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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Venezuela

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Venezuela, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa414.html [accessed 16 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
VENEZUELA

 

Venezuela is a republic with an active multiparty democratic system, a free press, well-established unions, and a longstanding commitment to democracy. These factors enabled the country to withstand two attempted coups in 1992 and the impeachment of a President in 1993. Over three decades of two-party dominance ended in 1994 when former President Rafael Caldera was sworn in as President with the support of a coalition of small and medium-sized parties. Four major political groupings now comprise the Congress. On July 6, the Government reinstated constitutional guarantees which it had suspended in June 1994, allegedly because of the need to combat subversion and to address the country's financial crisis. The freedoms from arbitrary arrest and detention and search without warrant were restored, as were freedom to travel, to pursue profitable activities, the right to own private property, and to receive compensation for assets confiscated by the State. However, three of the constitutional suspensions remained in effect in some border areas.

The security apparatus comprises civilian and military elements, both accountable to elected authorities. The National Guard, a branch of the military, has arrest powers and is largely responsible for guarding the exterior of prisons and key government installations, maintaining order during times of civil unrest, monitoring frontiers, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. It also supplies the top leadership for the Metropolitan Police, the main civilian police force in and around Caracas, and for various state and municipal police forces. The Interior Ministry controls the State Security Police (DISIP) which is primarily responsible for protecting public officials and investigating cases of subversion and arms trafficking. The Justice Ministry controls the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) which conducts most criminal investigations. Both police and military personnel were responsible for human rights abuses.

The public sector, including the petroleum industry which accounts for some 22 percent of the gross domestic product, dominates the economy. In response to a financial crisis, the Government maintained control over half the banking sector. Although the Government sharply devalued the national currency on December 11, it retained foreign exchange and price controls and continued to restrict severely the availability of foreign exchange. Continuing fiscal and monetary difficulties, as well as a drop in international reserves, led Venezuela to begin negotiations on an economic stabilization program with the International Monetary Fund in late 1995.

The Government's human rights record continued to be poor in certain areas and included extrajudicial killings by the police and military, torture and abuse of detainees, failure to punish police and security officers accused of abuse, arbitrary and excessively lengthy detentions, corruption and severe inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems, deplorable prison conditions, and a lack of respect for the rights of indigenous people. Violence against women, abuse of children, and discrimination against the disabled are problems. The Government did not take effective action to punish abusers except in a few highly publicized cases, such as the killing of a peasant farmer and torture of 22 others by the military near the Cararabo marine outpost and the execution-style killing of a student by the Caracas police.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of targeted political killings, but extrajudicial killings, primarily of criminal suspects, by the security forces continued. The Venezuelan Program of Action and Education in Human Rights (PROVEA), one of the country's most respected human rights organizations, documented 126 extrajudicial killings from October 1994 through September 1995. The killings involved summary executions, indiscriminate or excessive use of force, death resulting from torture and mistreatment while in custody, and death resulting from abuse during military or public service. According to PROVEA, the municipal police carried out 44 of the killings; the state police 29; the PTJ 20; the DISIP 12; the National Guard 9; the armed forces 5; and other branches of the security apparatus or a combination of branches 7.

The perpetrators of extrajudicial killings act with near impunity, as the Government rarely prosecutes in such cases. The police often fail to investigate crimes allegedly committed by their colleagues and characterize incidents of extrajudicial killings as "confrontations," even though eyewitness testimony and evidence strongly indicate otherwise. In addition, the civilian judicial system remains highly inefficient and sometimes corrupt, and military courts are often strongly biased in favor of members of the armed forces accused of abuse. A special pretrial summary phase called "nudo hecho," used in cases involving public officials, often shields members of the security forces from prosecution, since cases can languish in that phase for several years. In the small number of prosecutions in which the courts convict perpetrators of extrajudicial killings and other abuses, the sentences issued are frequently light, or, more commonly, the convictions are overturned on appeal. Unlike common prisoners, members of the security forces charged with crimes rarely spend much time in prison.

