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Human Rights Developments

In the middle of 1993, President Carlos Andrés Pérez was suspended from office and ordered to stand trial on charges of misappropriating $17 million in public funds. Ramón J. Velásquez was selected by Congress to assume the presidency and finish out the remainder of Pérez's term until February 1994. The peaceful transfer of presidential power and the country's ability to withstand two military uprisings in 1992, testified to the strength of civilian constitutional traditions. At the same time, the political turmoil during 1993 underscored the challenges to Venezuela's democracy arising from widespread resentment and frustration over corruption, increasing poverty and crime, inadequate public services, and discredited political institutions.

Serious human rights violations also continued to undermine the country's commitment to the rule of law. The past year witnessed arbitrary detentions; torture; extrajudicial executions; the unlawful use of excessive force resulting in physical injury and death; and abhorrent prison conditions. At least fifty-seven inmates were killed during a prison outbreak in November 1992, and numerous abuses were committed during the government's response to a failed military coup attempt that month and the one preceding it in February 1992. The number and nature of these abuses continued to be cause for concern. The government persisted in its traditional failure to curb and redress human rights violations. In addition to the absence of political will, problematic laws and the longstanding critical condition of the courts also contributedto the paucity of cases in which state agents were held accountable for human rights abuses.

Repercussions from the two attempted coups in 1992 continued in 1993. Although the government was able to put down the rebels within a day each time, the attempted coup of November 27 was much more violent than the earlier one in February. Official sources estimated about 230 dead. Among these were at least twenty-six noncombatants killed by security agents, according to Venezuelan human rights monitors. Coup participants charged National Guard and Metropolitan Police forces with executing six rebels-three military men and three civilians-after they had surrendered at a Caracas television station that they had occupied. The rebels were themselves accused of executing a private security guard at the station who had pleaded for his life. Likewise, rebels were accused of killing three surrendered members of an honor guard defending the Miraflores presidential palace. As of November 1993, no judicial proceedings had been initiated in any of these cases.

Eighteen persons detained by the military after the November coup attempt charged that they were tortured by their captors during unlawful incommunicado detention. The Public Ministry, which is charged by law with defending human and constitutional rights and monitoring the conduct of state agents, failed to visit the victims during their detention.

Exercising his constitutional authority, President Pérez suspended a number of constitutional guarantees on November 27, 1992, including the prohibition of arrest without warrant, the inviolability of the home and freedoms of movement, expression and assembly. Most of these liberties were restored by mid-December, and all were again in place on January 18, 1993. During the unnecessarily prolonged suspension of guarantees, however, government forces detained hundreds of dissidents and others perceived as unsympathetic to the government; not one was charged with participating in the coup attempt. Unnecessary violence characterized some raids. For example, while raiding her house on November 28, police threw acid on the leg of Sonia Díaz, a relative of one of the February coup plotters. Americas Watch is aware of only one judicial proceeding initiated into any of the human rights violations associated with the November 27 coup attempt.

Judicial investigations were underway, although dangerously stalled, in the case of the killing of at least fifty-seven inmates of Caracas's Retén de Catia prison during a prison outbreak the day of the November 1992 coup attempt. Under circumstances that remained murky, most of the victims were fatally shot, most at close range and in or about the head. One guard was shot and killed by a prisoner, and another guard was injured. At least forty-five prisoners were injured, either during the retaking of the prison or during their transfer to other prisons. Although lawyers for the Public Ministry earnestly pursued their investigations, the cases languished due to a combination of governmental reluctance and the court's unwillingness or inabilityto proceed. In that sense, the case neatly fit the pattern of most human rights investigations.

At the time of the prison riot, between 3,400 and 4,200 prisoners were jammed into a facility meant to hold 700 to 900. While conditions at the Retén de Catia in November 1992 were particularly horrible, they were not significantly worse than those in the nation's thirty other facilities. The riot led to increased public attention in 1993 to the national scandal of overcrowded, filthy, and violent prisons and their poorly-paid, abusive and corrupt staff.

Two March 1993 court decisions had a direct bearing on human rights. On March 2, a military court of appeals found fifteen members of a since-disbanded police/military unit (the CEJAP) guilty of intentional homicide in the October 1988 killing of fourteen fishermen in El Amparo and handed down prison sentences of seven and a half years to each defendant. The court accepted the defendants' claim of having killed the victims in self-defense during an armed confrontation; it nonetheless refused to exonerate them completely because of their excessive use of force. The court's tortured and patently biased handling of the evidence and its weak reasoning supported a decision that was best understood as a political compromise: any decision completely absolving the accused would have caused a furor among those demanding justice, yet the military court evidently heeded the military's insistence for many years that an armed confrontation, not a massacre, had taken place.

