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Venezuela

Executive Summary

While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the illegitimate authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over the executive, judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and stood up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, 2019, Maduro’s constitutional term as president ended, but he refused to cede control based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections, which were widely condemned as neither free nor fair. On January 23, 2019, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Maduro, with the backing 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 despite his constitutional mandate. On December 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and nearly 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.

Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with Venezuelans, the illegitimate Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The National Guard–a branch of the military that reports to 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, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, 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 reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national police maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. Members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a UN report concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that government authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the illegitimate Maduro regime and colectivos; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; and unlawful interference with privacy. The regime imposed serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The regime essentially criminalized freedom of speech by declaring reporting unfavorable to its policies as libel and slander, incitement to violence, or terrorism, including accurate reporting regarding COVID-19 infection rates. The illegitimate Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly. The regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property and that of other nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Citizens were unable to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, and there were restrictions on political participation as well as intimidation, harassment, and abuse of National Assembly members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity. Pervasive corruption and impunity continued among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels, which the illegitimate regime made minimal efforts to eliminate. Other significant issues included trafficking in persons, including forced labor; violence against indigenous persons; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The illegitimate regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The illegitimate Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 351 political prisoners in regime custody as of December 28, compared with 388 political prisoners at the end of 2019. The regime routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.

On August 31, the illegitimate Maduro regime announced the “pardon” of 110 political prisoners. These pardons were conditional, with regime officials threatening to rescind the benefit if any individuals “return to any act of terrorism, violence, or coup mongering,” as arbitrarily determined by the regime. According to Foro Penal, however, only 50 of those named were in regime custody at the time. Of the prisoners, 23 had already been released, and the remaining 37 were AN deputies either in exile, in foreign embassy asylum in Caracas, or facing prosecution. Media and NGOs noted that since most on the list were not duly convicted or even charged with any crime, the move was a dismissal rather than a pardon. The list did not include any members of the military, although they represented 20 percent of political prisoners, according to Foro Penal. On September 7, regime attorney general Tarek William Saab encouraged the released detainees to participate in the December 6 parliamentary elections, but he warned they would be rearrested if found to have committed additional “crimes.”

On March 15, SEBIN officers arrested AN deputy Tony Geara. Geara was charged with financing terrorism and weapons trafficking after he posted comments on social media noting that a local hospital did not have running water. Media reported in August that Geara tested positive for COVID-19 while in SEBIN custody in Bolivar State. On August 31, Geara was released.

On August 28, AN deputy Juan Requesens was released to house arrest after being detained for more than two years for his alleged involvement in an attempted assassination of Maduro. International observers criticized irregularities in Requesens’ trial, which was marred by lengthy judicial delays as well as a lack of transparency and legal due process.

On October 14, opposition party leader Leopoldo Lopez fled to Spain after more than one year inside the Spanish embassy in Caracas. He previously escaped house arrest during mass demonstrations in April 2019, and in May 2019 the illegitimate Maduro regime issued a warrant for his arrest. Lopez was notably not included in the August 31 “pardon” of political prisoners.

In 2017 the head of state-owned oil company PDVSA summoned six executives of U.S.-based subsidiary CITGO to Venezuela for an emergency budget meeting: U.S. citizens Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, and Jose Luis Zambrano and U.S. Legal Permanent Resident Jose Angel Pereira (collectively known as the CITGO-6). Upon their arrival in Caracas, they were detained by masked security agents; charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and criminal association for an alleged deal they signed to restructure CITGO bonds; and confined in one of the country’s most dangerous prisons. After their initial appearance before a judge was cancelled dozens of times during three years, the trial of the six began in August. On November 21, they were convicted and sentenced as soon as closing arguments concluded to terms of eight to 13 years in prison. Their cases were marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. The illegitimate regime denied media and human rights groups access to the trial.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports that the illegitimate Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On October 22, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Ivan Simonovis, former political prisoner and sitting interim government commissioner for security. The regime charged Simonovis with the attempted murder of Maduro, treason, terrorism, and weapons trafficking. Simonovis escaped from house arrest in May 2019 and fled the country.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the illegitimate regime generally failed to respect these prohibitions. In many cases, particularly regarding the political opposition, regime-aligned authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, or interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted both politically motivated and indiscriminate household raids. Throughout the year media reports documented raids by security forces on the homes of opposition party politicians and their relatives.

State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. In February 2019 the interim government created a website for volunteers to participate in the delivery of international humanitarian aid. CANTV manipulated the Domain Name System to redirect visitors to a fake website registered to CONATEL that was designed to phish visitors’ personal information. Further, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the government in monitoring communications of political opponents. Technical attacks against media outlets appeared to be linked to the armed forces.

China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation), provided the government with the technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an identity card called carnet de la patria (homeland card). To force citizens to comply, the Maduro regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, and subsidized fuel. Citizens essentially had no choice but to obtain and use the card despite the known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China National Electronics Import-Export Company were also supporting financially and technologically these surveillance methods.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the illegitimate 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 regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allows the illegitimate regime to criminalize organizations critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the 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 (OVCS) documented 4,414 protests in the first six months of the year, 221 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The OVCS documented 129 detentions, 62 injured, and two deaths during protests. An OHCHR investigation found three cases of torture and a sexual assault of protesters committed on May 20 by regime security forces in Lara State. Media reported a group of armed colectivos attacked protesters and journalists gathered at a protest convened on February 29 by interim president Guaido in Lara State.

