(New York) – Latin American governments and regional organizations should condemn the disqualification of at least five leading opposition candidates from running for office in Venezuela’s upcoming elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Groups such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), and the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) should speak out against these rulings.
All five recent cases raise concerns about arbitrary interference with rights of political participation. In contrast, no candidates from the governing party have been disqualified. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has in an earlier ruling condemned Venezuela for disqualifying political opponents from running for office.
“It is critically important for Venezuela’s upcoming elections to be free and fair and for all voices to be heard,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “For that to happen, the Venezuelan government needs to ensure that all candidates who have the right to run for office can be on the ballot.”
Two of the candidates barred from running, Daniel Ceballos and Vicencio Scarano, were town mayors from opposition parties who were removed from office and sentenced to prison in trials that raised concerns about due process for allegedly failing to keep the rights of way in their towns clear during 2014 antigovernment protests. They were disqualified from running for office for failing to file financial disclosure statements by a deadline that passed when they were being detained in a military prison.
Another candidate, María Corina Machado, is a former opposition member of the National Assembly, who was removed by the National Assembly in early 2014 after she testified at an OAS meeting in Washington on human rights concerns in Venezuela, using a Panamanian diplomatic representative’s seat.
In December, Machado was charged with conspiracy in an alleged plot to kill President Nicolás Maduro, though the official documents on the case, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, indicate that there is no credible evidence to substantiate the allegation. She has also been prohibited from leaving the country since June 2014, in connection with another pending criminal case. She was disqualified for failing to include food vouchers, which she denies receiving, in her sworn asset statement.
Two former state governors from opposition parties – César Pérez Vivas of Táchira State and Pablo Pérez of Zulia State – were disqualified after being barred from holding public office for a period of years because they are being investigated for corruption.
Under Venezuelan law, the comptroller general has the authority to “suspend,” remove from office, or bar from holding office for varying periods people the government is investigating. People barred from occupying public office may not run for office during those periods.
But this law is inconsistent with applicable regional standards, which say that no one should be prevented from running for office unless they have been convicted of a crime.
The comptroller general, who was appointed in December 2014 by a simple majority vote of government supporters in the National Assembly, is the Maduro administration’s former solicitor general, a position whose main purpose is to defend government interests before the courts.
The comptroller general’s decisions are subject to appeal before the Venezuelan Supreme Court. But the government has long interfered in Venezuela’s justice system and has packed the Supreme Court with government supporters.
In July 2015, Diosdado Cabello, the pro-government president of the National Assembly, when asked about the disqualifications, said on TV that although some members of the government party had previously been disqualified from holding public posts, none of their candidates had been barred from participating in the elections.