Cuba

Executive Summary

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the republic, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite ratifying a new constitution on February 24, Cuba remains a one-party system in which the constitution states the CCP is the only legal political party and the highest political entity of the state.

The Ministry of Interior exercises control over the police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police is the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of abuse of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; political prisoners; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. The government severely restricted freedom of the press, used criminal libel laws against persons critical of leadership, and engaged in censorship and site blocking. There were limitations on academic and cultural freedom; restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement and severe restrictions of religious freedom. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party, and elections were not free and fair. There was official corruption, trafficking in persons, outlawing of independent trade unions, and compulsory labor.

On February 24, the country adopted a new constitution in a coerced referendum marred by violent government repression against those that opposed the proposed constitution. On February 12, for example, 200 police and security agents raided the homes of leaders of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for openly campaigning against the draft constitution, detaining and reportedly beating UNPACU members. Other opponents reported that the government had blocked their email and texts to keep them from disseminating opposition campaign materials. Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the CCP, disallowing for additional political expression outside of that structure. Although the new constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not respect them, nor did the courts enforce them.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses and failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed the abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on condition that it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.

Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. The government passed two additional laws further criminalizing freedom of expression: Decree 349, which came into effect in December 2018, institutionalizes censorship of independent art and culture and establishes violations for art that was not regulated or recognized by the official cultural institutions. The decree also allows “supervising inspectors” to review cultural events and empowers them to immediately close any exhibition they deem violates the law and confiscate the business license of any business hosting the offending event. The National Symbols Law criminalizes the way the national flag may be displayed or used in other creative contexts.

Police arrested several persons who protested these laws during the year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting cultural independence, who was arrested at least 18 times in 2018 and 2019, with the last arrest occurring on December 10, International Human Rights Day. On August 9, police arrested him in front of his privately owned Museum of Dissidence for his performance art protest against the National Symbols Law. His performance consisted of wearing a national flag draped over his shoulders. He was also arrested on September 12, when three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers beat him and took him away in an unmarked vehicle, holding him incommunicado for more than 72 hours. On September 13, he was charged with violating the National Symbols Law and then released on the condition that he not leave his home after midnight, drink alcohol in a public place, or frequent public places. Several other members of the San Isidro Movement were assaulted, arrested, and fined during the year.

State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The fora’s organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.

Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.

In contrast with 2018, some religious groups reported increased restrictions to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings. Most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations in the country.

On October 10, 19 independent media outlets published a joint declaration on the state of independent journalism in the country. They denounced the 183 documented incidents of state aggression against journalists since January 2018, part of a broader wave of repression of independent journalism, and demanded the state respect a more open, transparent, and diverse independent media.

On April 22, journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones was arrested and assaulted while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Quinones was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors who were facing a court sentence because they wanted to homeschool their children when police officers approached to arrest him. Quinones asked why he was being arrested. Rather than answer, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck 65-year-old Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, he was sentenced to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience,” and on September 11, he was taken to prison, after authorities processed and then denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter saying he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, Quinones was reportedly punished and threatened with “disciplinary action.”

Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Among many blocked websites, in September the government blocked Change.org after several petitions critical of the government appeared on the website. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.

The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons for the ambiguous crime of “contempt of authority.”

Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.

The government restricted access to the internet, and there were reports the government monitored without appropriate legal authority citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small but increasing number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and extralegal surveillance to censor information critical to the regime and to silence its critics.

Internet access was limited to a national network that offered only government-run email and government-generated websites, at a fraction of the price of internet available to the public. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers. The government selectively granted highly censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.

During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots, and in December 2018 it launched third generation (3G) mobile service that allowed persons for the first time to access the internet on their cell phones without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi, but the cost was beyond the means of most citizens. In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of websites blocked fluctuated, with approximately 20 websites blocked on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CubaNet and Marti Noticias and websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government also blocked voice ports used by the Session Initiation Protocol, one of the most common protocols used in voice, video, and messaging applications, and any webpage that the government considered contrary to its interests. Public reports revealed that the government used the Avila Link program to route connections to a proxy server, allowing the government to monitor citizens’ internet use and retaliate.

The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a system of user-owned and -operated grassroots wireless community networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. On July 29, new regulations came into effect designed to bring these independent networks under state regulation by transferring SNet services and content to Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A (ETECSA), the government-monopoly internet service provider. Users who protested the decision or merely resisted it were surveilled, threatened, and arrested by state security agents. Ariel Maceo Tellez, one of the SNet coordinators, was arrested on August 16.

While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that would provide uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in August.

The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also illegal. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure challenges, a growing number of citizens maintained blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from foreign supporters, who often built and maintained the blog sites overseas. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition, a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media to report independently on developments in the country, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse.

Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected service for human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, on September 6-7, the internet access of several UNPACU members was suspended ahead of a planned march, and on October 3, the government suspended the internet access of UNPACU national committee member Katherine Mojena Hernandez after she repeatedly tweeted about a government crackdown on the group.

