Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
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.
- 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.
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.
The president serves six-year terms, and since 2009 neither the president nor other elected officials have been subject to term limits. The most recent presidential election was held in April 2013, after longtime incumbent Hugo Chávez died of cancer. Maduro, Chávez’s vice president and handpicked successor, narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 50.6 percent to 49.1 percent. Turnout was nearly 80 percent. Maduro was officially declared the winner by the Chavista-dominated CNE. The opposition accused the government of multiple violations, including election-day abuses and the rampant misuse of state resources during the campaign, and for the first time since 2005 it refused to accept the outcome’s legitimacy without a more complete audit. Protests in the election’s immediate aftermath left nine people dead and hundreds injured. A limited audit conducted by the CNE revealed few discrepancies, while the TSJ rejected the opposition petitions in August 2013, thereby concluding the electoral process.
The unicameral, 167-seat National Assembly is popularly elected for five-year terms, using a mix of majoritarian and proportional-representation voting. Three seats are reserved for indigenous representatives. The 2015 elections were marred by a delayed initial announcement, a campaign environment clearly tilted in favor of the ruling PSUV, disqualifications of prominent opposition candidates, government abuse of public resources to boost voter support, uneven access to the state-dominated media, a near extinction of independent traditional media, a lack of international observers, some violence, and reported intimidation and monitoring by superiors of state employees with the aim of ensuring that they voted for the government, followed by threats and firings after the results were announced.
Nonetheless, the MUD coalition won 109 seats, and MUD-aligned candidates won the three indigenous seats, leaving the PSUV with just 55. Under a 2009 electoral reform, the system gives a notable seat advantage to the party with the most votes, allowing the MUD to achieve its strong victory with only about 56 percent of the national vote; the PSUV received some 41 percent of the vote. In late 2015, government challenges against opposition victories—and specifically the TSJ’s decision to invalidate the votes for four representatives, three of whom were members of the opposition—deprived the MUD of a two-thirds majority in the assembly that would have allowed it to adopt legislation and make appointments without support from PSUV legislators.
In October 2016, the CNE announced that gubernatorial and local elections, originally scheduled for December, would be postponed until mid-2017, without offering further details.
The MUD’s 2015 campaign and eventual victory in the legislative elections demonstrated that it had improved its ability to compete electorally. However, the aftermath of the election underscored the fact that for the opposition, victory at the polls does not necessarily translate into governing power or influence over policymaking. Opposition leadership in some states and localities has been blunted in recent years by laws allowing the national government to cut budgets and strip important functions from subnational administrations.
Opposition leader Leopoldo López remained imprisoned throughout 2016, having been held in a military prison since February 2014 for supposedly instigating violence during that year’s protests. In September 2015 he was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison following a closed-door trial in which the judge blocked most of the evidence and witnesses proposed by the defense. Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristóbal who was jailed in 2014 and then kept under house arrest for allegedly inciting or failing to halt violent demonstrations, was detained again in August 2016 after reportedly being told he was being taken to a medical exam.
Among other cases, Yon Goicoechea, a prominent leader of the opposition party Popular Will, disappeared in late August 2016 and was subsequently reported to have been arrested by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which accused him of possessing explosives. Delson Guarate, mayor of Mario Briceño Iragorry in the state of Aragua, was arrested by SEBIN in September for alleged possession of firearms, among other charges. Alejandro Puglia, a journalist and employee of the National Assembly, was also arrested by SEBIN in September for possessing a drone. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was detained in February 2015, remained under house arrest in 2016 for supposedly plotting a coup against the government. Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel of Popular Will were arrested while collecting signatures for the recall petition; they were both released by October and subsequently left the country. At least 55 people were added to the ranks of political prisoners in 2016, according to the Venezuelan watchdog Foro Penal, for a total of 103 behind bars or under house arrest at year’s end.
As support grew for the recall referendum during the year, PSUV officials, including Maduro, threatened those who might consider supporting it. State employees were told they would lose their jobs if they endorsed the referendum.
After initially postponing the referendum until 2017 and imposing a higher threshold for signatures, in October 2016 the CNE suspended the process indefinitely. The constitution states that if the president is recalled during the last two years of his term, the vice president serves out the remainder of the term, in lieu of an early election. Thus the CNE’s decision staved off the possibility of an opposition candidate taking the presidency. The CNE in September had mandated that the signatures gathered must meet a threshold of 20 percent of all voters in each state, rather than 20 percent nationwide. In addition, citizens were required to provide their fingerprint alongside their signature, potentially deterring those who feared government reprisals.
While Venezuela’s constitution provides specific protection for minorities, historically marginalized groups have been particularly affected by the economic and health crisis. Food and medication shortages, the spread of infectious diseases, and rampant crime have undermined the ability of Venezuela’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens to participate politically.
