Hugo Chavez’s regime has come under increasing scrutiny because of blatant violations of basic human rights and an almost total absence of the rule of law, fundamental principles of any democratic society.
A comprehensive 300-page March report by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) enraged President Chavez, who dismissed the accusations as a plot to undermine the Bolivarian revolution, termed the report “pure excrement” and accused the commission of being at the “empire’s service”. The report cited persistent threats and violations of human rights — political participation, freedom of thought and expression, right to life, personal security, and personal integrity and liberty.
A key section of the report states “one of the principles that define the rule of law is the separation of public powers, and the independence of the branches of government as an essential element in democracy”. The report also notes “the exercise of rights and freedoms in a democratic system requires a legal and institutional order in which laws prevail over the will of rulers, in which there is judicial review of constitutionality and legality of acts of state, that is, presupposes respect for the rule of law”.
Far from improving after such serious warnings from the IACHR and the on-going protest of numerous local human rights activists and organizations, the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly. Even a slight criticism of the regime can lead to farcical accusations, with harassment, loss of job, arrest and indictment. Depending on the President’s mercurial mood, the unjustly charged offender may hear his prison term ‘’suggested’’ during Mr. Chavez’s weekly “Aló Presidente” television program.
Retired senior military officer and former Defense Minister Raul Baduel expressed concern about the government’s behavior, was harassed, indicted and finally condemned to seven years and 11 months in prison, to discourage his fellows taking the same path. It didn’t matter that he led the operation to reinstate Hugo Chavez
after his brief separation from power in April 2002.
Disappointed pro-Chavez National Assembly member Wilmer Azuaje spoke out about repeated corruption allegations against Chavez family members and was swiftly stripped of his duties without minimal legal procedures established in the Constitution. He was later falsely accused of attacking a police officer, convicted and subsequently placed under house arrest.
Such actions are intended to discourage dissidents in different sectors of society from actively resisting the government’s autocratic onslaught. In short, the regime has adopted an “intimidation by example” approach to try to quell dissent, selecting well-known individuals from the country’s major institutions as examples.
Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, former presidential candidate, ex-governor of Zulia state and a longtime member of the former National Congress, was jailed in March for almost two months, accused of conspiracy—a baseless charge later dismissed—and other specious crimes including spreading false information and creating social unrest. He had given a television interview concerning a Spanish judge’s indictment of several Spanish ETA terrorists living in Venezuela, and their alleged ties to the Venezuelan government and the FARC Colombian narco-terrorist group.
Released following a well-coordinated effort to gain the support of foreign governments and human rights organizations, Mr. Alvarez Paz cannot leave the country without judicial authorization. While awaiting a trial that could last for months, he was again attacked by Mr. Chavez, who said he should be jailed again because of his ‘’defiant attitude’’. In fact, his first words following his recent release were to call attention to the plight of political prisoners.
Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the only television channel not yet controlled or suppressed by the regime and a frequent critic of the government, was prevented in March by Immigration authorities from leaving the country on a short holiday to the nearby Caribbean island of Bonaire. He was arrested by the deputy head of army intelligence and accused of absurd crimes, including insulting the President, a charge that can legally be made only by the President himself.
Mr. Zuloaga told us ‘’the problem is they can keep the investigation open for six months or more, ultimately deciding: a) I am innocent or not guilty; b) there are enough facts to support the accusation and go to trial; or c) my case should be kept open – and I should remain in limbo. I did not build Globovision to fight Hugo Chavez, but he unfortunately declared as far back as 2001 that when media criticize the government, they are enemies of the state. They decided to harass me, forcefully entering and seizing the contents of my Caracas home not once but twice.” Two weeks ago, after Mr. Chavez complained on television that Mr. Zuloaga remained free despite having accused him of deaths committed in April 2002, a judge quickly ordered his detention for hoarding automobiles [although Mr. Zuloaga has several automobile agencies], which forced the accused to flee the country.
Diego Arria is a former UN Ambassador and chairman of the Security Council and ex-governor of Caracas. His rural estate was confiscated and burglarized by government hooligans, in retaliation for his criticizing regime policies. When he protested the seizure of his property, President Chavez ordered the National Assembly to open an investigation into his activities, publicly taunted Mr. Arria and effectively admitted the issue was a personal vendetta, saying, “If you want it back, you will have to knock me down”.
