Pura Soto Rojas points to a headline: “SHOT”. It refers to the deaths, by secret firing squad, of leftist guerrillas during the “democratic” years of the Fourth Republic. Years which were not so democratic in fact, as the tragic story of her brother Víctor Ramón makes clear:
“Víctor Ramón was born in Altagracia de Orituco (state of Guárico). He was 32 years old when they disappeared him. When they re-opened the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), after closing it during the dictatorship of [Marcos] Pérez Jiménez, he studied sociology. He spent a long time there because he was persecuted as a director of the FCU and of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). Because he was constantly in hiding, he did not finish the semester so that he could graduate in 1963.”
So begins the story told by Pura Soto Rojas, sister of Víctor Ramón Soto Rojas, whose name appears on a list of at least 1,000 persons who disappeared during the era of the “Fourth Republic” (1958-1998), a period which will be the object of a special investigation to punish the crimes of the state in the name of a crusade against the left, as soon as the “Law Against Forgetting” is passed.
It is said that Víctor Ramón — brother of the current president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Fernando Soto Rojas — disappeared on July 27, 1964, because that was the day on which military forces of the government of Raúl Leoni detained him, due to his militancy in the MIR.
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How do you remember the day on which he disappeared?
In June of ’64, Ramón went to give a political-education workshop to the guerrillas of the Ezequiel Zamora Front, on the mountain El Bachiller (on the border of the states of Miranda, Guárico and Anzoátegui). Weeks later, there was a bombing, and while fleeing, he came out on the road along with Trino Barrios, and that’s when they arrested him.
They informed my sister that they had taken him to San Juan de los Morros (Guárico), to the National Guard post commanded by Genarino Peña Peña. They told her that they gave my brother a mock shooting and then transferred him to the National Guard in El Paraíso, Caracas.
When we arrived in El Paraíso, we met with a friend, a lieutenant who told me: “He was here, but the Digepol (General Directorate of Police) took him because he was a prisoner of theirs. Go away quickly, move, Pura, move!” he told us.
Was it a bad sign that he was taken by the Digepol?
Yes! Everyone knew about the tortures in the Digepol centre at Las Brisas (Caracas). There they told us that yes, he was detained, but they were interrogating him. That was on a Thursday. They told us: “Come back on Sunday, he’s already got visitors.” We did, but he was already gone. A friend from COPEI who was there told us: “Hurry because they took him out yesterday, very tortured, to Cúpira (Miranda).” I started to yell “Murderers! They killed my brother! Murderers!” I remember that the lawyer who was with us told my mother: “Rosa, you’d better not bring Pura along anymore, because they’ll rape her on you.”
That’s when my mother’s torment began. We went to Cúpira on Monday, to the Operations Centre. “We don’t have any detainees here,” they told us, but Mama always thought he was there because all the soldiers looked at her face when she said she had come looking for Ramón. They told us he was in Barcelona (Anzoátegui). We went, and found nothing. Later, they told us Maracaibo (Zulia) — not there, either. In El Dorado, lies. Wherever they said, my mama went.
It was a case that made big noise in the press. Mama went everywhere, even to the International Red Cross, and no one came, not the OAS, not the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, no one. My mother was only looking for her son, right up to the end. She died at 102 years of age. She said: “Damn it, I’m going to go, and I won’t have anywhere to bring a rose to my son.” Every September 26, on Ramón’s birthday, she would say: “Today he’s this many years old.”
How did you find out about the helicopter?
I was studying psychology at the UCV. One day, a soldier came to the FCU looking for me. We were sitting on a bench, and he told me: “Look, don’t go on searching for your brother, they took him to the encampment of San José de Guaribe (Guárico), they tortured him a lot. I put a pair of Bermuda shorts on him, and they took him up in a helicopter with Lt. Tomás Rojas Grafe. When the helicopter came back, the detainee was not on board.” The pilot said, “You can’t do that, how can you throw a live person from a helicopter?” and Rojas Grafe replied: “Shut up, or the same thing will happen to you.”
Years later, I saw in the news the case of the “monster of Mamera” (1980), the crime of the Metropolitan Police officer Ledezma, and it looked to me like the face of the same soldier. They told me that when he was a prisoner, he said he knew of the Soto Rojas case, where a man was thrown from a helicopter.
And did anyone ever confirm that?
There was a soldier, Herber Faull, who said that they ordered him to look into the helicopter story, and he said that the body of my brother had smashed into a very large ceiba tree near Guatopo (Guárico). That they lowered and lifted him from the helicopter to force him to talk, and at one point they hit him against the tree. That’s the latest version we’ve heard, about six years ago. We never told Mama. Why?
That was what happened, remember that they used that method a lot in Vietnam, that’s where they also implemented it. It was an era of state terrorism, the government was aware of all this barbarity. It was horrible. There were raids all the time, in the night, they destroyed everything, and it wasn’t a dictatorship, no, it was a democracy!
We lived with our guarantees [of freedom] suspended all the time, with curfews, with Rómulo Betancourt [as president] it happened all the time.
