Venezuela’s Crisis

Venezuelas crisis

Venezuela is facing a human rights and humanitarian crisis. The Maduro administration enjoys tremendous concentration of power, which it has used to gradually erode human rights guarantees and checks on its own power. Opponents including anti-government demonstrators, critics, and opposition politicians have been arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted.  Venezuelan groups identify over 600 detainees as political prisoners. Security forces have committed egregious abuses, including torture. The Supreme Court routinely fails to demonstrate any independence, endorsing government abuses and stripping the National Assembly of its powers. Severe shortages of medicine and food seriously undermine Venezuelans’ ability to secure adequate nutrition or access to healthcare.

Latest Updates of Venezuela’s Crisis

Police fire tear gas toward opposition supporters during clashes while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. © Reuters 2017

We will no longer be updating this blog as frequently. For recent developments on Venezuela’s crisis, please visit our Venezuela webpage at: 

Venezuelan Authorities Should Pay for their Crimes

Given the grotesque deterioration of the situation in Venezuela, the Lima Group members meeting in Santiago should consider imposing sanctions, including cancelling visas and asset freezes, to high-level Venezuelan officials, José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published today. These sanctions should be applied to those who, exercising their role in civilian, military, and judicial positions, are responsible for systematic human rights violations carried out in the country. Moreover, the Lima Group members should evaluate the contribution that international human rights bodies, including those described here, can make to bring those responsible to justice, to contribute to stopping further deterioration in Venezuela. 

Venezuelan Immigration to Ecuador

The political and humanitarian crisis hitting Venezuela has accelerated the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country, including those migrating to Ecuador. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 2016 and September 2017, approximately 236,000 Venezuelans entered Ecuador. About three-quarters continued their journey south, leaving a net migration of some 62,000 people into the country. The UNHCR has also reported that Ecuador has become both a destination and transit country for Venezuelans on their way to Peru and Chile. Ecuador’s Ministry of Interior reports that in 2016, 102,619 Venezuelan nationals entered the country and 79,008 left.

As of September 2017, over 1,500 Venezuelans had applied for asylum in Ecuador, with monthly claims peaking at 222 in August 2017, the UNHCR said.

In theory, Venezuelan migrants wishing to reside temporarily in Ecuador can apply for several different visas, including a special visa for citizens of UNASUR member states provided for in the February 2017 Human Mobility Law (Ley Orgánica de Movilidad Humana) that allows Venezuelans to live and work in Ecuador with minimal requirements. However, according to the Venezuelans in Ecuador Civil Association (Asociación Civil Venezolanos en el Ecuador), an organization founded in 2015 to provide support to Venezuelan migrants, the cost of a visa (ranging from about US$200 to about US$500 depending on the type) is an insurmountable impediment for most Venezuelan migrants given their precarious financial situation.

Below are accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch by Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in or were recently passing through Quito:

Petra Sofía Vásquez Rodríguez, 30, is a social communicator and graphic designer who worked in Caracas as a manager for a large movie theater company. She left Venezuela in August 2017 due to the economic crisis and lack of access to medicine for her visual disability. Vásquez said she is able to see with only one eye, has had very limited vision in that eye since birth, and requires daily eyedrops for her condition. Starting in 2015, she said, it became much harder to find the drops in Venezuela, and she would use them on and off. In the six months before she fled Venezuela, she didn’t use them at all because she could no longer find them. In Ecuador, Vásquez does freelance work, managing social media accounts of companies and individuals. In Ecuador, she has been able to find and afford the eyedrops she needs, and is planning to move to Argentina as soon as she has the money to do so.




Carlos Miguel Machado, 23, arrived in Ecuador toward the end of 2016. Born in Valencia, Carabobo state, he specialized in marketing and worked for years for a large telecommunications company as part of its social responsibility team.

Machado told Human Rights Watch that he was forced to leave Venezuela because he could not find medicine that his wife needed after undergoing thyroid surgery. He said: “I had to travel far, go from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for the medicine, and I would not find it; and it is very expensive in the black market.” He originally left for Ecuador for just three months “to find the medicine and some money,” leaving his wife and children behind. But as the situation in Venezuela rapidly deteriorated, they decided that, instead, the entire family would travel by land through Colombia and join him in Ecuador in 2017.

