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Washington, D.C., October 27, 2016

His Holiness
Pope Francis
The Apostolic Palace – Vatican City

Your Holiness,

In advance of the Holy See’s participation in an eventual dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition, I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to respectfully urge you to ensure adequate conditions for such dialogue to be fruitful.[1] Any good faith and meaningful dialogue must be based on an objective assessment of the political, social, and economic crisis that the country is facing, and recognize the government’s responsibility in creating and addressing it. Otherwise, it will only serve as yet another excuse for Venezuelan authorities to delay measures that are desperately needed to protect human rights and restore minimum democratic standards in Venezuela.

Pope Francis poses with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a meeting at the Vatican on June 17, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

For any dialogue to succeed, it must tackle head-on the Venezuelan government’s authoritarian practices. Since the crackdown on anti-government protests in 2014, the government has resorted to the courts, which lack judicial independence, to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute opposition leaders and ordinary Venezuelans who speak out about the crisis.[2] Many have been abused while in custody, including some cases that amount to torture. These criminal cases have been repeatedly plagued with due process violations. In addition to those who remain in detention since 2014, several others—including political activists and journalists—have been detained in recent weeks and subjected to similarly flawed judicial processes.[3] The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local network of lawyers that provides legal aid to political detainees in Venezuela, estimates that approximately 100 people are currently detained for political reasons.[4] The Venezuelan Penal Forum and other local groups have reported dozens of detentions and excessive use of force during anti-government demonstrations on October 26, 2016.[5]

In addition, the Maduro government has seriously undermined the powers of the opposition-led National Assembly, which took office in January 2016. The vast majority of laws adopted by the Assembly have been struck down by the Supreme Court, which ceased functioning as an independent check on executive power under President Hugo Chávez.[6]

Meanwhile, the National Electoral Council, which has a pro-government membership that compromises its impartiality, has dragged its feet despite specific deadlines in its own regulations, unduly delaying the recall referendum process on President Nicolás Maduro’s presidency.[7] On October 20, it decided to indefinitely suspend the signature drive scheduled for this week to move forward with the referendum.[8] The council claimed it was complying with judicial rulings but those rulings were by courts that lack independence and have largely served to rubber stamp the government’s efforts to disempower the political opposition.[9]

Moreover, Venezuela is facing a profound humanitarian crisis that is having a heavy toll on the well-being of Venezuelans and undermines their rights to health and food.[10] Severe shortages of basic medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for many Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. Severe shortages of food and other goods make it difficult for many people to obtain adequate nutrition and cover their families’ basic needs. Yet the government has denied it is facing a humanitarian crisis, failed to articulate and implement effective measures to address it, and has persecuted those who speak out about the crisis. Moreover, it has blocked a National Assembly law that aimed at obtaining international humanitarian aid, and has made only limited efforts to obtain international assistance that could help alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people in the short term. 

Under these circumstances, a dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition is not a conversation between equals. On the contrary, one side is a government that concentrates enormous power, which it has used to target opponents for repression and abuse. On the other side, you have an opposition that defends the powers of a democratically-elected National Assembly, and whose hope of a constitutional recall referendum to express the people’s will has been squashed by government supporters.

In light of this asymmetry, the starting point of any meaningful dialogue should be an explicit recognition of the government’s responsibility by everyone sitting at the table. Specifically, the Maduro administration should commit itself to implementing the following measures immediately:

  • Stop arresting political opponents and critics, and abusing detainees;
  • Releasing every Venezuelan arrested for political reasons who is subject to baseless prosecutions;
  • Allowing the National Assembly to exercise its legislative powers;
  • Allowing the recall referendum process to proceed without further political interference or undue delay; and
  • Acknowledging it is facing a profound humanitarian crisis, and seeking international humanitarian aid to address it.

The government of Venezuela has demonstrated no interest in committing itself to adopting any of these measures, much less in the short term. Therefore, without strong international pressure to do so, this new dialogue risks serving only to allow the Maduro government to make disingenuous promises that do not solve the problems that Venezuela is facing, as previous dialogue initiatives have done. To ensure that this is not the case, we respectfully urge you to take to the table an objective assessment of the situation and concrete results that should be obtained, including, but not limited to, those outlined above. Based on Human Rights Watch’s frequent visits to Venezuela, I can assure you that the situation in the country is critical, and there is no more time to waste.

I hope this information is useful.


José Miguel Vivanco
Human Rights Watch


[1] In September, the Vatican stated that it would participate in a dialogue in Venezuela after both the government and the opposition requested it, and only after the conversations had already initiated. “The Vatican puts conditions to mediate in Venezuela” (El Vaticano pone condiciones para mediar en Venezuela), El Universal, September 15, 2016, (accessed October 26, 2016).
[2] Human Rights Watch, “Punished for Protesting: Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers, and Justice System,” May 5, 2014,;

[3] Human Rights Watch, “Dissidents Allege Torture, Coerced Confessions,” July 27, 2016,

[4] Venezuelan Penal Forum, Balance of Political Prisoners, n.d.,

[5] “The Opposition is Violently Repressed Everywhere Except Caracas,” Caracas Chronicles, October 26, 2016, (accessed October 27, 2016).

[6] Human Rights Watch, “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez’s Venezuela,” July 17, 2012,

[7] Human Rights Watch, “Recall Supporters Fired,” July 20, 2016,

[8] National Electoral Council, “Electoral Power complies with precautionary measures issued by Venezuelan courts” (Poder Electoral acata medidas cautelares ordenadas por tribunales de la República), October 20, 2016, (accessed October 25, 2016).

[9] See, for example, José I. Hernández, “The referendum was suspended, now what?” (Suspendido el revocatorio: ¿y ahora qué?), Prodavinci, October 21, 2016,

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Crisis Humanitaria en Venezuela: La inadecuada y represiva respuesta del gobierno ante la grave escasez de medicinas, insumos y alimentos,” October 24, 2016,

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