Venezuela | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017



Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Status Change, Ratings Change:

Venezuela’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, and its political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, due to efforts by the executive branch and the politicized judiciary to curtail the power of the opposition-controlled legislature, including a series of court rulings that invalidated new laws, usurped legislative authority to review the national budget, and blocked legislative efforts to address the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.


The ruling political movement formed by late president Hugo Chávez has presided over a deterioration in democratic institutions since 1999, but conditions have grown sharply worse in recent years due to a concentration of power in the executive and harsher crackdowns on the opposition. The opposition-controlled legislature’s powers have been curtailed by a politicized judiciary that serves the executive’s interests. Government corruption is pervasive, and law enforcement has proven unable to halt violent crime. The authorities have restricted civil liberties and prosecuted perceived opponents without regard for due process.

Key Developments: 
  • Following the opposition’s victory in December 2015 parliamentary elections, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats in January due to alleged electoral irregularities, denying the opposition a supermajority that would have given it greater powers. The court later nullified most legislation that had been passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, and stripped the chamber of certain functions.
  • In October, the National Electoral Council (CNE) blocked a proposed referendum to recall President Nicolás Maduro, citing dubious allegations of fraud in the opposition’s signature drive for the vote, and separately postponed December gubernatorial and local elections until mid-2017.
  • The intelligence service detained opposition politicians on trumped-up charges during the year, often violating due process.
  • Despite a growing humanitarian crisis linked to the collapsing economy, the government and the TSJ obstructed the National Assembly’s attempts to pass economic reforms and enable Venezuela to receive foreign medical aid.
Executive Summary: 

Following the victory of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) in December 2015 elections for the National Assembly, the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) moved quickly to diminish the effects of the election result. A decision by the TSJ prevented four lawmakers, including three from the opposition, from taking their seats in January, thereby stripping the opposition of its supermajority, which is needed to make appointments to the CNE and other key institutions. Throughout the year, the TSJ—stacked with PSUV appointees—repeatedly ruled that legislation passed by the National Assembly was unconstitutional, including a bill that would have enabled foreign humanitarian aid to Venezuela and an amnesty law intended to free political prisoners. The tribunal also stripped the assembly of certain constitutional functions, such as the ability to approve the federal budget.

As part of its bid to retain power, the PSUV government resorted to imprisoning more opposition politicians, detaining journalists, and intimidating state employees. Some 55 people were added to the ranks of political prisoners during 2016, according to the nongovernmental organization Foro Penal, with a total of 103 behind bars or under house arrest at year’s end. In some cases, Venezuelan intelligence officials arrested and held opposition activists in violation of due process, and many detainees reported physical abuse in custody.

Food and medication shortages worsened and runaway inflation intensified during the year, but the Maduro administration remained unwilling to acknowledge or address the crisis. Growing frustration with the government’s performance brought citizens to the streets, with nearly one million residents marching in Caracas in early September, according to opposition estimates.

Meanwhile, the opposition leadership focused on organizing a presidential recall referendum, as allowed by the constitution. Despite onerous hurdles established by the CNE, the opposition peacefully complied with all of the requirements. However, in October the council suspended the referendum process until at least 2017, virtually ensuring that Maduro would remain in power through the end of his term. The widely condemned decision, which prompted another round of large protests, was based on unproven allegations of fraud in the initial stages of the opposition’s signature drive for the referendum, long after the CNE itself had checked for irregularities.

The suspension of the referendum process, together with a separate decision that month to postpone elections for governors and mayors until 2017, signaled the authorities’ new willingness to disrupt important electoral processes in order to prevent further opposition victories.

Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
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