(New York) – Hugo Chávez’s presidency (1999-2013) was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.
After enacting a new constitution with ample human rights protections in 1999 – and surviving a short-lived coup d’état in 2002 – Chávez and his followers moved to concentrate power. They seized control of the Supreme Court and undercut the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.
By his second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda. In recent years, the president and his followers used these powers in a wide range of prominent cases, whose damaging impact was felt by entire sectors of Venezuelan society.
Many Venezuelans continued to criticize the government. But the prospect of reprisals – in the form of arbitrary or abusive state action – forced journalists and human rights defenders to weigh the consequences of disseminating information and opinions critical of the government, and undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases.
Assault on Judicial Independence
In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters. The packed Supreme Court ceased to function as a check on presidential power. Its justices have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and pledged their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for human rights.
Lower-court judges have faced intense pressure not to issue rulings that could upset the government. In 2009, Chávez publicly called for the imprisonment of a judge for 30 years after she granted conditional liberty to a prominent government critic who had spent almost three years in prison awaiting trial. The judge, María Lourdes Afiuni, was arrested and spent more than a year in prison in pretrial detention, in deplorable conditions. She remains under house arrest.
Assault on Press Freedoms
Under Chávez, the government dramatically expanded its ability to control the content of the country’s broadcast and news media. It passed laws extending and toughening penalties for speech that “offends” government officials, prohibiting the broadcast of messages that “foment anxiety in the public,” and allowing for the arbitrary suspension of TV channels, radio stations, and websites.
The Chávez government sought to justify its media policies as necessary to “democratize” the country’s airwaves. Yet instead of promoting pluralism, the government abused its regulatory authority to intimidate and censor its critics. It expanded the number of government-run TV channels from one to six, while taking aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming.
In response to negative coverage, Chávez repeatedly threatened to remove private stations from the airwaves by blocking renewal of their broadcast licenses. In 2007, in an act of blatant political discrimination, his government prevented the country’s oldest private television channel, RCTV, from renewing its license and seized its broadcasting antennas. Three years later, it drove RCTV off cable TV as well by forcing the country’s cable providers to stop transmitting its programs.
The removal of RCTV left only one major channel, Globovisión, that continued to be critical of the president. The Chávez government repeatedly pursued administrative sanctions against Globovisión, which have kept the station in perpetual risk of suspension or closure. It also pressed criminal charges against the station’s president, a principal owner, and a guest commentator after they made public statements criticizing the government.
The sanctioning and censorship of the private media under Chávez 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.
Rejection of Human Rights Scrutiny
In addition to neutralizing the judiciary as a guarantor of rights, the Chávez government repudiated the Inter-American human rights system, failing to carry out binding rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and preventing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from conducting in-country monitoring of human rights problems. In September 2012, Venezuela announced its withdrawal from the American Convention on Human Rights, a move that leaves Venezuelans without recourse to what has been for years – in countries throughout the region – themost important external mechanism for seeking redress for abuses when national courts fail to provide it.
The Chávez government also sought to block international organizations from monitoring the country’s human rights practices. In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms. Following the expulsion, his then-foreign minister and now chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, announced that, “Any foreigner who comes to criticize our country will be immediately expelled.”
Under Chávez, the government also sought to discredit human rights defenders by accusing them of receiving support from the US government to undermine Venezuelan democracy. While local nongovernmental organizations have received funding from US and European sources – a common practice in Latin America where private funding is scarce – there is no credible evidence that the independence and integrity of the defenders’ work has been compromised by international support. Nonetheless, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals or organizations receiving foreign funding could be prosecuted for “treason.” The National Assembly passed legislation prohibiting organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international funding. It also imposed stiff fines on organizations that “invite” to Venezuela foreigners who express opinions that “offend” government institutions.
Embracing Abusive Governments
Chávez also rejected international efforts to promote human rights in other countries. In recent years, Venezuela consistently voted against UN General Assembly resolutions condemning abusive practices in North Korea, Burma, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, Chávez was a vocal supporter of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bestowing upon each of these leaders the “Order of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s highest official honor.
Under Chávez, Venezuela’s closest ally was Cuba, the only country in Latin America that systematically represses virtually all forms of political dissent. Chávez identified Fidel Castro – who headed Cuba’s repressive government until his health deteriorated in 2006 – as his model and mentor.
