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Venezuela’s human rights record continues to be poor

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

28.03.05 | Venezuela’s human rights record continues to be poor. In 2000, Venezuelans elected Hugo Chavez president in elections generally judged to be free and fair. Chavez was first elected in 1998, and reelected in 2000, following the approval of a new Constitution. Over the past six years, Chavez increasingly has consolidated power within the executive branch, extending its control over the country’s other branches of government. The political situation has at times been highly polarized and volatile, as Chavez has pursued his "Bolivarian" revolution and pursued policies opposed by many of those who first elected him. In 2002, the country’s political polarization led to violent disturbances, a brief interruption of the constitutional order and then a crippling national strike. Political violence, often by government supporters facing little resistance from security forces, became a part of the political landscape in 2003.

In 2004, the human rights situation deteriorated. The Government increased its control over the judicial system and its interference in the administration of justice. The National Assembly passed a law in May that enabled it to pack the Supreme Court with Chavez sympathizers and exert greater control over the justices. Judicial harassment and baseless political prosecutions against opposition and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders proceeded. Such prosecutions intimidated NGOs, including human rights groups, who were also subject to threats by government supporters.

The legislature also passed a law in December that erodes freedom of speech. The new media law includes vague prohibitions against transmitting violent images or statements that might lead to public disorder and stiff fines that have led to fears of self-censorship by media owners. The National Assembly also passed amendments to the penal code that provide for prison sentences for making statements through any media that "upset the public." The law also criminalizes noisy public protests ("cacerolazos").

According to press reports, Chavez vetoed some of the penal code amendments in February 2005 in response to prison strikes, asserting that some of the amendments violated the Constitution. Police and military units killed suspects in "confrontations," which eyewitness testimony often categorized as executions. Such actions were rarely prosecuted or punished. In February-March, there were numerous complaints that members of the National Guard tortured demonstrators, often using similar techniques and methods. The condition of Venezuela’s prisons remained harsh, and the authorities were unable to contain prisoner on prisoner violence that contributed to 327 deaths and 655 injuries in prisons. Child labor and violence against women and children continued to be a problem, as did trafficking in persons.

The United States supports the efforts of the Venezuelan people to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Senior U.S. officials consistently have spoken publicly in favor of a peaceful, democratic solution to Venezuela’s political conflict and on behalf of freedom of the press and other human rights. United States diplomats worked closely with other governments to coordinate support for democracy and human rights in Venezuela, especially to help build international support for the referendum process, and in defense of the press and civic associations facing increased government pressure. The Embassy continues to express the U.S. Government’s concern to the Venezuelan Government that it is not doing enough to combat trafficking in persons.

In the first half of 2004, the opposition struggled to get the electoral authorities to hold a constitution-ally-sanctioned presidential recall referendum. The U.S. Government supported this electoral solution as the best way to implement Organization of American States (OAS) Resolution 833, which called for a peaceful, democratic, electoral and constitutional resolution to the political crisis in Venezuela. The Embassy worked to help strengthen democracy in Venezuela through various electoral projects, including working with electoral observation groups. Both the Carter Center and the OAS fielded teams of international monitors to observe the presidential recall referendum as well as electoral events leading up to it, such as the petition and signature verification process. Embassy officers also observed the referendum signature drive, the signature confirmation event, the referendum itself and regional elections during the year. The Embassy put together an International Visitors Program (IVP) on electoral procedures that included a pro-Chavez National Assembly Deputy and members of the opposition.

According to international observers, including the OAS and the Carter Center, the National Electoral Council (CNE) behaved in a partisan manner throughout this period, restricting avenues for the referendum, allowing massive last minute naturalizations and manipulating the electoral rules to disadvantage the opponents of President Chavez. Nevertheless, the referendum took place on August 15, and official results indicated President Chavez won 60 percent of the votes cast. There were widespread complaints from the opposition that the CNE engaged in vote fraud and pre-referendum manipulations. Although the Carter Center noted that "the referendum process suffered from numerous irregularities throughout the entire process," the OAS and Carter Center declared that the vote represented the will of the Venezuelan people.

To help strengthen political parties in Venezuela, the National Democratic Institute promoted programs with political parties across the political spectrum focused on political party renewal and internal democratization. The International Republican Institute continued to provide technical assistance to political parties, training its members on issues such as how to choose and position a candidate, how to reach the masses with a campaign message and how to raise funds locally.

State Department spokespersons publicly expressed the U.S. Government’s concern that the media law passed by the National Assembly could threaten freedom of the press. The Embassy distributed this statement throughout the media to send as strong a message as possible to the Venezuelan media that the U.S. Government supported its struggle to maintain press freedoms. The Embassy also hosted a digital videoconference on freedom of the press timed to coincide with the debate over the law. Embassy officials also have expressed the U.S. Government’s concern over the law in private conversations with Venezuelan officials. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression also noted concern over the media content law, a concern the U.S. Mission to the OAS supported publicly.

To strengthen civil society overall, the United States worked to help strengthen the relatively weak human rights NGOs working in Venezuela, some of which have had to work in a climate of intense pressure and harassment by the Government of Venezuela. Freedom House began a program to teach human rights organizations and practitioners successful strategies employed by human rights defenders in other countries and to increase their institutional capacity through exchanges. This program is also solidifying links between Venezuelan human rights activists and other key human rights activists in Latin America. The Embassy brought speakers from the United States to talk about prison reform, indigenous rights and property rights as human rights.

The United States also worked to strengthen civil society groups by assisting local NGOs focused on supporting peaceful debate and conflict resolution, democratic institutions, promoting civic education and providing/increasing platforms for individuals of differing political ideologies to come together to resolve issues. The Embassy sent a group of student political leaders to the United States on an International Visitors Program to study grassroots democracy and another group to an OAS conference that taught them ways to strengthen democracy and learn more about their rights as citizens.

To reduce the instance of extra-judicial killings and torture, Embassy law enforcement representatives included human rights segments in all their training programs with Venezuelan law enforcement agencies. The Embassy also sent Venezuelan police officers to the United States on IVPs, which included human rights components. In Caracas, the Embassy began a series of four digital video-conferences with the Police Chief of San Jose, California for 30 police officers on protecting human rights in daily police activities. Various Embassy sections vetted all candidates for military training in the United States for human rights violations, in compliance with the Leahy Amendment.

The Embassy worked to strengthen the democratic process and promote the rule of law by sending U.S. diplomats to criminal proceedings against opposition leaders to show U.S. Government concern over due process. Opposition leaders under investigation were invited to Embassy events, along with government supporters, to show U.S. Government support for democracy and political tolerance and rejection of judicial intimidation. State Department spokespersons called attention to the negative effect on judicial independence of the Supreme Court law. Embassy officers, congressional delegations and visiting State Department officials also delivered messages to Venezuelan government, judicial and prosecutorial officials in defense of NGO leaders accused of treason for accepting U.S. Government funding. The Embassy arranged a series of digital video-conferences on the adversarial system to help train Venezuelan judges and lawyers. It also brought two judges and a mediator from the United States to talk about increasing the efficiency of court proceedings to insure swift and impartial administration of justice and a court mediator to discuss alternatives to judicial proceedings.

The U.S. Government sanctioned the Venezuelan Government for inaction on the problem of trafficking in persons by placing Venezuela in the Tier Three list of countries not doing enough to fight trafficking in persons during the year.

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