ISSN 2330-717X

Venezuela: Concentration And Abuse Of Power Under Chávez

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The concentration of power under President Hugo Chávez has taken a heavy toll on human rights in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 133-page report, “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez’s Venezuela”, documents how the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chávez government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society.

“For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chávez.”

Human Rights Watch’s last major report on Venezuela, released in September 2008, documented how democratic institutions and human rights guarantees had suffered during the first decade of Chávez’s presidency. Since then, the human rights situation in the country has become even more precarious.

While many Venezuelans continue to criticize the government, the prospect of facing reprisals – in the form of arbitrary or abusive state action – has undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases, and forced journalists and rights defenders to weigh the consequences of disseminating information and opinions critical of the government.

The Courts

Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly have taken dramatic steps to ensure their political control over the Supreme Court, which has been packed with political allies since 2004. After legislative elections in 2010 reduced the Chávez majority in Congress, they rushed to change the law governing the process for appointing justices and then re-packed the Supreme Court before the newly elected opposition legislators took their seats.

The Supreme Court’s record has only worsened in recent years, with justices openly rejecting the principle of separation of powers and publicly pledging their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This political commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which have repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for international human rights norms.

The most disturbing example of the lack of judicial independence has been the prosecution of the Judge María Lourdes Afiuni – at the behest of Chávez – after she granted conditional liberty to a prominent government critic who had spent almost three years in prison awaiting trial. Afiuni’s arrest and prolonged imprisonment have hada powerful impact on other lower court judges, who fear being criminally prosecuted if they issue rulings that could upset the Chávez government.

The Chávez government has rejected the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the most important external mechanisms for seeking redress for abuses when national courts fail to provide it.

The Media

In December 2010, the pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly amended the 2004 broadcasting law to apply its restrictions on free speech in the media to the internet as well. It also added new restrictions, including a prohibition on transmitting messages that “foment anxiety in the public,” and granted the government-controlled telecommunications agency, CONATEL, greater powers to sanction TV and radio broadcasters, as well as websites, that violate them.

The Chávez government has used its regulatory authority to expand the number of government-run and pro-Chávez media outlets. It has also made ample use of its authority to issue mandatory broadcasts, routinely requiring private media to interrupt their regular programming to transmit presidential speeches and messages celebrating government policies.

It has also taken aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming. Venezuela’s oldest private television channel, RCTV, which was arbitrarily removed from the public airwaves in 2007, has since been driven off cable TV by the government, leaving Globovisión as the only major channel that remains critical of Chávez. The government has also pursued administrative sanctions against Globovisión that could lead to its suspension or closure.

The government has targeted media outlets for sanction and/or censorship for their critical reporting on the government’s response to issues such as water pollution, violent crime, a prison riot, and an earthquake – as well as for a series of political advertisements in support of property rights, a satirical news story depicting senior officials as dancers in a Chávez-led cabaret, and a Colombian soap opera in which a character named Venezuela who loses her dog named Huguito (Little Hugo) asks her boyfriend, “What will become of Venezuela without Huguito?” and he responds “You will be free, Venezuela.”

While sharp criticism of the government is still common in the print media, on Globovisión, and in some other outlets, the fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a serious problem among journalists and broadcasters in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Defenders

The Chávez government has intensified its efforts to marginalizethe country’s human rights defenders by repeatedly accusing them of seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy with the support of the United States government.

While some human rights nongovernmental organizations have received funding from US sources – a common practice among independent groups throughout Latin America – there is no credible evidence that the independence and integrity of their work has been compromised as a result.

The weight of the government’s unfounded allegations has been compounded by Chávez supporters, who have filed multiple criminal complaints against leading nongovernmental organizations for receiving foreign funding. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that individuals or organizations that receive foreign funding could be prosecuted for “treason” under a provision of the criminal code that establishes a prison sentence of up to 15 years. And the National Assembly has enacted legislation blocking organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international assistance.

The Chávez government has also enacted rules that dramatically reduce the public’s right to obtain information held by the government. In combination, these measures have significantly increased the government’s ability to prevent or deter human rights defenders from obtaining the funding, information, legal standing, and public visibility they need to be effective advocates.

Human Rights Watch found a strong perception among local human rights defenders that the government’s verbal attacks have contributed to an environment in which they are more vulnerable to acts of intimidation by low-level officials and threats and acts of violence by private citizens who support Chávez.

The report provides detailed recommendations to the Venezuelan government to reverse the damage done to human rights protections in recent years. These include restoring the credibility of the Supreme Court through a ratification process for all justices who were appointed after the 2004 court-packing law, establishing an autonomous agency to administer broadcasting frequencies, repealing legislation that undercuts the work of local human rights defenders, and respecting the authority of the Inter-American human rights system.

“Unfortunately, given how President Chávez has reacted to similar recommendations in the past, it’s very unlikely that he will take steps to restore the checks on presidential power that he and his supporters have eliminated,” Vivanco said.

When Human Rights Watch released its last report at a news conference in Caracas in 2008, Chávez responded by having the group’s representatives forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country.

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