Countries at the Crossroads

Venezuela

Venezuela

Countries at the Crossroads 2006

2006 Scores

Accountability and Public Voice
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

3.00

Civil Liberties
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

4.07

Rule of Law
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

2.98

Anti-Corruption and Transparency
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

2.13
Introduction: 


As the head of an oil rich country, President Hugo Chavez—whose own political ascendancy reflected popular disenchantment with Venezuela’s exclusionary traditional political parties—has presided over the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions. Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, which he now defines as “21st century socialism,” has meant a new constitution, a new legislature, a new Supreme Court, new election officials, and purges of both the state-owned oil company and the Venezuelan armed forces. Chavez still cites combating corruption and social injustice as the leitmotif for his brand of authoritarian politics. Yet under his rule, corruption in Venezuela appears to be getting worse, coming in 130th out of 158 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.[1]

The government spent much of 2005 using the country’s oil wealth to promote anti-North, anti-free trade, pro-Cuban politics abroad,[2] even as Venezuela’s high levels of poverty remained constant. The growing militarization of the country’s political sphere, as evidenced by the appointment of more than 300 serving and retired military officers in public posts outside of the defense sector, was accompanied by the inauguration of a blacklist of political opponents that denied tens of thousands access to state jobs and services, as well as by increases in political corruption.[3]

The decision by Venezuela’s four major opposition parties to abstain from the December 2005 election contest, claiming that the National Electoral Council (CNE) is biased toward pro-Chavez parties and therefore the results would be rigged, meant that voters were faced with two real choices: staying at home or voting for parliamentary candidates loyal to Chavez. Analysts said this would show the real level of public support for Chavez. The vote could serve as a reality check on a Venezuelan president who has eliminated various institutional accountability mechanisms, even as he consolidates his political and economic power, particularly over the armed forces. However, the government’s growing control over sectors of Venezuelan life, record-high oil prices, and his unbroken, albeit questionable, string of electoral victories, all appeared to make Chavez largely unassailable in the 2006 presidential election.

[Editor’s note: In elections for the National Assembly held on December 4, 2005, in which all five main opposition parties boycotted the poll due to their lack of confidence in the electoral system's transparency and ability to guarantee the secrecy of the vote, only 25 percent of Venezuela’s 14 million voters took part in a contest that resulted in Chavez’s firm control over the legislative body. In the aftermath of the parliamentary election, the Economist noted, Venezuela was “edging toward a Potemkin democracy … the new assembly will be composed wholly of supporters of Mr Chávez, albeit split among several parties .”[4]]

Accountability and Public Voice: 


Venezuelan citizens can change their government democratically, although conditions for the anti-Chavez opposition make it increasingly hard to do so. Almost three-quarters of Venezuela’s adult population has chosen not to participate in recent elections, despite the claim of Chavez and his supporters that they have brought large numbers of Venezuela’s poor—some 68 percent of the population—into the democratic processes.[5] Campaign financing is largely unregulated, although the electoral law does explicitly prohibit advertising by any government agency in political campaigns or elections. In the most recent electoral contests, the Chavez government has significantly increased social spending in a bid to mobilize its political base.

After his election in 1998, Chavez won a national referendum on a new constitution that allowed a strengthened chief executive the right to dissolve the National Assembly and made it possible for Chavez to retain power until 2013. Meanwhile, Chavez’s Assembly allies granted him special fast-track powers allowing him to decree a wide range of laws without parliamentary debate. Following approval of the new constitution, the Assembly and the Supreme Court were dismissed.

Chavez consolidated his hold on power following the defeat, amid charges of ballot rigging, of a first-ever presidential recall referendum. By mid-2004, more than four million people of some 14 million eligible voters had signed recall petitions. Chavez, however, won the referendum with 58 percent of the vote. Following the election, which was conducted in relative peace and characterized by a high turnout, opposition groups insisted that there was a large discrepancy between the official results and their own exit polls. Although some independent observers cited what they called credible reports of voter harassment—including physical intimidation and the reassignment of thousands of voters to far-away polling stations—and vote tampering, both the Organization of American States and the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, said that they found no evidence of election fraud. In October 2004 regional and municipal elections, voters overwhelmingly backed pro-Chavez candidates.

