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 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.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with restrictions from the former Maduro regime. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Former regime officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their requests. Domestic NGOs reported fear that the former regime would use the 2017 Law against Hate to justify widespread repression of their activities, jailing of the participants and organizers, and threats against family members. Some domestic NGOs reported threats against and harassment of their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to raids and detentions, but they were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. Some human rights activists reported former regime authorities barred them from traveling abroad or that they feared not being able to return to the country if they traveled. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community about alleged violations and key human rights cases.
NGOs noted the former Maduro regime created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. The PSUV first vice president and ANC president, Diosdado Cabello, used his weekly talk show to intimidate NGO staff from Espacio Publico, PROVEA, and Foro Penal. Several organizations, such as the OVP, PROVEA, Foro Penal, and Citizen Control, reported their staffs received both electronic and in-person threats. Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their email privacy.
The law prohibits domestic NGOs from receiving funds from abroad if they have a “political intent,” defined as the intent to “promote, disseminate, inform, or defend the full exercise of the political rights of citizens” or to “defend political rights.” The former Maduro regime threatened NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various former regime officials accused human rights organizations on national television and other media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors. NGOs also reported the former regime refused to grant them legal registration, preventing NGOs from receiving international funding.
For violations the law stipulates monetary penalties, a potential five- to eight-year disqualification from running for political office, or both. The law defines political organizations as those involved in promoting citizen participation, exercising control over public offices, or promoting candidates for public office. Although there was no formal application or enforcement of the law, it created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.
In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of security forces.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The former Maduro regime was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which last visited the country in 2002. The OHCHR conducted a visit in June to investigate the human rights situation, presided by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who met with members of both the opposition and the former regime. In September the regime and the OHCHR signed a memorandum of understanding that provides for the presence of two UN human rights officers for one year. On September 27, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish immediately a one-year fact-finding mission to investigate “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014.” According to media reports, the regime-aligned envoy to the United Nations in Geneva rejected the resolution and stated the former regime had no intention of cooperating.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the former regime gave its 2016-19 human rights plan minimal attention, with no announcements to renew or update the plan.
The TSJ continued to hold the AN in “contempt” status, which diminished the purview and operational effectiveness of the assembly’s subcommission on human rights.