Venezuela | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2010

2010 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Venezuela’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 5 due to the adoption of laws designed to further marginalize the political opposition, including provisions that were rejected by referendum voters in December 2007.

In February 2009, referendum voters approved reforms backed by President Hugo Chavez Frias that abolished term limits for the presidency and other elected offices. Nevertheless, a weak economy, continued political polarization, and problems with the provision of key public services led to increased street protests during the year. Meanwhile, new laws threatened to further marginalize the political opposition, and tensions with Colombia increased the risk of armed conflict.

The Republic of Venezuela was founded in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military dictatorship ended with the establishment of civilian rule in 1958 and the approval of a constitution in 1961. Until 1993, the center-left Democratic Action (AD) party and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics under an arrangement known as the Punto Fijo pact. President Carlos Andres Perez (1989–­93) of the AD, already weakened by the violent political fallout from his free-market reforms, was nearly overthrown by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts, in which dozens of people were killed. Perez was subsequently impeached as a result of corruption and his inability to stem the social consequences of economic decline, which had coincided with lower oil prices beginning in the 1980s. Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969–74) and founder of COPEI, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party Convergence coalition, which included both left- and right-wing groups.
Chavez won the 1998 presidential contest on a populist, anticorruption platform, and in 1999 voters approved a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and introduced a unicameral National Assembly. Although Chavez retained his post in elections held under the new charter in 2000, opposition parties won most governorships, about half of the mayoralties, and a significant share of the National Assembly seats.
In April 2002, following the deaths of 19 people in a massive antigovernment protest, dissident military officers attempted to oust Chavez, the vice president, and the National Assembly with backing from some of the country’s leading business groups. However, the coup was resisted by loyalist troops and protesters, and Chavez moved swiftly to regain control of the military, replacing dozens of senior officers.
The country was racked by continued protests, and in December 2002 opposition leaders called a general strike that lasted 62 days but ultimately weakened their political position as well as the economy. While fending off his opponents with legal maneuvers and intimidation tactics, Chavez launched bold social-service initiatives, including urban health care and literacy projects, many of which were staffed by thousands of experts from Cuba. Chavez survived a 2004 presidential recall referendum triggered by an opposition signature campaign, taking 58 percent of the vote amid high turnout.
Even as Venezuela faced multiple social and economic problems, Chavez continued to focus on increasing his influence over the judiciary, the media, and other institutions of civil society. The National Assembly, controlled by his supporters, approved a measure allowing it to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which controlled the rest of the judiciary. The legislation also expanded the tribunal’s membership from 20 to 32 justices.
National Assembly elections in 2005 were boycotted by the opposition, which accused theNational Electoral Council (CNE) of allowing violations of ballot secrecy. A mere 25 percent of eligible voters turned out, and all 167 deputies in the resulting National Assembly were government supporters, although a small number defected to the opposition in subsequent years.
In the 2006 presidential election, Chavez defeated Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales of the opposition New Time party, 61 percent to 38 percent. The incumbent exploited state resources during the campaign and drew on enduring support among poorer Venezuelans who had benefited from his social programs. The balloting generally proceeded without incident and was pronounced fair by international observers.
Soon after the vote, Chavez pressed forward with his program of institutional changes. Nearly all progovernment parties merged into the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and the “Bolivarian revolution” deepened economically with a series of nationalizations. At the end of January 2007, the National Assembly voted to allow the president to issue decrees on a broad array of topics for 18 months.
In May 2007, the state seized the broadcast frequency and equipment of the country’s oldest television station, RCTV, drawing strong objections from human rights and press freedom organizations. The renewal of its license was denied based on what Chavez claimed were the station’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the government. University students mounted large street protests in support of RCTV that gained wide sympathy but were at times forcibly repressed. Meanwhile, the station soon returned to operation as a cable channel.
Referendum voters in December 2007 narrowly defeated a package of constitutional amendments that had been drafted by the government and National Assembly with little outside consultation. The most prominent amendment—which the opposition considered the key motivation behind the larger package—would have removed presidential term limits. The vote reflected robust opposition participation, public disappointment with rising inflation and crime rates, and a degree of disaffection among current and former Chavez supporters.
