Freedom in the World
Venezuela received a downward trend arrow due to further government-imposed restrictions on assembly and protest, media activity, and academic freedom.
In May 2007, Venezuelan authorities shut down the popular television station RCTV, generating student-led protests that continued for the rest of the year. However, President Hugo Chavez’s ongoing efforts to consolidate power were dealt a surprise setback in December, when voters rejected a package of constitutional amendments proposed by the president and his parliamentary allies.
The Republic of Venezuela was founded in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military rule ended with the establishment of civilian rule in 1958 and the approval of a constitution in 1961. Until 1993, the center-left Democratic Action party (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics under an arrangement known as the Punto Fijo pact. President Carlos Andres Perez (1989– 93) of the AD, already weakened by the violent political fallout from his free-market reforms, was nearly overthrown by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts, in which dozens of people were killed. Perez was subsequently impeached as a result of corruption and his inability to stem the social consequences of economic decline, which had coincided with lower oil prices beginning in the 1980s. Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969–74) and founder of COPEI, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party Convergence coalition, which included both left- and right-wing groups.
In the December 1998 presidential contest, Chavez made his anticorruption, populist candidacy into a referendum on the entrenched political elite, which was famous for its consensual approach to politics but also for its interlocking system of privilege and graft. The long-ruling political parties’ effort to unify behind a consensus candidate was unsuccessful, and Chavez won with 56 percent of the vote.
A Constituent Assembly dominated by Chavez followers drafted a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and introduced a unicameral National Assembly. After voters approved the new charter in a December 1999 referendum, the bicameral Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice were dismissed, and new national elections were called for May 2000. Although Chavez was reelected president, opposition parties won most of the country’s governorships, about half of the mayoralties, and a significant share of National Assembly seats. Nevertheless, that November, Chavez’s allies in the legislature granted him special powers to enact a wide range of laws by decree.
In April 2002, following the deaths of 19 people in a massive antigovernment protest, dissident military officers attempted to remove Chavez from office with backing from some of the country’s leading business groups. The provisional government appointed by the military also sought to dismiss the elected vice president and the National Assembly, but it faced a reaction from loyalist troops and an outburst of protests by pro-Chavez citizens. Chavez was reinstated and moved swiftly to regain control of the military, dismissing dozens of generals and installing supporters across the higher ranks.
Following the coup attempt, the country was racked by protests from a broad spectrum of civil society. In early December, opposition leaders called a general strike that lasted 62 days but ultimately weakened their political position, failed to force the president from office, and severely damaged the economy. Nevertheless, anti-Chavez activists succeeded in gathering enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote. While fending off his opponents with legal maneuvers and intimidation tactics, Chavez introduced a bold program of social service initiatives, including urban health care and literacy projects, many of which were staffed by thousands of doctors and other experts brought in from Cuba.
Chavez won the August 2004 presidential recall referendum with 58 percent of the vote amid high voter turnout. After the relatively peaceful balloting, opposition groups insisted that there was a large discrepancy between the official results and their own exit polls. Independent observers said that although there were credible reports of voter harassment, the problems did not appear to have affected the outcome. In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, voters overwhelmingly backed pro-Chavez candidates.
Even as Venezuela faced high levels of street crime and unemployment, as well as an economy recovering from severe damage, Chavez continued to focus on increasing his influence over the judicial system, the media, and other institutions of civil society. The National Assembly, controlled by his supporters, approved a measure allowing it to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which had replaced the old Supreme Court in 1999 and controlled the rest of the judiciary. The legislation also expanded the tribunal’s membership from 20 to 32 justices, who would be appointed by a simple majority vote in the legislature. In December 2004, a law giving the government increased control over the content of radio and television programs took effect.
In 2005, Chavez continued to curry favor in the region by signing a trade pact under which Venezuela would provide nine Caribbean governments with oil on favorable terms. Squabbles between the United States and Venezuela continued throughout 2005 and 2006 over issues including large Venezuelan arms purchases, a supposed lack of cooperation in efforts to combat illegal drugs and terrorism, and alleged assistance to favored political candidates in neighboring countries. Chavez became a factor in elections throughout Latin America in 2006, though his explicit or perceived endorsements of leftist candidates backfired in Peru and Mexico, where they were successfully exploited by conservative opponents. Chavez also traveled extensively, signing political and economic accords in countries including Iran, Belarus, Russia, China, Vietnam, Portugal, and Mali.
