Venezuela | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Venezuela received a downward trend arrow due to government harassment of organized labor and the business community and to significant increases in violent crime.


The government of President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias faced a significant test in 2001 as a result of a dramatic rise in street crime that threatened the working class and poor Venezuelans who make up the core of his constituency, as well as frightening those belonging to the country's beleaguered middle class. The crime wave was centered in Caracas and made even wealthy neighborhoods in the capital city subject to serious public safety threats. Venezuela's continued economic woes and natural disasters, together with weapons and narcotics trafficking, added to the heightened sense of insecurity. A recent study ranked Venezuela as second of the ten most violent nations in the Americas and Europe; the police appeared unable to halt the carnage, in which nearly one Venezuelan was killed nearly every hour.

Chavez's penchant for breaking bread with the leaders of rogue nations and even international terrorists was reaffirmed in 2001, with a visit to Libya, Venezuela's part ner in the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC), as well as a wellpublicized effort to cozy up to Carlos the Jackal, a Venezuelan-born terrorist imprisoned for the murder of two French policemen. In August, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro received military honors in Caracas, as the world's longest-ruling leader celebrated his 75th birthday, and a month later Chavez said Cuba and Venezuela were united as "one team" in fighting free market capitalism. On November 1, the Bush administration temporarily recalled U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Donna Hrinak, after Chavez held up pictures of dead Afghan children on Venezuelan television, describing the U.S.-led fighting in Afghanistan as a "slaughter of innocents."

The Republic of Venezuela was established in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military rule ended with the establishment in 1961 of civilian rule. Under the constitution approved that year, the president and a bicameral congress are elected for five years. The senate has at least two members from each of the 21 states and the federal district of Caracas. The chamber of deputies has 189 seats.

Until 1993, the social-democratic Democratic Action (AD) Party and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics. Former President Carlos Andres Perez (1989--93) of the AD was nearly overthrown by Chavez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts in which dozens were killed. In 1993 Perez was charged with corruption and removed from office by congress.

Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969--1974) of COPEI and a populist, was elected president in late 1993 as the head of the 16-party National Convergence, which included Communists, other leftists, and right-wing groups. Caldera's term was marked by a national banking collapse (in 1994), the suspension of a number of civil liberties, mounting violent crime and social unrest, and rumors of a military coup. With crime soaring, public corruption unabated, oil wealth drying up, and the country in the worst economic crisis in 50 years, popular disillusionment with politics deepened.

In the 1998 presidential contest, Chavez's antiestablishment, anticorruption populism played well in a country whose corrupt political establishment was famous for its interlocking system of privilege and graft and whose elites considered politics their private preserve. As his victory appeared more likely, Chavez abandoned his incendiary rhetoric in which he criticized the free market and promised to "fry" opposition leaders. Last-minute efforts to find a consensus candidate against Chavez were largely unsuccessful, and the Yale-educated businessman Henrique Salas, the other leading presidential contender, also steered away from association with the old political order. Salas, a respected two-term former state governor, won just 40 percent of the vote, to Chavez's 57 percent. In February 1999, Chavez took control of the world's number three oil-exporting country.

Chavez promptly dismantled Venezuela's political system of checks and balances, ostensibly to destroy a discredited two-party system that for four decades had presided over several oil booms but had left four out of five Venezuelans impoverished. He gutted the power of the opposition-controlled congress and placed the judiciary under executive branch tutelage.

Critics charged Chavez with militarizing politics and politicizing the military, with Chavez's army colleagues given a far bigger say in the day-to-day running of the country. Tens of thousands of soldiers were dispatched to build public works, dozens of senior military officers were promoted without congressional approval, and regional army commands were given oversight powers of local elected officials. Generals were appointed to senior posts, such as presidential chief of staff, head of the secret police, and head of the internal revenue service. In 2001, Chavez appointed the first civilian defense minister in Venezuela's history--a move hailed by the president's supporters as ensuring the continued ideological suasion by the chavistas over the armed forces.

