both Alfredo and Aryelis were mid-level managers at the state-controlled oil company PDVSA. They prided themselves on helping the country ward off the disastrous effects of U.S. sanctions. Living together in a modest apartment in downtown Caracas, they spent their free time working in the community as theater actors and arts teachers.
On February 28, Aryelis and Alfredo were called into a work meeting - but something didn't seem right. Aryelis sent a text message to her older sister, Jhensy, that read, “These people are being very aggressive, asking questions, but the way they are asking them - it is very aggressive.” Moments later, she and Alfredo were arrested by the intelligence forces. The family didn’t hear from their loved ones for days.
The couple were officially charged with corruption, criminal association, terrorism and handing over strategic information. Before any official hearings had even begun, many state actors - including President Maduro - took to the state-run TV station to criminalize Aryelis and Alfredo. The government said in a statement that the two were high-level informants working with the U.S. government. Both Maduro and Attorney General Tarek William Saab said there was evidence for such claims.
Jhensy Torrealba looks out the window of her sister's apartment in downtown Caracas. On the right, she holds a family picture of when she and her siblings were young. Jhensy maintains her sister’s innocence and deep disappointment in the government she thought she could trust. Credit: Lexi Parra for VICE News.
The family says they have not seen any evidence that supports the charges. Iracara Chirinos, Alfredo’s sister and head of the committee dedicated to the case, said, “This was a clear set-up,” and said Aryelis had filed a complaint linked to potential internal corruption before being detained.
The terrorism charges were later dropped, although the couple remain in detention.
“Why tell young people to ‘go and defend the homeland, to attack and call out corruption’? What happened there? What is the message? I’ll tell you what it is…it’s ‘Shut up,’ said Belkis.
Belkis Torrealba wrings her hands as she waits for any news from the hearing. Her daughter's bed (left) has sat empty since her detention in February. Credit: Lexi Parra for VICE News.
A week after the arrest, the family was allowed a thirty-minute, recorded visit with Aryelis and Alfredo, during which they noticed that Alfredo was bruised all over his torso. He told his sister that officials asphyxiated him with a plastic bag doused in chemicals, screaming at him to confess, and that he was left without food or water. This went on for 48 hours.
Six months went by before they were granted another visit. “This is a fight of David and Goliath…” said Jhensy, but the family is not giving up hope. They continue to push for a fair trial and the eventual return of their loved ones.
Their leftist loyalties make their current reality all the more painful, says Iracara. “It has caused us so much pain, sadness and a deep betrayal. To be used to cover up the real mafia, to be called a traitor of your country…that hurts.”