In 2005, people who signed recall petitions complained that they could not get government jobs or contracts, qualify for public assistance programs, receive passports, or even receive services at local libraries.[6] Chavez also signaled his plans to remain in power for the foreseeable future; when swearing in his party’s candidates for the December 4, 2005, National Assembly elections, he told them that if they were elected, they might be called upon to participate in an effort to amend the constitution. Following the election, the Organization of American States highlighted the climate of “mutual distrust … polarization and political tension,” as well as the fact that there was an “absence of strict control mechanisms of the use of public and private resources for political and electoral ends.” [7]

At the national level, by 2005 there were no truly independent government institutions. Chavez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement, controls the National Assembly, as well as the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ)—whose members are elected by the National Assembly to a single 12-year term—and the intelligence services. Chavez has relied heavily on supporters from within the armed forces, both on active duty and retired, to staff key executive branch and public enterprise posts. Chavez’s party also controls the “citizen power,” or ombudsman, branch of government, created in the 1999 constitution to fight corruption, and other checks and balances have been eliminated. In addition, according to an authoritative private risk analysis firm, in recent years there has been a “rapid increase in the numbers of Cuban political advisors, military officers and intelligence operatives in the country”—a disturbing presence, as the island country remains the last dictatorship in the hemisphere.[8]

Venezuela has a large government bureaucracy, but the civil service is not chosen through open competition or by merit. The 1961 constitution provided for a career civil service and established standards for performance, advancement, suspension, and retirement. These have been largely ignored by Chavez and his predecessors in favor of a patronage system in which the military actively participates.

The virulent rhetoric employed by official and quasi-official sources is also widely seen as tacitly approving violence against government opponents. Threats, intimidation, and physical harm to numerous persons, as well as accusations by the political opposition of illegal wiretapping of the telephones of private citizens who are members of anti-Chavez groups, are well documented.

Even though the country has one of Latin America’s best-organized and most extensive communities of nongovernmental organizations, the government has done little to protect the rights of civil society.  In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from foreign governments or whose leaders are not Venezuelan 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 reputable human rights and other civil society organizations by questioning their ties to international organizations. In 2005, the leaders of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy–supported Sumate (a Venezuelan civic association for the defense of electoral rights) were brought up on charges of conspiring against the government.[9] Moreover, the ability of civic groups to offer meaningful contributions by testifying, commenting on, or otherwise influencing government policy or legislation has been reduced significantly, although the regime has created some so-called popular consultation mechanisms, such as the “Bolivarian Circles,” that are largely in the hands of its partisans.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, exercise of that right is difficult in practice, with press laws, in the words of one foreign journalist, “designed to be enforced selectively, and to intimidate.”[10] Physical attacks, police and military raids on media outlets without judicial warrant, and criminal prosecutions against anticorruption journalists exist in a climate of violent anti-media rhetoric by the government and a significant anti-Chavez slant on the part of media owners. In July 2004, a new law was ratified that regulates the work of journalists, provides for compulsory registration with the national journalism association, and punishes reporters’ “illegal” conduct with prison sentences of three to six months. A Supreme Court ruling upheld censorship laws that effectively declared laws protecting public authorities and institutions from insulting criticism to be constitutional. The Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and TV, giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs, went into effect in December 2004, with Chavez claiming that the “Venezuelan people have begun to free themselves from … the dictatorship of the private media.”[11]

According to an October 2005 report by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), there has been an increase in violence against journalists and media outlets that are critical of the government, “threatening them with the possibility of being taken over or disappearing.” In September 2005, the National Telecommunications Committee (CONATEL) opened administrative proceedings against seven private television stations and 22 private radio stations for bureaucratic offenses. According to the IAPA report, the government “uses official advertising as an instrument of coercion and has become the country’s ‘main communicator.’” In addition, there are four national television stations backed by 25 “semi-official stations,” while the airwaves are filled with 146 semi-official and alternative community radio stations. The IAPA added that the government has also created “a swarm of print media, with 72 semi-official community newspapers.” In 2005, Chavez went forward with the creation of a regional media network, Telesur, in partnership with the governments of Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay. In contrast, the government does not restrict Internet access.

In July 2005, the attorney general’s office initiated a criminal investigation of the Caracas-based daily El Universal following publication of a front-page editorial. In the piece, the newspaper decried the politicization of the criminal justice system, saying that it had lost its autonomy and become ineffective, causing the attorney general’s office and the courts to lose legitimacy. The probe was justified under desacato (contempt) provisions that criminalize expressions deemed offensive to public officials and state institutions. In October, the Supreme Court found that a newspaper editorial did not constitute an “institutional insult” prohibited by law. It noted, however, that the constitution proscribes “the use of freedom of information and opinion to destabilize democratic institutions.”[12]

Freedom of cultural expression in Venezuela has also been subjected to Chavez’s views on the need for a cultural revolution, which critical intellectuals and artists say is an attempt to use cultural institutions for political profit. The president has frequently called on Latin America to establish a cultural identity outside of what he calls American cultural imperialism.[13] In 2001, Chavez fired the heads of 16 major museums and other cultural institutions, with critics charging that experienced museum curators had been replaced by the president’s political cronies. The government has also censored works of art critical of the regime and of Chavez personally. 