Chavez pledged to continue his efforts to enact the proposed amendments. In late July 2008, as his decree-making authority was about to expire, he unveiled a set of 26 new laws. Some appeared designed to institute measures that were rejected in the referendum, including presidential authority to name new regional officials and the reorganization of the military hierarchy.
Also that month, the nominally independent but government-friendly comptroller general disqualified over 300 candidates for the November state and local elections, including a number of opposition leaders, primarily on charges of corruption. PSUV and other Chavez-aligned candidates enjoyed massive publicity in state-controlled media and other resource advantages, while opposition candidates focused on perceived failures in public services and benefited from coverage in the opposition press. In balloting deemed fair by the Organization of American States (OAS), the opposition captured the mayoralty of greater Caracas as well as Venezuela’s second-largest city and 5 of 22 states, including the three richest and most populous. Meanwhile, government candidates won 17 states and some 80 percent of the mayoralties.
Following the elections, Chavez moved forward with plans for a new referendum on abolishing term limits. Unlike the 2007 ballot, which focused on the presidential term, this referendum proposal would also lift term limits for mayors, governors, and state and national legislators. The government’s efforts included mobilization of state resources and pressure on public employees, as well as arguments that only a continuation of the Bolivarian revolution would assure social services and political power for poorer Venezuelans. The February 2009 poll was characterized by observers as generally free, and Chavez prevailed with over 54 percent of the vote.
In March and April, the legislature passed laws allowing the national government to strip states of key governing functions and cut budget allocations; in practice, opposition-governed states and particularly the Caracas mayor’s office were most affected. In August, the National Assembly passed a new electoral law that analysts suspected would lead to gerrymandering in favor of the ruling party. Battles between the government and the media also continued, with the primary opposition-aligned television broadcaster, Globovision, facing multiple investigations and several attacks on its headquarters by Chavez supporters. In July, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) stripped 32 radio stations of their licenses for what it described as procedural and administrative problems. Many of the stations insisted that any licensing flaws were the result of CONATEL’s own errors.
Street protests increased during the year as the global economic crisis contributed to rising unemployment and shrinking state revenue. According to local rights group PROVEA, workers were responsible for the largest number of protests, followed by community groups demonstrating against high crime and poor service provision, including ongoing water and electricity shortages caused by drought and poor planning. Political and student-led protests were also abundant. The state responded with harsh rhetoric that sought to delegitimize protesters, in part by linking them to antigovernment conspiracies. Although most protests occurred without incident, the state increased the degree of repression and brought criminal charges against numerous demonstrators.

Venezuelan relations with neighboring Colombia deteriorated further in 2009, having soured in early 2008 after Colombian forces raided a rebel camp in Ecuador and found alleged evidence of ties between the Colombian rebels and Venezuelan officials. News of a military accord in which Colombia would allow a U.S. presence on several of its bases prompted Chavez to freeze trade ties in July, and the agreement’s official signing led him to warn of war and order troops to the border in November. Relations with the United States improved somewhat but remained tense, despite the return of the two countries’ ambassadors to their respective posts in June; in September 2008 Chavez had expelled the U.S. ambassador following a series of real and perceived bilateral irritants, prompting the United States to respond in kind. Chavez continued to accuse the United States of seeking his ouster, pointing to Washington’s allegedly weak response to a coup in Honduras as evidence of its militarist intentions in the region. Over the past several years, Chavez has increased friction with the United States and its allies by creating ostensible leftist alternatives to U.S.-backed trade pacts, garnering regional support with generous oil subsidies, seeking weapons purchases and other cooperation from Iran and Russia, and either explicitly or tacitly supporting favored electoral candidates in neighboring countries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Venezuela is not an electoral democracy. While the act of voting is relatively free and the count is fair, the political opposition is forced to operate under extremely difficult conditions, and the separation of powers is nearly nonexistent.
