Venezuela | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2005

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President Hugo Chavez consolidated his hold on power following the defeat of a presidential recall referendum in August 2004 that was held amid charges of ballot rigging. Although he faced an economy in ruins and high levels of street crime and unemployment, Chavez devoted considerable attention during the year to advancing his influence over the judicial system, media, and other institutions of civil society.

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 and the approval of a constitution. Until 1993, the social-democratic Democratic Action Party (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics. Former president Carlos Andres Perez (1989 - -1993) 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 the COPEI and a populist, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party National Convergence, which included Communists, other leftists, and right-wing groups. With crime soaring, public corruption unabated, oil wealth drying up, and the country in its worst economic crisis in 50 years, popular disillusionment with politics deepened.

In 1998, Chavez made his antiestablishment, anticorruption, populist message a referendum on the long-ruling political elite - famous for its interlocking system of privilege and graft, but also for its consensual approach to politics - in that year's presidential contest. As the country's long-ruling political parties teetered at the edge of collapse, last-minute efforts to find a consensus candidate to oppose Chavez were unsuccessful. In February 1999, Chavez won with 57 percent of the vote, taking the reins of the world's fifth-largest oil-producing country.

A constituent assembly dominated by Chavez followers drafted a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and allowed Chavez to retain power until 2013. After Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum on December 15, 2000, congress and the Supreme Court were dismissed. Although he was reelected as president, new national elections held in July 2000 marked a resurgence of a political opposition that had been hamstrung in its efforts to contest Chavez's 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. Nevertheless, that November, Chavez's congressional allies granted him special fast-track powers that allowed him to decree a wide range of laws without parliamentary debate.

In April 2002, following the deaths of 19 people in a massive protest against the government, Chavez was deposed in a putsch by dissident military officers working with major opposition groups. However, he was reinstated two days later when loyalist troops and supporters gained the upper hand in the streets and in barracks around the country. Opponents of Chavez cited as giving them a right to rebel Article 350 of the 1999 constitution, which permits citizens not to recognize a government that infringes on human and democratic rights - an article that was included by Chavez to justify his own 1992 coup attempts.

Throughout the year, the country was wracked by protests by a broad spectrum of civil society and saw unprecedented discontent among military officers. In October, an estimated one million Venezuelans marched in Caracas demanding that Chavez call either early elections or a referendum on his rule - and threatening a general strike if he did not accede. When Chavez did not respond, the opposition called for a general strike in February 2003. Although the strike lasted 62 days, it was unsuccessful in forcing Chavez's hand. During the remainder of 2003, Chavez appeared on a collision course with a political opposition that seemed determined to force his resignation before the end of his elected term. However, the opposition also faced questions about its own democratic commitment given the failed coup attempt and its promotion of the failed strike, as well as more practical concerns about its own cohesion and effectiveness.

Following Chavez's successful quashing of the strike, opponents quickly mobilized behind a recall referendum, which is allowed under the constitution. The first attempt to collect the necessary signatures succeeded in gathering 2.8 million at a time when polls showed 65 percent of Venezuelans would vote to oust Chavez, but it was declared invalid by the National Elections Council (CNE). Opponents then quickly mobilized to collect new signatures. The last half of 2003 was marked by a series of government social services initiatives, including urban health care and literacy programs supported by the Cuban government, that appeared to give Chavez a lift in popularity in the face of the potential referendum. An increase in political violence in the country came as a crime wave continued unabated.

In March 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a major country report highlighting serious and long-standing institutional issues related to the rule of law and the respect for civil and political rights. Meanwhile, congress, controlled by Chavez supporters, approved a measure allowing it to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Court, which controls the rest of the judiciary. The Organic Law of the Supreme Court allowed Chavez to limit the tribunal's independence, while the body was expanded from 20 to 32 justices - appointed by a simple majority vote of the pro-government majority in parliament. The government also announced that it was studying a measure to unify municipal and state police forces into a single institution, thus wresting control from mayors and governors, many of whom oppose Chavez.

By midyear, more than four million people had signed petitions in favor of the recall vote against Chavez. The poll, which was the country's first-ever referendum to recall a president, was set for August 15. Chavez won the referendum with 58 percent of the vote. The European Union declined to monitor the referendum, saying that it had not been able to secure from Venezuelan officials "the conditions to carry out an observation in line with the Union's standard methodology." Other international observer groups which did monitor the vote issued findings that the election was legitimate, though flawed. Following the referendum, which was conducted in relative peace and characterized by a high turnout, domestic opposition groups continued to insist that there was a large discrepancy between the official results and their own exit polls. Independent observers said that there were credible reports of voter harassment, including physical intimidation and the reassignment of thousand of voters to far-away polling stations, and vote tampering; it was an open question, however, if these materially affected the overwhelming outcome. In October, regional and municipal elections, voters overwhelmingly backed pro-Chavez candidates.

