The International Committee of the Red Cross has regained access to prisons in Venezuela, including highly guarded military facilities where dozens of inmates considered political prisoners are being held, as President Nicolas Maduro seeks to counter mounting criticism of his government's human rights record.
The fact that the visits include military prisons, which hadn't been previously reported, was confirmed to The Associated Press by a human rights lawyer and family members of those detained.
International Red Cross President Peter Maurer met with Maduro Tuesday night as he wraps up a five-day visit to Venezuela, where the Geneva-based group is among international organizations trying to carve out a space to deliver badly needed humanitarian aid and technical assistance free of the winner-take-all politics contributing to the country's turmoil.
Critics say the prison visits, which were coordinated directly with the socialist government with little input from its opponents, have the effect of legitimizing Maduro's rule at a time he's face mounting pressure from the U.S. and dozens of allies to resign.
But others say it's a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim outlook for the country, opening normally thin-skinned authorities to scrutiny — albeit of a confidential nature — and that along with renewed engagement with international actors like the World Food Program and Pan American Health Organization possibly pave the way for political dialogue. It will also allow for closer tracking of a humanitarian crisis expected to worsen under the impact of U.S. financial sanctions
Red Cross representatives visit prisons every year in more than 100 countries, following an established protocol allowing it to verify conditions of confinement and hold private conversations with inmates in which they can voice complaints and send messages to loved ones.
But the group had been denied access in Venezuela at least since 2012.
The renewed visits in Venezuela began March 11 when a Red Cross delegation visited a model prison in Caracas, the Simon Bolivar Center for the Formation of New Men. Eighty-seven foreigners are being held.
But more significant was the visit two weeks later to the military-run Ramo Verde prison outside Caracas, which holds 69 people the opposition considers political prisoners.
Sandra Hernandez, whose husband, Sgt. Luis Figueroa, has been jailed at Ramo Verde since January for leading a military uprising against Maduro, was present last week when a white vehicle emblazoned with the international Red Cross' logo pulled up to the prison entrance.
She was there for her once-a-week visit, delivering basic staples — pasta, rice and cheese — that have become harder to afford since she was fired from her $7-a-month job as a teacher in what she said was retaliation for her husband's opposition to the government.
She said that if not for remittances sent by a relative in Spain, her husband could starve on the scant rations provided by prison authorities.
While her husband told her he wasn't among the small group of prisoners allowed to speak with the Red Cross representatives, she was hopeful the visit would help improve dire conditions for all inmates, many of whom she said are suffering from lack of medical attention and claim to have been tortured. The AP was unable to independently verify those claims.
"It's very important they talk to prisoners and see firsthand what's happening inside," she said.
Maurer on Wednesday described the visits as an "all-detainee" approach that focuses on helping authorities address the biggest needs but not focusing on individual prisoners or issuing public admonishments. He declined to comment on the visits to military facilities.
"We have this access because we respect the principle of confidentiality which means we visit, we make confidential reports to authorities, we make recommendations and we follow up on those reports," he told journalists in Caracas. "We are not in the business of denunciation."
Prisons Minister Iris Varela has said the visit to the civilian facility, and others to come, were part of an effort to share with the world Venezuela's positive experience rehabilitating inmates.
Left unsaid by both sides was that the Red Cross had also secured access to military detention facilities.
The majority of people held at the Ramo Verde are military personnel accused of plotting to overthrow Maduro. Many more, including five oil executives with U.S. passports, are being held in the basement jail of the military counterintelligence headquarters in the capital.
"This is an important first step, but make no mistake, it's also an attempt by Maduro to gain legitimacy with the international community," said Alfredo Romero, a human rights lawyer who was told of the Red Cross visit by prison workers when trying to visit clients at Ramo Verde. "It's not in itself going to change the government's willingness to improve conditions."
A senior government official played down the significance of the Red Cross visits, describing them as part of a broader push to work more closely with several international agencies. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to discuss those talks publicly.
Maurer said his organization is tripling its budget this year in Venezuela to around $24 million, focusing its efforts on rehabilitating hospitals, increasing water supplies, training the armed forces in international humanitarian law and visiting detainees among other activities. He said the work would be concentrated in Caracas, southern Bolivar state and the restive border region with Colombia.
The international Red Cross' sister organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, recently said it had received a waiver from Maduro to deliver aid to some 650,000 people in Venezuela beginning this month. Maduro has long denied a humanitarian crisis, considering aid offers a "Trojan horse" to pave the way for a foreign military intervention.
Similarly, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by 50 nations as Venezuela's rightful leader, has tried to control the distribution of U.S.-supplied aid in a bid to weaken Maduro's grip on power.
In another attempt to counter growing criticism, Maduro last month welcomed a delegation sent by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights. He previously had called such visits a politically biased threat to Venezuela's sovereignty.
"Venezuela is not a typical case where we would have expected to develop major programs," Maurer said. "But we think that there are some clear humanitarian disruptions to address and that it is important to step up to the plate."