Civil Liberties: 


The constitution and the 1999 Organic Criminal Procedures Code (COPP) provide for freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and prohibit torture and the holding of detainees incommunicado. Officials who instigate or tolerate torture are legally liable for prosecution and the law grants victims the right to medical rehabilitation. It further prohibits so-called forced disappearances (secret abductions), stating that an individual must refuse to obey an order to commit such a crime, and provides for the prosecution of the intellectual author of the crime.

In practice, widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects do take place in Venezuela—although most of these cases involve criminal suspects—as well as dozens of extrajudicial killings by military security forces and the police. Such extralegal acts are often characterized officially, despite eyewitness testimony, as the result of confrontations. The independent group Venezuelan Program of Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) charged that the number of those reported to have been killed by the security forces while resisting arrest increased by 300 percent in the past decade. It also said that in the past five years, the number of cases of torture has risen by 90 percent. Chavez government action against police and security officers guilty of abusing both political opponents and suspects of common crimes is virtually nonexistent. In addition, 90 percent of all investigations into human rights violations do not make it past the preliminary stages of the process.[14]

According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, prison conditions in Venezuela are “cruel, inhuman, and degrading,” with overcrowding a chronic problem. The penal institutions are “virtually controlled by armed gangs.” Hundreds of people die each year in prison riots and inmate violence; the human rights group PROVEA has estimated that, in 2003, the murder rate in prison was 40 times the national average. In October 2005, a Caracas-based group, Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (Venezuelan Prison Watch), claimed that 314 prisoners were killed and 517 were wounded in violent incidents over the course of the year.[15]

State protection of Venezuelan citizens from non-state actors has been unsuccessful for two major reasons—police ties to vigilante death squads and official connivance with leftist guerrillas from neighboring Colombia operating on Venezuelan territory. Venezuela has increasingly become a safe haven for Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, and scores of Venezuelans living and working near the countries’ shared borders have been the victims of armed assaults, kidnappings, and murders by the Colombian rebels. Since 2001, some 140 peasants have been killed by paramilitaries or police believed to be linked to landowners who oppose the Chavez-inspired land takeover movement (see “Rule of Law”). Few of the perpetrators have been caught or tried.[16]

The Venezuelan constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of politics, age, race, sex, creed, or any other condition. Men and women are legally equal in marriage. A 1990 labor code stipulates that employers must not discriminate against women with regards to salaries or working conditions and offers a series of guarantees for pregnant women and new mothers. These regulations, generally enforced in the country’s formal economy, are not a factor in the informal economy, which accounts for roughly half of the active labor force.

Venezuelan women increasingly participate in the country’s political and economic life, making important gains in the medical and legal professions, for example. Women are more active in government and politics than in many other Latin American countries and comprise the backbone of Venezuela’s sophisticated grassroots network of nongovernmental organizations. They won 20 seats in the 165-member National Assembly in the July 2000 elections, and, in 2002, four women served in the 18-member cabinet. However, they are still underrepresented in leadership positions. There is substantial institutional and societal prejudice on issues of domestic violence and rape, and work-related sexual harassment is common. The 2005 UNDP Human Development Report says that women make up 61 percent of professional and technical workers and 27 percent of administrators and managers. The report put the ratio of female-earned income to male-earned income at 0.42. It ranks Venezuela 58th out of 140 countries surveyed on its gender-related development index and 64th on its gender empowerment measure. Women make up about half the student body at most universities.[17]

Although the constitution prohibits trafficking in persons, victims’ rights groups report that Venezuela is a source, destination, and transit country for trafficked men, women, and children. According to Survivors’ Rights International, Venezuela is a country of destination for women for commercial sexual exploitation, recruited through job advertisements in major newspapers. The victims are also trafficked abroad, where their passports are taken away and they are prostituted in massage parlors and brothels. Colombian women are trafficked into Venezuela through prostitution trade networks originating in their home country.[18]

There are no laws specifically designed to prosecute all forms of trafficking in persons, and legal action is limited to the use of existing laws against forced disappearance and kidnapping. The country’s underdeveloped legal framework, the rampant corruption among immigration officials—which the Chavez government has in some ways sought to reduce—and the ready availability of fraudulent official identity documents help create ideal conditions for trafficking. In recognition of the problem, in January 2005 a seminar on trafficking in persons was held in Caracas and attended by officials from the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs, as well as by a government prosecutor and members of the coordinator unit on trafficking in persons of the Organization of American States.

Approximately 316,000indigenous people live in Venezuela, belonging to 27 ethnic groups. The formal rights of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples have improved under Chavez. The constitution created 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.” Those rights, specifically the groups’ ability to make decisions affecting their lands, cultures, and traditions and the allocation of natural resources, are seldom enforced, as local political authorities infrequently take their interests into account. The lack of effective legal rights has created an unprecedented migration of Indians to poverty-stricken urban areas.