National Assembly elections in December 2005 were conducted in an atmosphere of severe mistrust, as the opposition accused the National Electoral Council (CNE) of allowing violations of the secrecy of the vote. A boycott movement gained steam in the days preceding the balloting, resulting in the election—by a mere 25 percent of eligible voters—of a National Assembly in which all 167 deputies were government supporters.
In the run-up to the December 2006 presidential election, the ideologically diverse opposition, except for the AD, unified behind the candidacy of former AD member Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia, Venezuela’s wealthiest state. Rosales, running under the banner of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) party, railed against high crime rates, the Chavez administration’s corruption, and Chavez’s giveaways of money and oil to favored foreign nations, but he also pledged to maintain generous social programs aimed largely at the poor. However, most poor Venezuelans continued to support Chavez, who had delivered material benefits to the lower classes, as evidenced by the gradually declining poverty rate. The Venezuelan media remained highly polarized, with most press outlets strongly supporting one candidate or the other and accusing opponents of fomenting violence. In the end, Chavez defeated Rosales handily, 61 percent to 38 percent, in balloting that generally proceeded without incident.
Soon after the vote, Chavez indicated that he would press forward with his program of institutional changes, which he called a “Bolivarian revolution.” In late December 2006, he announced that the license of the popular opposition-aligned television station RCTV would not be renewed and broadcasting would cease in May 2007. He also unveiled plans to merge all progovernment parties into a single grouping. In early 2007, he carried out a cabinet shakeup that included the replacement of influential Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel with former CNE head Jorge Rodriguez. The deepening of the “revolution” continued with the announcement that the primary national telecommunications company, CANTV, would be nationalized, along with Electricidad de Caracas, the capital city’s power utility. At the end of January, the National Assembly voted to give the president decree power on a broad array of issues for 18 months.
On May 27, Chavez fulfilled his pledge to take control of the frequency and equipment of RCTV. The seizure was justified on the basis of what Chavez claimed were the station’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the government. Media watchdog and human rights groups characterized the move as an attack on press freedom and decried a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. Moreover, the decision was challenged by groups of university students, who repeatedly carried out large street protests that were at times forcibly repressed. The fact that the demonstrations appeared spontaneous, and that the students were not tainted by links with the discredited opposition parties, earned them sympathy.
The year’s other major development was the narrow defeat, on December 2, of a referendum that would have amended 69 of the Venezuelan constitution’s 350 articles. The proposed changes, which were drafted by the executive and the National Assembly with little outside consultation, ranged from establishing an official six-hour workday and instituting a new pension scheme for informal workers, to giving the president the power to redraw the country’s territorial map and formalizing new, ambiguous property classifications. For human rights groups, the proposed expansion of the president’s power to declare indefinite states of emergency, which would enable him to limit certain elements of due process and freedom of information, was disquieting. Most of the opposition, however, regarded the proposal to remove presidential term limits as the motivation behind the entire package. Chavez’s public musings about governing until 2050 helped to mobilize the significant minority of Venezuelans who stridently opposed his regime.
As the referendum approached, opposition to the reform package increased. The student movement, which remained at the forefront of the opposition, was joined by influential former Chavistas, particularly former defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel and members of the PODEMOS party, which went into opposition rather than join the unified pro-Chavez party. In addition, economic and social conditions were less than optimal for Chavez: with increasing inflation, shortages of some food staples (partially a result of price controls), and a spiraling crime rate, voters were less eager to reward the president than in previous contests. Finally, for the first time since 2004, nearly all opposition members were persuaded to participate rather than abstain from voting. As the ballots were counted, it became clear that apathy among Chavista voters had cost the government victory; whereas the vote against the amendments was comparable to what Rosales had won in the 2006 election, the total in favor was some three million ballots short of that collected by Chavez a year earlier.
Chavez’s concession speech made him appear somewhat chastened, but his customary rhetoric soon returned as he denigrated the opposition victory and scolded his supporters for their low turnout. Toward the end of the year, much of the president’s attention was focused on his attempts to secure the release of prominent hostages held by Colombia’s leftist rebels; as negotiations dragged on, previously respectful relations between Chavez and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe turned increasingly sour.