Venezuela did not function as a representative democracy in 2016. The opposition-controlled legislature had virtually no ability to carry out its constitutional mandate, as the TSJ repeatedly struck down its bills and curtailed its authority. The tribunal impeded the National Assembly from taking actions to address the economic crisis, including by invalidating a law to allow Venezuela to receive foreign humanitarian aid. It deemed an opposition-backed bill to free political prisoners unconstitutional. It blocked the assembly from conducting a review of the federal budget, thus allowing the executive branch to unilaterally develop and implement a new budget. It disallowed the assembly from filling two vacancies on the CNE. And the TSJ’s nullification of the votes for four elected assembly members—three of whom were affiliated with the MUD coalition—effectively revoked the opposition’s veto-proof supermajority. Opposition leaders claimed that the decision was politically motivated and undermined the people’s will.
The government’s economic policies—particularly its currency and price controls—have greatly increased opportunities for corruption, black-market activity, and collusion between public officials and organized crime networks. The government loses billions of dollars in revenue per year to gasoline smuggling. Continued restrictions on foreign currency and imports have greatly affected poor and middle-class Venezuelans and exacerbated the effects of the economic crisis, while elite groups and favored entities such as the military benefit from valuable exemptions and privileges. The government’s decision in December 2016 to take the 100-bolivar note out of circulation prompted major protests and looting, as citizens waited in long lines to deposit their expiring currency and replacement notes remained unavailable. Ultimately, the government decided to extend use of the bill until January 2017.
There is little transparency regarding government spending, which has often outpaced the budgeted amount. The government failed to publish vital economic data, including monthly inflation statistics, for most of the year. Venezuela has received over $65 billion in loans from China since 2007, adding to concerns about the opaque allocation of resources.
The Chávez and Maduro governments, claiming that the private media were controlled by the right, have sought to build a state communications infrastructure with the aim of propagating their political and ideological program. This state media apparatus includes not only the television station VTV, which has modernized and expanded its signal to cover the entire national territory, but also Vive TV, Ávila TV, and Telesur, as well as a large number of state-owned newspapers.
Laws such as the 2004 Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television give the government the authority to control media content, and because the judiciary and regulatory agencies lack political independence, the legal framework is effectively used to control or punish any media owner or journalist whom the leadership perceives as an adversary. Critical media also face harassment in the form of tax penalties, equipment confiscation, and withdrawal of government advertising. A series of private news outlets have changed ownership under financial pressure in recent years, and their coverage subsequently grew more favorable to the authorities.
Intimidation, physical attacks, confiscations of equipment, and detentions and arrests of journalists continued in 2016, particularly for those seeking to bring economic struggles, the health crisis, and other significant concerns to light. The Institute for Press and Society, a local media watchdog, recorded 546 violations of press freedom during the first seven months of 2016, compared with 287 in the same period in 2015. Digital media outlets are increasingly targeted, and many journalists have had their social media accounts hacked in recent years.
During a visit to Nueva Esparta in early September 2016, President Maduro was chased down the street by protesters in an area that had previously been considered progovernment. Law enforcement officials and government personnel reportedly searched homes and confiscated mobile phones in an attempt to suppress video evidence of the incident. The following day, journalist Braulio Jatar of the news website Reporte Confidencial was detained for alleged money laundering, though many observers suggested that the arrest was linked to his coverage of the presidential visit. He remained in custody at year’s end, allegedly under harsh conditions.
Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom are generally respected, though tensions between the government and the Roman Catholic Church remain high. Government relations with the small Jewish community have also been strained at times.
Academic freedom came under mounting pressure during Chávez’s tenure, and a school curriculum developed by his government emphasizes socialist concepts. A 2008 Organic Education Law included ambiguities that 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 over both academic and political matters. In 2016, budget cuts and broader funding issues remained serious challenges that undermined universities’ autonomy.
In recent years the government has repeatedly aired illegally intercepted conversations of opposition members, and ordinary Venezuelans have become more reticent about calling attention to their political views in situations where they might be overheard.
Although freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, the right to protest has become a sensitive topic in recent years, and human rights groups have criticized legal amendments that make it easier to charge protesters with serious crimes. Widespread antigovernment protests during 2014 featured violence on the part of both police and demonstrators. More than 40 people were reportedly killed, and at least 3,100 were arrested, in many cases through targeted raids on their homes.
Citizens returned to the streets in 2016 to express frustration with the country’s economic problems and their discontent with President Maduro. A protest on September 1 reportedly drew a million participants, though government officials disputed such estimates. Some opposition leaders were arrested before and after the protests, including Yon Goicoechea and Alejandro Puglia. From January to September, Foro Penal registered over 2,000 arbitrary detentions in the context of public demonstrations. Protests on October 26 drew hundreds of thousands of people, resulting in at least 120 injuries and over 200 arrests.