Machado explained that, to fund the cost of the trip to Ecuador, he sold all of his belongings in Venezuela, except for his apartment because he wants “to go back to [his] country, [and does not] want to become estranged.” In Ecuador, he and his wife have engaged in informal work, including selling empanadas on the streets. When we asked his wife, who had worked as a graphic designer in Venezuela, if she had considered going back to her country, she replied: “Every day I think about returning to Venezuela. I keep the hope. But when we think about it further, what am I going to do there?”

Mercedes Arvelo López (pseudonym), a 51-year-old teacher, arrived in Quito in October 2017 with her nine-year-old daughter Rosalba (pseudonym). Arvelo told Human Rights Watch that her husband had “defected from chavismo” after having worked for the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro on intelligence matters for years. Since then, she said, they had received anonymous threats, unknown individuals had followed and shot at her husband, and intelligence agents had visited their home asking about her husband’s whereabouts.

They crossed the border into Colombia on foot, with the aim of reaching Peru. They applied for asylum in Colombia, but after several months without obtaining a response, they decided to go to Ecuador, also on foot. In Ecuador, the family also sought refugee status, according to official documentation reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Arvelo has received aid from CARITAS to feed her daughter, who had to leave her school, friends, and family behind. She applied for refugee status in Ecuador but after months without receiving a formal response from authorities and fearing deportation, she and her daughter moved to Peru, where they requested “humanitarian refugee status,” she told Human Rights Watch. 

Detained for Providing Aid in Venezuela

On December 27, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello announced the detention of Jonatan Diniz, a Brazilian living in Los Angeles who was visiting Venezuela for a nongovernmental group that he directs, which provides food and aid to people in need. Diniz had been detained, Cabello said, for “belonging to a criminal organization with international reach.”

Cabello accused Diniz of using the organization as a “façade” to receive “dollars” and to “finance terrorists.” After Diniz spent nearly 10 days incarcerated at intelligence headquarters in Caracas, the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry was able to negotiate his release and departure from Venezuela.

Many others haven’t been so lucky in Venezuela, Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published in Folha. Without strong international pressure, 2018 may well be the year in which Venezuela’s government entrenches its repressive powers and the impunity it has enjoyed for terrible abuses, Taraciuk said. 

Pregnant Teenager Killed Awaiting Food

On December 31, a member of the Bolivarian National Guard killed Alexandra Colopoy, 18, as she was standing in line to receive a pernil (a leg of pork traditionally served at Christmas in Venezuela), her husband said in a video posted on Twitter. The government had not provided pernil for everyone who received boxes with food items subject to government-controlled prices, and those distributing the food had organized a lottery to allocate available pork legs. Colopoy, who was five-months pregnant, was one of 15 lottery winners in her area. In a country facing severe shortages of food, this was a valuable opportunity to have access to protein, which is limited in many Venezuelans’ diet.

Colopoy’s husband and other witnesses said they had stood in line for hours when the Bolivarian National Guard arrived and told them to leave. One of the guardsmen, who was allegedly drunk, opened fire without warning, they said, killing Colopoy and wounding her brother-in-law.

That day, after news of the killing went viral, a Bolivarian National Guard sergeant was detained in relation to this case and was going to be charged with several crimes, including homicide, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Earlier in December, several protests broke out in Venezuela after the government failed to deliver pernil that it had promised to include in boxes with food subject to government-set prices. On December 28, President Nicolás Maduro said authorities should not “lower their guard” in the face of “violent and terrorist acts”—referring to the protests—and would apply “a firm hand” in these cases.

Maduro blamed Portugal for “sabotaging” the distribution of pernil. Portugal responded it had no participation in the deal, and the Portuguese company that was supposed to deliver the pork legs said that the Venezuelan government has yet to pay for food it shipped to the country in 2016.