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval and, at times, the presence of a government monitor. Those permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives back home. During the year the government allowed some religious educational centers greater latitude to operate.

Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, at least 30 professors were expelled from universities from 1991 to 2019, and academics and their students faced increased ideological discrimination during the year. For example, on August 20, Martha del Carmen Mesa Valenciano, vice minister of higher education, published an open letter announcing, “Whoever does not feel they are an activist of our Party’s revolutionary politics, an advocate of our ideology, our morality, our political convictions, must resign their position as a university professor.” This statement attempted to justify the firing of university professor Omara Ruiz Urquiola. While it was unclear if the open letter was written government policy, it acknowledged a longstanding practice of firing university professors for their ideology. During a September 16 appearance on Mesa Redonda (Roundtable), a popular program on state television, State Minister of Higher Education Jose Ramon Saborido Loidi confirmed that public universities censored and expelled professors and students who contradicted the CCP or its leaders.

The increasingly public hostility toward dissent had a chilling effect on academic discourse and led some institutions to go even farther, such as Universidad de Oriente, which published a long article on October 2 justifying the termination of law professor Rene Fidel Gonzalez Garcia. The university faulted him for a series of “controversial, contradictory, and disrespectful” articles written from 2012 to 2016 that assumed hypothetical positions in order to examine their intellectual merit. The university alleged the articles “caused teachers, students, and citizens in general to question the contents or sometimes sympathized with the positions in their confusion” and generally generated debate. University officials took offense when Gonzales asserted his free speech rights under the constitution and declared he “did not understand the limits of this right.” They subsequently suspended him from teaching duties and expelled him from the CCP.

During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.

Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so could carry a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported they received warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.

Independent activists, as well as political parties other than the CCP, faced greater obstacles, and state security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrators or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.

On May 11, authorities violently halted an independent march by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists, beating and detaining several participants. In another instance the government suppressed marches planned for September 8, the feast day of the country’s patron saint, organized by UNPACU. The march, named the Sunflower March in honor of the flower that represents the patron saint, prompted the government to ban sales of sunflowers in cities in the days leading up to the march. Several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7, and on September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested. In total, the government arrested at least 130 individuals after raiding several UNPACU offices and homes of UNPACU members as well as accosting others already in the streets, many of whom were beaten during their arrest. Most persons arrested were released within a few days, often after paying a fine, but one organizer, Ovidio Martin Castellano, was sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to pay a 2,000 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($80) fine. On September 10, the government followed up by raiding UNPACU headquarters again. Several UNPACU leaders and their family members were arrested and held incommunicado for days. The government routinely barred independent meetings related to animal rights, gender violence, and other forms of civil society activism not officially sanctioned by the state.

The government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those assembled peacefully. The targets of this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims or respond to victims’ complaints and instead frequently orchestrated the activities or took direct part in physical assaults.

The government routinely denied citizens freedom of association and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings. For example, on August 31, state security agents raided a meeting of the Pena del Jucaro Martiano, a group of intellectuals who met to study and celebrate the life of national writer Jose Marti. Officials prevented persons from entering the house where the meeting was held, entered the house on the pretense of an “electrical meter check,” threatened and photographed persons who arrived, and arrested and then interrogated one member, Alenmichel Aguilo, for several hours.

Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the party’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities and exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons.

Groups must register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities continued to ignore applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups as well as women’s rights and gay rights organizations, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.

The government continued to afford preferential treatment to those who took an active part in CCP activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government, especially when awarding valued public benefits, such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

There continued to be restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government also controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting persons in Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that they were critical of the government or for having “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors or defected athletes. Chess master Jennifer Perez was denied a passport at least four times because, as Cuban authorities in Ecuador told her, she was considered a deserter for deciding to reside abroad to take advantage of better job opportunities.

Some family members of former government employees who emigrated from the island lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 CUP ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were becoming infrequent. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.

Under the terms of the 1994-1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally if they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.

In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, changes of residence to Havana were restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization from these bodies and send them back to their legally authorized place of residence. There were reports authorities limited social services to illegal Havana residents. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.

The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned them to their homes, even though they had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to require several professional and social categories of individuals to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists. It also used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad. According to the NGO Patmos Institute, as of October there were at least 202 citizens whom authorities designated as regulados, meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and in an October 1 interview with the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because citizens are prohibited from leaving without explanation or justification, and the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance, pending third-country resettlement. In addition, the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved. In June, however, 142 Congolese medical students protesting unpaid stipends at their embassy in Havana for several months were arrested and deported to the Republic of the Congo, despite several of them expressing fears for their safety if returned.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While a voting process to choose CCP-approved candidates exists, citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or choose their government through the right to vote in free and fair elections or run as candidates from political parties other than the CCP. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change.

