July 17, 2012


In 2008, Human Rights Watch released A Decade Under Chávez, a 230-page report documenting how the government of President Hugo Chávez had squandered an historic opportunity to shore up the country’s democratic institutions and strengthen the protection of human rights in Venezuela. After enacting a new constitution with ample human rights guarantees in 1999—and surviving a short-lived coup d’état in 2002—President Chávez and his supporters moved to concentrate power by seizing control of the Supreme Court and undercutting the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.

The 2008 report, which Human Rights Watch released at a press conference in Caracas, offered detailed recommendations of steps the Venezuelan government could take to salvage the human rights potential of the 1999 Constitution. President Chávez responded by having Human Rights Watch’s representatives forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country. 

Since then, the human rights situation in Venezuela has become even more precarious. The pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly has passed legislation expanding the government’s powers to limit free speech and punish its critics.  And the Supreme Court—re-packed with Chávez supporters in 2010—has explicitly rejected the principle that the judiciary should serve as a check on presidential power, while joining with the president in dismissing the authority of the Inter-American system of human rights.

The accumulation of power in the executive, the removal of institutional safeguards, and the erosion of human rights guarantees have given the Chávez government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda. In the past four years, President Chávez and his supporters have used these powers in a wide range of cases, including the following:

  • After Judge María Lourdes Afiuni granted conditional freedom in December 2009 to a government critic who had spent nearly three years in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges, President Chávez denounced her as a “bandit” and called for her to be given a 30-year prison sentence. Although Afiuni’s ruling complied with a recommendation by UN human rights monitors—and was consistent with Venezuelan law—she was promptly arrested and ordered to stand trial by a provisional judge who had publicly pledged his loyalty to President Chávez. (“I give my life for the Revolution,” he wrote on the website of the president’s political party. “I would never betray this process and much less my Commander.”) Afiuni spent more than a year in prison in pretrial detention, in deplorable conditions, together with convicted prisoners—including many she herself had sentenced—who subjected her to repeated death threats. In the face of growing criticism from international human rights bodies, Afiuni was moved to house arrest in February 2011, where she remains today while awaiting trial. 
  • After the weekly newspaper 6to Poder published a satirical article in August 2011 depicting six high-level female officials—including the attorney general and Supreme Court president—as dancers in a cabaret entitled “The Revolution” directed by “Mr. Chávez,” the six officials called for a criminal investigation and for the paper to be closed down. Within hours, arrest warrants were issued for the paper’s director, Dinora Girón, and its president, Leocenis García, on charges of “instigation of public hatred.” Girón was arrested the following day, held for two days, then granted conditional liberty. García went into hiding, but turned himself in to authorities the following week, and was imprisoned for two months, then granted conditional freedom. At this writing, both Girón and García remain under criminal investigation pending trial. The newspaper is under a court order to refrain from publishing any text or images that could constitute “an offense and/or insult to the reputation, or to the decorum, of any representative of public authorities, and whose objective is to expose them to public disdain or hatred.”
  • After human rights defender Rocío San Miguel appeared on a television show in May 2010 and denounced the fact that senior military officers were members of Chávez’s political party (a practice prohibited by the Venezuelan Constitution), she was accused on state television of being a “CIA agent” and “inciting insurrection,” and in the official magazine of the Armed Forces of seeking to foment a coup d’état in Venezuela. The NGO that she directs, Citizen Watch, was also named—along with other leading NGOs—in a criminal complaint filed by several youth groups affiliated with Chávez’s political party for alleged “treason” due to having received funding from the US government. San Miguel has since received repeated death threats from unidentified individuals. While she does not know the source of those threats, she believes the denunciations in the official media have made her more vulnerable to such acts of intimidation. 
  • After Venezuela’s oldest television channel, RCTV, broadcast a video in November 2006 showing Chávez’s energy minister telling his employees at the state oil company to quit their jobs if they did not support the president, Chávez publicly warned RCTV and other channels that they could lose their broadcasting license—a threat he had made repeatedly in response to critical broadcasting. A month later, the president announced his (unilateral) decision that RCTV would no longer be “tolerated” on the public airwaves after its license expired the following year. RCTV stopped transmitting on open frequencies in May 2007, but continued as a cable channel. Since then, the government has used its regulatory power to drive RCTV off of cable television as well. In January 2010, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) determined that RCTV was a “national audiovisual producer” and subject to newly established broadcasting norms. Days later, Chávez’s communications minister threatened to open administrative investigations against cable providers whose broadcast channels were not in compliance with the norms. In response, the country’s cable providers stopped broadcasting RCTV International. CONATEL has since denied RCTV’s repeated efforts to re-register as a cable channel. Today, RCTV can only be viewed on the internet, and it no longer produces news coverage due to lack of funding. 
  • After Globovisión, the only remaining television station with national coverage consistently critical of Chávez’s policies, provided extensive coverage of a prison riot in June 2011—including numerous interviews with distressed family members who claimed security forces were killing prisoners—President Chávez responded by accusing the station of “set[ting] the country on fire…with the sole purpose of overthrowing this government.” The government promptly opened an administrative investigation of Globovisión’s coverage of the violence and, in October , ruled that the station had “promoted hatred for political reasons that generated anxiety in the population,” and imposed a US$ 2.1 million fine, which is equivalent to 7.5 percent of the company’s 2010 income. Globovisión is currently facing six additional administrative investigations—including one opened in response to their reporting that the government failed to provide the public with basic information in the aftermath of an earthquake and another for broadcasting footage of an opposition political candidate criticizing the electoral authority for delaying the release of local election results. Under the broadcasting law enacted by President Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly in 2004, a second ruling against Globovisión could result in another heavy fine, suspension of the station’s transmission, or revocation of its license.
  • After Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition politician, appeared on Globovisión’s main political talk show in March 2010 and commented on allegations of increased drug trafficking in Venezuela and a Spanish court ruling that referred to possible collaboration between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, Basque separatists, and other “terrorist” groups, President Chávez responded in a national broadcast that these comments “could not be permitted” and called on other branches of government “to take action.” Two weeks later, Álvarez Paz was arrested on grounds that his “evidently false statements” had caused “an unfounded fear” in the Venezuelan people. Álvarez Paz remained in pretrial detention for almost two months, and was then granted conditional liberty during his trial, which culminated in July 2011 with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison sentence. The judge allowed Álvarez Paz to serve his sentence on conditional liberty, but forbade him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.