Whom did they raid? Guerrillas’ families?
No! It was everyone on the left, you couldn’t be a leftist, it was prohibited. Either you were an Adeco or a Copeyano, and if they didn’t disappear you, there were still thousands executed by firing squad and disappeared. So many campesinos died in bombing raids, accused of aiding the guerrillas.
Look, the mother of Gabriel Puerta Aponte, the leader of the Red Flag faction, lived in the building next door. They raided her home all the time. She’s dead now. I always asked myself how she would feel seeing her son today, allied to their own executioners.*
How did you resign yourselves? How did you stop searching for Ramón?
We lost and regained hope over a long period of time. We went into mourning and came out of it again. The minister of defence, Florencio Gómez, said one day that they had taken him to do reconnaissance in a guerrilla zone, and that when he tried to flee they invoked the anti-vagrancy law. So my mama said: “Aha, if that’s the case, then give me his body, already!” And the response was, “I don’t know if we can, because it’s in a mountainous area and we don’t know where it is.”
One day, years later, Mama told us she’d had a vision in a church, that she had lifted a military canvas covering and seen him. Then she said, “My son is dead.”
I think I was the last to resign myself. I always throught: Isn’t that Ramón over there? Wandering around, crazy from all the torture. When I went to Guárico I saw a lot of madmen, and I thought of him. All I know for certain is that we never had a funeral, a grave, nothing. He remains disappeared.
What did your mother think of the political causes of her sons?
Did you know she was in Acción Democrática (AD)? Just like Fernando when he took up politics. But not Ramón, he was in the Communist Party and later he went into the MIR. AD was of the [centre-]left. Mama scolded them when they went with the MIR, and I recall Ramón telling her: “Mama, something very big is going to happen to you when you leave AD.” And Mama said later, when they disappeared him: “Look what my son said. He was right, something big did happen to me.”
Do you believe she passed her ideals along in any way?
I think so. She had revolutionary ideas, she greatly admired Arévalo Cedeño, who was under house arrest during the Gómez dictatorship. She liked his ideas of welfare for the people, even though she never talked of Socialism, she had no idea what it was. She had only a fourth-grade education, but she taught us to share. If anyone came to our house, she would offer food and shelter, and that too is Socialism.
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Pura Soto Rojas is a member of the Front of Friends and Families of the Victims of Crimes of State of the Fourth Republic. This organization promotes the creation of a special law to punish the political murders, executions and disappearances of that period, 1958-1998.
The Truth and Justice Commission will be created as a result of this law, which is to be presented during the next session of the National Assembly, and with it, hundreds of documents from the military and governmental archives will begin to be declassified.
It has taken a long time for the families of the Venezuelan disappeared to gain recognition for their plight, never mind legal redress. During the Fourth Republic, that vaunted time of freedom and democracy that supposedly disappeared after Hugo Chávez was elected in late 1998, censorship of the news was commonplace, particularly under the governments of Raúl Leoni and Rómulo Betancourt (both of the AD, the party supposedly of the centre-left, which in fact governed Venezuela like a fascist dictatorship). As it was during the 1960s that they reigned, they were early adopters of the same hauntingly awful strategies and tactics later used by the Argentine Junta, as well as Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The same universities that had been shut down under the dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, were also shut down during the “democratic” era of Leoni and Betancourt. The same raids that the political police staged under the dictator, were staged by those same police under the “democrats”. As Yves Montand’s character, a US police chief who trained military and police torturers in Uruguay, says in the movie State of Siege, “Governments come and go, but the police stay.”
And the Digepol, later renamed the DISIP, definitely stayed. Under whatever name, it was very much the repressive organ of a fascist police state. Heads of government changed, but the essential practices of repression did not…until 1998, that is, when they were finally abolished altogether by that evil, repressive, antidemocratic Castro-communist, Chávez. You know, the same one who refuses to censor the press, so that the opposition media can comically crucify itself on a daily basis, screeching that there is no freedom of the press in Venezuela?
How soon they forget. Even under the oh-so-democratic rule of Carlos Andrés Pérez, author of the Caracazo (may he rot in hell), the Venezuelan press was heavily censored. If the publishers did not self-censor, entire news items were left blank by order of the government. Journalists who did not comply faced prison and torture. Some of them, particularly those of the left, were also disappeared. Their stories, too, will likely come out when this bill now before the National Assembly becomes law.
But don’t look for anyone in the opposition media to celebrate that coming triumph of the freedom of information. They’ll probably be too busy reporting on their “political prisoners”, who in fact are politician prisoners, in jail for corruption. And screaming persecution, as always, ad nauseam.
As if THEY knew what political persecution was.
*Bandera Roja, or “Red Flag”, formerly of the left, is now allied in effect with the right-wing anti-Chávez opposition. This passage alludes to their betrayal of everything they used to stand for. The current opposition is the direct descendant of the AD and COPEI of Fourth Republic days — in other words, the same old political ruling class responsible for all the political murders, repressions and disappearances from 1958 to 1998.