Venezuela is an electoral democracy. However, the political opposition is forced to operate under difficult conditions. The December 2005 National Assembly elections were marred by an anemic turnout after the opposition called for a boycott, claiming that the secrecy of the vote was compromised by a combination of mechanized voting machines and fingerprint-based antifraud equipment. Though the CNE agreed to forgo the equipment, the opposition decided to sit out the elections. In April 2006, a new CNE board of directors was appointed by the legislature; although a majority of the board were supporters of President Hugo Chavez, the opposition actively contested the December 2006 presidential election. The voting was generally considered free and fair, but the CNE was ineffectual at limiting Chavez’s use of state resources. He enjoyed a massive advantage in television exposure, and the promotion of social and infrastructure projects often blurred the line between his official role and his electoral campaign. The opposition also alleged that the limited use of fingerprint-identification machines was designed to intimidate voters, and that the accuracy of the electoral registry was highly questionable.
A similar exploitation of public resources occurred during the run-up to the December 2007 referendum on government-backed constitutional amendments. In addition, the delayed announcement of results drew accusations that backroom negotiations were conducted. Actual balloting proceeded without serious incident, and the opposition expressed satisfaction with the auditing system; however, full, final results, which could have allayed any lingering suspicions, had still not been released by year’s end. Separately, after the failed 2004 presidential recall referendum, tens of thousands of people who had signed petitions in favor of the effort found that they could not get government jobs or contracts, or qualify for public assistance programs; they had apparently been placed on an alleged blacklist of Chavez’s political opponents.
The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 167 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. Chavez’s control of the Assembly lessened slightly in 2007 following the defection of the PODEMOS party, but his still-powerful grip allows him to curb the independence of government institutions. Aside from the legislature, Chavez’s coalition controls the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the intelligence services, and the Citizen Power branch of government, which was created by the 1999 constitution to fight corruption and protect citizens’ rights. Moreover, in January 2007, the National Assembly approved an “enabling law” that granted Chavez the power to legislate by decree on a wide range of topics through mid-2008. By the end of the year, however, he had yet to use this power extensively. The president, who is both head of state and head of government, is directly elected for up to two six-year terms; the failed constitutional amendments would have added a year to the term and eliminated the two-term limit.
The process of merging government-aligned parties into a single United Socialist Party (PSUV) proceeded slowly in 2007, with a number of delays in convening the party’s founding congress. Meanwhile, the opposition has largely been ideologically and programmatically incoherent. This deficit, combined with Chavez’s popularity and power over the distribution of state resources, has often left the opposition struggling to win over Chavez supporters and independents. However, in the run-up to the December 2007 referendum, opposition forces exhibited new unity while also gaining support from former Chavistas and the student movement. Newer opposition parties include Un Nuevo Tiempo, which presidential candidate Manuel Rosales adopted in 2006, and Primero Justicia (Justice First), which suffered internal problems in 2007. At the end of 2007 there was some talk of merging these two parties ahead of the state and local elections scheduled for 2008.
The Chavez government, which now enjoys free rein over the economy, has done little to remove vague or excessive regulatory restrictions that increase opportunities for corruption. Several newly created development funds are controlled by the executive branch without oversight. Anticorruption efforts are sporadic and focus on violations by the regime’s political opponents. Following the strikes of 2002–03, Chavez replaced technocrats at PDVSA, the state oil company, with his own loyalists, to the detriment of the firm’s technical reputation. The expropriation of large, idle landholdings has slowed in the last two years. The nationalization of industrial holdings, however, continues apace; in 2007 national telecoms provider CANTV and electric utility Electricidad de Caracas were nationalized, while all oil producers in the Orinoco belt were obliged to hand majority control to the state. Transparency International (TI) ranked Venezuela a dismal 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. In late 2007 the government successfully lobbied for the removal of a critical TI report from the Organization of American States website.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the media climate is permeated by intimidation, sometimes including physical attacks, and strong antimedia rhetoric by the government is common. Opposition outlets remain vocally hostile toward the government, but their share of the broadcast media has declined markedly in recent years. The 2004 Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television gives the government the authority to control the content of radio and television programs. According to the Inter American Press Association, the government “has used public funds to establish many publications, television and radio stations which enjoy unlimited budgets.” During the 2006 election and 2007 referendum campaigns, coverage by state media was overwhelmingly one-sided in its support of the government; opposition-aligned outlets also exhibited bias, though to a somewhat lesser degree. When justifying the nonrenewal of RCTV’s license in 2007, the government referred repeatedly to the station’s “undemocratic” actions during the 2002 coup attempt; however, other stations that had been equally anti-Chavez but subsequently toned down their criticism were not similarly punished. The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion, which the constitution guarantees, is generally respected by the government, though tensions with the Roman Catholic Church remain high. Government relations with the small Jewish community have also been strained, due especially to Chavez’s ties to Iranian president and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Academic freedom came under mounting pressure in 2007 with the introduction of a new curriculum, to eventually be applied in all private and public schools that will emphasize socialist concepts. Ideological friction in universities has increased; elections for student associations and administration positions have become even more politicized than before, and rival groups of students clashed repeatedly, especially during the run-up to the constitutional referendum.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, and protests are common. However, the rise of the student movement in 2007 caused a spike in confrontations with the government. Even prior to the peak of the referendum-related protests, local human rights group Provea noted an increased “tendency toward the criminalization of protest,” with more arrests and repression of marches.
