Venezuela is formally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an increasingly authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, citizens’, and electoral branches of government. The Supreme Court determined Nicolas Maduro to have won the 2013 presidential elections amid allegations of pre- and postelection fraud, including government interference, the use of state resources by the ruling party, and voter manipulation. The opposition gained super majority two-thirds control of the National Assembly in the 2015 legislative elections. The executive branch, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to weaken the National Assembly’s constitutional role to legislate, ignore the separation of powers, and enable the president to govern through a series of emergency decrees.
Civilian authorities maintained effective, although politicized, control over the security forces.
Democratic governance and human rights deteriorated dramatically during the year as the result of a campaign of the Maduro administration to consolidate its power. On March 30, the TSJ annulled the National Assembly’s constitutional functions, threatened to abolish parliamentary immunity, and assumed significant control over social, economic, legal, civil, and military policies. The TSJ’s actions triggered large-scale street protests through the spring and summer in which approximately 125 persons died. Security forces and armed progovernment paramilitary groups known as “colectivos” at times used excessive force against protesters. Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported indiscriminate household raids, arbitrary arrests, and the use of torture to deter protesters. The government arrested thousands of individuals, tried hundreds of civilians in military tribunals, and sentenced approximately 12 opposition mayors to 15-month prison terms for alleged failure to control protests in their jurisdictions.
On May 1, President Maduro announced plans to rewrite the 1999 constitution, and on July 30, the government held fraudulent elections, boycotted by the opposition, to select representatives to a National Constituent Assembly (ANC). On August 4, the ANC adopted a “coexistence decree” that effectively neutralized other branches of government. Throughout the year the government arbitrarily stripped the civil rights of opposition leaders to not allow them to run for public office. On October 15, the government held gubernatorial elections overdue since December 2016. The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) maintained it won 17 of the 23 governors’ seats, although the election was fraught with deficiencies, including a lack of independent, credible international observers, last-minute changes to polling station locations with limited public notice, manipulation of ballot layouts, limited voting locations in opposition neighborhoods, and a lack of technical audit for the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) tabulation. The regime then called for mayoral elections on December 10, with numerous irregularities favoring government candidates.
The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by security forces, including government sponsored “colectivos”; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; widespread arbitrary detentions; and political prisoners. The government unlawfully interfered with privacy rights, used military courts to try civilians, and ignored judicial orders to release prisoners. The government routinely blocked signals, interfered with the operations, or shut down privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The law criminalized criticism of the government, and the government threatened violence and detained journalists critical of the government, used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations, and placed legal restrictions on the ability of NGOs to receive foreign funding. Other issues included interference with freedom of movement; establishment of illegitimate institutions to replace democratically elected representatives; pervasive corruption and impunity among all security forces and in other national and state government offices, including at the highest levels; violence against women, including lethal violence; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.
The government took no effective action to combat impunity that pervaded all levels of the civilian bureaucracy and the security forces.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and 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 the media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Inter-American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned government 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. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. PSUV officials threatened violence against opposition figures and supporters, in particular during the four months of antiregime protests that began on April 1. On October 2, SEBIN arrested Lenny Josefina Martinez Gonzalez, a worker at Pastor Oropeza hospital in the city of Barquisimeto in Lara State, who, according to the local human rights group Funpaz, photographed women giving birth while in the hospital waiting room. The photographs–indications of the medical crisis–were widely viewed on social media. As of year’s end, authorities had not charged her with crimes.
Press and Media Freedom: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that the media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation. An August report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted that the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) shut down 24 radio stations and ordered internet service providers to block certain digital outlets during the April-July protests.
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 to 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, President Maduro and the ruling PSUV used the nearly 600 government-owned or controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. Maduro regularly referred to Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles as insane on live television, while PSUV first vice president and ANC member Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to bully journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government greater authority to regulate the content and structure of the 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. Minister of Communications and Information Ernesto Villegas highlighted this power during an August 30 interview, declaring that “operating licenses are not a right” and that the government may elect to deny them without providing justification.
The government continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, and Globovision. A court found the online newsource La Patilla responsible for moral damage and ordered it to pay the equivalent of $500,000 in bolivars to Diosdado Cabello. The remaining outlets were awaiting trial at the end of the year.
The government’s economic policies made it difficult for newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many newspapers from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. Ultima Hora, a regional news outlet, and Tal Cual, a national newspaper, stopped printing in August and November, respectively, the latest nongovernment-owned media outlets to cease production due to lack of access to dollars to purchase newsprint from the government. Other sources, such as regional newspaper La Prensa, opted to print fewer pages or to print weekly rather than daily publications. The National Press Workers Union (SNTP) estimated that, of 115 print news outlets that operated in the country in 2013, 93 remained in operation.
