Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Venezuela's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to an increase in intimidation of opposition groups.
In 2005, President Hugo Chavez continued promoting his anti-U.S., anti-free trade, policies while stressing his close ties to Cuba and left-wing groups in the hemisphere. Chavez expanded his political base during the year by denying opponents state jobs and services. Meanwhile, the government strengthened its control over sectors of Venezuelan life, including the content of broadcast media programs.
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 Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts in which dozens were killed. Perez was subsequently impeached as a result of corruption and his inability to stem the social consequences of a pattern of economic decline that coincided with a softening of oil prices in the 1980s. Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969-1974) and founder of the COPEI, 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, introducing a unicameral National Assembly. After Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum on December 15, 2000, congress and the Supreme Court were dismissed and new national elections were called. Although Chavez was reelected president, opposition parties won most of the country's governorships, about half the mayoralties, and a significant share of power in the National Assembly. 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, dissident military officers attempted to remove him from office with backing from some of the country's leading business groups. The provisional government appointed by the military over-reached, however, by seeking to dismiss the National Assembly in addition to the president and his elected vice president, engendering a reaction from troops still loyal to Chavez and an outburst of protests from pro-Chavez loyalists. Chavez was reinstated and moved swiftly to regain control of the military by dismissing as many as 60 generals and placing unconditional supporters throughout the upper reaches of the armed forces.
Following the coup attempt, the country was wracked by protests by a broad spectrum of civil society. In October, an estimated one million Venezuelans marched in Caracas demanding that Chavez call either early elections or a referendum on his rule. When Chavez did not respond, the opposition called for a general strike that, while lasting 62 days, failed to force Chavez from office and weakened the opposition. Nevertheless, they succeeded in garnering enough signatures to force a recall vote on the president's tenure in office. While fending off his opponents with legal maneuvers and intimidation tactics, Chavez introduced a bold program of government social service initiatives, including urban health care and literacy programs, many with direct support from the Cuban government.
Chavez consolidated his hold on power following the defeat of the recall referendum held on August 15, 2004, amid charges of ballot rigging. Although the opposition had garnered more than four million recall petitions, Chavez won in the country's first-ever referendum to recall a president, with 58 percent of the vote. After 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, the reassignment of thousands of voters to faraway polling stations, and vote tampering; it was an open question, however, if these materially affected the overwhelming outcome. In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, voters overwhelmingly backed pro-Chavez candidates.
Although he faced an economy in ruins and high levels of street crime and unemployment, Chavez continued to devote considerable attention to advancing his influence over the judicial system, the media, and other institutions of civil society. The National Assembly, 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 progovernment majority in the legislature. In December 2004, a law giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs went into effect, with Chavez claiming that the "Venezuelan people have begun to free themselves from. . .the dictatorship of the private media."
In 2005, tens of thousands of Cubans sent by the Cuban government, which received heavy subsidies in the form of Venezuelan oil, worked in Venezuela's booming social services sector and staffed key law enforcement and intelligence billets. Chavez also announced that he would bankroll a new Latin American television network, Telesur, with help from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and Uruguay, to counteract "the media dictatorship of the big international news networks." In September, Chavez signed a trade pact with nine Caribbean governments that will give them oil under favorable credit terms for the next 25 years, one of a series of such agreements he made in the region in 2005. That same month, the United States decertified Venezuela, a major point of transshipment of illegal drugs, for its failure to live up to anti-narcotics agreements.
Citizens can change their government democratically. How-ever, conditions under which the anti-Hugo Chavez opposition is forced to labor have become increasingly difficult. In 2005, tens of thousands of people who signed petitions for a referendum on Chavez's recall found they could not get government jobs or contracts, qualify for public assistance programs, or receive passports; they were identified by an alleged "blacklist" of Chavez's political opponents. Chavez also appeared to signal his plans to remain in power for the foreseeable future; when swearing in his party's candidates for the December 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.
Venezuela's unicameral National Assembly is composed of 165 seats, with members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms; three seats are reserved for indigenous peoples. On the national level, Chavez' strong majority support in the Assembly allows him to curb the independence of governmental institutions, which increasingly serve his interests. In the armed forces, the president has made significant headway in assuring personal loyalty, increasingly isolating those skeptical of his appointment of hundreds of officers in nonmilitary posts.
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 by the 1999 constitution to fight corruption. 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). Although there are more than 30 registered parties in Venezuela, many have been eclipsed by those supporting Chavez; once-dominant parties have seen their bases erode as Chavez uses state resources to ensure loyalty. Accion Democratica continues to have a considerable following throughout the country by comparison with COPEI, which has seen its fortunes wane significantly. A new movement, the Primero Justicia, is led by young political leaders opposed to Chavez who have made headway by capturing local governments. The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and the Venezuela Project (PV) also garner some popular support.
The Chavez government, which now enjoys a virtual stranglehold on the economy, 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. At the same time, Chavez has replaced the old meritocracy at the state oil company, PDVSA, with his own directorate. New regulations and controls over the economy have ensured that public officials have retained ample opportunities for personal enrichment enjoyed under previous governments. Protection of private property is also weak. In 2005, the expropriation of large, idle landholdings and industrial installations was accompanied by the creation of tens of thousands of rural and urban cooperatives, many of which received government seed money.
On April 7, 2003, the Law against Corruption was put into effect. It established a citizen's right to know, and set 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's provisions, however, appeared to be observed mostly in the breach: Venezuela was ranked 130 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, exercise of that right is difficult in practice. A climate of intimidation and hostility, including physical attacks, exists in a climate of strong anti-media rhetoric by the government and a significant anti-Chavez slant on the part of media owners. July 2004 saw the ratification of a new law 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 went into effect in December 2004, giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs. According to the Inter American Press Association, the government "uses official advertising as an instrument of coercion and has become the country's 'main communicator.'" 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 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.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, and the government generally respects this rights in practice. Public meetings and marches, the latter of which require government permits, are generally permitted without impediment, although government supporters often seek to disrupt these, frequently using violence. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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 groups. In 2005, the leaders of the civic organization Sumate, which received support from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, were brought up on charges of conspiracy against the government.
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.
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 the delivery of public services. The 1999 constitution assigns the armed forces a significant role in the state but does not provide for civilian control over the military's budget or procurement practices, or for related institutional checks. 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. The military's massive participation in nontraditional public works projects and community development assistance has helped to reduce official accountability for acts of corruption.
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 NGOs. However, there is substantial institutional and societal prejudice on issues of domestic violence and rape, and work-related sexual harassment is common.