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Human Rights Developments

In 1992, Venezuela witnessed two military coup attempts; in 1993, President Carlos Andrés Pérez left office under charges of misappropriating public funds; in 1994, events in Venezuela were perhaps less conspicuously dramatic, but not less serious. Facing the worst economic crisis in its history, marked by high inflation, economic contraction, and the collapse of several major banks, the Venezuelan government suspended six constitutional guarantees in late June, including those protecting fundamental rights to liberty and personal security. The suspension inaugurated a wave of human rights violations, adding to the abuses already occurring throughout the year.

In December 1993, Rafael Caldera, who had previously occupied the presidency from 1969 to 1974, was again elected president. Despite a few promising early measures, Caldera did not squarely confront any of the fundamental human rights problems facing the country, and his mid-1994 suspension of constitutional guarantees did much to exacerbate them.

The single bloodiest event of the year occurred even before Caldera's inauguration, however. On January 3, 1994, a massacre in the Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo left more than a hundred prison inmates dead and scores injured. For about two hours, as prison guards and members of the National Guard stationed at Sabaneta watched, a group of inmates from one section of the prison set fire to cellblocks in another section, and shot or stabbed inmates who managed to escape the inferno. A number of sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch after the attack suspected that the National Guard and prison personnel intentionally delayed restoring order, facilitating the massacre. Whether purposeful or simply negligent, the official failure to act constituted a breach of Venezuela's obligation under international and domestic law to protect prisoners' rights, most importantly, their right to life.

Despite the seriousness of the incident, subsequent developments in its judicial investigation discouraged hopes that those responsible would be held accountable for their conduct. Because the judge investigating the case had issued two arrest warrants against members of the National Guard, out of a total of fifty-four warrants issued, a jurisdictional conflict arose between military and civilian tribunals. In September, the Supreme Court resolved the conflict in favor of military jurisdiction. Under this ruling, not only were the two National Guard members to be tried before a military court, so too were the fifty-two prisoners implicated in the massacre.

Unfortunately, the violence exhibited at Sabaneta, though unique in its severity, was indicative of a general pattern of violence in the Venezuelan prison system. During the first six months of 1994, approximately 400 prisoners died in prison violence. Even though the law clearly provides that prison authorities may be criminally liable for the death of persons under their custodianship, not a single prison official was prosecuted for these killings.

To some extent, those who administered the prisons might have been shielded by the view that the abuses occurring were not their responsibility, but were rather the predictable, even inevitable, result of the state of the prison system. During 1994, there were more than 28,000 prisoners cramped, under deplorable conditions, into a prison network designed to accommodate little more than half that number.

As the prison example illustrates, impunity for human rights violations remained the rule in Venezuela. Much of the responsibility for this state of affairs lay with the judicial system. Civilian courts were plagued by politicization, corruption, inefficiency, and lack of resources; military courts were not impartial and were subject to a high degree of executive control. Unsurprisingly, then, there was no significant progress in several important human rights cases, including one involving the mid-1993 massacre of sixteen members of the Yanomami tribe. In the most notorious past case, in fact, the guilty parties were exonerated by a military tribunal. That case, known as the El Amparo case, involved members of the since-disbanded CEJAP, a special military-police unit, who massacred fourteen fisherman in 1988 near El Amparo in southwestern Venezuela. While extended proceedings continued in the Venezuelan courts, where the case fell under military jurisdiction, an action was begun before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On January 15, 1994, the IACHR submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court granted Venezuela three months to comply with recommendations made by the commission: specifically, punish the guilty, indemnify the victims, and amend the Code of Military Justice.

Although Venezuela asked for and received an extension of time for compliance, when the extension finally expired in August Venezuela had not complied with any of the Commission's recommendations. Not only had the CEJAP agents not been punished, but on the contrary, they were absolved of all criminal liability by an ad hoc military court on August 12. This decision, the fruit of six years of proceedings in the Venezuelan courts, underscored fundamental weaknesses in the Venezuelan system of justice.

New human rights violations involving killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and the use of excessive police force, continued to occur in 1994. The assassination of Ildefonso Carmona, a prominent campesino leader, was one of the most notable such incidents. Carmona was shot in the face in front of his wife on November 26, 1993. Before his murder, he had complained before the state legislative assembly and the media that his life was being threatened by members of the Grupo de Tareas 1.2, a special military unit. The crime remained unsolved as of this writing.

In another disturbing incident, three members of the Yupka tribe were killed on February 2, 1994. Reportedly, when women of the tribe tried to block members of the Grupo de Tareas 1.2 from taking wood that they had cut, the military responded by firing indiscriminately. The investigation of this case stalled after March due to a jurisdictional dispute between military and civilian tribunals.