Recent Elections: The government selected candidates for the October 10 election for president of the republic, president of the National Assembly, and membership in the Council of State. Only members of the National Assembly–all of whom were CCP members–were allowed to vote, and candidates ran for office uncontested.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As in previous national elections, for the October election, government-run commissions had to preapprove all candidates for office and rejected certain candidates without explanation or the right of appeal. The few dissident candidates who ran for election reported the government organized protests and town hall meetings to slander their names. The government routinely used propaganda campaigns in the state-owned media to criticize its opponents. Numerous opposition candidates were physically prevented from presenting their candidacies or otherwise intimidated from participating in the electoral process.

On February 24, a national referendum nominally approved a new constitution drafted without public input or debate, although there were several months of controlled public consultation. The independent journalism organization CubaData estimated more than 45 percent of citizens did not participate in the government-controlled consultation process. Some members of independent civil society alleged the official number of public consultations was grossly exaggerated and were not designed to gather public comments, and that some citizens who spoke up or criticized the constitutional draft during this consultation period were harassed. In the weeks preceding the constitutional referendum, there was a sharp increase in repression against those who peacefully opposed the new draft constitution, especially targeting those who advocated abstaining or voting “No,” despite an article of the constitution providing that “sovereignty resides nontransferably with the people…”

The new constitution includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the CCP as the state’s only legal political party and the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” For example, Article 4 states, “Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat when other means are not available, anyone who intends to overthrow the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Because the CCP and its ideology are so entrenched in the document, the article effectively empowers ordinary persons to violently attack those who publicly disagree with the party.

Citizens who live abroad without a registered place of abode on the island lose their right to vote.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s representation increased slightly from previous years in the most powerful decision-making bodies; women held no senior positions in the military leadership.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, and the government was highly sensitive to corruption allegations and often conducted anticorruption crackdowns.

Corruption: The law provides for three to eight years’ imprisonment for “illegal enrichment” by authorities or government employees. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of law enforcement and other official corruption in enforcement of myriad economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently siphoned fuel from government stocks for sale on the black market. As of the end of June, there were 339 criminal proceedings related to fuel theft, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Multiple sources reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owner’s belongings or sought bribes in place of fines or arrests.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require appointed and elected officials to disclose their assets.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. On February 3, voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Free and fair municipal and legislative elections took place in 2018.

The National Civilian Police (PNC), overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and the Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the PNC. In 2016 then president Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties, a presidential order in place since 1996. Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; arbitrary arrest and detention by the PNC; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was inconsistently addressed by authorities; security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take over all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Allegations continued that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing certain policies. On September 6, President Bukele’s press and communications staff banned journalists of digital newspapers El Faro and Factum Magazine from a press conference in which President Bukele announced the launch of the Salvadoran Commission Against Corruption and Impunity (CICIES). The Bukele administration stated that journalists from both outlets had acted improperly in past press conferences, including shouting questions at speakers and behaving disrespectfully toward staff. On September 11, Factum Magazine journalist Rodrigo Baires was denied entry to a press conference at the same location. The refusals to admit journalists to presidential press conferences drew widespread criticism and concern regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the press, including by the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), and Committee to Protect Journalism. Following the criticism, a Factum Magazine reporter was allowed to attend and ask questions at a September 12 presidential press conference.

Violence and Harassment: On July 3, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported on the rise of cyber intimidation and attacks against journalists. APES specifically criticized President Bukele for seeking to intimidate journalists Mariana Belloso and Roxana Sandoval. After they criticized the Bukele administration, accounts on social media associated with Bukele supporters targeted Belloso and Sandoval with insults, intimidation, threats, and attempts to discredit their work.

As of August 22, the PDDH had received six complaints of violence against journalists by government officials. APES reported 77 cases of aggressions against journalists during the year, an increase of 18 percent over the 65 cases reported in 2018.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of journalists from El Faro and Factum Magazine from President Bukele’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, except with respect to labor unions (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not guarantee freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs (MS-13 and two factions of 18th Street) controlled their own territory. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or not allowed to enter the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

As of October 22, the Attorney General’s Office had filed 1,515 new cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, an increase from the 920 new cases brought in the same period 2018. The Attorney General’s Office reported 50 convictions for such charges through October 22, compared with 13 through October 22, 2018.

As of August the PDDH reported 148 complaints of forced displacement, 28 of which arose from the same incident. Nearly all of the complaints were from gang-controlled territories, with 84 cases from San Salvador, although in three cases, the complaint alleged the PNC caused the displacement. As of October 2018, the government acknowledged that 1.1 percent of the general population (approximately 68,060 persons) was internally displaced. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there were 71,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reported the causes of internal displacement included abuse, extortion, discrimination, and threats.

As of October 24, the Legislative Assembly had failed to pass court-ordered legislation addressing internal displacement by no later than January 2019. In July 2018 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the constitution by not recognizing forced displacement or providing sufficient aid to IDPs. The court also called on the government to retake control of gang territories, develop protection protocols for victims, and uphold international standards for protecting victims.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, including an established system for providing protection to refugees. Between January 1 and August 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received 10 asylum petitions, compared with 31 refugee/asylum claims in 2018.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: The most recent presidential election occurred on February 3. Nayib Bukele, of the center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, was elected to a five-year term. The election reports published by the OAS and the EU electoral mission noted the election generally met international standards.