A recent report by the International Disability Rights Monitor credits Venezuela’s legal framework with protecting disability rights and says that the government appeared willing to commit itself to meeting the needs of some 927,392 Venezuelans, or 4.4 percent of the total population, who were listed as disabled in the 2001 census. Although Venezuelan law requires newly constructed or renovated buildings to provide access and prohibits discrimination in employment and public services, by the end of 2005 there had not been a sustained effort to implement the law, or to raise public awareness on disability issues. Architectural and communications inaccessibility are among those entrenched bars that make the elimination of inequality in daily life more difficult, said the report.[19]

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Venezuelan constitution on the condition that its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or the public order. In general the state protects the rights of nonbelievers and adherents of minority religious faiths and movements and refrains from restricting religious observance, ceremony, and education. Throughout 2005, however, Chavez and the leaders of the local Roman Catholic Church, who generally side with his political opposition, engaged in an escalating war of words. In August, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara called the government a dictatorship; Chavez responded that the prelate was an “outlaw, bandit, immoral.” In October, the Florida-based evangelical New Tribes Mission was expelled from the country, with Chavez claiming that they were “agents of imperial penetration.” Two weeks later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) announced it was withdrawing its 220 American missionaries from the country after having faced months of trouble either renewing their visas or getting new ones. In recent years, the Mormons reported being harassed by the National Guard.[20]

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association, established in the Venezuelan constitution, have been respected by the government, although much less so from the time Chavez took office, particularly due to the disruption of peaceful demonstrations by government supporters.  According to the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA, while at least 49 people were injured by the security forces’ monitoring of peaceful demonstrations this was a significant decrease from 2004. A March penal code revision strictly penalizes some forms of peaceful demonstration, punishing road blockages with up to eight years imprisonment and outlawing the pot-clanging protests associated with opposition movements. 

The president and his supporters have sought to break what they term a stranglehold of corrupt labor leaders on the job market, claiming the old labor regime amounted to little more than employer-controlled workers’ organizations. Labor activists say this tramples on the rights of private organizations and masks Chavez’s intent to create government-controlled unions. Security forces frequently break up strikes and arrest trade unionists, allegedly under the watchful eye of Cuban security officials.[21] In 2003, the International Labor Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association reported “the extremely serious and urgent situation in Venezuela marked by numerous complaints of repeated violations of freedom of association for both workers’ and employers’ organizations.” It cited the authorities’ intimidating statements to the Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation. It also noted serious allegations of anti-union violence, which were not investigated by the government.[22]

Rule of Law: 


The civilian judiciary in Venezuela is independent by statute, although it is highly inefficient and often corrupt. The constitutional reform approved in 1999 allowed Chavez partisans to be appointed to the Supreme Court, as attorney general (public prosecutor) and as comptroller general, without following constitutionally mandated procedures. In October 2005, Venezuelan human rights groups told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that they had identified the deteriorating justice system as the reason for the growing impunity, criminality, and violence in the country.[23]

Chavez supporters in the Venezuelan legislature severely weakened judicial independence by enlarging the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members, giving the government the opportunity to pack it in December 2004 with pro-Chavez magistrates. The Chavez partisans justified the move as a response to pro-opposition rulings, which included a decision to absolve four military officers charged with taking part in a 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. Following the new appointments to the bench, in March 2005 the court’s constitutional chamber overturned the acquittals. Independent observers have characterized the reversal as “apparently without precedent in recent Venezuelan legal history.”[24]

Critics contend that the autonomy and independence of the judiciary is compromised by the fact that deputy judges and prosecutors lack job security and have inadequate legal training. While 60 percent of the judges held their positions provisionally when Chavez took office, that number reached between 75 and 80 percent in 2005. On March 11, 2005, the IACHR issued a statement expressing its concern that since 2004, 436 provisional public prosecutors have been appointed. Even the new president of the Supreme Court, although minimizing the issue of job stability, admitted, “judges in the labor-law field are part of those who might be under outside pressure.” Between April and June 2005, courts of law had been placed in receivership and judges and prosecutors removed in several states, a situation that led the National Assembly to ask the president of the judicial chamber of the Supreme Court for an explanation.[25]

The lower courts have also been packed with Chavez supporters.[26] The Venezuelan judicial watchdog group Foro Penal notes that more than 200 judges have been removed from their posts or retired for political reasons.[27] A number of judges were subsequently appointed who lacked legally mandated professional qualifications and whose only claims to office were their ties to members of the ruling party.

