CIVICUS

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Venezuela

Live rating: Repressed

Last updated on 14.05.2019 at 11:16

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Venezuela- Overview

Venezuelan civil society is operating in a context of escalating political polarisation, economic crisis and class divisions which have led to the erosion of the basic freedoms sustaining civic space.

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30th April 2019: another peak in repression

30th April 2019: another peak in repression

The escalating tensions in Venezuela caused by the dispute of power between Juan Guaido and the ruling party have witnessed an increase in violations of civic freedoms. 30th April 2019, began as a day which could have marked the return of democracy to Venezuela. Opposition leader and interim President, Juan Guaidó appeared in the streets with the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez who was previously sentenced to 14 years in prison and held under house arrest. The two politicians called for Venezuelans to take the streets and demand that Nicolas Maduro step down from power.

Association

The escalating political crisis in Venezuela have witnessed an increase in violations of civic freedoms. On 30th April 2019, Juan Guaidó, National Assembly President appeared in the streets with the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez who was previously sentenced to 14 years in prison and held under house arrest, to announce that some officers of the armed forces were supporting their call to "end the usurpation by Maduro." The two politicians called for Venezuelans to take to the streets and demand that Nicolas Maduro step down from power. The fallout from protests held on 30th April 2019, is covered in the “peaceful assembly” section. However, the growing tension led to a backlash against opposition leaders by the government. 

A number of opposition politicians were arrested and harassed in the ensuing crackdown. On 10th May 2019, Emilio Mirabal from the State of Anzoategui reported that his house had been vandalised by the so-called “colectivos chavistas”. The graffiti can be seen in the picture below. Similarly, on 26th April 2019, the opposition Congressman Gilber Caro was also arrested while at a restaurant in Caracas and at the time of writing, his whereabouts remain unknown. No information regarding the justification for his arrest has been released by Venezuelan authorities. Finally, on 1st May 2019, the house of opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez was raided, searched and burgled allegedly by members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin). Lopez and his family are currently residing in the Embassy of Spain in Venezuela as a precautionary measure.

According to the local NGO, Foro Penal, in Venezuela there are currently 857 political prisoners (as of 6th May 2019), meaning an increase of 72 prisoners since the CIVICUS Monitor's last update on Venezuela. In light of this increase in political prisoners, the Director of Foro Penal expressed his concern over reports of more sophisticated forms of torture against political prisoners. The video below documents his comments. 

On 24th April 2019, a new report by Foro Penal detailed the siege of the Pemon indigenous community between 22nd and 28th February 2019. The siege was imposed after the community opposed Maduro's government and for attempting to help humanitarian aid to enter the country. Members of the community now living in the exile in Brazil, recounted how the Venezuelan army arrived to their community heavily armed to dissuade the community from protesting. One survivor of the attacks stated:

“They attacked all of us with live ammunition, these were not rubber bullets, (...) they wanted to kill us all”.

As a result of this harassment, more than 700 hundred members of the Pemon indigenous community have had to leave their lands and move to Brazil fearing the attacks of the Venezuelan army. The report documents that at least 7 people were killed and 62 arbitrary arrests were registered in the confrontation.

Peaceful Assembly 

According to the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS), 6,211 protests were reported in Venezuela in the first 90 days of 2019. On average, this figure represents 69 protests per day, which is an 157% increase from the number of protests in 2018. While the protests represent a variety of economic, social, cultural and environmental demands, a high percentage also relate to political rights. In fact, there were 2,820 street actions demanding political rights during which citizens demanded the end of Maduro’s government.

On 6th April 2019, the opposition and the government called for protests at different points in Caracas and Venezuela to reject or support the government of Nicolás Maduro. During the protests, approximately 30 opposition demonstrators were injured in Zulia State, as the Bolivarian National Guard soldiers used gas and pellets in two marches to disperse them. In addition, in the city of Maracaibo, Renzo Prieto and Nora Bracho, two opposition deputies, were temporarily detained and subsequently released. Juan Guaidó rejected the excessive force used by Venezuelan security forces and declared that the repression will not stop protester.

30th April 2019 and 1st May 2019 saw massive mobilisations demanding the resignation of Nicolas Maduro. The result of the repression during these days witnessed 273 people arrested and five people killed. Three of the victims killed in the confrontation were under the age of eighteen. There are also reports of 30 officials of the State military being disappeared for allegedly supporting the opposition leaders Juan Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez on 30th April. The UN Human Rights Office expressed its deep concern on the use of excessive force against demonstrators in Venezuela. In a statement on 1st May 2019, a spokesperson for the office said: 

"We remind State authorities of their duty to ensure the protection of the human rights of all people – regardless of their political affiliation. All sides should renounce the use of violence. We urge the political leaders to engage in meaningful discussions to work towards resolving the current crisis."

Expression

According to NetBlocks, a global organisation monitoring internet disruptions, the access to services such as Google and YouTube were severely affected while Juan Guaido was speaking to the public on 30th April 2019. On the other hand, the coverage of these services increased considerably minutes before Nicolas Maduro gave his speech to the nation hours later to reject the widespread protests.

The Inter American Press Association rejected the attacks against the press on 30th April 2019. According to the organisation, 19 violations of freedom of expression were reported on that day alone. There were eleven instances of media being unduly blocked or interfered with, which included cases of robbery and arrests. CNN International and BBC were also censored in the country during the protests.