The NGO Public Space reported 887 cases of violations of freedom of expression between January and September–a nearly three-fold increase over 2016. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. State-owned and state-influenced media provided almost continuous progovernment 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 government achievements. According to the online tracking program Citizens Monitoring, run by the civil society network Legislative Monitor, between January and October the government implemented more than 160 hours of national cadenas featuring President Maduro, interrupting regular broadcasts. Both Maduro and other ruling-party officials utilized mandatory broadcast time to campaign for progovernment candidates. Opposition candidates generally did not have access to media broadcast time.
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 government leaders 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. Government officials, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts.
The Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) reported 539 violations and assaults on media offices, press equipment and tools, journalists, and media employees from January to August. The report also stated that IPYS recorded at least 280 cases of journalists affected by state-sponsored violence from January to August. On February 25, the Public Ministry charged Santiago Guevara, a University of Carabobo professor, with “betrayal of the homeland” after he published a series of editorials on the nation’s economic crisis.
According to IPYS, during the four months of antiregime protests, journalists reported 108 assaults against journalists by security forces, 40 injuries due to tear gas canisters, and 11 gunshot injuries. The August OHCHR report on the protests noted that authorities arrested an estimated 60 journalists, deleting their video footage before releasing them within a few hours, and conducted a smear campaign against journalists, including death threats, that caused a number of them to leave the country.
Government officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country. On March 31, GNB officers attacked Elyangelica Gonzalez, a reporter for Univision Noticias and the Colombian-based station Caracol Radio, while she reported outside the Supreme Court.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its 2016 report, IPYS noted the government’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 government reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media. The NGO Public Space reported 50 cases involving censorship as of September.
The government 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 having not renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
On February 17, CONATEL banned the international news network CNN En Espanol, labeling its coverage “war propaganda” after the station broadcast a story about Venezuelan visa fraud allegations. On August 23, CONATEL forced two Colombian television stations, Caracol TV and RCN, off the air after they reported on former attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz’s corruption allegations against President Maduro. On August 25, CONATEL shut the nationally broadcast radio stations 92.9 Tu FM and Magica 99.1 FM, immediately replacing them with progovernment outlets. According to SNTP statistics, using this method CONATEL closed 49 radio stations and six television stations through August.
The government controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with government-owned or government-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Government officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. In June President Maduro announced he would use slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations he was responsible for protest-related deaths. As of December Maduro had not acted on these threats.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions to be necessary in the interests of public order or security. The government exercised control over the press through the public entity known as the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the government 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 government-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year President Maduro renewed 11 times the “state of exception” he first invoked in January 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise guaranteed in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires National Assembly 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 National Assembly 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 right 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 members of the media.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The executive branch exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and persecution 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 intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted authorities in locating the users. Free Access cited arrests of Twitter users during the April-July protests.
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 them with fines for distributing prohibited messages. In 2016 IPYS reported that local internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked at least 42 internet domains.
CONATEL’s director, Andres Eloy Mendez, appointed in October 2016, repeatedly declared in press statements that the government did not block websites, although officials ordered internet service providers to block certain digital outlets. Mendez reiterated the claims of his predecessor that CONATEL’s role was to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the government continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the government’s official rate. The government-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. The government used Twitter hashtags to attain “trending” status for official propaganda and employed hundreds of employees to manage and disseminate official government accounts. At least 65 official government accounts used Twitter to promote the ruling PSUV party.
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 government, and senior government officials used personal information gathered by cooperating patriots to intimidate government critics and human rights defenders.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 60 percent of the population used the internet in 2016, the latest figure available.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were some government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. University leaders and students alleged the government retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing government subsidies significantly below the annual inflation rate to those universities. Autonomous universities, which are partially funded by the government, received considerably less than the amounts they requested. Furthermore, budgetary allocations were based on figures not adequately adjusted for inflation and covered expenses only through March. On September 26, the National University Council, the government regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.
On August 9, University Education Minister Hugbel Roa announced that the “carnet de la patria,” a new government-issued social benefits card provided primarily to government supporters, would be required for enrollment in public universities, affecting approximately 305,000 students.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for this right, but the government generally repressed or suspended it. The Law on Political Parties, Public Gatherings, and Manifestations and the Organic Law for Police Service and National Bolivarian Police Corps regulate the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize such laws that enable the government to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the laws also allowed the government to criminalize organizations that were critical of the government. Protests and marches require government authorization in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.”
As part of the “states of exception” in place throughout the year in municipalities bordering Colombia and imposed via an economic emergency decree, the government ordered the suspension of the constitutional right to meet publicly or privately without obtaining permission in advance as well as the right to demonstrate peacefully and without weapons.
The political opposition organized frequent nationwide protests from April 1 to July 31 demanding elections, respect for constitutional norms, freedom for political prisoners, and effective government action to relieve severe economic and humanitarian crises. Demonstrations, which involved marches, sit-ins, and at times coordinated blockages of the country’s infrastructure, frequently attracted thousands of participants. According to Foro Penal, security forces arrested more than 5,000 persons during protests between April 1 and July 31; of those detained, 1,381 remained in custody at the end of December.