The case was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In their 1992 petition before the IACHR, the Caracas-based Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humans (PROVEA), Americas Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) challenged the legitimacy of Venezuela's military courts to hear cases of this nature. Venezuela's 1938 military justice code, a vestige of dictatorship, grants extraordinary powers to the President to interfere in military court proceedings at his sole discretion. Because of this interference, the military justice system in Venezuela violates the requirement of the American Convention on Human Rights that judicial review be impartial and independent.

On March 11, the Venezuelan Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the special ad hoc military courts established by President Pérez to try those involved in the November 27 attempted coup d'etat. Some 150 civilians and members of the military were tried by these courts and approximately fifty had been convicted at the time of the Supreme Court's ruling. Human rights groups and lawyers for the accused challenged the tribunals' constitutionality, objecting to expedited procedures that rendered impossible an adequate defense; the curtailed right of appeal; and military court jurisdiction over civilians. The Supreme Court ruled that the ad hoc courts violated the constitutional guarantees of the right to defense and the right to be tried by one's natural judge, guarantees which had not been among those suspended after theattempted coup. Venezuelan jurists and human rights advocates were troubled by the possibility, raised by the court's language, that the President could have legally suspended such guarantees and by the court's failure to address Venezuela's obligation under international law to grant due process.

The use of violence by police resulting in death and serious physical harm continued in 1993. Police committed human rights violations not only in criminal investigations, but also during control of public demonstrations and street protests. According to PROVEA, police agents were responsible for 128 unjustified killings between October 1992 and June 1993 (not including at least fifty-seven civilian deaths resulting from the suppression of the uprising at the Retén de Catia prison). The number represented an increase over previous years. Security forces-including the Metropolitan Police, the National Guard, the intelligence force DISIP and the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), an auxiliary body to the courts operating under the Ministry of Justice-employed such abusive methods as force disproportionate to the circumstances, extrajudicial executions and physical abuse and torture. Police abuse took place at every stage of police contact with citizens, both during and after arrest and detention and in the suppression of civic protest.

For example, on the night of December 16, 1992, Metropolitan Police were dispatched to quell a motorcyclists' party in the Blandín area of Caracas. Police were reported to have arrived shooting. One police officer was shot in the arm. Angered over his injury, he ordered other officers to open fire on a group of detained persons lying prone on the ground. Three individuals were killed. Two more were killed by gunfire as they separately fled the scene on motorcycle. No one was detained for these killings. On April 29, 1993, DISIP agents were seen by witnesses as they arrested a twelve-year-old male street child in the Sabana Grande section of Caracas, took him to a remote area, poured gas on his genitals and abused him physically and verbally. Investigations into this case produced no results. Sergio Rodríguez Yance, a university employee, was fatally shot on September 23, 1993, when government forces fired on a student protest in Caracas.

Security-force agents were rarely indicted or convicted for abuses against civilians. State agents also continued to benefit from the averiguación de nudo hecho, a pre-trial procedure designed to protect state agents from frivolous criminal charges. In practice, this investigative procedure delayed criminal proceedings unnecessarily, creating a temporary immunity from prosecution. While state agents responsible for the massacre at El Amparo were convicted-although with shockingly light sentences-not one state agent had been detained or incarcerated, as of November 1993, for the unlawful violence during the mass Caracazo riots of February and March 1989. Thousands were injured and at least 398 persons were killed, most of them shot by the military and police. During 1993 there was no perceptible advance in some 260 judicialinvestigations into these cases in both civilian courts and the 2nd Military Court of Caracas.

Investigations into the mass burial of more than sixty Caracazo victims in the "La Peste" section of Caracas's General Southern Cemetery continued to be stalled. There was no progress in identifying the victims (only three had been identified, in 1991), although as of June 1993, five additional sets of remains were being examined by government forensic experts. No criminal responsibility was yet assigned for the unlawful manner of burial or the killings themselves.

The Right to Monitor

A number of human rights monitoring and advocacy organizations operated freely in Venezuela without government restriction or interference. Relations between the human rights community and the government, particularly the Public Ministry and courts, varied from cooperative (as in efforts addressing the prison outbreak at Retén de Catia) to unproductive and even hostile (as in the ongoing efforts to identify those buried in 1989 in mass graves during the Caracazo). Reports by the human rights groups were generally well-received by the Venezuelan press, which provided decent, although inconsistent, coverage of human rights issues.

Americas Watch and other international human rights organizations freely conducted investigative missions. The government did not, however, respond to all requests for information on human rights issues.