A constituent assembly dominated by Chavez followers drafted a new constitution that would make censorship of the press easier, allow a newly strengthened chief executive the right to dissolve congress, and make it possible for Chavez to retain power until 2013. Congress and the supreme court were dismissed after Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum on December 15, 2000.

Despite Chavez's 21-point lead in the presidential contest, the July 2000 election marked a resurgence of a political opposition that had been hamstrung in its efforts to contest his stripping of congress and the judiciary of their independence and power. Opposition parties won most of the country's governorships, about half the mayoralties, and a significant share of power in the new congress. In addition, Chavez found a number of key civilian and military allies deserting him, many of whom joined forces with the opposition, including his erstwhile friend and colleague Lt. Col. Francisco Arias Cardenas, who had run second in the presidential race. In response, in November, Chavez's congressional allies granted him special fast-track powers that allowed him to decree a wide range of laws without parliamentary debate. Chavez's foreign policy forays also won him significant suspicion among Venezuela's traditional allies, particularly after suspected ties to Ecuador's unsuccessful military coup leaders were revealed. Despite promises that Venezuela's unicameral congress would transform society, the national assembly passed only six minor laws, rather than the 100 Chavez's supporters were predicting, before the legislative body adjourned in late August 2001, the victim of inexperience, infighting, and inattention to legal detail. In October, landowners' groups loudly criticized Chavez's announcement that he planned to issue legislation, apparently inspired in part by Cuba's radical agrarian reform, that would set limits on land ownership and include provisions for possible expropriation by the state. In early November, Chavez underlined his intention to sign into law legislation that would guarantee government control of the country's strategic, lucrative oil sector by creating a minimum 51 percent state interest in all new projects.

Spillover effects from the civil war in neighboring Colombia continued to create problems in the Venezuelan border states of Apure, Amazonas, Tachira, and Zulia. Ranchers from the region faced the constant threat of kidnapping or extortion by Colombian leftist guerrillas who cross the border and who are often joined in the illegal activities by common criminals and gangs from that country. In July 2001, hundreds of protestors converged on Caracas to draw attention to the upsurge in abductions and road robberies, particularly along the border. Earlier, ranchers from the border area had demanded that they be allowed to form private militias for self-defense, claiming that the military troops stationed in the area were ineffective in protecting them. The proposal led Chavez to suspend issuance of new gun licenses and to threaten to jail the would-be militiamen.

In 1999, Chavez sparked a controversy when he sent a letter addressed to a "dear compatriot"--Venezuelan-born revolutionary Carlos the Jackal, whose real name is Illich Ramirez Sanchez. Carlos, once hunted by Western security services as one of the world's most wanted terrorist masterminds, is currently serving a life sentence in France for the 1975 murder of two French secret agents. In early October 2001, during a visit to Paris, Chavez provoked another firestorm of criticism by demanding Carlos's human rights be respected. Several senior Venezuelan officials added fuel to the fire by appearing to question whether Carlos--believed to be responsible for some 80 killings carried out in support of the Palestinian and other revolutionary causes--was a "terrorist." In an interview with Caracas's El Universal newspaper, Carlos said he supported Osama bin Laden's "revolutionary, anti-imperialist" war and felt "solidarity" towards Chavez's self-styled "Bolivarian revolution."

On December 10, 2001, political opponents and business and labor leaders staged a widely supported national protest strike against Chavez's rule. Bowing to political pressure, Chavez fired army commander Gen. Victor Cruz Weffer, one of his most prominent supporters in the military and the target of widespread allegations of corruption. At year's end, amid growing rumors of an impending coup, the increasingly unpopular Chavez tried to rally support for his government from Venezuela's armed forces, whose officers had been placed in key positions throughout his regime.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government democratically, although Chavez supporters appear at times on the verge of mob rule, particularly as constitutional checks and balances have been removed. The July 2000 elections were considered by international observers to be free and fair. However, government critics claim that democratic rule has been damaged significantly since independent institutions have lost their autonomy and the concentration of political power has put Chavez at the top of a pyramid of executive branch power unprecedented in Venezuela in modern times.

