Rosmit Mantilla, an LGBT rights activist and member of the Venezuelan National Assembly who is among those who worked with Leopoldo López to create the left-leaning Voluntad Popular party in 2009, told the Washington Blade on April 1 during an interview in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo that he was not sure whether he would return to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas the next day. Mantilla said he decided to return to Venezuela “at the last minute” when his flight from Santo Domingo landed at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport.
“I decided to continue the trip and take the connecting flight to Venezuela because of my commitment to my country and to my party colleagues,” he told the Blade on Thursday from Caracas.
Mantilla, who was in prison from May 2014 to November 2016, is among the more than 300 people from across Latin America and the Caribbean who attended the conference the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute co-organized with Diversidad Dominicana, a Dominican LGBT advocacy group, and Caribe Afirmativo, an activist group that works throughout northern Colombia.
The conference began less than 48 hours after the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which is packed with judges who are loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, ruled the National Assembly, which the opposition controls, no longer had the power to legislate.
“We are here but without any type of function,” Mantilla told the Blade.
The U.S. criticized the ruling that Organization of American States Luis Almagro described as a “self-inflicted coup d’état.” Brazil, Chile and other countries throughout Latin America followed suit.
Colombia and Peru recalled their ambassadors to Caracas in response to the ruling. Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz also criticized the decision that the Supreme Court reversed on April 2.
Henrique Capriles, co-founder of the center-right Primero Justicia opposition party who ran against Maduro in 2013, on Friday wrote on his Twitter page that he has banned from seeking office for 15 years.
URGENTE: Informo al país y la opinión pública internacional que se me está notificando en este momento de una INHABILITACIÓN por 15 años
— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) April 7, 2017
Mantilla arrested during 2014 anti-government protests
Agents with Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which is known by the Spanish acronym SEBIN, on May 2, 2014, arrested Mantilla during anti-Maduro protests that took place throughout the country.
Mantilla told the Blade he was accused of “promoting protests in Venezuela.” He said his party “responsibly” talked to Venezuelans about hunger, crime, insecurity and human rights abuses that have become more frequent in the country after Maduro succeeded the late President Hugo Chávez in 2013 after he died.
“The streets filled with people who are not part of politics,” said Mantilla. “They were citizens demanding their rights.”
Mantilla told the Blade the officers who arrested him brought him to El Helicoide, a detention center in Caracas that SEBIN operates. He said they placed him in a roughly 16′ by 10′ cell with 21 other people.
“22 people were there for distinctive political motivations, drug trafficking, fraud,” said Mantilla, noting he and his cellmates could barely move. “The 22 of us were all together in a small room.”
Mantilla said officers beat and electrocuted one of his colleagues, while another opposition member had a bag with human excrement placed over his head. He told the Blade that Rodolfo González, a 63-year-old Voluntad Popular member who had also been arrested, hanged himself after authorities told him they planned to send him to one of Venezuela’s most violent prisons.
“This happens today in my country,” said Mantilla.
Venezuelan government accuses Mantilla of ‘faking’ illness
Mantilla in 2015 became the first openly gay person elected to the National Assembly. He is among the three opposition leaders who won seats in the legislative body while they were in prison.
Tamara Adrián, who in 2015 became the first openly trans person elected to the National Assembly, is also member of Voluntad Popular.Mantilla told the Blade that he became increasingly sick in 2016.
He said a doctor who examined him recommended that he undergo surgery for gallstones, but his supervisor told him to “get him out of here.” Mantilla told the Blade the Cuban doctors who were working at the hospital did not treat him before he returned to prison.
Mantilla told the Blade he did not receive medical attention for three days and “was literally dying.” He said “common prisoners” smuggled him small pieces of bread and cheese in order to maintain some of his strength.
Mantilla said a Venezuelan government official accused him of “faking” his illness when he was brought to a military hospital on Nov. 11, 2016. He told the Blade he underwent surgery to treat an infection in his pancreas four days later.
Mantilla was released on Nov. 17, 2016, amid international pressure. López remains in a military prison after a judge convicted him of inciting violence during anti-government protests and sentenced him to nearly 14 years in prison.
Authorities required Mantilla to report to a judge every 15 days as part of his release. His next court appearance was scheduled for April 3.
“I am a bit worried because I have to leave,” Mantilla told the Blade on April 1 in Santo Domingo.
Venezuelans ‘debate’ dying from hunger or violence
Political and economic turmoil continue to destabilize Venezuela, which has large oil reserves.
Mantilla told the Blade that people wait hours to buy one loaf of bread. Adrián, who also attended the conference in the Dominican Republic, bought toothpaste and bags of pasta and rice because they are not available at supermarkets near her home in Caracas.
Activists with whom the Blade spoke in northern Colombia last month said Venezuelan women with college degrees have been forced into prostitution in the city of Cartagena.
Mantilla said there were 28,000 “violent deaths” in Venezuela in 2016. He told the Blade that people who go to the supermarket to buy food are robbed and killed by those who have nothing to eat.
“[There is] the debate between dying of hunger or dying from a gunshot,” said Mantilla.
Latin America ‘watching Venezuela die from hunger’
Mantilla blames Maduro for the political and economic turmoil in which Venezuela finds itself. The government’s supports continue to accuse the U.S. of supporting and bolstering the opposition.
“We are in a frank and brutal dictatorship,” said Mantilla.
Mantilla also said Maduro “inherited” Chávez’s legacy of “misery and hunger.”
Countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have received subsidized oil from Venezuela.
Mantilla told the Blade the Venezuelan government has “blackmailed” these countries. He also accused them of being complicit in the worsening political and economic situation because they have been reluctant to criticize Maduro.
“It is very sad,” Mantilla told the Blade. “The region is watching Venezuela die from hunger, die from insecurity and it is doing nothing.”