While the law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, the provision lacked consistent enforcement.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, impunity remained endemic, with courts issuing inconsistent rulings and failing, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.

On September 6, President Bukele launched CICIES to combat corruption and impunity. Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill and OAS Strategic Counsel Luis Porto signed a Letter of Intent to create the commission. The letter stated that the parties would sign a formal agreement within three months. The letter focused on strengthening the judiciary and Attorney General’s Office and creating a special anticorruption unit under the PNC. The letter promised that CICIES and the OAS would coordinate with local judicial institutions in creating guidelines for selecting cases. In Bukele’s announcement, he noted that CICIES would be financed with assistance from the OAS and other international organizations. As of October 29, there was an anticipated cost of $15 million and OAS was asking for funding, but no other details had been confirmed. In November the OAS reported that CICIES had established a headquarters in the country.

Corruption: In January the Supreme Court issued an order limiting its Probity Section investigations of public officials to those who had left public office within the last 10 years. On May 6, Factum Magazine published an article underlining that, due to this decision, 79 cases were due to expire on May 31. According to Factum, in four of these, the Probity Section had already completed the investigation, and it required only a decision from the Supreme Court. The four investigations involved former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) legislator Sigfrido Reyes; GANA legislator Guillermo Gallegos (regarding actions taken in 2006-09); former vice president Oscar Ortiz, when he served as FMLN legislator in 1994 and 1997; and also of Ortiz when he served as Santa Tecla mayor in 2006 and 2009. As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened six illicit enrichment cases against public officers.

On June 20, the Attorney General’s Office filed a corruption complaint against Rafael Hernan Contreras, former chief of the Court of Accounts, one of the six agencies that oversees corruption investigations and cases. According to the attorney general, Contreras issued a false document that certified former president Antonio Saca, serving 10 years in prison for misappropriating more than $300 million, had managed funds effectively during his presidency. Saca still faced charges for bribing a judicial official for access to information. Six other officials from the Saca administration also received prison sentences in September 2018 for misappropriating public funds while in government.

In December 2018 a judge sentenced former attorney general Luis Martinez (2012-15) to five years in prison and ordered him to pay $125,000 in restitution on corruption-related charges of purposely and unlawfully disclosing recordings obtained in a wiretap investigation. In 2016 Martinez was fined $8,000 by the Government Ethics Tribunal for inappropriately accepting gifts from businessman Enrique Rais. Martinez faced a number of pending corruption charges, including allegations he took bribes from former president Mauricio Funes, who received citizenship from Nicaragua in July after fleeing corruption charges in El Salvador.

The Attorney General’s Office reportedly investigated past misuse of a presidential discretionary fund, established in 1989 and used by six presidents, to fund the national intelligence service. The fund, totaling one billion dollars since the accounts’ inception, had never been audited by the Court of Accounts. Former presidents Saca and Funes allegedly misappropriated more than $650 million from this fund during their terms in office.

As of September 16, the Ethics Tribunal reported that between September 2018 and August 21, it had opened 438 administrative proceedings against 426 public officials. During that same period, the tribunal imposed fines against 41 sitting and former public officials. As of September 3, the Attorney General’s Office had filed claims against three judges for committing crimes involving corruption or for violating public administration laws.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The law establishes fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (that is, proximity to the statute of limitations); relevance of the official’s position; and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a new position. In August the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 8,974 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years. This included 16 legislators who took office in May 2018 and who had failed to present their assets reports by June 30, 2019.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. In 2016 James Ernesto Morales Cabrera of the National Convergence Front party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. On August 11, Alejandro Giammattei was elected president for a four-year term set to begin on January 14, 2020. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2019 as generally free and fair.

The National Civil Police (PNC), which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the minister, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country. The Ministry of National Defense oversees the military, which focuses primarily on operations in defense of the country, but the government also used the army in internal security and policing as permitted by the constitution. The defense ministry completed its drawdown of 4,500 personnel from street patrols to concentrate its forces on the borders in 2018. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; substantial problems with the independence of the judiciary, including malicious litigation and irregularities in the judicial selection process; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, persons with disabilities, and members of other minority groups; and use of forced or compulsory or child labor.

Corruption and inadequate investigations made prosecution difficult. The government was criticized by civil society for refusing to renew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala’s (CICIG) mandate, which expired on September 3. Impunity continued to be widespread for ongoing human rights abuses, endemic government corruption, and for mass atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict.

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, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of and violence against journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.

Freedom of Expression: On March 21, a court dismissed a case in which President Morales filed a criminal complaint against social activist Roberto Rimola. Morales accused Rimola of defamation and insult after Rimola verbally insulted him. The court ruled that insulting leaders of the three branches of government could not be considered a crime due to limitations to freedom of expression. Morales appealed the court decision and attended a May 29 hearing in court. As of October 1, the case remained open, and a lower court declared the case must be judged specifically under the freedom of expression act, normally reserved for cases involving journalists.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nonetheless, reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families. Public security forces continued imposing more stringent identification checks on journalists covering government events and activities, a practice initiated in August 2018.