Violent security force repression, often coordinated with armed “colectivos,” resulted in thousands of injuries and more than 125 deaths. On April 5, GNB officers attacked student protesters at the University of Carabobo in Carabobo State and injured dozens of students, including one who was shot in the back.
The government blamed the protest violence and deaths on opposition “terrorists.” On July 30, several PNB officers were injured when a pyrotechnic/gasoline device detonated in Caracas. The device appeared placed and timed to ignite while a column of PNB on motorcycles was passing. Video of the explosion was similar to that of a July 10 pyrotechnic explosion that also targeted security forces. The opposition did not denounce the attack.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the government 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. In February the TSJ suspended all elections at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), citing a complaint submitted to them by four students and their attorney. According to credible sources, the students were regime supporters seeking to halt processes that were almost certain to elect students politically inclined toward the country’s opposition. On February 17, UCV student leaders nonetheless held elections, electing vocal opposition supporter Rafaela Requesens as head of the student government.
The president’s 2016 “state of exception” 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.” There were no reports that the government implemented the decree.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution, the country’s 26th since independence, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but government interference, electoral irregularities, and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the July 30 ANC elections, the October 15 gubernatorial elections, and the December 10 mayoral elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Even though there had been no referendum to approve efforts for constitutional reform, the president directed, and on July 30 the CNE held, fraudulent and violently-protested elections to choose representatives for the ANC that would rewrite the constitution.
The ANC was composed of 500 government-aligned representatives chosen in a bifurcated process, with 200 to 250 chosen by “classes” of workers, indigenous persons and persons with disabilities, and farmers through direct votes in factories and offices. The other half was composed of “community leaders” chosen by direct, anonymous vote at the municipal level. President Maduro announced his intention, among other things, to use the ANC to incorporate government social welfare programs into the fabric of the constitution. During its first three weeks in office, the ANC dismantled the Attorney General’s Office, granted itself unchecked governing powers, moved up elections for governors, usurped legislative power, and stripped a parliamentarian of his immunity.
On August 5, the ANC unanimously voted to dismiss Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz. Ortega, formerly a Maduro government insider, began dissenting from the administration in March after the TSJ took formal measures to usurp the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s powers. She publicly described the TSJ’s decision as a “rupture of the constitutional order.” During the four months of antigovernment protests between April and July, Ortega also vocally denounced and investigated alleged human rights violations committed by government security officials. The International Commission of Jurists called for Ortega’s immediate reinstatement, describing the ANC’s decision “politically motivated.” Tarek William Saab, former human rights ombudsman and a government supporter, replaced Ortega and immediately moved to reopen cases investigated under his predecessor and remove all evidence of the investigations from the Public Ministry’s official website and social media accounts.
In the period preceding the ANC elections, PROVEA reportedly received 212 complaints from public workers whose employers threatened to fire them if they did not participate in the July 30 polling. The government reportedly fired a number of civil servants for failing to vote.
During the December 10 municipal elections, national media noted various irregularities, including: financial benefits offered to PSUV voters, government vehicles used to transport PSUV voters to voting centers, opposition party observers blocked from polling centers, media blocked from covering events at polling centers, forced mobilization of government workers and benefit recipients, and distribution of food coupons to progovernment voters.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties operated in a restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access. On November 9, the ANC gave final approval to the “Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance.” While the government stated that the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” media observed that the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists.
On August 12, the newly elected ANC usurped the CNE’s role and called for gubernatorial elections, overdue since December 2016, to be held October 15. Opposition candidates decried several electoral irregularities, including: a short period for candidate registration, campaigning, and coordination of election monitoring; a reduction in the number of voting machines in opposition neighborhoods; manipulation of ballot layouts, leading to a large number of invalid votes; a lack of official international election observers; the use of state resources to promote ruling party candidates; and a lack of a technical audit for CNE tabulation. The opposition won five of the 23 gubernatorial races. President Maduro demanded that opposition candidates submit to ANC authority by being sworn in before the body or be disqualified. The opposition governors-elect initially refused to recognize the ANC as constitutional, but on October 23, four of the governors were sworn in before the ANC president. The fifth candidate, Juan Pablo Guanipa, was disqualified, and on November 2, the CNE announced a new round of gubernatorial elections would be held in Zulia State on December 10.
In January the government began issuing a new, multipurpose identification card, the “carnet de la patria” (homeland card), required to access government-funded social services. Many applicants reported being required to provide proof of PSUV affiliation during the registration process to obtain the critical document. Government opponents said the card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty.
Beginning on March 4, according to a new CNE mandatory registration process, political parties that won less than 0.5 percent of the 2015 legislative vote were required to participate in the CNE recertification process in order to participate in future elections. The CNE assigned each party a two-day period to register its supporters using biometric voting machines in a handful of locations across the country. Both opposition and progovernment parties described the process as punitive and biased against smaller political parties.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and/or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.