Venezuela Expels U.N. Human Rights Agency

A United Nations agency that defends human rights was ordered on Thursday to leave Venezuela by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, an extraordinary move that will further strip the country of foreign oversight at a time when its government stands accused of intensifying repression.

The announcement, by foreign minister Yvan Gil, comes just days after the detention and disappearance of Rocío San Miguel, a prominent security expert and human rights advocate.

Following her detention, several United Nations entities issued online statements expressing concern about the arrest, some calling it part of a pattern in which the government tries to silence critics through intimidation.

Mr. Gil said he was giving the staff of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 72 hours to “abandon” the country.

Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based Venezuela expert for International Crisis Group, said the expulsion of the human rights agency, combined with Ms. San Miguel’s arrest, “marks a drastic hardening” by Mr. Maduro’s government of its actions against political opponents and critics.

The move also signals a dramatic turn in Venezuela, where just a few months ago Mr. Maduro was signing an accord with the country’s opposition and agreeing to work toward a free and fair presidential election. Relations with his main political adversary, the United States, were warming, if only slightly.

In the October accord, signed in Barbados, Mr. Maduro said he would hold an election before the end of the year, and the United States in turn lifted some sanctions as a sign of good will. Relief on oil and gas sector sanctions is set to expire in April and the sanctions can be reimposed.

But just days after the Barbados agreement, Mr. Maduro watched as an opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, won more than 90 percent of the vote in a primary election, emphasizing her popularity and the prospect that she could beat him in a general election.

Since then, Mr. Maduro’s government has declared Ms. Machado ineligible to run and arrested several members of her campaign. Men on motorbikes aligned with the government have bloodied supporters at her events.

A new law that strictly regulates civil society organizations has led to fears that their members will start being treated as criminals. And the arrests of Ms. San Miguel and five members of her family have critics, journalists and human rights workers concerned that they have entered a new era of political control and retribution.

While the Maduro government frequently harasses and detains those who question it, it is rare for government agents to apprehend an entire family.

Chavismo, the socialist-inspired movement Mr. Maduro heads, has controlled Venezuela for 25 years. Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and remained in power following a 2018 presidential election whose results were widely considered fraudulent. That election was followed by a period of international isolation, in which many countries followed the United States in refusing to conduct business with Caracas.

Ever since, Mr. Maduro has been trying to claw his way back on to the world stage, and international recognition has been the carrot that the United States and other governments have held before him, offering it as reward for democratic concessions.

Mr. Maduro’s decision to expel the U.N. human rights agency is likely to anger many democratic governments, raising the question of whether Mr. Maduro cares anymore about international recognition. If he does not, that puts Washington’s strategy in doubt.

“Prospects for even a semi-competitive election appear to have dimmed significantly in the past week,” Mr. Gunson said.

In response to the expulsion, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, Ravina Shamdasani, said the agency regretted the move and was evaluating next steps. “Our guiding principle,” she said, “remains the promotion and protection of the human rights of the people of Venezuela.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.