Millions of Venezuelans vote for democracy

Venezuelans at home and abroad stood up for democracy, rejecting efforts by the illegitimate Maduro regime to exert authoritarian control over the National Assembly elections.

The United States congratulated the Venezuelan opposition party — led by legitimate interim President Juan Guaidó — for successfully holding the consulta popular — or “the people’s referendum” — from December 7 through 12, garnering millions of votes in favor of free and fair elections.

Through the people’s referendum, the millions of Venezuelans who participated through in-person voting and an online system emphatically voiced their desire to end the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro and instead hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections. The vote was a way for Venezuelans to make their voices heard during a time when free speech is repressed inside the country and millions have fled dire conditions for a better life elsewhere.

“This demonstration represents the power of millions of Venezuelan people to organize and rally for change, and renews the broader movement to bring free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections back to Venezuela,” said U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on December 16. “The United States will continue to support the Venezuelan people in their struggle to return their country to democracy and prosperity.”

The public referendum was conducted in accordance with Venezuela’s Constitution. To ensure poll workers and voters remained safe, the interim government supplied personal protective equipment to in-person voting stations.

“Hope has been mobilized in Venezuela,” Guaidó said December 12. “We must underscore a heroic people who mobilized throughout the country and the world in defense of their rights.”


Maduro’s sham election: ‘Those who don’t vote, won’t eat’

In the runup to its fraudulent December 6 National Assembly elections, the illegitimate Maduro regime showed how little it cares about ordinary Venezuelans, insinuating it might revoke their social benefits if they did not vote.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed reservations about the Maduro regime threatening to take away Venezuelans’ social benefits.

“We were concerned to see certain comments, in terms that people who weren’t going to vote wouldn’t have access to social programs, and in some way pressuring people to vote,” she said.

Media reports corroborate both assertions, reporting the Maduro regime once again used food assistance as a political weapon to coerce participation in its sham December 6 elections.

According to the New York Times, Diosdado Cabello, a high-ranking figure in the illegitimate Maduro regime, said at a campaign event that mothers should threaten members of their household: “Those who don’t vote, won’t eat.”

The illegitimate regime also endangered the health of Venezuelans in carrying out its sham vote, refusing to implement safety measures at polling stations across the country on the day of the election. In the process, the regime exposed thousands to the new coronavirus and risked Venezuelans’ lives for the sake of a sham election.

This move comes as Venezuelan COVID-19 testing and hospital infrastructure crumbles under the weight of the pandemic and economic collapse. The head of the National Assembly’s commission on the coronavirus, Dr. Julio Castro, recently told CNN that while the Maduro regime’s reported number of infections has gone down, the number of patients suffering from the virus has gone up.

“You see the official numbers, they are going down very, very quickly,” he said. But in hospitals, doctors are seeing the opposite. “In the last three weeks, we have seen a rise in the numbers of the cases in the emergency room.”

Legitimate interim President Juan Guaidó and the interim government rejected Maduro’s rigged December 6 election and offered a means to allow Venezuelans to raise their voice in protest.

La Consulta Popular (The People’s Vote), their public referendum conducted in accordance with Venezuela’s Constitution, took place December 7–12 through both an online voting system and in-person voting at thousands of polling places inside and outside Venezuela on December 12.

The interim government supplied personal protective equipment to in-person voting stations to ensure poll workers and voters remained safe.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans worldwide also participated safely in the referendum through the online portal.

“The democratically elected National Assembly and the voice of the Venezuelan people are the only things standing in the way of authoritarianism in Venezuela,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a December 8 statement about the referendum.


Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela strike out against free speech

Free speech for Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans is under attack by their respective governments.

“Freedom of expression is a human right,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said on Twitter on November 24. “The United States stands with Cuba’s people.”

In Cuba, the Castro regime arrested musician Denis Solís González on November 9 and sentenced him to eight months in prison three days later, spurring protests in Havana. Solís was an outspoken member of the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and activists who peacefully protest the Cuban government’s stifling of free expression.

Solís’ crime? Criticizing Cuban police officers who entered his house without permission and posting a video of the incident to social media.

Hundreds of cultural figures, from artists and actors to musicians and curators, mobilized in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement, to contest Solis’ arrest and advocate for free speech.

In a rare move, the Cuban government agreed to talk with several of the San Isidro Movement activists, promising open dialogue and greater tolerance.

However, once the talks were concluded and protesters went home, the Cuban government reneged on its promises and within hours launched a whole-of-media attack on the protesters.

According to Reuters, a Cuban government-controlled television channel ran a 90-minute attack against Solís and other artists and activists.