Mr. Arria brought his case to several international organizations and embarked on a tour to Brussels, Geneva, Madrid, Paris and The Hague to meet government leaders and senior officials of the International Labor Organization, the UN Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe’s Parliament.
Judge Maria de Lourdes Afiuni was sentenced to prison for paroling banker Eligio Cedeño, who had been jailed for nearly three years without a trial. Her decision infuriated President Chavez, who suggested on ‘’Aló Presidente’’ she should be sentenced to 30 years prison. Despite the IACHR issuing a protection order in favor of the judge,the highest Venezuelan court upheld the prison orders and dismissed defense allegations that her life was at risk at the prison facility where she is being held.
Ignoring the IACHR seems to be part of a “tradition,” according to Judge Afiuni’s attorney, adding, “the case is historic because this is the first time a judge is imprisoned for complying with a legal mandate.” Hugo Chavez rebuffed the IACHR’s decision saying, “the commission is an instrument of imperialism and our sacred sovereignty must be respected”.
Nine Caracas police officers have been condemned to exceptional prison sentences in a case stretching back eight years, when on April 11, 2002 one million Venezuelans marched peacefully to express their displeasure with the regime and to seek the President’s resignation. After the demonstration, three police commissioners and six officers were arrested and tried as scapegoats for the death of three of 19 victims. After years of delay, the Criminal Appeals Chamber of the Supreme Court abruptly ratified all sentences of up to 30 years in prison.
According to Jose Luis Tamayo, an attorney representing the policemen, it is “impossible” the court could have read, analyzed and weighed all the issues presented by the defense in 15 days, a presentation consisting of more than eight thousand pages. The decision automatically bars the convicted men from seeking election to the National Assembly in polls scheduled for September 26, which clearly is why the ruling was suddenly and precipitously announced.
Rocío San Miguel heads Control Ciudadano, a domestic NGO. An attorney, she follows military affairs closely and recently exposed the registration of several high-ranking military officers in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela [PSUV], which is explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. The government’s response has been to denigrate her publicly, and remove from the National Electoral Council website the PSUV records she used to prove her allegations.
While the government’s intimidation by example plan continues; basic human decency is regularly violated throughout society. Two examples underscore the sad state of human rights in Venezuela.
According to the Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, an NGO dedicated to just treatment for prison inmates, some 38,000 prisoners are held in facilities designed to hold 12,500. Even worse, almost 68 percent are awaiting sentencing or simply to be told whether or not they are guilty. Inmates are crowded in cells several times their capacity, with some forced to sleep on stairs and in aisles. Feeling forgotten and as a last resort to gain government attention, 15,000 prisoners launched a hunger strike on May 17. Unable to further punish the already ill-treated prisoners, the authorities simply ignored the strike, but reacted violently against relatives protesting outside prisons across the country.
The hunger strike ended in late May, when officials made hollow promises to better prison conditions. The prisoner plight is one of the most serious violations of basic human rights in Venezuela. It is a flagrant injustice that mocks the country’s Constitution under the close guidance of Hugo Chavez and which he has consistently flouted in recent years. [Created in 1999, the so-called ‘’Bolivarian Constitution’’ is the 26th in 200 years, numbers 350 articles and follows the 1961 Constitution which served the then relatively peaceful Venezuela longer than any in its history.]
The Military Hospital in Caracas is the scene of one of the most tragic examples of the Chavez regime’s disregard for human dignity. Practically alone, farmer and biologist Franklin Brito launched a hunger strike last year to protest the government’s 2005 invasion and plundering of his property in Bolivar state, which was later expropriated without a just compensatory payment. Beginning his fast in mid-2009 in front of the Caracas office of the Organization of American States in protest at the seizure of his land, Mr. Brito suspended his hunger strike on December 4 when advised the expropriation had been annulled.
When authorities failed to return clear title to his property, Franklin Brito resumed his strike, only to be taken forcefully to the Military Hospital, where attempts were made to declare him insane. Since being hospitalized in December, Mr. Brito has defied efforts to force-feed him and fought to resume his hunger strike. The government finally allowed the Red Cross to visit him and he has since resumed drinking water. His condition remains grave.
These are a few cases representative of what thousands endure in today’s Venezuela. The manifold human rights violations are condoned by a government that cares about nothing more than maintaining itself in power. The human wrongs perpetrated by Hugo Chavez’s regime are the cruelest aspect of his despotic presidency.
The next article in this series will explore the many faceted Cuba-Venezuela relationship, including the Castro regime’s role in suppressing human rights.