 The COPP provides for the right to a fair trial, conducted publicly, and considers the accused innocent until proven guilty in a court. This is a marked change from the old inquisitorial system, based on the Napoleonic code, in which the presumption of innocence generally was not respected or accepted. However, the country’s public defender program is seriously understaffed, and the ability of the accused to attend their own judicial proceedings often depends on whether they can pay prison officials to guarantee their own appearance in court.

Public and ruling party officials are rarely prosecuted for abuse of power or other wrongdoing. Chavez himself refused to comply with a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the return of control of the Caracas police force by the federal government to the city’s mayor, who belonged to the political opposition. Although the government alleges that the police force was repressing pro-government demonstrations, regime opponents say that the decision to take over the metropolitan police is in keeping with other policies pursued by Chavez that undermine the autonomy of the civilian police. In March 2005, the government amended Venezuela’s criminal code by broadening laws that punish “disrespect for government authorities,” a move human rights groups say could inhibit public criticism and third-party oversight.

The constitution requires equal treatment of citizens under the law. However, in practice these protections vary widely. Political opinion, social origin, and property can and do make a difference, as do the politicization of law enforcement and the administration of justice and the special status enjoyed by Chavez’s supporters in the armed forces.

In July 2005, the government announced that it was broadly restructuring Venezuela’s law enforcement agencies following a number of scandals, including the murder the previous month of three University of Santa Maria students. The students were shot in apparent retaliation for the death of a Military Intelligence Directorate (DIM) officer a week before, although they were not connected to the military man’s death. After they were gunned down for allegedly failing to stop their cars, guns were planted on them to give the impression of an armed confrontation. An autopsy showed that two had been shot multiple times in the head. In response, Chavez ordered the abolition of the DIM and its replacement with a new agency directly under his command. The seven superiors of who carried out the attempted cover-up of the massacre were fired. The case was still under investigation at the end of 2005.[28] Reorganization plans were also announced for the corrupt Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP) and the police forces, which have ties to organized crime.

The military high command is loyal to the president rather than to the constitution and the law. Chavez uses Venezuela’s armed forces as his own special instrument, positioning numerous active duty and retired military officers at all levels of the country’s public administration and involving them in both domestic and international politics.[29] The 1999 constitution assigns the armed forces a significant role in the state, bypassing legislative approval of military promotions and leaving that task solely and directly with the president, thereby placing the armed forces at the service of Chavez and his political program. However, it does not provide for civilian control over the military’s budget or procurement practices or for related institutional checks. A coup attempt in 2002—in which Chavez was briefly overthrown and arrested and president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce installed as interim president for 47 hours before troops loyal to the deposed president rallied—prompted Chavez to sack 60 generals and replace them with unconditional supporters. During the 2004 regional elections, active duty officers openly campaigned in support of Chavez and were appointed upon retirement to state and municipal posts. By 2005, nine of the country’s state governors were former military men. In addition, the military’s role in non-traditional missions, such as social services and public works projects, was linked to their involvement in corruption scandals that remain uninvestigated.[30] A separate system of armed forces courts retains jurisdiction over members of the military accused of rights violations and common crimes, and decisions cannot be appealed in civilian court. The Supreme Court selects candidates for military judgeships from a list provided by the minister of defense. Critics claim this process links them to the views and interests of the military high command and contributes to the impunity of the armed forces, even though the list is published. In August 2005, the National Assembly voted to create a new military reserve force whose command structure is independent of the current armed forces and which will be used to maintain internal order. Critics say they fear even further militarization of Venezuelan politics and the creation of one more instrument of political control by Chavez.[31]

Property rights are increasingly at peril in Venezuela. In 2005, the government imposed tougher terms and tighter restrictions on foreign mining and oil interests and even expropriated business interests and landholdings.[32] Chavez said that eliminating large landholdings—in a country where 60 percent of arable land belongs to 2 percent of its landowners—was part of “21st century socialism.” In September, he declared: “Those who don’t cooperate with us, we will apply the law and take everything. To those we expropriate land from, maybe I will give them a piece of paper that says, ‘in 2030, collect from Chavez.’”[33]

Indigenous communities typically face deforestation and water pollution of their traditional lands. Few of Venezuela’s approximately 316,000 indigenous people from 27 ethnic groups hold title to their land; many say that they do not want to, as they reject market concepts of individual property, preferring instead that the government recognize those lands traditionally held by them as native territories. Indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including murder, by gold miners and corrupt rural police.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 


The Chavez government came to power after indicting the former governing establishment as corrupt and elitist. Campaigning for the presidency for the first time, Chavez vowed: “I shall fry the heads of corrupt politicians once I get to power.”[34] However, Venezuela remains among the most corrupt countries in the world.[35]