On 12th April 2019, The National Union of Press Workers (SNTP) denounced the new groups attacking journalists in Venezuela, including the SEBIN, the Counterintelligence Division (DGCIM) and the “colectivos chavistas” who act within the statute of "Security Corps" of the State. In the 2013-2018 period, 2,020 attacks against journalists were documented including physical attacks, disappearances, detention, theft of equipment, violation of journalist’s privacy. In addition, the exercise of journalism has been affected by the blackouts of recent months because which has resulted in the media being unable to operate and transmit their information.

Association in Venezuela

Although the freedom of association is constitutionally protected in Venezuela, independent CSOs have grown increasingly worried about the myriad of laws, regulations and practices restricting civic space freedoms, which they have repeatedly denounced as unconstitutional.

Although the freedom of association is constitutionally protected in Venezuela, independent CSOs have grown increasingly worried about the myriad of laws, regulations and practices restricting civic space freedoms, which they have repeatedly denounced as unconstitutional. CSOs face a major legal restriction under the 2010 Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which prohibits any organisation with ‘political objectives’ or dedicated to ‘the advancement of political rights’ from receiving any sort of foreign funding or financial aid, a crime that is penalised with fines. A local civil society group has documented several cases where organisations with ‘rule of law’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ included in their statutes were refused registration. The introduction of the so-called ‘laws of popular power’ in 2010 also dealt a damaging blow to the plurality of civil society. According to the law, communal councils and socio-productive units are the only organisational forms allowed to participate in public policymaking and receive state funding. Advocacy CSOs are still allowed to exist but are ignored as politically relevant actors, and face increasing criminalisation, intimidation, harassment and financial asphyxiation. Hosting a foreign citizen or an organisation that causes offense to Venezuelan institutions or government, or attacks the state’s sovereignty is also punished with steep fines, loss of political rights and criminal sanctions. Resources are also limited as a consequence of the exchange control regime mandating the conversion of all donations to the local currency, and scrutiny and surveillance of CSOs has increased since the Law Against Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism entered into force in 2012.

Peaceful Assembly in Venezuela

The freedom of peaceful assembly is recognised in the Venezuelan Constitution and the law provides that 24 hours advance notice of demonstrations must be given to authorities. The Supreme Court in Venezuela has however interpreted the requirement to provide notice as meaning that organisers must secure authorisation before a gathering can take place.

The freedom of peaceful assembly is recognised in the Venezuelan Constitution and the law provides that 24 hours advance notice of demonstrations must be given to authorities. The Supreme Court in Venezuela has however interpreted the requirement to provide notice as meaning that organisers must secure authorisation before a gathering can take place. Public spaces have however become increasingly restricted through subsidiary regulations. A series of anti-government protests began in February 2014 and, while the vast majority of protesters demonstrated peacefully, violent clashes between a minority of demonstrators, on one hand, and the militarised National Guard, armed pro-government civilian groups and intelligence agents, on the other, resulted in 43 deaths (including protesters, bystanders, government supporters and members of the security forces), close to 800 injured, 3,500 arrests and approximately 143 cases of torture and ill treatment. The government alleged that the protests were attempts to destabilise the country, orchestrated by a US-supported ‘fascist’ opposition, and blamed the casualties on the protesters. International human rights organisations, however, concluded that most victims were unarmed or were not engaging in acts of violence or other criminal activity when targeted by security forces. As a response to the 2014 protests, new regulations were issued in early 2015 allowing soldiers to open fire if they believe their lives are at risk during demonstrations. As protests sparked by food shortages continued after the May 2016 declaration of a state of emergency, demonstrators were repressed with tear gas and rubber bullets. Journalists were also attacked and had equipment stolen or broken when trying to report on the protests.

Expression in Venezuela

The freedom of expression is constitutionally enshrined but subjected to both legal and de facto restrictions in a context of a war between the state and the privately owned media dating back to a failed 2002 coup.

The freedom of expression is constitutionally enshrined but subjected to both legal and de facto restrictions in a context of a war between the state and the privately owned media dating back to a failed 2002 coup. The vaguely phrased 2004 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media – amended in 2010 to include Internet activity - allows the government to control content. Reforms to the criminal code introduced in 2005 extended the scope of defamation as a criminal offence. Intimidation, physical attacks, violent rhetoric, legal harassment, restrictions on acquiring printing materials and a total lack of access to public information have also restricted the freedom of the press. The Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público counted a total of 237 cases of free expression violations and 201 individual victims in 2015 – the numbers of attacks documented in 2014 and 2015 were among the highest ever recorded. The share of opposition-oriented media outlets has shrunk in recent years as many were financially asphyxiated, politically harassed and eventually forced to close or were bought by pro-government business groups. Government propaganda is pervasive in state-controlled and government-friendly media. Censorship has penetrated the Internet under the form of hacked accounts, intermittent blockage of popular social media platforms like Twitter, and the arrest and imprisonment of active users. In 2014, seven people were arrested for publishing content on Twitter deemed offensive or deemed to be inciting violence. Deliberate threats and attacks against journalists and photographers (as well as citizens documenting protests) have occurred in the context of demonstrations.