Cuba’s government blocked internet access to hide its repression, arbitrarily arrested protesters, interrogated and threatened supporters, and launched a slanderous media attack against those seeking greater freedom. Artists and civil society groups around the world held demonstrations in solidarity to amplify the voices of Cuba’s oppressed cultural community and decried the crackdown of the Cuban government, which is a poor representative of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In Nicaragua, a “cybercrimes” law entered into force in October that mandates prison sentences for those who use online platforms to “spread false information or information that could raise alarm among people,” according to the Associated Press. Human rights groups describe the law as an attack on freedoms of speech and the press.

The Nicaraguan National Assembly is also discussing President Daniel Ortega’s proposed “hate crimes” amendment to the constitution.

If passed, the amendment would allow authorities to sentence people deemed to have committed “hate crimes” to life sentences in prison.

When Ortega proposed the amendment in September, he made it clear that his opponents and student protesters would be the ones receiving life sentences in prison for their so-called hate crimes.

“They feel untouchable because they were given an amnesty,” he said, referring to the protesters given amnesty in June 2019 alongside security forces accused of violence and extra-judicial killings. “Well, pay attention, they’ve already been given the opportunity for an amnesty, but there won’t be another amnesty.”

Ortega’s police detained over 700 people, mostly students, in 2018 who protested against his regime. The regime continues to hold more than 100 political prisoners.

“They are children of the devil, they are children of hatred and they are full of hatred, they are loaded with hatred,” Ortega said about them.

Because of Ortega’s amendment, Nicaraguans will now face life in prison for voicing such political opinions.

In Venezuela, the illegitimate Maduro regime continues to detain journalists who speak out against the regime.

Venezuelan National Assembly member María Concepción Mulino says there are over 700 documented cases of attacks against journalists and their publications over the past year.

“There is no cost of violence against journalists in Venezuela,” Carlos Correa, the president of the nongovernmental organization Espacio Público, told the media. “If a police officer hits a journalist on the street, no officials question or condemn it. It’s permanent intimidation.”


Nations speak out against Maduro’s fraudulent elections

Countries around the world are calling the illegitimate Maduro regime’s recent attempt to undermine democracy in Venezuela a sham.

On December 6, the Nicolás Maduro regime unconstitutionally staged National Assembly elections with the intention of overthrowing the democratically elected politicians who stand against Maduro and his cronies.

The result was an undemocratic and illegal farce.

Since the vote on Sunday, more than 55 countries, including members of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Lima Group, the European Union, and the International Contact Group condemned the elections and refused to recognize them as legitimate.

“The United States, along with numerous other democracies around the world, condemns this charade which failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility,” said Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on December 7. “Maduro brazenly rigged these elections in his favor through the illegal seizure of political parties’ names and ballot logos, manipulation of the process by his loyalist electoral council, violence and intimidation, and other undemocratic tactics.”

In the months leading up to the December 6 elections, nations, international bodies and nongovernmental organizations around the world opposed the Maduro regime’s attempt to reconfigure the electoral process. Many cited the humanitarian crisis inside Venezuela and the regime’s stifling of free speech as reasons it would not be possible for Venezuela to have free and fair legislative elections.

“This lack of respect for political pluralism and the disqualification and prosecution of opposition leaders do not allow the EU to recognise this electoral process as credible, inclusive or transparent, and its results as representative of the will of the Venezuelan people,” the EU said in a statement.

The United Kingdom said, “The UK recognises the National Assembly democratically elected in 2015 and recognises Juan Guaidó as interim constitutional President of Venezuela.”

The U.S. government stands in agreement with its international allies, Pompeo said.

“Neither Maduro nor a new, fraudulently elected National Assembly will represent the legitimate voice of the Venezuelan people,” Pompeo said, “which should be expressed through free and fair presidential elections.”


Violations of religious freedom persist worldwide

The United States is calling out “egregious violations” of religious freedom worldwide, as many regimes continue to criminalize expressions of religious faith.

On December 7, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo designated the governments of Iran, China, North Korea and a half dozen other nations as “countries of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.

“The United States will continue to work tirelessly to end religiously motivated abuses and persecution around the world, and to help ensure that each person, everywhere, at all times, has the right to live according to the dictates of conscience,” Pompeo said.

The designations make regimes eligible for sanctions under U.S. law.

The United States also placed Cuba, Russia, Nicaragua and Comoros on its special watch list for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

On December 7, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo designated the governments of Iran, China, North Korea and a half dozen other nations as “countries of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.