In January five members of the Caracas Metropolitan Police were arrested for killing three young men in the Los Anaucos neighborhood. In addition, there were some other arrests of police officers accused of extrajudicial killings and other abuse. In April a member of the Aragua state police was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing a protesting student. The officer was released after 1 month, but in June six other arrest warrants were issued in connection with the case. In May three members of the Metropolitan Police were arrested for the alleged extrajudicial killing of Marcos Antonio Vivas Sayago in July 1994. In September four members of the PTJ were arrested in connection with the death of 21-year-old student Hector Rojas, who was shot twice in the chest while in handcuffs. A police officer was charged with the murder of 17-year-old student Joseph Moreno during a demonstration in Merida in September. These cases are in a prolonged investigatory phase; nearly all other incidents of extrajudicial killings and other abuse went unpunished and often uninvestigated.

There were no prosecutions or new revelations surrounding the discovery of a common grave in April 1994 in the Sierra de Perija region of Zulia state. Forensic experts provided no count of the number of bodies found in the grave, but human rights groups placed the number at around 15. At least one of the bodies showed signs of execution-style killing. Although members of a special rural contingent of the Zulia state police were alleged to have committed the killings, there were no arrests. A number of persons have come forward with credible testimony in recent years that there are additional common graves in the Sierra de Perija and Catatumbo regions as a result of killings by security forces, although subsequent government investigations were inconclusive. Human rights groups reported that local farmers and indigenous people are afraid to come forward with additional information for fear of reprisals. Likewise, the authorities never prosecuted or held anyone responsible for the November 1992 killing of at least 63 prisoners at Catia prison. The National Guard--erroneously claiming that coup leaders had distributed arms there--stormed the prison, opened cells, and fired on inmates. The majority of bodies found were reportedly shot at close range, suggesting summary executions. Apart from the officially recorded 63 prisoners killed, the fate of 25 others remains unknown--either their bodies were not found or they escaped during or near the time of the killings. The Committee of Family Members of the Victims of the Unrest (COFAVIC) continued to seek prosecutions and a thorough investigation of the Catia prison killings and other incidents of human rights abuse.

Minimal progress was made towards resolving some 300 alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces during and after the civil unrest of February-March 1989. There has been only one prosecution: a police officer was found guilty in 1991 of killing 18-year-old Eleazor Ramon Mavares, shot by several police officers some 18 times at close range. The courts released the officer from prison 1 year later. In negotiations held with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in March, the Government agreed to initiate a new investigation of the Mavares case, punish those responsible, and provide indemnities to the victim's family. COFAVIC referred some 40 cases surrounding the 1989 killings to the IACHR, asserting that the Government had not ensured justice.

In September the Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed to decide the case brought against Venezuela for the killing of 14 fishermen in 1988 by military and police officers near the border town of El Amparo. The military originally claimed that the deaths were the result of action taken against Colombian guerrillas, but the Government later acknowledged responsibility and said that it would pay indemnities to the survivors and the victims' families. The IACHR, which brought the case to the court, is also demanding appropriate sanctions against those who ordered and carried out the attack. In August 1994, a military tribunal overturned the conviction of 16 defendants in the case despite strong evidence that they had participated in a planned ambush.

b. Disappearance

PROVEA documented six cases of persons who disappeared in 1995 after reportedly being detained by the security forces. They are Julio Rafael Tovar, Fidel Ernesto Croes Aleman, and Luis Martin Sanches Vargas, detained by the National Guard; Marco Tulio Briceno Escalona and Juan Daniel Monsalve, detained by the PTJ; and Jose Ramos, detained by two armed and uniformed officers and one civilian of an unknown security force.