NGOs and opposition deputies expressed concern that the illegitimate Maduro regime used quarantine restrictions as a form of social control to criminalize protests and silence critics. On May 23, FAES officers arrested Giovanny Meza and four others during a protest in Sucre State to demand water and electricity. Meza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had a seizure during his hearing. When the judge ordered a medical examination, doctors found that Meza showed signs of torture, including five broken ribs. Meza was charged with instigation to commit a crime, obstruction of public roads, possession of incendiary objects, and criminal association.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the illegitimate 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 directed the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” the funding was used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”

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, unconstitutional appointments of electors, and harassment and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the 2018 presidential and municipal elections as well as the 2020 legislative elections.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate second term as president began on January 10, 2019, following flawed presidential elections in 2018 condemned by the political opposition and international observers as fraudulent and constitutionally invalid. On January 23, 2019, 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. In December 2019 media and AN deputies reported a campaign by the illegitimate Maduro regime to intimidate and bribe opposition lawmakers to break the opposition’s majority in the AN. On January 5, the GNB forcibly barred interim president Guaido and opposition deputies from entering the Federal Legislative Palace to elect the AN leadership for 2020. PSUV deputies and a small group of independent deputies aligned with the regime proclaimed Luis Parra, a deputy tainted by corruption allegations, head of the AN despite the lack of a quorum. Opposition deputies proceeded to meet at the headquarters of newspaper El Nacional, where they elected Guaido AN president with 100 votes in favor and zero against, a clear majority of the 167-member legislature. On May 26, the TSJ issued a ruling declaring Parra the president of the AN and Guaido “in contempt.”

On June 12, the TSJ unilaterally announced the appointment of a new CNE. Opposition deputies denounced the move, noting it was AN’s constitutional role to manage the selection process and election of the five-member CNE through a two-thirds majority vote in the AN. The CNE announced two changes to electoral law on June 30: increasing the number of AN deputies from 167 to 277, in violation of article 186 of the constitution; and increasing the number of deputies elected by political parties, rather than directly by voters, to more than half of all seats, which violates the 2009 Organic Electoral Law.

On December 6, the illegitimate regime conducted fraudulent legislative elections that did not meet any minimum standard of credibility. The regime usurped the TSJ’s legislative powers and illegally appointed members to the CNE; hijacked political parties through the theft of their brand name, assets, and ballot logos, including those from the left that challenged the regime’s control of Chavez’s political legacy; prohibited many political opponents of the regime from running for office and stripped them of their political rights; kidnapped, exiled, and tortured opposition politicians; suppressed indigenous political representation; and arbitrarily increased the number of seats in the AN from 167 to 277. As a result, electoral and constitutional experts, most independent political parties, and civil society organizations rejected the process.

The interim government utilized a provision in the constitution to hold a public referendum, the Consulta Popular, on December 7-12. The Consulta Popular’s questions focused on rejecting the illegitimate regime’s December 6 farce and restoring democracy through free and fair presidential and legislative elections. Participation was open to both citizens in the country and abroad, who could vote via a secure online platform. In-person voting was also available within the country.

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 illegitimate Maduro regime regularly targeted AN deputies and other opposition politicians and their relatives through violence or threats of violence, arbitrary arrest, politically motivated prosecution, violation of privacy, and restrictions on movement. Interim president Guaido returned to Caracas from an international trip on February 11, in defiance of a travel ban on him imposed by the illegitimate Maduro regime. As he made his way through the airport, Guaido and his entourage were harassed by regime supporters. Regime security forces and colectivos detained, assaulted, and seized the vehicles of AN deputies and journalists attempting to make their way to the airport for Guaido’s arrival. The DGCIM detained Juan Jose Marquez, Guaido’s uncle and an airline pilot who accompanied Guaido on his return flight, charging him with attempted smuggling of explosives, bulletproof vests, and subversive material into the country. AN and international organizations rejected the accusation, calling Marquez’ arbitrary arrest an attempt to intimidate Guaido. Marquez was released to house arrest on June 2.

Between March 26 and April 2, security forces aligned with the illegitimate Maduro regime arbitrarily arrested four Guaido staffers and the girlfriend of a fifth staffer, whom they beat, stripped naked, and threatened with sexual abuse.

On April 30, Maduro announced operations “Tun-Tun” and “Bolivarian Fury” to arrest those involved in an alleged plot to overthrow Maduro. Illegitimate regime-sponsored colectivos responded to the call by harassing and intimidating AN deputies, journalists, and their family members by sending threatening text messages and spray-painting their homes.

The illegitimate Maduro regime used its control over the TSJ to coopt or dismantle political parties not aligned with the regime. On May 25, regime attorney general Tarek William Saab requested that the TSJ declare opposition party Popular Will, Guaido’s former party, a “criminal organization for terrorist purposes.” During the year the TSJ unilaterally replaced the leadership of 11 political parties, including three of the largest opposition parties and four leftist parties that broke with the regime.

Throughout the year GNB forces denied or limited access by AN members to the federal legislative palace during regularly scheduled parliamentary sessions. By June the regime-controlled TSJ had removed the parliamentary immunity of 29 deputies, without following constitutional requirements or due process, prompting many to go into hiding or exile to avoid arbitrary arrest.

During the year the illegitimate Maduro regime expanded the carnet de la patria program, introduced in 2017 as a multipurpose identification card required to access regime-funded social services. To qualify for the card, applicants must provide proof of political affiliation and respond to questions regarding the social service benefits they receive. The card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty. For example, media reported the regime used the card to prioritize testing and distribute medical and financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women or members of minority groups 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, but the illegitimate Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The illegitimate 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 illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, 1,741 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 were no data publicly available on 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. On April 10, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published an investigative report detailing corruption in the military. Using a cache of internal army documents, the report documented the exploits of illegitimate regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, his businesses in a foreign country under the names of his family members, and 35 high-ranking officers who benefited from corruption and lucrative state contracts.

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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