On May 9, presidential candidate Sandra Torres filed a criminal complaint against the daily newspaper elPeriodico after it published several editorials against her. Torres based her lawsuit on the law against femicide and violence against women for attempted violation of her physical and psychological integrity. On May 13, she tried to rescind the lawsuit, but the femicide law does not permit withdrawal of cases, and consequently the Public Ministry must conclude an investigation.

Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking of journalists’ private accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press. On May 20, a blog page appeared against Henry Bin, journalist for the radio and weekend television program ConCriterio, and several other independent journalists, alleging Bin was gay and engaged in pedophilia and child pornography. Several attacks against journalists in April and May included videos alleging various forms of corruption and immorality by journalists Juan Luis Font, Claudia Mendez, and Pedro Trujillo.

Members of the press continued to report threats and violence from public officials and criminal organizations, which impaired the practice of free and open journalism. The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a voluntary commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Public Ministry, 51 complaints were filed for attacks or threats against journalists; none were killed by the end of August, compared with two killings in 2018.

On June 4, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez of High-Risk Court B found sufficient cause to bring to trial the case of Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez, accused of ordering the killing of journalist Danilo Efrain Zapon Lopez in 2015 in Mazatenango, Suchitepequez Department.

The Public Ministry employed a unit dedicated to the investigation of threats and attacks against journalists, but the NGO Center for Reporting in Guatemala noted it had few prosecutions.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Human rights defenders, as well as judges and lawyers on high-profile cases, reported social media attacks, including the hacking of their private accounts, publishing of stolen or falsified personal information, publishing of photographic surveillance of them and family members, and online defamation and hate speech. The government took little action to protect these individuals.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, with a few exceptions. On September 4, in response to the killing of three soldiers in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal Department, President Morales declared a state of siege in 22 municipalities across five departments. Congress ratified the measure, which limited the freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and the right to protest for more than one million citizens living in the area under siege. The president and congress renewed the state of siege for a second 30-day period ending on November 4.

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above. There were reports, however, of significant barriers to organizing in the labor sector (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The state of siege in Izabal and parts of four other departments temporarily limited rights to freedom of movement (see section 2.b.).

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and strengthened its efforts to monitor the problem and provide assistance to the displaced. The country does not officially recognize the existence of IDPs within its borders, with the exception of those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights characterized as IDPs 400 farmers the government evicted from the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2017. Media and civil society groups reported the evictees did not receive adequate government assistance and continued to struggle with poverty and landlessness.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The laws provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate. Migration authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status. The government and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding, published on September 4, to significantly strengthen the asylum and protection system and increase capacity to process asylum seekers.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported access to education for refugees was difficult due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage for those ages 18 and older. Members of the armed forces, police, and incarcerated individuals are not eligible to vote.

Recent Elections: In August, Alejandro Giammattei of the VAMOS for a Different Guatemala party defeated National Unity of Hope candidate Sandra Torres in a second round of voting and was to be sworn in as president in January 2020. The Organization of American States and other international observers found some irregularities in the electoral process, but none were significant enough to discredit the legitimacy and validity of the elections. During the presidential campaign, however, two of the top candidates in the polls were disqualified from being placed on the ballot. Zury Rios, daughter of former president Efrain Rios Montt, and Thelma Aldana, former attorney general, both claimed the rulings against them were politically motivated. The Attorney General’s Office continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections, including a case against Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope party.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Traditional and cultural practices, in addition to discrimination and institutional bias, however, limited the political participation of women and members of indigenous groups.

There was one woman serving in the 13-member cabinet, 30 in the 158-member Congress, and 10 among the 340 municipal mayors. While the indigenous population constituted an estimated 43 percent of the population, according to the 2018 government census, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous member on the Constitutional Court and one on the Supreme Court. There were approximately 18 indigenous members of Congress, of whom two were women. Indigenous individuals composed a larger share of elected local government officials, filling approximately one-third (113 of 333) of the mayoral seats elected in 2015.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, many of which the Public Ministry, with support from CICIG, investigated and prosecuted on charges including money laundering, illegal political party financing, and bribery.

Corruption: On July 16, the Public Ministry brought charges against more than 50 persons, including 10 members of Congress, for receiving kickbacks from construction and medical supply procurement and for awarding public jobs by irregular means. Those charged included a former presidential candidate and a former minister of health. Charges included the acceptance of bribes for hospital construction after the 2012 earthquake in the western region, the acceptance of bribes in the purchase of unnecessary medical equipment, and the creation of phantom positions at the Ministry of Health. The case continued in the pretrial stage, and some of the accused remained at large.