In November, the assassination of a "super prosecutor" investigating the failed 2002 coup against Chavez gave the president an opportunity to blame Florida-based anti-Chavez "terrorists" for the crime; a lawyer suspected of participation in the crime was killed by police in what was described as a "shootout." In December, a law giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs was to go into effect, with Chavez claiming that the "Venezuelan people have begun to free themselves from ... the dictatorship of the private media." The record high oil prices that in 2004 enabled the president to engage in spectacular social spending in poorer districts, his unbroken string of electoral victories, and the government's growing control over sectors of Venezuelan life all appeared to make Chavez largely unassailable in the 2006 presidential election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government democratically. Under the constitution approved in 1961, the president and a bicameral National Assembly 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. On the national level, there are no independent government institutions. The military high command is loyal to a single person, the president, rather than to the constitution and the law. Chavez's party, the Fifth Republic Movement, controls the National Assembly (though narrowly), as well as the Supreme Justice Tribunal and the intelligence services. It also controls the Citizen Power branch of government created to fight corruption by the 1999 constitution. This branch is made up of 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 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).

The Chavez government has done little to free the government from excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other forms of control that increase opportunities for corruption. It has relied instead on attacking persons and social sectors it considers to be corrupt and selectively enforcing good-government laws and regulations against its opponents. A 2003 study by the World Bank found that Venezuela has one of the most regulated economies in the world. New regulations and controls over the economy have ensured that public officials have retained ample opportunities for personal enrichment enjoyed under previous governments. A July 2004 ruling by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency, held that Venezuela illegally expropriated the assets of a U.S. company involved in a joint venture with the country's state-owned oil company.

On April 7, 2003, the Law against Corruption was put into effect. It establishes a citizen's right to know, and sets out the state's obligations to provide, a thrice-yearly rendition of public goods and expenses, except those security and national defense expenditures as exempted 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 holding secret foreign bank accounts. Venezuela was ranked 114 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, exercise of that right is becoming increasingly difficult in practice. In 2003, as the country moved towards a referendum on Chavez's presidency, the government proposed several measures to tighten its control over opposition newspapers and television and radio stations. A climate of intimidation and hostility against the press has been established in the past few years, in large part as a result of strong anti-media rhetoric by the government and a significant anti-Chavez slant on the part of media owners. The state allocates broadcast licenses in a biased fashion and engages in favoritism in the distribution of government advertising revenues. 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 that laws protecting public authorities and institutions from insulting criticism were constitutional. The Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and TV, giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs, was to go into effect in December. The government does not restrict Internet access.

Freedom of religion, which the constitution guarantees on the condition that its practice not violate public morality, decency, or the public order, is generally respected by the government. Academic freedom traditionally is generally respected. However, government funding has been withheld from the country's universities, and the rectors of those institutions charged that the government did so to punish them; all of the major public university rectors were elected on antigovernment platforms.

Although professional and academic associations generally operate without official interference, the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 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. In January 2004, the Chavez government made an effort to undermine the legitimacy of reputable human rights organizations by questioning their ties to international organizations and making unsupported accusations of links to foreign governments. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. Public meetings and marches, the latter of which require government permits, were generally permitted without impediment, although government supporters often sought to disrupt these, frequently using violence.

The president and his supporters have sought to break what they term a "stranglehold" of corrupt labor leaders on the job market, a move that labor activists say tramples on the rights of private organizations. Opposition and traditional labor leaders say that challenges by insurgent workers' organizations mask Chavez's intent to create government-controlled unions; the president's supporters maintain that the old labor regime amounted to little more than employer-controlled workers' organizations. Security forces frequently break up strikes and arrest trade unionists, allegedly under the guidance of Cuban security officials. In early 2004, the government refused to recognize the elected leaders of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers and ordered the arrest of its secretary-general, forcing him to flee the country.

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 political system, and unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. Under Chavez, the effectiveness and impartiality of the judicial branch remains tenuous. An unwieldy new judicial code, which has helped to reduce the number of people jailed while awaiting arraignment, has hampered some law enforcement efforts, resulting in low rates of conviction and shorter jail terms even for convicted murderers. Police salaries are inadequate.

Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as dozens of extrajudicial killings by the often-corrupt military security forces and the police, have increased as crime continues to soar. 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.

Since Chavez's election, Venezuela's military, which is largely unaccountable to civilian rule, has become an active participant in the country's social development and 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. 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.

Venezuela's indigenous peoples belong to 27 ethnic groups. The formal rights of Native Americans have improved under Chavez, although 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 rarely take their interests into account. Indigenous communities typically face deforestation and water pollution. Few Indians 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. At the same time, indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including murder, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. The constitution creates 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." The lack of effective legal rights, however, has created an unprecedented migration by Indians to poverty-stricken urban areas.

Women are more active in politics than in many other Latin American countries and comprise the backbone of Venezuela's sophisticated grassroots network of nongovernmental organizations. However, there is substantial institutional and societal prejudice on issues of domestic violence and rape, and work-related sexual harassment is common.