Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and standing up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, the term of former president Nicolas Maduro ended. He sought to remain in power based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections widely condemned as neither free nor fair, a claim not accepted by the democratically elected National Assembly (AN). On January 23, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Former president Maduro, with the backing of hundreds of Cuban security force members, refused to cede control over the instruments of state power, preventing interim president Guaido from exercising authority within the country. In the 2015 legislative elections, opposition political parties gained supermajority (two-thirds) control of the AN. The former Maduro regime, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to create the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) that placed the AN in contempt, usurped its constitutional role to legislate, and weakened the constitution’s separation of powers principle.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. The National Guard (GNB)–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC), which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Venezuelan National Police (PNB) reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the former Maduro regime, including colectivos (regime-sponsored armed groups); forced disappearances; torture by security forces; arbitrary detention by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; and lack of judicial independence. The former Maduro regime restricted free expression and the press by routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. Libel, incitement, and inaccurate reporting were subject to criminal charges. The former Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and repressed freedom of assembly. Other issues included: intimidation, harassment, and abuse of AN members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity; pervasive corruption and impunity among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels; trafficking in persons; violence against indigenous persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the former regime made minimal efforts to eliminate.
There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, but the former regime at the national, state, and local levels took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, and there was impunity for such abuses. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police. The former Maduro regime backed by Cuban security force members refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned former regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate ANC gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the former regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. In April Espacio Publico reported 24 persons were arrested in 2018 for online criticism of the regime.
On June 1, members of the DGCIM arrested Karen Palacios Perez, a clarinetist, for “instigating hate.” Palacios posted tweets critical of the regime after losing her position with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for signing a petition in opposition to Maduro. On July 16, Palacios was released from prison, one month after a judge ordered her immediate release.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 former regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The former Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In June the TSJ ordered La Patilla to pay 30 billion bolivares ($1.4 million) to ANC president Cabello for “moral damage and injury” for reprinting an article by the Spanish newspaper ABC that indicated Cabello was under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking.
Espacio Publico reported 522 violations of freedom of expression between January and April, a 314 percent increase compared with the same period in 2018 and the second highest figure since the organization began tracking cases in 2002. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. The former Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition, private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (cadenas) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of former regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from accessing the AN to cover the legislative body’s debates and activities. NGOs noted that state regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during Interim President Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions.
The former regime detained 39 journalists in the first three months of the year, up from 22 detentions during all of 2018, according to NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). On March 11, SEBIN agents detained journalist Luis Carlos Diaz and confiscated equipment, following his reporting on nationwide blackouts that struck the country in early March, according to media reports. On his weekly television program, ANC president Cabello accused Diaz of being involved in a conspiracy to sabotage the country’s electrical system. After being charged with “instigating crimes,” Diaz was released, although he was prohibited from leaving the country or making public statements.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the former Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 244 attacks on journalists from January to June. Former president Maduro and regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Former Maduro regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the former Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The former regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union (SNTP), print news outlets closed due to the former Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. National and regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint, including national newspaper El Nacional, El Regional of Zulia, El Aragueno of Aragua, El Luchador of Bolivar, and Panorama of Zulia.
The former Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use slander law to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The former Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year former President Maduro renewed four times the “state of exception” he first invoked in 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The AN continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the rights to freedom of association and expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution, the country’s 26th since independence in 1811, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but regime interference, electoral irregularities, and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the 2018 presidential and municipal elections.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the former Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Some officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The former regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.
Corruption: According to former Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, 915 persons had been convicted of corruption-related charges since 2018. The regime, however, did not provide information regarding the alleged cases or persons convicted.
Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. There was no information publicly available about the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials, as well as all directors and members of the boards of private companies, to submit sworn financial disclosure statements. By law the Public Ministry and competent criminal courts may require such statements from any other persons when circumstantial evidence arises during an investigation.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with restrictions from the former Maduro regime. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Former regime officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their requests. Domestic NGOs reported fear that the former regime would use the 2017 Law against Hate to justify widespread repression of their activities, jailing of the participants and organizers, and threats against family members. Some domestic NGOs reported threats against and harassment of their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to raids and detentions, but they were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. Some human rights activists reported former regime authorities barred them from traveling abroad or that they feared not being able to return to the country if they traveled. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community about alleged violations and key human rights cases.
NGOs noted the former Maduro regime created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. The PSUV first vice president and ANC president, Diosdado Cabello, used his weekly talk show to intimidate NGO staff from Espacio Publico, PROVEA, and Foro Penal. Several organizations, such as the OVP, PROVEA, Foro Penal, and Citizen Control, reported their staffs received both electronic and in-person threats. Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their email privacy.
The law prohibits domestic NGOs from receiving funds from abroad if they have a “political intent,” defined as the intent to “promote, disseminate, inform, or defend the full exercise of the political rights of citizens” or to “defend political rights.” The former Maduro regime threatened NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various former regime officials accused human rights organizations on national television and other media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors. NGOs also reported the former regime refused to grant them legal registration, preventing NGOs from receiving international funding.
For violations the law stipulates monetary penalties, a potential five- to eight-year disqualification from running for political office, or both. The law defines political organizations as those involved in promoting citizen participation, exercising control over public offices, or promoting candidates for public office. Although there was no formal application or enforcement of the law, it created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.
In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of security forces.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The former Maduro regime was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which last visited the country in 2002. The OHCHR conducted a visit in June to investigate the human rights situation, presided by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who met with members of both the opposition and the former regime. In September the regime and the OHCHR signed a memorandum of understanding that provides for the presence of two UN human rights officers for one year. On September 27, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish immediately a one-year fact-finding mission to investigate “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014.” According to media reports, the regime-aligned envoy to the United Nations in Geneva rejected the resolution and stated the former regime had no intention of cooperating.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the former regime gave its 2016-19 human rights plan minimal attention, with no announcements to renew or update the plan.
The TSJ continued to hold the AN in “contempt” status, which diminished the purview and operational effectiveness of the assembly’s subcommission on human rights.