In 2000, the Supreme Tribunal ruled that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with non-Venezuelan leaders or foreign government funding are not part of “civil society.” As a result, they may not represent citizens in court or bring their own legal actions. The Chavez government has also made an effort to undermine the legitimacy of human rights and other civil society organizations by questioning their ties to international groups. An NGO law modeled on a restrictive Russian statute received preliminary approval in the National Assembly in June 2006 but has not subsequently moved forward.
Workers in Venezuela are legally entitled to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with some restrictions on public-sector workers’ ability to strike. Control of unions is actively contested between traditional opposition-allied labor leaders, who allege that challenges by upstart workers’ organizations mask Chavez’s intent to create government-controlled unions, and the president’s supporters, who maintain that the old labor regime was effectively controlled by AD, COPEI, and employers. The growing competition has contributed to a substantial increase in violence in the labor sector.
Until Chavez took power, the judicial system was headed by a nominally independent Supreme Court that was nevertheless highly politicized, undermined by the chronic corruption (including the growing influence of narcotics traffickers) that permeates the entire government system, and unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. Under Chavez, the effectiveness of the judicial branch remains tenuous, and the level of politicization has increased. Conviction rates remain low, the public defender system continues to be underfunded, and the level of provisionality (absence of tenure) among judges is high.
Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as extrajudicial killings by the often-corrupt police and the military, have increased along with soaring crime rates. With over 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela’s murder rate is now one of the world’s highest. In the first nine months of 2007, over 9,500 homicides were reported, a nearly 10 percent increase over the rate in all of 2006. Furthermore, rights abuses by the police and the military are committed with impunity. In late 2006, plans to nationalize and reform the police began to be elaborated, a process that continued throughout 2007. Though reform plans are under discussion and the budget has moderately increased, prison conditions remain among the worst in the Americas. The nongovernmental group Venezuelan Prison Observatory reported at least 498 violent deaths in 2007.
Since Chavez’s election, Venezuela’s military, which has long been largely unaccountable to civilian authorities, has become an active participant in the country’s social development and the delivery of public services. The 1999 constitution assigns the armed forces a significant role in the state but does not provide for civilian control over the military’s budget or procurement practices, or for related institutional checks. In early 2007, Chavez obliged members of the military to recite the “fatherland, socialism, or death” slogan and declared that those who refused should exit the armed forces. However, a faction of the military is also perceived as partial to former defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel, who claims that tensions within the armed forces are rising. Baduel also asserts, as do foreign officials, that the military has adopted an increasingly permissive attitude toward narcotics trafficking and Colombian rebel activity inside Venezuela.
The formal rights of indigenous people have improved under Chavez, although those rights—specifically the groups’ ability to make decisions affecting their land, cultures, and traditions, and the allocation of natural resources—are seldom enforced by local political authorities. Indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including murder, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. The constitution reserves three seats in the National Assembly for indigenous people and also provides for “the protection of indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation.”
Venezuelan women enjoy progressive rights enshrined in the 1999 constitution, and some programs, such as a hotline for victims of domestic abuse, have been established to assist them. However, domestic violence and rape remain common, and the courts have provided limited means of redress for victims. As in some neighboring countries, the problem of trafficking in women is inadequately addressed by the government.