Venezuela Authorizes Use of Lethal Weapons on Protest Control

National Guard personnel in riot gear arrest students during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on May 14, 2014. Abo
National Guard personnel in riot gear arrest students during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on May 14, 2014. About 80 demonstrators were arrested during a protest as they request the immediate release of youth detained in recent days. AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO (Photo credit should read JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

Geraldine Moreno was shot to death in her hometown of Valencia during the February 2014 student protests in Venezuela. The painful pictures of the disfigured young demonstrator circled the globe. She was shot in the face at point blank range with rubber pellets fired from a shotgun. The weapon of a national guard.

Geraldine's is just one of the many cases that sparked the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act. A law enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Obama in December 2014, which imposed sanctions -- restrictions to travel to the U.S. and asset freezing -- on certain Venezuelan officials involved in the human rights violations that happened during last year's antigovernment protests.

Come January 27, 2015. The Ministry of Defense issues resolution 8610 to regulate the role of the armed forces in the control of protests and public gatherings. In Venezuela the armed forces are not allowed to enforce public order. The only component of the military that may act in certain civil defense roles is the National Guard, yet the resolution does not distinguish. But that is just one small detail. The new set of rules includes certain provisions that authorize the use of weapons "with lethal potential" to control public demonstrations.

Of course, the resolution includes certain points with respect to the gradual and proportional use of force -- which are not clear and may be easily misinterpreted -- but adds that such gradual use of force may go from "menacing presence" to the use of firearms. This is in direct violation of the Venezuelan Constitution, whose promoter, late President Hugo Chavez, used to describe as an advanced and extensive human rights catalogue. And it certainly is. To this effect, Article 68 clearly states that "the use of firearms and toxic substances in the control of public protests" is forbidden.

The resolution executed by the Minister of Defense also mentions the use of "chemical agents." This is particularly daunting since, as José Ignacio Hernández -- a Constitutional Law professor who blogs at Prodavinci -- says, this may not refer just to tear gas alone and, in any case, according to the Constitution, it may very well be established that the use of tear gas -- a toxic substance -- for these purposes is illegal too. Following this line of thought, shotguns with faux ammo could fall under the firearm category, and their use for crowd control can also be deemed unconstitutional. Moreno's case is a blatant example of how lethal rubber pellets can be.

The Venezuelan National Guard has been using potentially -- gotta love the euphemism -- lethal force all along, this just makes it official.

Venezuela sits at uneasy times: Scarcity levels are off the charts and Venezuelans have been forced to stand for hours in lines just to acquire food and basic health products. Inflation is at a record high. Violence in the streets closed 2014 with over 25,000 violent deaths, and there has not been a proportional response by the government. The price of oil has dropped dramatically and, therefore, the clientelist subsidies system on which the government stands is shaking. Also, it seems as if the country has lost support in the region, specially with Cuba looking to reestablish diplomatic and commercial relations with the U.S. Some unpopular economic measures are ahead, including another devaluation of the Bolivar and raising the price of the cheapest gasoline in the world. Salaries turn into dust, and it is clear that the worst is yet to come.

To add some drama to this overstuffed telenovela, ABC, the Spanish newspaper, just published a story that points at the president of the Venezuelan legislature, Diosdado Cabello -- once dubbed the real life "Frank Underwood of Venezuela" -- as being the leader of a drug ring.

So, why would the Venezuelan government choose this moment to put forward such an outrageous piece of legislation? Two possible reasons come to mind. One, the government may be concerned that the economic situation is causing civil unrest, and they may want to deter people from turning those passive aggressive lines into street protests. The second possibility would be that they just want to distract the conversation from all the real life issues affecting Venezuelans, and give the people something to talk about as they wait in line for a roll of toilet paper.

There is a third, more fatalist, possibility. The Venezuelan regime expects this will be a year of political upheaval, and they are willing to pull the trigger. Once again.