Until Chavez took power, the judicial system was headed by a nominally independent supreme court, although the court was highly politicized, was undermined by the chronic corruption (including the growing influence of narcotics traffickers) that permeates the entire political system, and was unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. Chavez, by sacking scores of judges, has successfully subordinated the legal system to his presidency. An unwieldy new judicial code has hampered some law enforcement efforts, resulting in low rates of conviction and shorter jail terms even for convicted murderers, while police salaries are woefully inadequate.

Citizen security in general remains threatened by a narcotics-fueled crime wave that has resulted in hundreds of killings monthly in major cities and vigilante mob killings of alleged criminals. In 2000 the murder rate reached 21 per day, double what it was two years ago; during the Christmas weekend alone, 144 homicides were logged, with 60 percent of the killings either reportedly score-settling with criminal gangs or in shootouts with the police.

Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as dozens of extrajudicial killings by military security forces and the police, have increased as crime continues to soar. By mid-2000, an estimated 500 people had been killed by the police, a sign that, some observers say, is evidence of a growing vigilante mentality among law enforcement personnel. Since the 1992 coup attempts, weakened civilian governments have had less authority over the military and the police and overall rights abuses are committed with impunity. A separate system of armed forces courts retains jurisdiction over members of the military accused of rights violations and common criminal crimes, and decisions cannot be appealed in civilian court. Chavez's decision to preside over all military promotions and transfers has concentrated enormous patronage within the armed forces into his own hands. His meddling in all aspects of military affairs caused something of a backlash in 2000, as 42 of 93 retiring officers who were to receive one of the armed forces' highest honors preferred to stay away from the July ceremony rather than receive the recognition from Chavez's hands. In a disturbing trend, in October 2000, Chavez named two serving generals to head the world's second-largest state oil company and its U.S. refining and market branch.

Venezuela's 32 prisons, the most violent in the world, hold some 23,000 inmates-- of whom less than one-third have been convicted of a crime--even though they were designed to hold no more than 14,000. Deadly prison riots are common, and inmate gangs have a striking degree of control over the penal system. Chavez's government has announced an emergency program to modernize the country's prisons, including plans to build five or six new penitentiaries.

The press is mostly privately owned, although the practice of journalism is supervised by an association of broadcasters under government control. Since 1994, the media in general have faced a pattern of intimidation. International media monitors have condemned a constitutional article approved by the constituent assembly that would require journalists to publish or broadcast "truthful information," a move that they say opens the door to government censorship. In 2001, the Inter-American Press Association accused the government of using the judiciary for its own political purposes and of intimidating the media.

Few Indians hold title to their land, and indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including killing, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. In 1999, the constituent assembly voted to include a chapter in the new constitution that sets forth the legal rights of indigenous peoples and communities, in accordance with standards set by the International Labor Organization. Chapter VII would guarantee "the right to exist as indigenous peoples and communities with their own social and economic organization, their cultures and traditions, and their language and religion." In the July 2000 national elections, three indigenous candidates were elected to the national assembly, eight were elected to regional legislative congresses, and four Indians won mayoralties.

Labor unions are well organized, but highly politicized and prone to corruption. Chavez supporters have sought to break what they term a "stranglehold" of corrupt labor leaders on the job market, a move labor activists say tramples on the rights of private organizations. The referendum approved in December 2000 allows Chavez to dissolve the Venezuelan Worker's Confederation and to organize new state-supervised elections of union representatives, a move that opposition and labor leaders say is the first step towards establishing a government-controlled labor union. Throughout 2001, the government continued to interfere in union elections, although international observers said they saw no evidence of election fraud. Security forces frequently break up strikes and arrest trade unionists.