The Chavez government has done little to free the state from excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that increase opportunities for corruption. Instead, it has significantly expanded the state’s role in the economy in one of the most regulated economies in the world and relies on attacking persons and social sectors it considers corrupt. Good-government laws and regulations are selectively enforced against the opposition. New regulations and controls over the economy have ensured that public officials have retained the ample opportunities for personal enrichment enjoyed under the former regime. For example, Articles 12, 300, and 301 of the 1999 constitution enshrine the concept of public ownership and management of oil and other strategic industries. Following a high-profile confrontation with PDVSA, the state oil company, Chavez replaced its leadership, based on meritocracy, with his own directorate. For these and other reasons, Venezuela was categorized as a “repressed” country in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, ranking 146th of 155 countries surveyed.[36]

The government’s role in the economy has been expanded by the Chavez government’s insistence on placing real power in loyal hands—often those of military cronies. State conflict-of-interest regulations have rarely been enforced. Compliance with the April 2003 Law Against Corruption that set out in detail such conflicts and their sanction is conditioned by Chavez’s party’s control of all national anticorruption offices.

The 2003 anticorruption law established a citizen’s right to know and set down the state’s obligations to give Venezuelans a rendering of public goods and expenses three times annually, “except for that having to do with security or national defense expressly established by law.” The law also requires most public employees to present a sworn declaration of personal assets within 30 days of assuming a post as well as 30 days after leaving it, allows for the extradition of corrupt officials and their prohibition from holding office in the future, and includes a prohibition on officials having secret foreign bank accounts. It is, however, observed largely in the breach.[37]

The Chavez government has taken steps to remove key economic decisions, such as the sale of national debt bonds, from meaningful legislative oversight. Rather than implementing laws and regulations ensuring open bidding, transparency, and effective competition in the award of public contracts, the regime appears to have replaced the old system, in which personal loyalties and opportunities for mutual enrichment took precedence over public interest concerns, with one that is merely a new buddy system—comprising those loyal to the president. Despite the promise contained in the new Law Against Corruption, the government does not publish expenditures in a detailed and timely fashion; in fact, such information is hard to come by.

Chavez’s party controls the “citizen power”—or ombudsman—branch of government created by the 1999 constitution to fight corruption, thus making it nearly impossible to challenge the regime’s autocratic use of public funds. This branch comprises the offices of the ombudsman (responsible for compelling the government to adhere to the constitution and laws), the comptroller general (who controls the revenues and expenses incurred by the government and serves as the watchdog for the national patrimony), and the public prosecutor (who provides opinions to the courts on the prosecution of criminal cases and brings to the attention of the proper authorities cases of public employee misconduct and violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners or accused persons). Although some independent institutions remain at the state and local levels to carry out investigations and prosecutions of government corruption, they are easily circumscribed by geography and resources. In addition, Venezuela has yet to enact a law protecting government whistleblowers along the lines set down in the Organization of American States’ model anticorruption statutes. Venezuela’s privately held media do air allegations of official corruption extensively; however, the lack of fair and balanced reporting and the country’s pronounced class divisions mean that reporting about corruption is often politics by other means—discrediting one’s opponents without having to debate other public policy issues or offering new solutions to vexing problems.

One Canadian writer noted that primaries in 2005 by Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) “did more to reveal the manipulative and undemocratic workings of the MVR than to encourage any democratic opening … The problem stems from a simple fact … the old power structures, culture of clientelism and patronage systems remain.”[38]

Recommendations: 
  • The blacklisting of people for their participation in legal political movements should be outlawed, and penalties enforced against those who create such lists or use them to deny jobs or services in the public sector.
  • The president and other senior government officials should refrain from highly charged, intimidating rhetoric against opponents.
  • Rules and regulations governing civil society organizations should be rewritten to reflect those of a modern, democratic polity, protecting the rights of those that receive funding from foreign governments or whose leaders are not Venezuelan.
  • The civil service should be reestablished according to modern international standards, with specific provisions regarding performance, advancement, suspension, and retirement.
  • Restrictive and undemocratic press laws, such as the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, should be abolished.
  • Clear public orders to Venezuelan military, security, and law enforcement agencies should be issued that they must refrain from the use of excessive force in dealing with demonstrations and public protests.
  • Torture carried out by state agents should be penalized with the same severity as murder.
  • Laws specifically designed to prosecute all forms of trafficking in persons should be promulgated.
  • Increased resources should be directed to improving penal conditions.
  • A legal and administrative framework should be created so that judges and prosecutors have job stability and receive adequate legal training before assuming their posts.
  • The amended criminal code that broadens laws that punish “disrespect for government authorities” should be struck down.
  • Confiscatory laws concerning property rights should be abolished; existing disputes should be open to independent arbitration by recognized international authorities, if necessary. In addition, the government should recognize lands traditionally inhabited by native peoples as territories belonging to each respective indigenous group
  • The use of active duty and retired military officers in public administration should be significantly curbed.
  • The role of the National Assembly in the oversight of the armed forces should be restored and strengthened, and the military should be subject to the scrutiny of an independent inspector general.
  • The government should take specific steps to free the state from excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that increase opportunities for corruption, which would help ensure respect for private property, reduce the role of the state in profit-making enterprises, and eliminate unnecessary procedures that hinder economic growth
  • The government should take all necessary measures to ensure that conflict-of-interest regulations are fully and fairly enforced, strengthening the rules governing disclosure of actual, potential, or apparent conflicts and promoting public awareness of conflict-of-interest policy.
  • The government should restore meaningful legislative oversight to the process of making key economic decisions.
  • To restore credibility to the “citizen power” branch of government created to fight corruption, the heads of the offices of the ombudsman, comptroller general, and the public prosecutor should either be appointed by bipartisan consensus within the national assembly or, at least in the first two instances, chosen through national elections.
  • A law protecting government whistleblowers should be enacted along the lines set down in the Organization of American States’ model anticorruption statutes, in consultation with international whistleblower protection organizations.
Notes: 


