The use of arbitrary detention to repress those who oppose –or are perceived to oppose—governments is a tragic phenomenon that has been on the rise as authoritarian regimes emerge or intensify across Latin America.
Despite the persistence of the phenomenon, there is no universally accepted definition of who is a political prisoner . This makes any coordinated actions by governments to condemn the phenomenon, challenging. The main barrier for governments in the region to speak out against the imprisonment of people for political reasons and work for their release is, precisely, political. Whether a government condemns the existence of political prisoners often depends on the political interests and alliances that particular government has. In any case, what does not change, unfortunately, is the suffering of the people who have lost their freedom and that of their relatives, who are also direct victims of these injustices.
In the case of women deprived of their liberty, the impact is different. Studies on women in prison (not only political imprisonment) report that their families suffer “a disproportionate impact to what happens when a man is deprived of his liberty. This is because, in the case of men deprived of their liberty, women often are forced to support their families alone. In the case of women deprived of their liberty, it is much more likely that their children will be in prison with them, go to live with other family members (sometimes separating sisters and brothers), be institutionalized in some way, or end up homeless. There’s also the many specific needs women have, including in particular when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health, which are ignored in prison systems that were most likely designed for men.
Political imprisonment is concerning for all those affected by it. The differential impact it has on women, however, must always be considered when reflecting on their stories and those of their families. Cases of women political prisoners in Cuba, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, for example, illustrate this alarming pattern.
In July 2011, authorities in Cuba supressed anti-government protests with a wave of mass arrests. According to data from the NGO Justicia 11J, at least 758 people remain imprisoned. One of them is Lizandra Góngora Espinosa, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in April this year for taking part in the protest, as reported by the NGO Cubalex. Lizandra’s family denounced that, before being transferred to prison, she was hospitalized and that attempts were made to forcibly medicate her. Lizandra is the mother of five children.
In recent years, Guatemalan authorities have increased political persecution, especially through the harassment and criminalization of independent justice operators, including former employees of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad, FECI). In recent years at least 25 justice operators were forced into exile. Virginia Laparra, a senior anti-corruption prosecutor, was arrested in February for “abuse of authority” in what is considered a reprisal for her work against corruption in the country. Varios organizations have denounced the deplorable conditions of her confinement in “an isolation cell of approximately 15 square meters, with an internal bathroom, no windows and an air intake grille. The access door to her cell is closed 23 hours a day, she is only allowed one hour of sunlight and prison visits take place in the same cell”. Amnesty International named her a “prisoner of conscience” and has launched a global campaign demanding her release. The case is illustrative of the cost those who stand up to the government and business elites in Guatemala pay.
Venezuela, a country in the midst of a human rights crisis and suffering a humanitarian emergency, is also home to a significant number of people detained for political reasons. A recent estimate by Foro Penal puts the number at 258, of which 245 are men and 13 are women. The abuses committed against persons deprived of their liberty have been extensively documented by the Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela which concluded in its September 2022 report that there are sufficient grounds to consider that crimes against humanity have been committed in the country. One of the current cases of political prisoners that has shown high levels of repression is that of Emirlendris Benitez who was recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes including “treason” and “terrorism“. The sentence was imposed despite the fact that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention demanded the Venezuelan government to release her immediately. Deprived of her liberty since August 2018, Ermirlendris Benitez has reported torture and ill-treatment since she was detained, including beatings and suffocation attempts that may have contributed to the loss of the pregnancy she was carrying, her relatives reported to media outlets. There is no known investigation or sanction for the torture allegations.
Finally, it is impossible to talk about political prisoners in Latin America without referring to the case of Nicaragua. After the protests of 2018, which left more than 300 dead, the repression by the government of Daniel Ortega and his vice president Rosario Murillo, has not ceased. During the 2021 election period, dozens of presidential candidates and activists were arbitrarily detained on trumped-up charges. As of September 2022, Confidencial, one of the main independent media outlets in the country whose editors are now in exile, reported 195 people imprisoned for political reasons, 18 of which are women. Many have reported being held in solitary confinement for months, and in cases such as that of Tamara Dávila, Suyen Barahona, Dora María Téllez and Ana Margarita Vijil, the same media outlet reports that the isolation has extended for periods of more than 14 months, away from their children and loved ones. The violence implicit in the prison conditions of the political prisoners in Nicaragua has generated a profound rejection by the international community without, so far, the Nicaraguan government showing any signs of willingness to change their conditions of imprisonment or to proceed, as it should, to their release.
Without coordinated multilateral efforts focused on the advancement of human rights instead of on political alliances, it is difficult for the governments of these countries to feel the necessary pressure to begin the process of releasing people imprisoned for political reasons, or to improve their conditions of detention.
In this context, U.S. authorities should aim to articulate these efforts, with clear objectives and strategies for collaboration with international agencies, human rights organizations and other governments in the region. These strategies should include the use of diplomatic tools, such as individual sanctions and other means of pressure, which should be informed by civil society organizations that are familiar with the cases of so many victims of political imprisonment in the region and understand the context of each country.
There is no doubt that the human rights situation in most of the Americas is bleak. Working for the release of political prisoners is one way to start changing it.
 In 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted guidelines to define political prisoners, but so far, the United Nations has not agreed on a definition or specific guidelines on political imprisonment. Civil society groups in Latin America, such as the Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal, have proposed categorizing the different types of political prisoners, including those who are deprived of their liberty for representing an individual political threat to a given government (opposition political leaders, social leaders), those who belong to groups that authoritarianisms want to intimidate for various reasons (students, activists), those whom a government wants to use as part of a campaign or “to sustain a narrative”, among others. International organizations, such as Amnesty International, have coined the term “prisoner of conscience” to define people who, without having used or incited violence, are subjected to imprisonment or other restriction of their freedom because of their beliefs, ethnicity, gender or other factors.
This opinion piece was originally published in Hora Cero.