The Struggle for Freedom: Venezuela imprisons Rocío San Miguel, a staunch advocate for peaceful democratic transition

Learn more about Ellen Bork.
Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute
Demonstrators hold a banner depicting Venezuelan imprisoned lawyer and activist Rocío San Miguel, during a rally to "demand an end to the violations of political rights and the defense of human rights in Venezuela" in Madrid on April 6, 2024. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images)

Rocío San Miguel, an expert on Venezuela’s military, was arrested at Caracas’ international airport Feb. 9 as she and her daughter waited to board a flight to the United States.  

Little has been heard about her since. She is imprisoned at El Helicoide, the notorious headquarters of Venezuela’s intelligence service. Former detainees there have reported torture and inhumane treatment.  

Venezuelan authorities have accused San Miguel, a lawyer who runs a civil society group focused on civilian control over the military, with being part of a plot to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela’s attorney general announced on X, formerly Twitter, that San Miguel had been charged with treason, conspiracy and terrorism, but lawyers haven’t been permitted to see her or review the government’s case file, which they are entitled to do by law. 

In the leadup to the Venezuelan presidential election at the end of July, the Biden Administration should maintain economic and diplomatic pressure and ramp up efforts to free Rocío San Miguel, who has played a constructive, principled, and independent role in support of a peaceful transition in Venezuela.  

The bizarre and groundless accusations against San Miguel shocked even those who are familiar with the Maduro regime’s repression. Many believed her professionalism, discretion, and connections — including within Venezuela’s security forces — would protect her.  

“The fact that they can arrest her without even the appearance of due process sends a very chilling message that anyone can be arrested in Venezuela, no matter who you are and how respected you are,” Juan Pappier, Deputy Director of Americas for Human Rights Watch, told me.  

Elliott Abrams, who met San Miguel when he served as U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela from 2019 to 2021, agreed.  

“Everyone said, ‘You must speak to her because she is the best expert – sociologically, politically, and intellectually,’” he said. “She is not a human rights activist but an analyst and academic.” 

San Miguel’s arrest and disappearance – and the unprecedented roundup at the same time of several close relatives, including her daughter and ex-husband – reflects the regime’s desire to create panic and sow divisions in Venezuelan society in advance of the July 28 presidential election. (Her relatives have mostly been released, albeit under strict conditions, and are still under investigation. The exception is San Miguel’s ex-husband, a former colonel in the military, who remains detained.)    

Maduro has a well-known penchant for imagining threats everywhere.  

“Maduro seems very paranoid that a conspiracy might be cooking within the military, and he is trying to arrest people who might have information and can be forced to speak,” Pappier told me. Indeed, when announcing San Miguel’s arrest, Venezuela’s attorney general claimed the regime had arrested more than 30 conspirators in five plots over the previous year.   

The government’s accusations against San Miguel are absurd, but Maduro justifiably fears losing to Venezuela’s democratic opposition in the election. That is, if it’s conducted fairly. One opinion poll shows Edmundo González Urrutia, the democratic opposition’s unity candidate, leading Maduro by 50%, even though he is a former diplomat with no political experience.   

González stepped forward after the government disqualified Maria Corina Machado, a main leader of the opposition, and another candidate from running. Machado, a former lawmaker and civil society leader, won 93% of the vote among 2.4 million Venezuelans who participated in the independent primary Venezuela’s opposition parties held in October 2023 to select a unity candidate.  Although barred, she campaigns on behalf of González, despite intense pressure and threats of violence from the Maduro regime against Machado, her campaign staff, and supporters. A substitute for Machado, Corina Yoris, a professor, was prevented from registering her candidacy.  

According to Miguel Pizarro, who served in Venezuela’s last democratically elected national assembly, the margin favoring González indicates even longtime supporters of Maduro will vote for the opposition.  

“Even if you are ready to steal an election, these numbers make everything harder,” he told me. “So they need to build general sense of fear and persecution.” 

San Miguel’s arrest was accompanied by an orchestrated online campaign of disinformation against her and other civil society and human rights organizations. The regime also expelled the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from Venezuela after it and other U.N. agencies issued statements criticizing her arrest.  

As for stealing the election, the government almost immediately reneged on limited promises it made to conduct a legitimate election in an October agreement with the opposition brokered by Norway in Barbados. In addition to blocking the opposition’s candidates, the government shortened the campaign by several months and renewed pressure on nongovernmental organizations.   

Maduro’s maneuvering has left Washington’s policy of incentivizing legitimate elections through sanctions in disarray. The Biden Administration lifted some sanctions after Maduro’s October promises but imposed them again in April, citing violations of the pact, including arrests of San Miguel and other civil society leaders. After the Venezuelan government accepted González’s candidacy in early May, the Biden Administration suggested it was considering loosening sanctions again. But in late May, Maduro banned European Union election observers.  

Washington has undercut its leverage and credibility by allowing U.S. oil giant Chevron to continue a joint venture with Venezuela’s national oil company.  

The United States should be “pushing harder for free elections, not helping oil companies,” Abrams told me. “The administration has watched the regime moving toward a phony election but it has not reimposed the full sanctions as it should.”  

Progress toward democracy would advance another America priority: reducing migration to the United States, which skyrocketed in 2023.  

As Abrams put it, “It isn’t the sanctions that drive people from Venezuela – it’s the regime.” 

Indeed, a poll of Venezuelan migrants in the United States conducted late last year by GBAO for Colorado-based nonprofit organization PAX sapiens, showed 65% would go back to Venezuela if the democratic opposition wins the elections, while only 15% would return if Maduro wins, even if the economy improves significantly.  Among those still in the country, nearly half who are thinking about leaving would stay if the opposition wins or if the economy improves according to a poll conducted by Delphos, a Venezuelan polling firm in April 2024.  

Maduro may be planning to get through the election period, enduring whatever fluctuating, partial sanctions the U.S. imposes, in the expectation that Washington will accept a stolen election and eventually give up, restoring normal relations between the two countries.  

Instead, the Biden Administration should maintain pressure on Venezuela until the government holds a free election and respects its outcome. In that regard, Washington could do no better than to double down on efforts to free Rocío San Miguel.  

“Everyone understands that there is no transition without the security forces,” Pizarro told me. “And there is no way you can do peaceful, political change without understanding that part of Venezuelan society,” as San Miguel does.   

Unfortunately, thanks to the Maduro regime, San Miguel now has even greater, personal knowledge of the security services and its methods.