The opposition boycotted the 2005 National Assembly elections due to concerns that ballot secrecy would be compromised by mechanized voting machines and fingerprint-based antifraud equipment. After the failed 2004 presidential recall referendum, tens of thousands of people who had signed petitions in favor of the effort found that they could not get government jobs or contracts, or qualify for public assistance programs; they had apparently been placed on an alleged blacklist of President Hugo Chavez Frias’s political opponents. The opposition decided to actively contest the 2006 presidential election, and the voting was generally considered free and fair, but the CNE was ineffectual at limiting Chavez’s use of state resources. He enjoyed a massive advantage in television exposure, and the promotion of social and infrastructure projects often blurred the line between his official role and his electoral campaign. Public employees were also subjected to heavy pressure to support the government.
Public resources were similarly exploited ahead of the December 2007 and February 2009 constitutional referendums and the November 2008 state and local elections. As in 2007, the referendum balloting in 2009 was conducted largely without incident, but full, final results, which could have allayed any lingering suspicions, were not released. A new Electoral Processes Law was promulgated in 2009 in preparation for the 2010 National Assembly elections. The opposition charged that the redistricting provisions in the law gave the Chavista-dominated CNE broad authority to gerrymander districts in a manner that would benefit the ruling PSUV and violate the constitutional principle of proportional representation.
The unicameral, 167-seat National Assembly is popularly elected for five-year terms. Chavez’s control of the Assembly allows him to curb the independence of institutions including the judiciary, the intelligence services, and the Citizen Power branch of government, which was created by the 1999 constitution to fight corruption and protect citizens’ rights. On several occasions during his tenure, Chavez has also been granted authority to legislate by decree on a wide range of topics. The president serves six-year terms, but due to the results of the 2009 referendum, he and other elected officials are no longer subject to term limits.
The merger of government-aligned parties into the PSUV is largely complete, though several groups retain nominal independence. In 2009, opposition parties established the Unity Roundtable and began preparations to select unity candidates for the 2010 elections. While the opposition considered the 2008 state and local elections a comeback, its victories were blunted by new laws allowing the national government to strip important functions from subnational administrations.
The government plays a major role in the economy and has done little to remove vague or excessive regulatory restrictions that increase opportunities for corruption. Several large development funds are controlled by the executive branch without independent oversight. The government’s sporadic anticorruption efforts focus on its political opponents; in 2009 this included former Zulia state governor and presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who sought political asylum in Peru, and former defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel, who was arrested in April and held in a military prison. In late 2009, however, several businessmen allied to high-ranking Chavistas were also arrested on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Transparency International ranked Venezuela 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the media climate is permeated by intimidation, sometimes including physical attacks, and strong antimedia rhetoric by the government is common. The 2004 Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television gives the government the authority to control radio and television content. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Public Sphere reported 165 violations of free expression between January and September 2009. These included several incidents in which armed progovernment groups assaulted the offices of opposition outlets; the actions were disavowed by the government, and prominent progovernment agitator Lina Ron was arrested after leading a group that attacked the television station Globovision. A large portion of the print media, and a number of opposition broadcast outlets remain hostile toward the government, but their share of the broadcast media has declined in recent years. During all electoral processes in recent years, coverage by state media has been overwhelmingly biased in favor of the government; private outlets also exhibited bias, though to a somewhat lesser degree. In 2009 the government issued new regulations that effectively provided additional opportunities for the cancellation or takeover of private outlets’ licenses. The government does not restrict internet access.
Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom are generally respected by the government, though tensions with the Roman Catholic Church remain high. Government relations with the small Jewish community have also been strained, particularly due to Chavez’s cooperation with Iran and anti-Israel rhetoric. Academic freedom has come under mounting pressure in recent years with the formulation of a new curriculum that emphasizes socialist concepts. A new Organic Education Law was enacted in August 2009. Rights groups lauded provisions explicitly detailing the state’s obligations, while opponents noted ambiguities that they said could lead to restrictions on private education and increased control by the government and communal councils. In universities, elections for student associations and administration positions have become more politicized, and rival groups of students have clashed repeatedly over both academic and political matters.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, but the right to protest has become a sensitive topic in recent years. The rise of the student movement in 2007 caused a spike in confrontations with the government, but in 2009 it was workers, particularly employees of state-owned enterprises, who demonstrated most frequently, followed by citizens protesting poor services. The state’s harsh rhetorical and legal response has fallen most heavily on the labor sector.