These high-profile cases—and the others documented in this report—have had an impact not only on the individuals and groups directly involved, but also on many other Venezuelans who themselves have not been targeted.  For judges, journalists, broadcasters and human rights defenders in particular, the government’s actions have sent a clear message: the president and his followers are willing and able to punish people who challenge or obstruct their political aims. While many Venezuelans continue to criticize the government, the prospect of facing similar 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 publicizing information and opinions that are critical of the government.

The Courts

A Decade Under Chávez documented how President Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004, expanding it from 20 to 32 members and filling the new seats with government supporters. This packed Supreme Court effectively abdicated its responsibility to safeguard fundamental rights in prominent cases involving the media and organized labor.

Since then, President Chávez and his supporters have taken dramatic steps to maintain their political control over the judiciary. In 2010, after legislative elections greatly reduced the size of the pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly, the president’s supporters in the outgoing Assembly 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 gotten worse in recent years, as its members have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and publicly pledged their commitment to advancing the political agenda of President Chávez. 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 in Venezuela has been the jailing of Judge Afiuni, which has hada powerful impact on lower court judges. Since the political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004, they have been afraid of issuing rulings that might upset the Chávez government. But whereas in the past they only feared losing their jobs, now they also fear being criminally prosecuted for upholding the law.

In addition to neutralizing the judiciary as guarantor of rights, the Chávez government has rejected the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, failing to implement binding rulings of the court, and preventing the commission from conducting in-country monitoring of human rights problems (as the commission has done for decades in countries throughout the region). Both President Chávez and the Supreme Court have advocated for Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American system, a move that would leave Venezuelans without recourse to what has been for years—in countries throughout the region—the most important external mechanism for seeking redress for abuses when national courts fail to provide it. 

The Media

A Decade Under Chávez documented how President Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly had undermined freedom of expression through a variety of laws and policies aimed at reshaping the content of and control over the media. Since then, the Chávez government has further expanded and abused its powers to censor its critics.