The ‘Instigating Hatred’ Law in Use

At 11 a.m. on January 3, members of a municipal police force in Valencia, Carabobo state, detained Ronald Cevilla Guedez, 25, and Erika Palacios Alfonzo, 41, while they were protesting against the government. The detainees were part of a group of 30 people who had allegedly partially closed a road and burned five tires in front of the Naguanagua mayor’s office, according to a transcript of a police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Cevilla and Palacios were taken before a judge on January 4. During the hearing, a prosecutor charged them with possessing explosive substances, public incitement to commit crimes, obstructing public roads, and “instigating hatred”—a crime provided for in a law adopted in November 2017 by the pro-government Constituent Assembly. The vague and overbroad language of the law prohibits political parties that “promote fascism, hatred, and intolerance,” and imposes prison sentences of up to 20 years on those who “encourage, promote, or incite hatred.”

According to the Penal Forum lawyer who defended Cevilla and Palacios, their alleged “violence” and criminal instigation of hatred consisted of shouting “Damn Nicolás Maduro!” and verbally insulting the officers. The police report states the officers found seven home-made Molotov cocktails, two bottles with flammable substances, 12 fireworks, and a mortar shell in the area without specifying that they were in the detainees’ possession. Cevilla and Palacios deny that the explosives were theirs.

After the arrests, agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services searched the detainees’ homes, a credible source told Human Rights Watch. Family members present during the searches told the source that the agents did not show a judicial warrant and stole personal belongings, including toothpaste, while conducting them.

The court accepted the charges and ordered the pre-trial detention of Cevilla and Palacios while the criminal investigation takes place.

The New York Times: “As Venezuela Collapses Children Are Dying of Hunger”

On December 17, The New York Times published an article on the severe humanitarian crisis ravaging Venezuela and its effect on children.  The piece is based on 5 months of research tracking 21 public hospitals in Venezuela where “doctors are seeing record numbers of children with severe malnutrition” and “hundreds have died”.  It includes harrowing photographs by Meridith Kohut capturing the suffering of those affected and argues that though the Venezuelan government is aware of the situation, it has “tried to cover up the extent of the crisis by enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics, and by creating a culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures”.  Indeed, a few days ago President Nicolas Maduro had reiterated the government’s decision to decline any offer of humanitarian aid stating that Venezuela ‘is not a country of beggars’.

Jailing a University Professor

On December 1, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Venezuelan government to protect the life and physical integrity of Santiago Guevara, a 66-year-old economist and university professor who was detained by intelligence agents in February.

Intelligence agents detained Guevara on February 21 in his home in Valencia, Carabobo state, and took him to the General Directorate of Military Intelligence (DGCIM) headquarters in Caracas, according to Espacio Público, a Venezuelan rights group that monitors free speech. The day before, Guevara had met with General Raúl Isaías Baduel, a prominent government critic, in a bakery in Valencia, as part of a research project to draft a book on Venezuela’s transition to democracy, a lawyer with Espacio Público told Human Rights Watch. Guevara had previously published a series of articles in Venezuelan blogs criticizing the government’s economic policies.

On April 9, military prosecutors charged Guevara with treason and instigating rebellion. The document outlining the charges, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said Guevara had participated in “several clandestine meetings with the purpose of destabilizing the national government.” It claimed Guevara had been in meetings with students from the University of Carabobo, where he taught, and “military personnel” to create a “civic-military movement” and a new political party that would replace the opposition umbrella group, Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD), and would be headed by Baduel.

Military prosecutors argued Guevara had coordinated the work with several universities and the alleged “destabilization plan” included calling for “civil disobedience” and “massive mobilization of different sectors, with special emphasis in students, a movement that would carry out prolonged protests and street demonstrations” in what they called “an active fight in the streets, non-violent, but overwhelming.”

Guevara was taken before a military court for his initial hearing in May, but the preliminary hearing, in which the judge should confirm or reject the charges to determine if the trial moves forward, has been repeatedly postponed. Guevara’s lawyers have unsuccessfully tried to move the case to civilian courts.

Guevara is currently being held at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas. He suffers several medical problems, including hypertension, according to a March 2017 medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch. His health condition has deteriorated given his limited access to adequate nutrition and medical care while in detention, according to the lawyer with Espacio Público.

Venezuela’s Slide into Dictatorship

The Venezuelan government is tightening its stranglehold on the country’s basic institutions of democracy at a terrifying speed. Without stronger measures by influential governments, the already grievous damage suffered by Venezuelan democratic institutions and victims of state violence may become irreparable. It is not too late to stop that from happening, Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published today by the World Policy Journal.