In 2000, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that NGOs with non-Venezuelan leaders or foreign government funding are not part of “civil society.” As a result, they may not represent citizens in court or bring their own legal actions. The government has also made an effort to undermine the legitimacy of human rights and other civil society organizations by questioning their ties to international groups. Dozens of human rights defenders have been subject to threats and even violent attacks in recent years.
Workers are legally entitled to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with some restrictions on public-sector workers’ ability to strike. Control of unions has increasingly shifted from traditional opposition-allied labor leaders to new workers’ organizations. Antigovernment groups allege that Chavez intends to create government-controlled unions, while the president’s supporters maintain that the old labor regime was effectively controlled by the AD, COPEI, and employers. The growing competition has contributed to a substantial increase in labor violence as well as confusion during industry-wide collective bargaining. Labor strife rose significantly in 2008 and 2009, due in part to the addition of thousands of employees of nationalized companies to the state payroll and the government’s failure to implement new collective-bargaining agreements in a context of reduced state resources. The government also encourages the formation of workers’ militias and socialist patrols to deepen the “revolution” within industrial enterprises.
Politicization of the judicial branch has increased under Chavez, and the courts are undermined by the chronic corruption—including the growing influence of drug traffickers—that permeates the entire government system. Conviction rates remain low, the public-defender system is underfunded, and judges often lack tenure. High courts generally do not rule against the government. In December 2009, a judge ordered the release of a prominent banker who had been held without conviction on corruption charges for more than the maximum of two years. The judge was herself arrested hours later on corruption charges, and Chavez called for her to receive the maximum sentence.
At approximately 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela’s murder rate is now one of the world’s highest. The police and military have been prone to corruption, widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, and extrajudicial killings. In 2009, the justice minister admitted that police were involved in up to 20 percent of crimes. Although hundreds of police are investigated each year, few are convicted. A plan to modify and purge the police was completed in early 2008, and in late 2009 a new national police force began operations. Although the prison budget has moderately increased and pretrial detention has been limited to two years, prison conditions in Venezuela remain among the worst in the Americas. The NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory reported at least 366 violent deaths within prison walls in 2009, a modest decline from the death tolls of the previous two years.
The increasingly politicized military has stepped up its participation in social development and the delivery of public services. While Chavez’s institutional control is solid, a faction of the military is perceived as wary of the Bolivarian project. Foreign officials assert that the military has adopted a more permissive attitude toward drug trafficking and Colombian rebel activity inside Venezuela. In recent years, the division of responsibility between the military and civilian militias has become less clear. There is also concern that the government has lost control over some of its supporters; in 2009, arrest warrants were issued, though never executed, against the head of the “La Piedrita collective,” which controls a Caracas neighborhood, after its leader threatened government opponents.
Property rights are affected by the government’s penchant for nationalization. The expropriation of large, idle landholdings has slowed in the last several years, but the nationalization of industrial enterprises continues apace. In 2009, several food producers were nationalized, along with small banks owned by the Chavista-linked businessmen who were accused of corruption during the year.
The formal rights of indigenous people have improved under Chavez, although those rights are seldom enforced by local political authorities. The constitution reserves three seats in the National Assembly for indigenous people and provides for “the protection of indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation.” Indigenous communities trying to defend their land rights are subject to abuses, particularly along the Colombian border. In October 2009, the government granted more than 40,000 hectares of land to members of the Yukpa indigenous group in the border state of Tachira. A day later, two members of the group were killed as part of a broader land dispute involving indigenous groups, ranchers, and miners in the area.

Women enjoy progressive rights enshrined in the 1999 constitution, as well as benefits offered under a major 2007 law. However, Amnesty International reported in 2008 that while some programs, such as a hotline for victims of domestic abuse, have been established to assist women, much greater efforts at implementation are necessary for the law to have a tangible impact. Meanwhile, domestic violence and rape remain common, and the courts have provided limited means of redress for victims. The problem of trafficking in women remains inadequately addressed by the authorities. Women are poorly represented in government, with just 31 seats in the National Assembly.