The government has sought to undermine the legitimacy of human rights and other civil society groups by questioning their international ties. The 2010 Law on Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination threatens sanctions against any “political organization” that receives foreign funding or hosts foreign visitors who criticize the government. Dozens of civil society activists have been physically attacked in recent years, and other forms of harassment are common, including bureaucratic hurdles to registration. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly expressed alarm over government intimidation against activists.
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 shifted from traditional opposition-allied labor leaders to new workers’ organizations that are often aligned with the government. The competition has contributed to a substantial increase in labor violence as well as confusion and delays during industry-wide collective bargaining.
Politicization of the judicial branch increased dramatically under Chávez, and has progressed even further under Maduro. High courts generally do not rule against the government. Conviction rates for violent crimes remain low, the public defender system is underfunded, and most judges and prosecutors lack tenure, undermining their autonomy.
The National Assembly has the authority to remove and appoint judges to the TSJ, which controls the rest of the judiciary and is viewed as friendly to the government. In October 2015, a group of TSJ judges requested early retirement, allowing the outgoing legislature to appoint 13 new judges to serve 12-year terms on the 32-member tribunal in December. The move was seen as an attempt to ensure PSUV control over the judiciary despite the opposition’s election victory.
The police and military have been prone to corruption, widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, and extrajudicial killings, with few convictions. Military officials, many of them in active service, occupy a number of top positions in government ministries and state-level administrations, and the armed forces perform routine government duties, blurring the lines between civilian and military functions. In 2016, SEBIN increasingly carried out policing functions and arrested opposition politicians and journalists without informing the Public Ministry or presenting official charges. Foreign governments allege that the military has adopted a permissive attitude toward drug trafficking. Prison conditions in Venezuela remain among the worst in the Americas, featuring gang violence, rioting, overcrowding, and lack of proper sanitation. The Venezuelan Prison Observatory reported 173 deaths within prison walls in 2016.
Venezuela’s violent crime rate ranks among the highest in the world and is a major source of popular discontent. According to the attorney general’s office, homicides increased by nearly 50 percent from January to March 2016 compared with the first three months of 2014. According to Insight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America, 4,156 people were killed in police and military clashes with criminal groups from January to September 2016.
The formal and constitutional rights of indigenous people, who make up about 2 percent of the population, improved under the 1999 constitution, though such rights are seldom enforced by local authorities. Indigenous communities trying to defend their land rights are subject to abuses, particularly along the Colombian border. Afro-Venezuelans also remain marginalized and underrepresented among the country’s political and economic elite, despite some state efforts to ameliorate conditions.
Although discrimination based on sexual orientation is barred, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Venezuelans face widespread de facto discrimination and are occasionally subjected to violence. In the December 2015 elections, transgender lawyer and political activist Tamara Adrián won a position in the National Assembly as an alternate deputy (diputado suplente), though she was forced to register under the name she received at birth. Another alternate, Rosmit Mantilla, a gay activist, was one of three assembly candidates to win their elections while behind bars, having been arrested in 2014 after joining that year’s protests.
The country’s currency controls and other economic policies, combined with a decline in the number of flights to and from Venezuela, have made it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to travel abroad. In April 2015, the government announced a reduction in the amount of foreign currency to be made available for the purpose of travel. After closing the border with Colombia in 2015, ostensibly to stop smuggling activities that officials blamed for food shortages, the government partially reopened the border in mid-2016. However, the border was briefly closed again in December in relation to the removal of the 100-bolivar note from circulation.
Property rights have also been affected by years of price controls, nationalizations, overregulation, and corruption. While the pace of expropriation has declined in recent years—due in part to the state’s dominant position in many strategic industries—the government has continued to threaten to nationalize businesses deemed to lack commitment to revolutionary goals. Accusations of mismanagement, underinvestment, graft, and politicized hiring practices within state-owned enterprises are common.
Women are guaranteed progressive rights in the 1999 constitution, and a 2007 law was designed to combat violence against women. However, domestic violence and rape remain common and are rarely punished in practice. Women are poorly represented in government, with just 14 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, but they hold a number of important offices in the executive branch.
Trafficking of women remains inadequately addressed by the authorities. Venezuelan women and children are subjected to sex trafficking both within Venezuela and in neighboring countries. Migrants to Venezuela are also subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.
With job opportunities growing scarce and wages not keeping up with hyperinflation, more citizens have turned to jobs in the informal economy, including illegal mining and other dangerous, unregulated activities. Many Venezuelans, particularly young people, have emigrated due to a lack of employment opportunities and severe shortages of basic goods.