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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 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, slander, 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 illegitimate Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The law makes conviction of 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 Constituent National Assembly (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 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. Conviction of exposing another person to public contempt or hatred is punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. Espacio Publico reported 795 violations of freedom of expression, including 135 arrests, between January and August.

The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic. Espacio Publico documented at least 59 arrests by September for COVID-19 coverage.

On March 17, the DGCIM detained medical doctor Ruben Duarte for publishing a video deploring the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the San Cristobal Central Hospital. In August the NGO United Doctors for Venezuela reported at least 12 health-care workers were arrested for demanding PPE. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals, who feared for their own and others’ safety by working without PPE, reported they also faced regime repression for failing to appear for work.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that conviction of 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 of Venezuela (PSUV) used the nearly 600 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; CONATEL oversees the law’s application.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. Following the shuttering of DirecTV’s operations on May 19, the TSJ ordered the seizure of all property and equipment of DirecTV and banned DirecTV’s executives from leaving the country. On August 14, DirecTV resumed operations, although multiple regime-independent outlets reported challenges–including veiled threats, outright blocks, and fines–preventing them from broadcasting freely over DirecTV when service was re-established.

The illegitimate 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 throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from covering AN debates and activities. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by CANTV. NGOs noted that 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. On January 5, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the AN, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises.

The illegitimate regime arbitrarily detained 28 journalists from January to July, according to the national journalists’ union.

Media and NGOs reported increased repression and intimidation of journalists following the emergence of COVID-19. Despite a specific exception permitting travel for members of the press during quarantine, the illegitimate Maduro regime limited the freedom of movement of journalists.

On March 21, FAES officers arrested freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas and his family for inciting hatred. Rojas’ reporting questioned figures published by the illegitimate Maduro regime regarding COVID-19 cases. On August 2, the illegitimate regime granted Rojas a conditional release. DGCIM officers arrested Nicmer Evans on July 13, also for inciting hatred. NGOs and journalists called the arrest a retaliation against Evans due to his role as the founder and director of news site Punto de Corte, which frequently published articles critical of the regime. On August 31, Evans was released.

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 illegitimate 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 260 attacks on journalists from January to August. On February 11, regime supporters and colectivos attacked at least 12 journalists covering the return of interim president Guaido from an international tour. Maduro and illegitimate regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the illegitimate 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 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, print news outlets closed due to the illegitimate 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. In January, 16 print outlets suspended circulation, generally for lack of supplies, and at least 200 media outlets had been blocked, censored, or closed by May.

The illegitimate Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.

A study by the NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) found that more than five million citizens lived in “media deserts,” areas that had no access to print, television, radio, or digital media due to censorship, forced closures of television and radio stations, and reprisals against journalists. Access to information was most heavily restricted in border territories and indigenous communities.

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 libel and slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths. In October investigative journalist Clavel Rangel was forced to leave the country promptly after publishing an expose on corruption in Bolivar State. The subject of the report, a businessman with links to the regime, filed a defamation suit against Rangel, which would have prohibited her from discussing the case in media or leaving the country.

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 illegitimate 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 Maduro renewed three times the “state of alarm” issued on March 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 regime also threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out on COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic.

Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country, often encouraged or left undeterred by the Maduro regime, made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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.

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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

The “state of alarm” declared by Maduro in March to limit the spread of COVID-19 restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the illegitimate regime employed the armed forces, FAES, and armed colectivos to enforce quarantine measures. PROVEA documented an excessive use of force in implementing the lockdown, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, torture, and humiliating treatment for allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures.

On March 17, the illegitimate regime suspended all international travel, although it authorized a number of humanitarian and repatriation flights. On March 16, restrictions were put in place to prevent travel among different states and cities. Many countries experienced severe difficulties in repatriating their citizens due to these restrictions.

Throughout the year high-level regime officials stigmatized returning citizens, blaming them for rising COVID-19 cases and calling them “bioterrorists” and “biological weapons.” On July 15, Maduro called on all citizens to report and apprehend returnees who crossed into the country through unofficial border crossings.

The illegitimate Maduro regime required returnees to spend a mandatory two-week quarantine period at shelters run by the armed forces at the border. Humanitarian organizations and interim government officials reported overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in quarantine shelters that increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Returnees held in these facilities suffered from insufficient food, water, electricity, and hygiene items, as well as physical insecurity that put vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, at risk of sexual violence and abuse. A COVID-19 diagnostic test was required for release from the quarantine shelters, but in view of the regime’s limited testing capacity, several returnees were held for as long as one month. Media reported returnees were kept from returning to their regions of origin and threatened by armed groups controlling the shelters not to report the poor conditions.

Media reported regime authorities blocked citizens from returning to the country. On June 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime adopted measures to limit the number of citizens returning to the country through the border with Colombia. Migrants were only allowed to return on three specific days a week, and regime authorities set a limit of 1,200-1,300 returnees weekly through Arauca, Cucuta, and Paraguachon. As of September more than 40,000 citizens waited to cross the border into the country through Cucuta, according to the Organization of American States (OAS) commissioner-general for the Venezuela refugee crisis David Smolansky. NGOs reported citizens unable to return to their country faced uncertain legal and financial statuses and were at high risk of victimization for crime, trafficking, and gender-based violence by criminal armed groups.

Following the illegitimate Maduro regime’s closure of official ports of entry, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings (trochas) that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported citizens utilizing the trochas faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual servitude at the hands of criminal groups. Smugglers and human traffickers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. In December at least 21 individuals attempting to flee the country and reach Trinidad and Tobago died when their boat capsized. Individuals were often subjected to debt bondage or forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing to illegal armed groups, increasing the vulnerability of migrants to labor exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.

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

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. Several applicants reportedly paid several thousand U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The illegitimate 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.

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