Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and standing up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, the term of former president Nicolas Maduro ended. He sought to remain in power based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections widely condemned as neither free nor fair, a claim not accepted by the democratically elected National Assembly (AN). On January 23, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Former president Maduro, with the backing of hundreds of Cuban security force members, refused to cede control over the instruments of state power, preventing interim president Guaido from exercising authority within the country. In the 2015 legislative elections, opposition political parties gained supermajority (two-thirds) control of the AN. The former Maduro regime, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to create the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) that placed the AN in contempt, usurped its constitutional role to legislate, and weakened the constitution’s separation of powers principle.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. The National Guard (GNB)–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC), which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Venezuelan National Police (PNB) reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the former Maduro regime, including colectivos (regime-sponsored armed groups); forced disappearances; torture by security forces; arbitrary detention by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; and lack of judicial independence. The former Maduro regime restricted free expression and the press by routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. Libel, incitement, and inaccurate reporting were subject to criminal charges. The former Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and repressed freedom of assembly. Other issues included: intimidation, harassment, and abuse of AN members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity; pervasive corruption and impunity among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels; trafficking in persons; violence against indigenous persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the former regime made minimal efforts to eliminate.
There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, but the former regime at the national, state, and local levels took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, and there was impunity for such abuses. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police. The former Maduro regime backed by Cuban security force members refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned former regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate ANC gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the former regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. In April Espacio Publico reported 24 persons were arrested in 2018 for online criticism of the regime.
On June 1, members of the DGCIM arrested Karen Palacios Perez, a clarinetist, for “instigating hate.” Palacios posted tweets critical of the regime after losing her position with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for signing a petition in opposition to Maduro. On July 16, Palacios was released from prison, one month after a judge ordered her immediate release.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 former regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The former Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In June the TSJ ordered La Patilla to pay 30 billion bolivares ($1.4 million) to ANC president Cabello for “moral damage and injury” for reprinting an article by the Spanish newspaper ABC that indicated Cabello was under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking.
Espacio Publico reported 522 violations of freedom of expression between January and April, a 314 percent increase compared with the same period in 2018 and the second highest figure since the organization began tracking cases in 2002. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. The former Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition, private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (cadenas) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of former regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from accessing the AN to cover the legislative body’s debates and activities. NGOs noted that state regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during Interim President Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions.
The former regime detained 39 journalists in the first three months of the year, up from 22 detentions during all of 2018, according to NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). On March 11, SEBIN agents detained journalist Luis Carlos Diaz and confiscated equipment, following his reporting on nationwide blackouts that struck the country in early March, according to media reports. On his weekly television program, ANC president Cabello accused Diaz of being involved in a conspiracy to sabotage the country’s electrical system. After being charged with “instigating crimes,” Diaz was released, although he was prohibited from leaving the country or making public statements.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the former Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 244 attacks on journalists from January to June. Former president Maduro and regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Former Maduro regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the former Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The former regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union (SNTP), print news outlets closed due to the former Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. National and regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint, including national newspaper El Nacional, El Regional of Zulia, El Aragueno of Aragua, El Luchador of Bolivar, and Panorama of Zulia.
The former Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use slander law to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The former Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year former President Maduro renewed four times the “state of exception” he first invoked in 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The AN continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the rights to freedom of association and expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
The former Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The former regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted former Maduro regime authorities in locating users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that in the first six months of the year, private and regime-controlled internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to 48 webpages. Seventy percent of the censored domains during this period belonged to social media platforms and news outlets, including NTN24, VIVOplay, El Pitazo, VPItv, El Nacional, Aporrea, and Noticia al dia.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the former Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the former regime’s official rate. The former regime-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. According to Reporters Without Borders, on January 21, shortly after an attempted uprising by a military unit in Zulia State that was widely covered on social networks and by online media outlets, there were several internet cuts in the region, affecting YouTube and Google Search users in particular, combined with restrictions on access to Twitter and Instagram. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Periscope services were all temporarily blocked, according to NetBlocks.
Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the former regime, and senior former Maduro regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused for actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.
In February proregime Twitter accounts published a database of opposition sympathizers’ personal data, which was the result of a former regime-linked phishing operation.
There were no substantiated reports of former Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the former regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the former regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.
The former Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.
In August the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulates that the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and said it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers at the heads of universities.
The former regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria (homeland card), a regime-issued social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for this right, but the former Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the former regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the former regime to criminalize organizations that were critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the former regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support Interim President Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 10,477 protests in the first six months of the year, more than double the number in the same period of 2018. According to the OHCHR, between January and May, a total of 66 persons died during protests; some of these incidents were marked by an alleged excessive use of force by FAES, the GNB, PNB, and armed colectivos. Security forces detained more than 1,300 persons during protests between January and May, according to Foro Penal.
During a July 2 protest in Tachira State, 16-year-old Rufo Chacon was blinded after police forces fired 52 rubber pellets at his face. According to media reports, a police investigation found that security forces moved to repress the protest without warning when they fired rubber bullets into the crowd. Former Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab announced that authorities charged two police officers with cruel treatment in the case.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
A 2016 presidential decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
On February 22, the former regime closed its borders with Aruba, Brazil, and Colombia to prevent the entry of international aid. Media reported the borders with Aruba and Brazil were reopened on May 10 and partially reopened with Colombia one month later.
In July the former Maduro regime announced the deployment of a special migration police unit in Tachira State, on the border with Colombia. Although some NGOs expressed concern the former regime would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the former regime asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The former regime declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed in-country migration crisis.
Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia, with particular violence perpetrated by colectivos against Tachira State citizens in late February.
While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women. NGOs reported Venezuelans crossing through informal border crossings controlled by armed groups faced significant protection risks, including gender-based violence. Individuals were often forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing or be indebted to those controlling them, exposing them to risks of exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence, as well as recruitment into drug trafficking and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
In-country Movement: The former regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on former regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The former regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
Exile: In contrast with 2018, there were no cases of citizens denied the right to return.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
The former regime did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Former regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In June CONARE announced the creation of a new border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.
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.