[1] “Corruption Perceptions Index” (Berlin: Transparency International, 2005). Venezuela was ranked 100 out of 133 countries in 2003.

[2] Danna Harman, “Chávez seeks influence with oil diplomacy,” Christian Science Monitor, 25 August 2005. According to Carlos Granier, an economist at Cedice, a Caracas think tank, cited in the CSM article, a Cuban-Venezuelan oil “deal” alone costs Venezuelans an estimated US$ 1.7 billion in opportunity costs in 2005—in dollar terms, the equivalent to all US official aid, including military and non-military, to Latin America.

[3] Julian Brookes, “Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution,” Mother Jones, 4 October 2005.

[4] “All power to chavismo,” Economist, 8 December, 2005.

[5] Alma Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela,” NYRB 52, No. 15, 6 October 2005; see also, Venezuelan Gen. (ret.) Boris Saavedra, “Civil-Military Relations in Venezuela: Changing Patterns Since 1999” (St. Louis: Midwest Association of Latin American Studies [MALAS], conference paper, November 2005. “When the pro-Chavez vote is presented as a percentage of the whole electorate,” Saavedra wrote, “it is reduced to a quite stable but far lower 30.3–33.4 percent … in the midst of extremely high abstentionism.”

[6] Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry,” NYRB; A story in the 18 April, 2005 edition of VenezuelaAnalysis.com,  “Venezuela’s Chavez says Blacklist must be ‘buried,’” reported that after “the national media had increasingly reported about individuals who were either denied government jobs or fired from their job because their name was on the list of signers in support of the recall referendum,” Chavez himself said that the list, compiled by a parliamentary deputy supporter, who admitted that the list had been used to persecute supporters of the opposition, should not be used.

[7] Guillermoprieto, “Gambler,” NYRB; Organización de los Estados Americanos, “Observaciones Preliminares de la OEA sobre las Eleccciones Parlamentarias en Venezuela,” (press release), 6 December 2005.

[8] “Venezuela: Public Opinion and the Future of the Bolivarian Revolution,” StratforWorld Terrorism Report (Austin, TX), 12 October, 2005.

[9] “Venezuela: Court Orders Trial of Civil Society Leaders” (New York: Human Rights Watch [HRW], 8 July 2005); Guillermoprieto, “Gambler,” NYRB; “A Young Defender of Democracy Faces Chavez’s Wrath,” Wall Street Journal (WSJ), 10 June 2005.

[10] Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry,” NYRB.

[11]  “Controversy in Venezuela over new media law,” Pravda, 9 December, 2004.

[12] “Cases 2005: The Americas – Venezuela” (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], 2005).

[13] Richard Gott, in “Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution,” Mother Jones, 8 October 2005.

[14] “Report 2005 – Venezuela” (London: Amnesty International [AI], 2005); “Venezuela – Resumen del Pais” (HRW, January 2005); Joseph McSpedon, senior program manager, Freedom House (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, testimony, 17 November 2005).

[15] “Venezuela – Resumen,” (HRW); Informe OVP, 4to trimester 2005 (http://www.ovprisiones.org/informe3tr2005/2005-4to.html).

[16] “Venezuela: Chavez targets police corruption,” Green Left Weekly (GLW), 12 July 2005; According to an article, “Venezuelan Government Says 96 Campesinos Were Assassinated 1999 to 2004,” in the 11 November, 2005 edition of Venezuelanalysis.com: “Venezuela’s Attorney General commissioned an investigation into the murders of 138 peasant leaders, following a protest from one of Venezuela’s main peasant organizations, the National Agrarian Coordinator Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ), that the Attorney General has not done enough to prosecute those responsible.”