Human rights monitors typically did not face physical danger in their work. Sergio Rodríguez, killed when police fired on a student demonstration in September 1993, was a participant in PROVEA's human rights monitor training program. There did not appear to be any connection, however, between his involvement with human rights activities and his death. Some lawyers representing participants in the 1992 coup attempts were threatened by anonymous callers.

U.S. Policy

Venezuela is an important U.S. ally in the hemisphere, given its longstanding civilian government and its role as the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States. The U.S., in turn, is the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, and Venezuela's largest trading partner. With the attempted coups and the country's increased importance as a transshipment point in the flow of drugs from Latin America, the United States in recent years made the preservation and promotion of democracy a chief goal in its relations with Venezuela. The Bush administration condemned the February and November 1992 coup attempts, and stated on the morning of the November attempt that "The United States cannot have normal relations with a country that has abandoned democracy...."

During a September 2, 1993 press conference, conducted while Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich, was in Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted that the United States "strongly support[s] the democratic process" inVenezuela. He failed, however, to address human rights problems affecting the country. On September 15, 1993, President Clinton, perhaps responding to renewed rumors of military unrest, sent an encouraging note to his Venezuelan counterpart, stressing that "My administration wants to continue working with Venezuela to reinforce your democracy, affirm respect in all sectors for civilian government and constitutional rule and promote honest responsible governance throughout the hemisphere."

In February 1993, the Department of State issued its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, in which Venezuela was strongly criticized for its human rights practices. The report stated that:

    ...serious human rights abuses continued in 1992. They included arbitrary and excessively lengthy detentions, abuse of detainees, extrajudicial killings by the police and military, the failure to punish police and security officers accused of abuses, corruption and gross inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems, deplorable prison conditions, and violence and discrimination against women. Police sweeps of poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods resulted in increased incidents of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.

Notwithstanding human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces, Venezuela received U.S. security assistance through the International Narcotics Matters (INM) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, both designed primarily to professionalize security forces and train them to combat drug trafficking.

Venezuela received an estimated $1 million in INM assistance for fiscal year 1993, which did not include a human rights component. In addition, $500,000 was requested for fiscal year 1994. Venezuela received $175,000 in IMET assistance in fiscal year 1993, with a significantly increased $475,000 requested for fiscal year 1994. According to the Clinton administration, the expanded IMET program for fiscal year 1994 was to emphasize democratic values, human rights and civilian oversight of the military.

The effectiveness of U.S. assistance to professionalize police and military personnel and to combat drug trafficking was questionable. The three security forces principally responsible for interdicting drugs-the PTJ, National Guard and DISIP-frequently violated fundamental human rights. Moreover, there were persistent charges that members of the armed forces and police were themselves involved in the drug trade. Indeed the Miami Herald reported in August 1993 that an arrest warrant was issued against one of Venezuela's former top drug fighters, National Guard Gen. (Ret.) Ramón Guillén Dávila, and four other officers suspected of drug trafficking and related crimes.

After the attempted coup of February 1992, the Bush administration dedicated some $800,000 to an eighteen-month program (to end in December 1993) arranged by the State Department's Agency forInternational Development (AID) to train Venezuelan law enforcement officials, including police, prosecutors and judges, to work together more effectively against corruption. In April 1993 interviews with Americas Watch, U.S. government officials criticized the program as little more than a U.S. flag-waving exercise to support the ailing Pérez administration.

On July 20, 1993, Jeffrey Davidow testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as President Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Venezuela. Although Davidow did not raise human rights in his prepared statement, he acknowledged under questioning that human rights abuse took place in the country and that the State Department's most recent human rights report was "accurate." Davidow stated in a July 27 meeting with Americas Watch that human rights would be a central concern of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch increased its focus on Venezuela throughout late 1992 and 1993. Not having published reports on Venezuela, we made an effort to conduct research on all the features of human rights violations against a backdrop of social and political tension, which included serious challenges to the stability of democratic institutions. In December 1992 and in May and June 1993, we conducted fact-finding missions to Caracas and met with government officials, victims of abuse, members of the human rights community, journalists, lawyers and the U.S. Embassy.

In October 1993, Americas Watch released its first report on Venezuela, an attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of the human rights situation under a threatened democracy. Human Rights in Venezuela documented some of the most serious abuses that have occurred over the past five years and the government's failure to curb and redress them. The report was published during the last months of the presidential election campaign in the hope of contributing to the national dialogue concerning the country's commitment to fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

Americas Watch invited Father Matías Comuñas Marchante, a Spanish priest serving the parish of Petare outside Caracas and long an activist for human rights, to be honored by Human Rights Watch at its observance of Human Rights Day, December 10.

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