A wave of human rights abuses was introduced by the government's suspension of six basic constitutional guarantees on June 27, 1994. Citing the crisis of the financial system, exchange market instability, and speculation, President Caldera issued a decree suspending the protection against arbitrary searches, the protection against arbitrary arrest, the right of freedom of movement, the right to own private property, the guarantee against expropriation of property without compensation, and the right to freely engage in any legal economic activity. The suspension of guarantees was immediately criticized as unconstitutional: as the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA), a prominent local human rights group, noted, "None of the reasons given by the government demonstrates a threat to the constitutional fabric of the country, the only justification for decreeing restrictions to individual rights." In late July, the Congress rejected the administration's arguments in support of the suspension and voted to reinstate five of the six suspended guarantees.

The following day, President Caldera defied Congress and once again suspended the five restored rights. Equally troubling, he was extremely vague about how long this exceptional circumstance would last, prompting fears that the suspension might be prolonged indefinitely.

Although the government justified the curtailment of constitutional rights as necessary because of the economic crisis_specifically, the grave state of the financial system_it profited from the suspension to take aggressive actions far removed from the economic sphere. After the suspension, the police conducted numerous raids in poor urban areas of Caracas. Along with poor youths_a common target of these raids_social activists, popular leaders, and members of leftist political parties were searched and detained arbitrarily, and often held incommunicado. During the month of July, for example, PROVEA reported that 1,995 persons had been detained in police raids, of which only forty-two had been sought for the commission of crimes. In September, according to Inter Press Service, 1,600 police and military officers carried out an enormous raid of housing projects in a poor urban area west of Caracas, affecting some 10,000 families. Indeed, rather than a focused effort to resolve the economic crisis, it appeared that the suspension of guarantees facilitated an unrestricted fight against crime, urban violence, and social unrest.

The Right to Monitor

Several human rights monitoring and advocacy organizations worked in Venezuela during 1994. Their members generally operated with some degree of government cooperation and without physical danger, although some harassment occurred. In July, for example, PROVEA reported five harassment complaints, three of them from activists of the Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, an organization that monitors and promotes human rights in Venezuela. According to a letter that the activists sent to Interior Minister Ramón Escovar Salom, the harassment, which included death threats, occurred after the activists appeared on radio and television programs discussing police and military involvement in human rights violations.

U.S. Policy

Because of its tradition of civilian government and, perhaps more significantly, its position as the second largest supplier of oil to the United States, Venezuela has long been considered an important U.S. ally. As the administration explained in presenting Congress with its security assistance request for fiscal year 1995, "Access to Venezuela's vast petroleum reserves remain[s] vital to our national security." Moreover, Venezuela was the second largest purchaser of U.S. goods in Latin America, and, specifically, the third largest purchaser of U.S. arms. U.S. policy was therefore driven by a strong interest in maintaining good relations with the Venezuelan government.

Nonetheless, in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, published in February 1994, the State Department sharply criticized Venezuela's poor human rights record. By contrast, the administration's immediate public reaction to abuses in 1994 was confined to President Clinton's statement, when the incoming Venezuelan ambassador presented his credentials, that the United States expected "an early return of the constitutional guarantees that have been suspended."

Notwithstanding the poor human rights record of the Venezuelan security forces, Venezuela continued to receive U.S. assistance through both the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, by which military officers are trained in the United States, and the International Narcotics Matters (INM) program. Specifically, Venezuela received $200,000 in IMET assistance in fiscal year 1994, with $250,000 requested for fiscal year 1995. The level of anti-narcotics assistance was somewhat higher: $400,000 in fiscal year 1994 and $500,000 estimated for the following year. Human Rights Watch/Americas remained concerned that this funding had proven ineffective in promoting respect for human rights, one of the stated goals of the assistance programs.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Americas

In conjunction with the Human Rights Watch Prison Project, we sent a fact-finding mission to Venezuela on January 11, 1994, in the immediate aftermath of the Sabaneta prison massacre. This mission led to the release of a report titled Prison Massacre in Maracaibo, which described the tragedy, outlinined our recommendations regarding investigation and prosecution, and urged that conditions at Sabaneta and other prisons be improved so that similar events might be prevented. Unfortunately, our recommendations were disregarded: neither prison conditions nor the problem of impunity was remedied to any discernible extent during 1994. The lack of improvement was especially disturbing given the notoriety of the problem.

Human Rights Watch/Americas also wrote to President Caldera regarding the suspension of constitutional guarantees and ensuing human rights abuses, the February killing of three members of the Yupka tribe, and the death threats suffered by members of the Red de Apoyo.

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