[17] “Venezuela” in “Country Fact Sheets,” Human Development Report 2005 (New York: United Nations Development Program [UNDP], 2005).

[18]  “Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation Between Venezuela and Ecuador,” Alexandria, Virginia: Survivors’ Rights International (SRI), 17 July 2003.

[19] “Venezuela” in International Disability Rights Monitor [IDRM] Americas 2004 (Washington, D.C. and Chicago: Center for International Rehabilitation [CIR], August 2004).

[20] Juan Forero, “Mormon Church Withdraws Its Missionaries in Venezuela,” The New York Times, 26 October 2005.

[21] Meghan Clyne, “Venezuela Outsources Intelligence Activities to Cuba – Caracas Provides Cheap Oil in Exchange for Surveillance of Citizens,” New York Sun, 26 January, 2005; on Cuban security presence in Venezuela, see also Javier Corrales, “The Logic of Extremism: How Chavez Gains by Giving Cuba So Much,” in Cuba, Venezuela and the Americas: A Changing Landscape, Inter-American Dialogue, December 2005.

[22] “Latest report of ILO Committee on Freedom of Association cites Belarus, China, Colombia, Venezuela, others,” International Labour Organization press release (www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inf/pr/2003/15.htm), 28 March 2003.

[23] “Venezuela’s Conscience,” The Washington Post, 30 October 2005.

[24] “Venezuela: Rights Lawyer Faces Judicial Persecution” (HRW, 5 April 2005).

[25] “The rule of law: Is the independence of the judicial career respected?” (Caracas: Asociacion Civil Sumate, undated), http://infovenezuela.org/cap2_en_2.htm#; El Nacional, 3 February 2005, A-5.

[26] Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry,” NYRB.

[27] Edgar Lopez, “9 jueces y 10 fiscales concentran los expedients de 400 imputados politicos,” El Nacional, 7 June 2005.

[28] “Venezuela “Chavez targets police corruption,” GLW, Intervienen la DIMy el Cicpc por caso de estudiantes, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, 1 July 2005. (http://www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=2&t=19521)

[29] As leftwing Chavez biographer Richard Gott stated (Mother Jones, 8 October 2005): “The bureaucracy is in the hands of the middle-class opposition, and it’s very difficult to get any sort of reform through the existing government machine, so Chavez does rely on the military to get things done, as his own political party”; “Paymaster General; Venezuela’s armed forces,” The Economist, 9 July 2005.

[30] Saavedra, “Civil-Military Relations in Venezuela” (Midwest Association of Latin American Studies/MALAS) op. cit.; “ El Nacional, 9 January 2005.

[31] “Venezuela, politica y diplomacia,” Informe Latinoamericano, 31 August 2005.

[32] Jose De Cordoba,  “Chavez charts a land route,” WSJ, 18 January 2005; “Venezuela Announces Plan to Seize More Lands,” WSJ/Dow Jones Newswires, 15 March 2005; “Venezuela Uses Seized Assets as Bargaining Chip,” WSJ, 16 September 2005; “Apropriacion de haciendas y plantas industrials,” Informe Latinoamericano, 14 September 2005; “Chavez ofrece compartir tierra ociosa,” Informe Latinoamericano, 29 September 2005; “Cowing the private sector; Venezuela,” The Economist, 3 September 2005.

[33] “Venezuela,” Hemisphere Highlights IV, 10 (Center for Strategic and International Studies); see also, “Chavez has succeeded in redefining the debate in Latin America,” Newsweek International, 31 October 2005.

[34] David Paulin, “Venezuelan Populist Worries Oil Industry,” International Herald Tribune, 17 November 1998.

[35] Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry,” NYRB; Saavedra, “Civil-Military Relations in Venezuela” (MALAS); “Venezuela: Public Opinion,” Stratfor Daily Briefs.

[36] According to Luis E. Lander and Margarita López Maya, in “Oil and Venezuela's Failed Coup,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 26 April, 2002: “The naming of [leftist economist] Gastón Parra as president in February 2002 led to an open confrontation between the government and PDVSA’s top management, who alleged that by sidestepping the meritocracy, Chávez was violating the traditional criteria for naming the members of the company's board of directors. This led the PDVSA leadership to call a strike that was backed by the country's key workers' and business federations, and that served as the platform for the attempted coup of April 11”; Guillermoprieto, “Don’t Cry,” NYRB. [

[37] Ley Contra la Corrupcion, Gaceta Oficial N° 5.637 Extraordinario, 7 April 2003.

[38] Jonah Gindin, “Hugo Chavez and the ‘New Democracy,’” Canadian Dimension, July/August 2005.