From 1958 to 1998, Venezuela’s political system emphasized stability while concentrating power in the hands of political elites. Civil society was permitted to operate, but decisions were generally made through a process of elite bargaining. Since the election of current president Hugo Chavez in 1998, the country has experienced massive increases in political activism and polarization. The new, highly ideological regime is dedicated to a “revolutionary” political project, and it typically categorizes civil society groups into “friends” and “enemies.” The shake-up of the previously ossified system and Chavez’s attempts to impose hegemonic rule have had a major impact on freedom of association in the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have faced significant pressure from the state through a variety of mechanisms. The trade union movement has broadened, but its independence is constantly threatened by the government’s demands for loyalty and ideological conformity. While protests remain common, the government frequently discriminates between the protest rights of government supporters and those of the opposition.
Freedom of Association
NGOs face increasingly difficult working conditions in Venezuela. The Chavez government is quick to equate criticism with conspiracy, and NGOs that speak out against the regime face legal pressure, public opprobrium by government-aligned figures, and occasional threats and intimidation.
Although the constitution includes strong protections for civil society, the National Assembly began to consider a draft Law of International Cooperation in 2006 that could have led to onerous restrictions on NGO registration and financing. Under the proposed law, the executive branch would be empowered to draft formal regulations regarding registration, auditing processes, and donations. During debate on the bill, certain National Assembly members explicitly linked the law to an effort to “unmask” supposedly counterrevolutionary NGOs. This provoked concern among both domestic and international organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The bill passed a first reading in the National Assembly in June 2006, but it had not moved forward as of mid-2008. Separately, several Supreme Court decisions have found that organizations receiving financing from foreign sources cannot be considered part of Venezuelan civil society. A December 2007 referendum regarding a package of 69 constitutional amendments also had the potential to negatively affect NGOs. One of the amendments would have banned “associations with political purposes” from accepting foreign funds. This ambiguous phrasing, combined with the government’s evident disdain for some NGOs, left many groups fearful of the referendum, but the package was narrowly rejected by voters.
High-profile legal cases have been lodged against NGO workers, the most prominent of which involves the leaders of Sumate, a prodemocracy NGO that received financing from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. The Sumate activists were charged with treason in 2005, but the cases have been dormant since 2006. NGOs also face denunciations by government-linked figures, often on television. The leaders of the prominent human rights groups COFAVIC and the Venezuelan Prison Observatory are among the victims of such abuse, and many denounced activists have reported subsequent death threats. The local human rights group PROVEA has noted a clear shift in attitude toward NGOs and human rights defenders since political polarization peaked in 2004, with the government increasingly opting to actively denigrate and discredit activists rather than respond defensively to their criticisms.
Historically, the trade union movement, under the umbrella of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), formed one of the pillars of Venezuela’s elitist, consensus-based political system. However, the CTV lacked internal democracy, and Chavez’s rise to the presidency created pressure for elections within the confederation. Its 2001 election ended unsatisfactorily and led to cleavages both within the CTV and between the CTV and the government. By 2002 the confederation had fully joined the opposition movement, and the government began to encourage new unions to compete with CTV-linked groups at both the company and national level. The National Workers’ Union (UNT) was formed in 2003 for this purpose, and many unions joined the new umbrella group. However, the government does not enjoy absolute support from the UNT. On the contrary, autonomy has remained a divisive issue, with the leader of the UNT’s main faction, Orlando Chirino, strongly in favor of maintaining independence from the government.
In 2007, Chavez explicitly stated that all unions should submit to the revolutionary project. This attempt to degrade union autonomy led Chirino to call for abstention from the controversial constitutional referendum that year. When the amendment package was narrowly defeated, Chirino lost his job at PDVSA, the state-controlled oil firm, in a move that heralded further factionalism within the trade union movement.
According the constitution and labor legislation, workers enjoy the right to form trade unions of their choice, conduct peaceful strikes, and engage in collective bargaining. In practice, these rights are limited either legally or, more often, by political considerations. The National Electoral Council is constitutionally tasked with monitoring the internal elections of unions, a practice that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has criticized as undue government interference. The ILO has also found fault with the fact that collective bargaining is only permitted for unions representing a majority of workers in an industry, even though some industries lack such a union. In addition, the emergence of several new modes of management, including cooperatives, comanaged enterprises, and proposed workers’ councils, has led to overlapping functions and confusion regarding the role of unions.
New unions have proliferated under Chavez. To some degree this reflects new dynamism, but it also signals state-encouraged parallel unionism. One effect of the surge in new unions is a substantial increase in violence within certain sectors, particularly within the construction industry. This stems from mounting competition among unions for control of jobs, which the unions may then legally distribute to their members, often for a fee. Scores of union members have been slain in such disputes in recent years, and in August 2007 the government initiated a dialogue in an attempt to halt the battles. In its 2007 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that the government pay greater attention to the problem.
Unions are also used to transmit government directives on voting and political participation to the rank and file. During the 2006 presidential campaign, oil minister and PDVSA chief Rafael Ramirez suggested that all PDVSA employees who did not wish to vote for Chavez should leave the company.
The right to strike is embedded in the constitution, with a partial exception for public-sector workers. However, unions and human rights groups have expressed concern that the right to strike is limited in practice by 2005 amendments to the penal code. The changes significantly increased penalties for pot-banging and blocking transportation routes, both of which are traditional forms of protest in Venezuela.
Freedom of Assembly
Venezuelan citizens make ample use of the right to protest, and peaceful demonstrations are generally allowed. According to the law, organizers need only to inform the authorities 24 hours in advance of a planned event. However, PROVEA noted in its 2007 report that government officials have increasingly justified the blocking of protests by claiming that the protesters lack permission. Moreover, Venezuela’s political polarization has led to many instances in which initially peaceful protests resulted in violent confrontations between government and opposition supporters. Violence peaked between early 2002 and mid-2004, and while deaths and injuries during protests subsequently declined, the authorities have stepped up repression of demonstrations in recent years. The same penalties that affect the right to strike are increasingly applied to protesters.
PROVEA described a sharp rise in suppressed protests in 2007, including a 300 percent increase in the number of injuries sustained during demonstrations, many caused by beatings, rubber bullets, and tear gas. The group also reported a 250 percent increase in the number of cases in which charges were brought against protesters, a sign of the ongoing criminalization of protest. Student-led actions in particular tend to turn violent and are the most frequently suppressed. A spike in student protests in the period surrounding the closure of popular television station RCTV in 2007 led to an increase in student arrests, some of which were arbitrary. The arrested protesters were reportedly subjected to harsh treatment while in confinement.