CARACAS, Venezuela — The United Nations' top human rights official arrived in Venezuela Wednesday for a visit that comes amid heightened international pressure on President Nicolás Maduro for allegedly silencing opponents with jail, torture and excessive violence.
On her first visit to the South American country, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is expected to meet with Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó — two men locked in a power struggle for control of the crisis-wracked nation.
But the fact that her three-day trip is even taking place is seen as something of a minor triumph for rights activists.
Bachelet's predecessor, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, was repeatedly denied access to the country for criticizing what he said was the government's refusal to recognize a humanitarian crisis. In contrast, Maduro appears to be rolling out the red carpet for Bachelet, who survived jail and exile during Chile's military dictatorship.
On the eve of her arrival, the government freed 21 opposition activists considered political prisoners, including a substitute lawmaker and 18 people detained during recent anti-government protests. Previously, Maduro began allowing the Red Cross to deliver humanitarian aid.
Appearing on state TV shortly before Bachelet's arrival, Maduro said he was ready to hear out any of her proposals that aim to improve conditions in Venezuela.
"We greatly anticipate her visit," Maduro said. "It will be good for Venezuela's system of human rights."
Supporters of Guaidó, however, have called for protests out of fear Bachelet will get a highly curated, unrealistic view of a crisis that has led a staggering 4 million Venezuelans to flee widespread hunger, a broken medical system and soaring inflation.
Guaidó has failed to seize power five months after launching a campaign to oust Maduro. But he has managed to win the recognition of more than 50 nations and galvanize international opinion against Maduro, who faces complaints of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court filed by Canada and five Latin American nations.
In addition to meeting with Maduro, Bachelet will meet with socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, as well as the Supreme Court head and attorney general. She also plans to see victims of human rights violations and their relatives, the U.N. agency said.
Notably absent from a draft agenda obtained by The Associated Press are visits to detention centers such as the Helicoide prison, where many of the nearly 700 activists considered to be political prisoners by the opposition are being held.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, urged Bachelet to insist on receiving access to a prison and the JM de los Rios Children's Hospital in Caracas, which doctors describe as a waiting room for sick and dying children.
He warned Bachelet's visit will be a disappointment if she just meets with officials, opposition leaders and civil society representatives.
"She can do that via Skype from Geneva," he said. "She's there to represent the victims. The litmus test is whether she can gain access to a prison of her choice, inspect conditions and meet in private with political prisoners. That's the only thing that will give purpose to this trip."
Earlier this year, Bachelet issued a tough statement criticizing the Maduro government for harsh crackdowns on dissenters and reports of extrajudicial killings of poor, unarmed residents at the hands of security forces.
"I am also deeply concerned about the shrinking of the democratic space, especially the continued criminalization of peaceful protest and dissent," she said.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, said it was inevitable that the opposition would say Bachelet would get a whitewashed version of Venezuela's crisis, but her visit could actually help Maduro's opponents.
In recent weeks, Norway has hosted two rounds of talks between representatives of Maduro and Guaidó, although the mediation effort has stalled recently over the opposition leader's insistence the government agree to early presidential elections.
"Any progress we see of releasing political prisoners or efforts to organize new elections I don't think are going to be providing oxygen to Maduro," Ramsey said. "This could be a galvanizing moment for the opposition at a time when they badly need it."