Selected cases documented in the report “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela”:
- 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, 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 United Nations 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 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 pretrial detention, in deplorable conditions, together with convicted prisoners – including many she herself had sentenced – who repeatedly threatened her with death. In the face of growing criticism from international human rights bodies, Afiuni was moved to house arrest in February 2011. After long delays, her trial opened in November 2012. Afiuni has refused to appear, arguing that she would not receive a fair trial, but the proceedings have continued in her absence.
- 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. Both 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 the 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 of “inciting insurrection.” The official magazine of the Armed Forces accused her of seeking to foment a coup d’état. The nongovernmental organization that she directs, Citizen Watch, was also named – along with other leading groups – in a criminal complaint filed by several youth groups affiliated with Chávez’s political party for alleged “treason” for receiving funding from the US government. San Miguel has since received repeated death threats from unidentified people. 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 the human rights defender Humberto Prado criticized the government in June 2011 for its handling of a prison riot, Chávez’s justice minister accused him of seeking to “destabilize the prison system” and the vice president claimed the criticism was part of a strategy to “politically destabilize the country.” Within days, Prado began receiving anonymous threats, including phone calls telling him to keep quiet if he cared about his children, prompting him to leave the country with his family for two months. As he prepared to return, he received an anonymous email with the image of what appeared to be an official document from the Attorney General’s Office stating that he was under criminal investigation for “treason.” The prosecutor whose name appears on the letter later told him he had not written or signed it. Prado continued to receive threats from unidentified sources. Like San Miguel, he believes the verbal attacks by Chávez officials have made him 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 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 did not comply 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 covers news 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, 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, equivalent to 7.5 percent of the company’s 2010 income. Globovisión is facing seven additional administrative investigations – including one opened in response to its reporting that the government failed to provide the public with basic information in the aftermath of an earthquake and, most recently, one for transmitting spots that questioned the government’s interpretation of the constitutional requirements for Chávez’s 2013 inauguration. Under the broadcasting law enacted by 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, 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 prohibited him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.
- After Globovisión’s president, Guillermo Zuloaga, at an international conference in March 2010, criticized Chávez’s attacks on media freedoms and accused the president of ordering the shooting of demonstrators prior to the 2002 coup, the pro-Chávez Congress called for a criminal investigation. Zuloaga was arrested on charges of disseminating false information and offending the president. A judge soon granted him conditional liberty, but in June Chávez publicly insisted that he be re-arrested. Two days later, members of the National Guard raided Zuloaga’s home and the following week a judge issued a new arrest warrant for him on an unrelated case, though he fled the country before it could be executed and has not returned.
- After Nelson Mezerhane, a banker and principal shareholder of Globovisión, claimed in a December 2009 interview that people “linked to the government” had spread rumors that provoked withdrawal of savings from Venezuelan banks, Chávez denounced him, called on the attorney general “to open a formal investigation,” and threatened to nationalize Mezerhane’s bank. Chávez warned that, “[i]f a television station crosses the line again, violating the laws, lacking respect for society, the State, or institutions, it cannot, it should not remain open.” Six months later, the Attorney General’s Office seized Mezerhane’s home and shares in Globovisión, while the state banking authority nationalized his bank. The Attorney General’s Office also forbade Mezerhane from leaving the country, but he was abroad when the order was issued and has not returned.
- After Tu Imagen TV, a local cable channel in Miranda state, was denounced by a pro-Chávez mayor in November 2010 for being “biased in favor of the political opposition,” CONATEL ordered the local cable provider to stop broadcasting the channel on the grounds that the channel and the provider had failed to comply with regulations requiring a written contract between the parties. Provided with a signed contract a month later, the agency waited eight months before authorizing the cable provider to renew broadcasting the channel. When it did, the channel's director said, the agency threatened to take the channel off the air again if it continued to produce critical programming.
- After the soap opera “Chepe Fortuna” ran a scene in January 2011 in which a character named Venezuela who had lost her dog – named Huguito (Little Hugo) – asks her boyfriend, “What will become of Venezuela without Huguito?” and he responds, “You will be free, Venezuela,” CONATEL called on the television channel, Televen, to “immediately suspend” the show on the grounds that it promoted “political and racial intolerance, xenophobia, and incitement to commit crimes.” The charge could lead to civil, criminal, and administrative sanctions, including the suspension or revocation of its license. Televen cancelled the program the same day.