In the Odebrecht case, involving bribes allegedly paid to former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon and former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, on July 23, High Risk Court A sentenced three persons close to Baldizon and Sinibaldi to six years in prison for money laundering, and two of them to an additional eight years for illicit association. Baldizon continued to be detained in the United States on an international arrest warrant on separate money laundering and conspiracy charges. Sinibaldi remained a fugitive and was implicated in another case of bribery and influence peddling linked to former president Otto Perez Molina’s administration.

The government was criticized by civil society for refusing to renew CICIG’s mandate, which expired on September 3. Despite the government’s request for CICIG to transfer capacity to the Public Ministry by the end its mandate, many in civil society believed the Public Ministry did not yet have the capacity to investigate corruption cases on its own and the decision to terminate CICIG’s mandate was made for political reasons. At the end of CICIG’s mandate, it had a public approval rating of approximately 70 percent.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials who earn more than 8,000 quetzals ($1,040) per month or who manage public funds are subject to financial disclosure laws overseen and enforced by the Comptroller General’s Office. The financial disclosures were available to the public upon request. Administrative and criminal sanctions apply for inadequate or falsified disclosures of assets.

Honduras

Executive Summary

Honduras is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country last held national and local elections in November 2017. Voters elected Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party as president for a four-year term beginning January 2018. International observers generally recognized the elections as free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results.

The Honduran National Police (HNP) maintain internal security and report to the Secretariat of Security. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities in a supporting role to the HNP and other civilian authorities. Some larger cities have police forces that operate independently of the HNP and report to municipal authorities. The Military Police of Public Order (PMOP) report to military authorities but conduct operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. The National Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA) coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the HNP, PMOP, National Intelligence Directorate, Public Ministry, and national court system. Although FUSINA reports to the National Security and Defense Council, it did not have an effective command and control infrastructure. As a result, civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; killings of and threats to media members by criminal elements; criminalization of libel, although no cases were reported; widespread government corruption; and threats and violence against indigenous, Afro-descendent communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

The government continued to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but a weak judicial system and corruption were major obstacles to gaining convictions.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against human rights defenders, judicial authorities, lawyers, the business community, journalists, bloggers, women, and members of vulnerable populations. The government investigated and prosecuted many of these crimes, particularly through the HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force.

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, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected this right. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.

Freedom of Expression: The law includes a provision to punish persons who directly or through public media incite discrimination, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.

Violence and Harassment: There were continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists, media figures, and bloggers. On March 17, a gunman shot and killed journalist Gabriel Hernandez in Nacome, Valle Department. Hernandez directed the television program The People Speak, where he discussed social issues and local politics. As of December the Secretariat of Human Rights had no information regarding an investigation or arrest in the case. In June a court found 12 members of the 18th Street gang guilty for their connections to the 2017 murder of Igor Padilla, a television journalist with the network HCH.

Government officials at all levels publicly denounced violence and threats of violence against media members and social communicators. It was usually unclear whether violence and threats against journalists were linked to their work or were products of generalized violence.

The government allocated a budget of nearly 25 million lempiras (one million dollars) for the continued operation of a protection mechanism that included provision of protection to journalists. By August it had provided protection to 39 journalists, among other types of activists and human rights defenders. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concern about weak implementation of the law and limited resources available to operate the government’s protection mechanism. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the government’s failure to investigate threats adequately.

The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including journalists (as well as judges, human rights activists, and members of the LGBTI community). As of September the task force had submitted 17 cases to the Public Ministry, arrested 24 persons, and obtained four convictions.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media members and NGOs stated the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized crime or corrupt government officials.

Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, may initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander. No cases were reported during the year.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized crime. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism. Several anonymous social media sites, possibly linked to political parties, criticized journalists (as well as activists and civil society organizations) who were critical of the government or opposition party policies.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but in contrast with 2018, there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires a judge to issue an eviction order for individuals occupying public and private property if security forces have not evicted the individuals within a specified period of the occupation. Some local and international civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, political parties, and indigenous rights groups, alleged that members of the security forces used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The IACHR reported that the government at times used a policy of arbitrary detentions or arrests to inhibit protest.

On June 19, a soldier allegedly killed Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga, a 17-year-old student, in Yarumela, La Paz, where a road had been blocked during a protest earlier that day. On September 19, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life and ATIC arrested Adan Garcia Banegas, a member of the armed forces, for his alleged role in Maradiaga’s death. The Secretariat of Defense’s Human Rights Division worked with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the June 19 incident, which occurred in the context of widespread unrest in the country.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits illicit association, defined as gatherings by persons bearing arms, explosive devices, or dangerous objects with the purpose of committing a crime, and prescribes prison terms of two to four years and a fine of 30,000 to 60,000 lempiras ($1,200 to $2,400) for anyone who convokes or directs an illicit meeting or demonstration. There were no reports of such cases during the year, although authorities charged some protesters with sedition. Public-sector unions expressed concern over some officials refusing to honor bargaining agreements and firing union leaders. The law prohibits police from unionizing (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: There were areas where authorities could not assure freedom of movement because of criminal activity and a lack of significant government presence.