“The United States will continue to work tirelessly to end religiously motivated abuses and persecution around the world, and to help ensure that each person, everywhere, at all times, has the right to live according to the dictates of conscience,” Pompeo said.

The designations make regimes eligible for sanctions under U.S. law.

The United States also placed Cuba, Russia, Nicaragua and Comoros on its special watch list for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a December 9 report, finds dozens of nations enforce blasphemy laws criminalizing expressions deemed to offend the religious doctrine of some.

The report, Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws (PDF, 4.7MB), says 84 countries have blasphemy laws on the books, and that blasphemy is punishable by death in four countries, including in Iran.

Between 2014 and 2018, 41 countries registered 674 cases of blasphemy, with 81% of those cases occurring in 10 countries. Pakistan’s 184 new cases topped the list of enforcement actions, while Iran ranked second with 96 cases, the report says.

Russia led the world in enforcing blasphemy cases against social media users, the report says, while Iran ranked second in actions alleging blasphemy in response to online posts.

The United States is calling on all countries to repeal blasphemy or apostasy laws, which punish people who leave a religious faith, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters December 8.

“We are seeing on the good side a number of religious groups and theologians — Christians, Muslims and Jews in particular — stepping up to push back against the use of religion for violent purposes and saying no, our faith is a peaceful faith,” he said.

The U.S. Department of State has removed Sudan and Uzbekistan from its special watch list after governments in those two countries made significant progress toward religious freedom. Sudan repealed its apostasy law, which had made renouncing Islam punishable by death.

“Their courageous reforms of their laws and practices stand as models for other nations to follow,” Pompeo said December 7.


U.S. sanctions Iranian regime officials involved in kidnapping

The United States has imposed sanctions on two senior Iranian intelligence officers involved in the kidnapping and detention of Robert Levinson, the longest-held hostage in U.S. history.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin on December 14 announced sanctions against Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, senior officials in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, who were involved in Levinson’s abduction, detention and probable death, according to U.S. officials.

“The abduction of Mr. Levinson in Iran is an outrageous example of the Iranian regime’s willingness to commit unjust acts,” Mnuchin said in a statement.

Taking hostages has been a hallmark of Iran’s regime since Islamic fundamentalists took over the government in 1979. Soon after, radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. Levinson’s family said in March that Levinson died in the custody of the Iranian regime.

While Iran’s regime pledged assistance in returning Levinson to the United States, it instead launched a disinformation campaign to deflect responsibility for the kidnapping, according to U.S. officials.

“The truth is that Iranian intelligence officers — with the approval of senior Iranian officials — were involved in Bob’s abduction and detention,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in the Treasury statement.

In October, a U.S. court ordered the Iranian government to pay Levinson’s family $1.4 billion in damages, Reuters reports.

The United States has previously designated Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security in connection with human rights violations against Iranians who protested the regime’s fraudulent June 2009 election.

Baseri and Khazai are high-ranking members of Iran’s intelligence ministry. Baseri is involved in counterespionage activities inside and outside of Iran while Khazai has led Iranian intelligence delegations to other countries to assess security, U.S. officials say.

The Treasury Department sanctions prohibit the two men from conducting business or accessing property in the United States.

“The Iranian regime has a 41-year history of abducting and detaining foreigners and dual nationals as political leverage,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said December 14. “We reiterate our strong warning to U.S. citizens and dual nationals that traveling to Iran may jeopardize their personal safety.”


Promoting human rights is essential to U.S. policy

In the 80 years since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his Four Freedoms speech — citing freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear — the United States has made these democratic principles central to its foreign policy.

Today, the United States continues to champion human rights as a critical component of U.S. foreign policy. Together with democratic partners, the United States helps advance human rights and fundamental freedoms through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, public diplomacy and foreign assistance.

The United States also speaks out against foreign entities and individuals who violate or abuse human rights, documenting concerns in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The U.S. imposes financial sanctions and visa restrictions on gross human rights abusers according to U.S. law.

The United States recently sanctioned the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation for providing monitoring and censoring tools to the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, where journalists are arrested for reporting the truth and internet freedom is compromised.

The People’s Republic of China is also known for censoring its own citizens, both online and in the media. The PRC’s “Great Firewall” prevents anyone in China from accessing Facebook and other global social media providers, while the government also monitors the words people use in personal letters and telephone calls.

U.S. officials continue to express concern about violations and abuses of the freedoms of expression, religion and assembly.

The U.S. government is committed to working with like-minded democracies around the world to uphold the core tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which align with U.S. values set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them,” Roosevelt concluded his address. “Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”


Rights groups call for independent investigation of Iran’s atrocities

Human rights advocates continue to expose the Iranian regime’s violent response to nationwide protests in November 2019 despite the regime’s attempts to cover up the details.

