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The government of former paratrooper Hugo Chávez Frías, comfortably endorsed by 59 percent of the vote in general elections held on July 30, failed to mount an effective response to Venezuela's deep-seated human rights problems, in particular the ingrained abusiveness of its police forces and appalling prison conditions. The government introduced ambitious plans for prison reform, but attention to overcrowding in Venezuela's prisons did not result in a significant decline in inmate violence. Police killings of criminal suspects increased from 1999, and some measures authorities proposed to combat violent crime raised serious human rights concerns.

Introduced in December 1999, the constitution included forty-two articles protecting human rights, including some of the most advanced in the hemisphere. However, it also greatly expanded the power of the presidency and enhances the political role of the armed forces. The wholesale dismissal of judges, Chávez's revolutionary rhetoric and his verbal jousts with press critics raised questions about his government's respect for the rule of law and tolerance of criticism. For the first time in many years, freedom of expression emerged as a human rights issue in Venezuela.

Human rights groups and trade unions also came under pressure during the year. In separate decisions in June and August, the Supreme Court determined that nongovernmental organizations that received funding from abroad were not members of "civil society," thereby depriving them of the right to participate in the nomination of candidates for the Supreme Court, to be ombudsman, and for other important government posts. Trade union independence was called into question in early September, when President Chávez harshly criticized the leadership of the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (Central de Trabajadores Venezolanos, CTV) and announced plans to create a parallel workers' movement dominated by the ruling party.

In the aftermath of disastrous flooding and mud slides on the Caribbean coast in December 1999, in which at least 20,000 people died, the armed forces went on a murderous rampage against suspected looters in the state of Vargas. The respected nongovernmental human rights group, Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA), reported that army paratroopers, the political police known as the Directorate of Police Intelligence Services (Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia Policial, DISIP), and members of the National Guard were responsible for execution-style killings.

The story became the first major human rights test of the Chávez government. At first, Chávez dismissed the reports as "suspicious" and "superficial," but the evidence soon obliged the president and other top government officials to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. In January, the ombudsman of Vargas state announced that more than sixty people had been executed. Their bodies were apparently buried along with those of flood victims.

In January, PROVEA lodged habeas corpus writs on behalf of four victims who had "disappeared" after being detained in Vargas state: Roberto Javier Hernández Paz, Marco Antonio Monasterio Pérez, José Francisco Rivas, and Oscar José Blanco Romero. Roberto Hernández "disappeared" on December 23, after being arrested in his home by DISIP agents, who showed no warrant. According to testimonies collected by PROVEA and other human rights groups, his uncle heard a shot and Hernández's shouts begging the agents not to kill him. He was taken away wounded in a truck. A local judge ruled that since DISIP's director had denied his arrest, the court had no evidence on which to proceed. The courts did, however, confirm the arrests of Monasterio and Blanco, who were detained on December 21 by a paratroop battalion and handed over the same day to the DISIP. The DISIP, however, said it had no record of having received them. The body of another victim, Luis Rafael Bastardo, was exhumed in March from a cemetery. He had been shot several times.

Extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects by police and military forces continued to be a major problem in other parts of Venezuela. The Ministry of the Interior stated in July that more than 500 suspected criminals had died in armed clashes with the police during the first six months of the year. However, according to human rights groups, police frequently staged violent crime scenes to conceal the execution of a suspect who was unarmed or in police custody. Based in part on press sources, PROVEA said it knew of seventy-six reports of violations of the right to life during the same period. The number represented an increase of nearly 50 percent over 1999.

Pressure from the ombudsman and human rights defenders averted proposals by politicians to introduce "fast track" justice for criminal offenders. In February, the then-governor of the Federal District, Hernán Grüber Odreman, proposed to reactivate the infamous "loitering statute," known as the Law on Vagrants and Delinquents, which had been declared unconstitutional in 1997. That law gave the police the power to detain people in the street caught committing crimes or merely suspected of vagrancy, and send them to prison without trial for up to five years. In early March, Dávila said he planned to set up control points in four sectors of Caracas where a team of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and representatives of the ombudsman would be on duty around the clock to dispatch justice to offenders in ten minute trials. Chief Court Inspector René Molina warned that judges who followed the procedure would be in breach of the law.

In July, the temporary legislature approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure that would restore the police's powers to make arrests on their own authority if they had reasonable grounds to suspect a person's involvement in a crime. Under the code's existing provisions, police were authorized to make arrests only on the orders of a judge or if the suspect was caught in the act. The amendments gave judges the power to hold suspects detained on suspicion for six days before deciding whether to charge or release them. In the past, such provisions allowed police ample opportunity to force suspects to confess.

Prison conditions remained inhumane, and prisons continued to be extremely violent. Between October 1999 and March 2000, for instance, the press reported 169 deaths in prison. Earlier prison violence had prompted the creation of an inter-institutional commission that included nongovernmental, congressional, and ministerial representatives. The commission found El Rodeo and Yare prisons to be completely under the control of the inmates, who even had the keys to their own cells. In El Rodeo, in which forty-one prisoners were killed between October 1999 and March 2000, only four officials were guarding 1,800 prisoners.

The work of the commission and the new Code of Criminal Procedure led to the release of thousands of prisoners. In October 1999, a Ministry of Justice official said that 2,526 prisoners had benefited. According to figures compiled by PROVEA, by the end of 1999 the total prison population had fallen to 15,227, compared to 24,833 in September 1998, while the percentage of prisoners awaiting trial fell from sixty-four to fifty-two. However, according to PROVEA, the measures lacked clear selection criteria and institutional coordination. Justice officialsadmitted that many errors had been made in granting releases. As a result, politicians blamed the rising violent crime rate on the country's progressive new code of criminal procedure. Leading criminologists, however, asserted that the fault lay not in the code itself, but in its implementation.

In March, President Chávez announced a national public security plan that earmarked the equivalent approximately U.S. $9 million for prison reconstruction and re-equipment. The European Union signed a cooperation agreement for prison improvements with the Ministry of Justice.

Freedom of expression became a precarious right during the year. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) complained in March to President Chávez about a "climate of hostility toward the press," after the president persistently engaged in belligerent attacks on his press critics. "If they attack me, let them watch out, they'll get as good as they give" and "what there is behind the supposed freedom of expression is a freedom of manipulation," were typical remarks made by the president. The IAPA expressed concern about article 58 of the 1999 constitution, which establishes the right to "timely, truthful, and impartial information." It could allow the courts or the government to judge what information should be disseminated and serve as the basis for prior censorship, according to the group.

Under current laws, journalists convicted of defamation could be sent to prison and prevented from exercising their profession forever. Tobías Carrero, a prominent businessman with close ties to the Chávez government, used criminal defamation suits in an effort to silence press criticism. In August, a judge ordered Pablo López Ulacio placed under house arrest for refusing to attend a court hearing in a defamation suit filed in October 1999 by Carrero, owner of the Multinacional de Seguros insurance company. Articles published in September 1999 in La Razón, of which López is editor-in-chief, accused Carrero of benefiting from favoritism in the award of government contracts and the auctioning of state-owned ratio stations. In June 2000, the judge prohibited López from publishing any further information on Multinacional de Seguros, and placed him under house arrest. Another judge lifted the order then reimposed it when López failed to appear in court in August. The publishing ban remained in force at this writing.

In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures in favor of Ben Amí Fihman and Faitha Marina Nahmens, director and reporter, respectively, of the magazine Exceso. A defamation suit against them for the publication of an article about the murder of a businessman had been in the courts since 1997. In February, a judge ordered their arrest to make them appear in court despite the expiry of the statute of limitations under the new Code of Criminal Procedure.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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