In 2018 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated there were approximately 191,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Internal displacement was generally caused by violence, national and transnational gang activity, and human trafficking. Official data on forced internal displacement was limited in part because gangs controlled many of the neighborhoods that were sources of internal displacement (see section 6, Displaced Children).

The government maintained the Interinstitutional Commission for the Protection of People Displaced by Violence and created the Directorate for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence within the Secretariat of Human Rights. Both the ministry and the commission focused on developing policies to address IDPs. Under the Regional Integral Framework for Protection and Solutions, the government continued to strengthen its capacity to provide services to key population groups, including refugees and returned migrants, through 14 commitments and 28 specific actions between 2018 and 2020. As of November 14, the government had implemented 15 of the 28 actions to promote the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Transiting migrants were vulnerable to abuse by criminal organizations. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has a nascent system to provide protection to refugees, the effectiveness of which had not been fully proven by year’s end, but at times there were delays in processing provisional permits for asylum applicants.

Not Applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the right to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage. The law does not permit active members of the military or civilian security forces to vote. The constitution prohibits practicing clergy from running for office or participating in political campaigns.

Recent Elections: In December 2017 Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party was declared the winner in the November elections. International observers generally agreed the elections were free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results. The Organization of American States (OAS) and EU observer teams agreed that the margin of victory separating incumbent president Hernandez from challenger Salvador Nasralla was extremely narrow. The OAS mission found that the 1.5 percent margin of victory, combined with numerous irregularities in vote processing, left it unable to state with certainty who won the presidential election. The EU mission agreed there were serious irregularities in the process but concluded that safeguards built into the system, including posting of voting results forms on a public website, helped promote transparency. NGOs reported irregularities, including problems with voter rolls, buying and selling of electoral workers’ credentials, and lack of transparency in campaign financing.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Civil society and opposition parties accused officials of using government resources to attract voters.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women, however, suffered political violence, which ranged from harassment for voting against party lines to receiving death threats for their political participation. Women held 22 percent of seats in the National Congress, and fewer women participated in regional and local politics.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but authorities did not implement the law effectively, and officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government took steps to address corruption at high levels in government agencies, including arresting and charging members of congress, judges, prosecutors, sitting and former senior officials, mayors and other local authorities, and police officers. Anticorruption efforts continued to lag and remained an area of concern, as well as the government’s ability to protect justice operators, such as prosecutors and judges.

In 2016 the OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) began collaborating with the judiciary, the Public Ministry, and other institutions to prevent and investigate acts of corruption. Prompted by MACCIH’s work, the Public Ministry created an anticorruption unit (UFECIC) that undertook cases for investigation, including 13 major cases in conjunction with MACCIH. MACCIH assisted the Supreme Court with the establishment of an anticorruption court with national jurisdiction.

Corruption: As of October UFECIC, in collaboration with MACCIH, had presented 13 case investigations, including against former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, spouse of former president Porfirio Lobo, which resulted in her conviction in August on fraud and misappropriation of public funds and a sentence of 58 years in prison. Several cases involved accusations against members of congress, such as the fe de erratas (erratum) case against two members of congress accused of altering legislation and the Network of Congresspersons case, in which five officials were accused of diverting public funds. In March, UFECIC presented two cases to the anticorruption court related to hydroelectric projects, Patuca III Collusion and Corruption and Fraud in el Gualcarque. The latter was based on multiple reports of irregularities in hydroelectric projects managed by the company DESA, presented by the deceased environmental defender Berta Caceres and involving David Castillo, accused of being one of the alleged intellectual authors in Caceres’ killing. In May UFECIC presented a case referred to as Narcopolitics, which accused 12 citizens of being part of a money-laundering scheme that moved funds from international drug trafficking through large-scale public works projects contracted by the government, most of which were never carried out. The son of former president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was serving a prison sentence in the United States, was named in this case.

During the year the National Anticorruption Council (CNA) presented eight high-profile cases to the Public Ministry, citing several public administration and elected officials and relatives of former presidents. In February the CNA presented a case against former president Lobo and former Central Bank president Wilfredo Cerrato for violation of the duties of public servants and embezzlement of public funds. Following the announcements of these cases, the CNA reported being the target of harassment campaigns and threats.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to a financial disclosure law but did not always comply. The law mandates that the Supreme Auditing Tribunal monitor and verify disclosures. The tribunal published its reports on its website and cited the names of public officials who did not comply with the disclosure law.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

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.

The former Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The former regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted former Maduro regime authorities in locating users.

The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that in the first six months of the year, private and regime-controlled internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to 48 webpages. Seventy percent of the censored domains during this period belonged to social media platforms and news outlets, including NTN24, VIVOplay, El Pitazo, VPItv, El Nacional, Aporrea, and Noticia al dia.

CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the former Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the former regime’s official rate. The former regime-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. According to Reporters Without Borders, on January 21, shortly after an attempted uprising by a military unit in Zulia State that was widely covered on social networks and by online media outlets, there were several internet cuts in the region, affecting YouTube and Google Search users in particular, combined with restrictions on access to Twitter and Instagram. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Periscope services were all temporarily blocked, according to NetBlocks.

Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the former regime, and senior former Maduro regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused for actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.

In February proregime Twitter accounts published a database of opposition sympathizers’ personal data, which was the result of a former regime-linked phishing operation.

There were no substantiated reports of former Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the former regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the former regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.

The former Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.

In August the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulates that the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and said it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers at the heads of universities.

The former regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria (homeland card), a regime-issued social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for this right, but the former Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the former regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the former regime to criminalize organizations that were critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the former regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support Interim President Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 10,477 protests in the first six months of the year, more than double the number in the same period of 2018. According to the OHCHR, between January and May, a total of 66 persons died during protests; some of these incidents were marked by an alleged excessive use of force by FAES, the GNB, PNB, and armed colectivos. Security forces detained more than 1,300 persons during protests between January and May, according to Foro Penal.

During a July 2 protest in Tachira State, 16-year-old Rufo Chacon was blinded after police forces fired 52 rubber pellets at his face. According to media reports, a police investigation found that security forces moved to repress the protest without warning when they fired rubber bullets into the crowd. Former Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab announced that authorities charged two police officers with cruel treatment in the case.

The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.

A 2016 presidential decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights.

On February 22, the former regime closed its borders with Aruba, Brazil, and Colombia to prevent the entry of international aid. Media reported the borders with Aruba and Brazil were reopened on May 10 and partially reopened with Colombia one month later.

In July the former Maduro regime announced the deployment of a special migration police unit in Tachira State, on the border with Colombia. Although some NGOs expressed concern the former regime would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the former regime asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The former regime declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed in-country migration crisis.

Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia, with particular violence perpetrated by colectivos against Tachira State citizens in late February.

While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women. NGOs reported Venezuelans crossing through informal border crossings controlled by armed groups faced significant protection risks, including gender-based violence. Individuals were often forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing or be indebted to those controlling them, exposing them to risks of exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence, as well as recruitment into drug trafficking and other armed groups.

See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

In-country Movement: The former regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on former regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.

Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The former regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.

Exile: In contrast with 2018, there were no cases of citizens denied the right to return.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.

The former regime did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.

Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Former regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In June CONARE announced the creation of a new border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.

Not applicable.

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.

Recent Elections: In May 2018 the CNE oversaw deeply flawed presidential elections condemned by the political opposition and international observers as fraudulent and constitutionally invalid. In December 2018 the CNE oversaw deeply flawed municipal elections, which featured very low turnout due to voter apathy.

Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate second term as president began on January 10, in what the opposition called a “usurpation of power.” On January 23, National Assembly (AN) president Juan Guaido invoked Article 233 of the constitution, which calls on the AN president to assume the role of interim president in the event of presidential vacancy. Opposition parties backed Guaido throughout the year, and in September they endorsed him to remain as AN head in 2020 and as interim president until the former regime’s usurpation of power ends.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties and PSUV dissidents operated in an increasingly restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access.

The former Maduro regime regularly targeted the AN and other opposition politicians through violence or threats of violence, arbitrary arrest, politically motivated prosecution, violation of privacy, and restrictions on movement. On October 17, the body of opposition councilman Edmundo Rada was found shot in the neck and partially burned, recalling a similar killing of opposition former Cojedes governor Jhonny Yanez Rangel, whom the CICPC found shot in the face in his burned-out car on September 24. Throughout the year GNB forces denied or limited access by AN members to the federal legislative palace during regularly scheduled parliamentary sessions. As of September the regime-controlled TSJ had removed the parliamentary immunity of 24 deputies, prompting many to go into hiding or exile to avoid arbitrary arrest.

On May 8, SEBIN agents detained AN first vice president Edgar Zambrano, towing the lawmaker’s car with him inside to SEBIN headquarters. During his detention Zambrano engaged in a 10-day hunger strike to protest for humane conditions, visitation rights, and the release of four detained staff members. Following months of judicial delays, the former regime released Zambrano on September 18, although his support staff remain imprisoned. Zambrano remained subject to unspecified “precautionary measures,” including the requirement that he appear before a judge every 30 days and not leave the country.

During the year the former Maduro regime expanded the carnet de la patria program, introduced in 2017 as a multipurpose identification card, as a requirement to access former regime-funded social services. Cardholders were reportedly granted financial bonuses and exclusive access to educational scholarships, subsidized food and gasoline, and other government support. According to the former Maduro regime, as of September more than 18.5 million of an estimated 28.5 million residents had registered for the card. To qualify for the card, applicants must provide proof of political affiliation and respond to questions regarding the social service benefits they receive. Opponents of Maduro asserted the card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No law limits participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The former regime had high-level female politicians and ministers, while the opposition lacked high-level female and minority representation.

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.

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