In December 2010, the pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly amended the 2004 broadcasting law so that its restrictions on free speech in the media now apply to the internet as well. It also added new restrictions, including a prohibition on transmitting messages that “foment anxiety in the public,” and granted CONATEL greater powers to sanction TV and radio broadcasters, as well as websites, that violate them.  In addition, the National Assembly passed legislation allowing CONATEL to suspend or revoke broadcasting licenses whenever the agency considers such action to be “convenient for the interests of the nation.”

Chávez’s supporters have sought to justify the government’s policies in this area by claiming they are efforts to democratize the country’s media. Yet, instead of promoting pluralism, the Chávez government has used its regulatory authority to expand the number of pro-government media outlets, while reducing the availability of those that engage in critical programming.

While the government has actively promoted the creation of community radio stations, giving new opportunities for public expression to residents of many poor communities, even this important initiative has been used by the government for explicitly partisan purposes.

The government has also expanded the number of state-run TV channels from one to six, all of which maintain a strong pro-Chávez editorial line. Meanwhile, it has taken aggressive action against private stations. After being arbitrarily removed from the public airwaves in 2007,RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest private television channel, has since been driven off cable TV by the government, leaving Globovisión as the only major channel that remains critical of President Chávez. The government has pursued administrative sanctions against Globovisión, which could lead to its suspension or closure, and pressed criminal charges against the station’s president, a principal owner, and a guest commentator after they issued public statements criticizing the government.

In addition, the government has also 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 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.”

The sanctioning and censorship of the media have had a powerful impact on broadcasters and journalists. 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 in the country.

Human Rights Defenders

A Decade Under Chávez documented how President Chávez and his supporters had aggressively sought to discredit the country’s human rights defenders by accusing them of receiving support of the US government to undermine Venezuelan democracy.

While it is true that some (though not all) of Venezuelan human rights NGOs have received funding from US sources—a common practice among independent NGOs throughout Latin America—there is no credible evidence that the independence and integrity of their work on behalf of human rights in Venezuela has been compromised by any of this reliance on international support. (Indeed, Venezuela’s leading human rights NGOs receive far more assistance from European sources than they do from US ones.)

Nonetheless, these efforts to discredit local human rights defenders have intensified, and the stakes have grown significantly higher, as Chávez’s supporters in the National Assembly have increased the state’s capacity to sanction nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding. In July 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals or organizations receiving 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 i n December 2010, the National Assembly enacted the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self Determination, which blocks organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international funding and imposes stiff fines on organizations that invite foreigners who express opinions that “offend” government institutions. While it is reasonable for governments to regulate foreign funding of civil society groups in order to promote greater transparency, these norms go well beyond legitimate forms of accountability and regulation.

In addition, while claiming to be promoting transparency for civil society, the Chávez government has 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 that they need to be effective advocates.

Moreover, there is a strong perception among local human rights defenders that the government’s aggressive efforts to cast doubt on their motives and allegiances has 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 President Chávez. 

Note on Methodology

This report’s findings are based on an extensive review of official sources, including judicial and administrative rulings, government websites, press releases, news accounts in state media outlets, and video recordings of public statements by government officials. The findings are also based on in-depth interviews with human rights defenders, jurists, journalists, academics, diplomats, and victims of human rights abuses, conducted during four Human Rights Watch visits to Venezuela between May 2010 and March 2012, as well as prior and subsequent interviews by telephone, email, and Skype.

All those interviewed were informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the information would be used. Interviewees were told they could decline to answer questions or end the interview at any time. All provided oral consent to be interviewed. None received compensation.

When conducting research in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch intentionally avoided establishing contact with government officials or drawing public attention to our presence in the country. Our principal reason for this practice was the fact that the Chávez government had forcibly detained Human Rights Watch representatives in 2008 and declared that our representatives would not be “tolerated” in the country.

Human Rights Watch submitted written information requests to high-level Venezuelan officials, including the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, the attorney general, the ombudsperson, and the director of CONATEL, with specific questions regarding the issues covered in this report. At this writing, we have received no response to these requests.