More than a year later, the United States and human rights organizations are still calling for an independent investigation into the brutal crackdown.

Justice for Iran, a human rights organization based in the United Kingdom, published a report on November 13 about the violence against protesters in Sirjan, Kerman province last year.

Security officials used lethal force during protests in Sirjan, injuring several people and killing at least one. The Iranian government conducted no investigation into the use of lethal force.

“Justice for Iran’s thorough examination of all 24 videos from the protests in Sirjan, taken by individuals present at the protests and posted on social media platforms, provides no evidence that the protestors were in possession of arms or posed any threat to life as claimed by the authorities,” the report states.

Justice for Iran called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to conduct an independent inquiry into human rights violations during the protests. A failure to investigate acts of violence against protesters is a human rights violation, according to the organization.

On November 15, 2019, Iranians began protesting a spike in gas prices. The protests continued for several days and expanded to include calls for constitutional reforms. As many as 1,500 people were killed.

Amnesty International’s report, A Web of Impunity, includes a detailed list of the 304 victims it confirmed had died during the crackdown. The site includes a photo library of the victims and their causes of death.

Amnesty International called on Iranian officials to publicize all information about individuals who died during the protests. The report recommended that Iranian officials conduct an independent investigation into all the deaths and a related internet shutdown. The group also called on members of the U.N. Human Rights Council to conduct an inquiry into the killing of all protesters.

“One year on from the protests, the Iranian authorities persist in their refusal to conduct open, independent and impartial investigations and ensure accountability,” Amnesty International said. “In fact, top officials have openly praised Iran’s security and intelligence bodies for their role in the brutal crackdown.”

As the protests spread, Iran’s leaders shut down internet and cellular service November 16, 2019, to suppress information about the protests and prevent protesters from documenting violence by security agencies.

Internet service was gradually restored five days later, but many cellular data providers’ service did not return until November 27, 2019.

“The Iranian regime tried to hide the evidence of its brutal crackdown through censorship, intimidation, and the digital darkness of internet shutdowns, and still refuses to allow independent investigations into the killings it perpetrated during that fateful week,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said November 15 on the anniversary of the atrocities. “But we will never forget the regime’s victims.”


Equality for Americans with disabilities: A timeline

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects 56.3 million Americans from discrimination in all areas of life, including work, school and transportation.

Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the law guarantees Americans with disabilities unrestricted access to public buildings, equal opportunity in employment and equal access to government services.

The comprehensive legislation was the culmination of decades of advocacy and struggle. In the years since its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been updated to broaden its reach and more effectively provide equal civil rights for all.

Below are some of the landmark events related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Disabled veterans in a library (© FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1920 The Smith-Fess Act

Also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, this law established a federal program to provide vocational assistance to Americans with physical disabilities. The Smith-Fess Act was modeled on an earlier law aimed at rehabilitating disabled World War I veterans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signing document while while men and a woman stand behind him (© AP Images)

1935 Social Security Act

In addition to developing a system of benefits for the elderly, the Social Security Act of 1935, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, provided benefits for the blind and the physically disabled.

Dwight D. Eisenhower signing document as another man looks on (© Getty Images)

1956 Creation of Social Security Disability Insurance

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Social Security Amendments of 1956, which created the Social Security Disability Insurance program for workers with disabilities aged 50 to 64. Two years later, the benefits were extended to the dependents of workers with disabilities.

Elevator up and down buttons in braille (© Lee Peiming/Shutterstock)

1968 Architectural Barriers Act

The Architectural Barriers Act addresses the most significant obstacle to employment for people with disabilities: the physical design of buildings and facilities. The act requires that all buildings designed, constructed, altered or leased with federal funds be made accessible to people with disabilities.

Man in wheelchair disembarking a bus (© Jeffrey Haderthauer/AP Images)

1973 The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 extends vocational training programs and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by federally funded and assisted programs, federal employers, federal contractors and programs receiving federal funding.

George H.W. Bush signing document while others watch, with two in wheelchairs (© Barry Thumma/AP Images)

1990 Americans with Disabilities Act

President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. Among its provisions, it prohibits discrimination in hiring and guarantees equal access to education and public facilities.

George W. Bush speaking to two people in wheelchairs and three others standing (© Eric Draper/White House/AP Images)

2008 The ADA Amendments Act

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 makes important changes to how “disability” is defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, favoring a broad and inclusive interpretation. These changes make it easier for a person seeking protection under the law to establish eligibility.