LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (AP) — Karen Palacios’ Yamaha clarinet still rests where she left it atop sheet music of a Mozart concerto that she practiced diligently the night before two strangers dressed in black lured her away in a luxury SUV.
The 25-year-old musician’s captors duped her into believing she was needed for an interview with a victims’ unit at the presidential palace.
Instead, they drove her to Venezuela’s most-notorious military prison, locking her up alongside the socialist government’s top opponents for violating Venezuela’s highly subjective hate law. Her crime: posting a message on social media venting frustration at President Nicolás Maduro’s government over having been cut from the state-funded National Philharmonic, where she had recently debuted as first clarinetist.
“This is the first time I’ve started a thread,” she wrote May 26 in a string of hard-edged messages that quickly went viral on Twitter.
“Today after the ninth presentation of ‘Popol Vuh’ I was informed that my contract wasn’t renewed because ‘I signed against the regime,’” she wrote in an apparent allusion to her support for a petition seeking to recall Maduro. “Now I ask myself: when they called to offer me a job why didn’t they say one of the requirements was to think the same as them?”
On Tuesday, the family’s nightmare ended. After 45 days in jail alongside some of Venezuela’s most-hardened female criminals — and a full month after a judge ordered her immediate release — Palacios walked through a giant metal gate at a penitentiary outside Caracas.
“I’m free, I’m free,” she wailed as she stumbled into the arms of family and friends.
But the scars from her confinement will take time to heal. Meanwhile, her plight has drawn attention to what the United Nations in a report this month signaled as the government’s growing use of arbitrary detentions to intimidate opponents — real or imagined — and stifle free expression.
Hours before Palacios’ release, her mother, Judith Pérez, broke down into tears at her ramshackle, zinc-roofed house watching a video of her daughter’s solo performance of Rossini’s “variations” for clarinet. In 2014, Palacios was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and found in her obsessive study of classical music a natural antidote to frequent bouts of depression.
“I beg God to forgive me but when I hear her play I no longer feel happiness. I’m filled with sadness,” Pérez said, recalling the anguished look on her daughter’s face in two brief visits with her in jail. “I know she needs her clarinet. That’s what hurts her.”
Throughout the cramped, hillside slum where Palacios lives, both opponents and supporters of the government recounted Tuesday how they miss their neighbor’s musical gift, especially when she would practice outdoors on a dirt lot overlooking the verdant hills ringing Caracas.
Palacios’ dream — for which she was readying an audition at the time of her detention — was to join the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the marquee ensemble of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema of youth orchestras.
From an early age, she studied with the state-funded program, sitting in workshops with maestros like Gustavo Dudamel, the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and El Sistema’s biggest promoter until he had a falling out with Maduro in 2017. Last year, she was one of among 10,000 El Sistema musicians who performed for Maduro at an arena concert to celebrate El Sistema’s milestone of having reached a million students.
“Music is her life,” said Pérez, flipping through a collection of old concert programs and student certificates.
But government supporters are less sympathetic. Far from an innocent victim of a repressive regime, they accuse Palacios of crossing a line and inciting violence when on May 1 — a day after Maduro crushed a military rebellion called by opposition leader Juan Guaidó — she sent messages to her few hundred Twitter followers expressing a desire “to read one sleepless night that Maduro fled the country, was killed, jailed or anything else that makes me happy.”
Palacios, in an interview with El Nacional newspaper before her arrest, said she regretted the comments made in the heat of the moment and removed them within a few hours of being posted. They were later unearthed by La Tabla, a name and shame pro-government media outlet.
Meanwhile, her imprisonment has reopened debate on Venezuela’s hate law, which was passed by the rubber-stamping, pro-Maduro constitutional assembly in 2017 and carries prison sentences of between 10 and 20 years for anyone found guilty of publicly instigating violence against people based on their race, ethnicity or political views.
Free speech advocates say the law is selectively enforced and consider it a tool of repression and censorship. Last year, 24 people were detained for expressing criticism of the government online, according to local NGO Espacio Publico.
Overall, more than 15,000 individuals have been detained for political motives since 2014, according to Foro Penal, a lawyers’ co-op that represents Palacios. So far this year, more than 2,200 individuals have been locked up, with almost 600 still behind bars.
While the vast majority were picked up at anti-government demonstrations and held for mere days, some, like Palacios, are held for weeks after a court ordered their release.
Alfredo Romero, who heads Foro Penal, said that Palacios’ freedom carries some bittersweet lessons. While he says pressure, especially from international actors, can prove effective, for every cell that is cleared out, new detainees fill another one in what he likes to call Venezuela’s “revolving door of repression.”
“Applying pressure is key to winning a political prisoner’s freedom because it increases the political cost to the government of keeping them jailed,” he said. “For a political prisoner there’s no worse punishment than forgetting them.”