There were no developments in connection with the 1994 disappearances of Elsida Ines Alvarez, Benjamin Vasquez, or Fidel A. Sanabria; or the 1993 disappearance of Yolanda Landino. All had reportedly been detained by security force members prior to their disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture, but credible human rights groups report that security forces continue to abuse detainees physically. This abuse most commonly comprises beatings during arrest or interrogation, but there have been incidents when the security forces used near suffocation and other forms of torture that leave no telltale signs. Most victims come from the poorest and least influential parts of society, but political activists, student leaders, and members of grassroots organizations have also been victimized for their activities.

PROVEA documented 99 cases of torture from October 1994 through September 1995. Probably a large number of cases were never reported because the victims feared retribution. According to PROVEA, the armed forces were responsible for 35 of the reported torture incidents; the DISIP 24; the PTJ 16; the National Guard 13; the state police 8; and the municipal police 3. Almost half of these cases were in border areas where constitutional protections were suspended.

In February after Colombian guerrillas attacked the Cararabo marine outpost, members of the military tortured about 23 local rural workers, burying some of them to the neck for long periods. The military began an investigation of four of its members, but the results of the investigation, if completed, were not made public.

Torture, like extrajudicial killings, continues because the Government does not ensure the independent investigation of complaints needed to bring those responsible to justice. In addition to lack of vigor by the judiciary, the fact that the Institute of Forensic Medicine is part of the PTJ also contributes to a climate of impunity, since its doctors are unlikely to be impartial in their examinations of cases where torture by members of the PTJ may be involved. Very few instances of torture have resulted in convictions. According to the Support Network for Justice and Peace, a respected human rights organization, the military tortured at least 19 peasant farmers of the village of La Victoria in Apure state in July, after the mayor of the nearby town of Guasdalito had been kidnaped by guerrillas. The alleged victims, mostly elderly, said that they had been nearly suffocated with plastic bags, forced to sit in excrement, threatened sexually, and beaten. Some were reportedly held incommunicado for as long as 12 days. The Defense Minister said that the allegations were totally false and that one of the alleged victims had links with the guerrillas. There was no formal investigation of the incident despite detailed and credible evidence pointing to torture.

In October the Attorney General ordered an investigation of a PTJ unit in Caracas, which had allegedly beaten four youths with a hockey stick and threatened them with "Russian roulette" in order to extract a confession.

Prison conditions continued to be deplorable due to underfunding, poorly trained staff, corruption among prison staff and National Guard members, and overcrowding so severe as to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment. As of December 13, the 31 prisons administered by the Ministry of Justice held 24,928 inmates, of whom the courts had sentenced only 7,269. The prisons operate on average at 190 percent of designed capacity. Inadequate diet, minimal health care, a prisoner to guard ratio as high as 40 to 1, and physical abuse by guards and by other inmates led to many prison riots. Inmates often have to pay guards as well as each other to obtain necessities such as space in a cell, a bed, and food. Guns, knives, and illegal drugs are easily smuggled into most prisons, and violence between prisoners is very common.

In June two inmates in a PTJ jail for minors killed a 17-year-old inmate during a protest over not having had any food for a period of 4 days. The PTJ did not punish any of its members for gross neglect of their duties. Numerous riots and incidents of violence resulted in deaths in prisons almost daily. Seven inmates in Catia prison were killed and 27 injured when violence broke out in September during a police search for weapons. Inmates claimed that they were gunned down without provocation by police and the National Guard. PROVEA registered a total of 116 prisoners killed and another 288 wounded as a result of violence from October 1994 through September 1995.

There were no prosecutions of public officials for the corruption and neglect that contributed to the January 1994 riot at Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo. Inmates killed 105 fellow prisoners and wounded scores of others. Prison staff and the National Guard were generally unwilling to enter the facility in the months leading up to the riot, allowing a state of near anarchy to develop. In addition, during the riot, the National Guard allegedly waited for at least 2 hours before entering to restore order. As a result, the number of casualties increased unnecessarily.

The Government acknowledged the poor state of prisons and implemented some plans to improve conditions. Nonetheless, funding for prisons remained extremely low, preventing significant improvement in most penitentiaries.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

On July 6, the Government reinstated the constitutionally protected freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention in all but 16 municipalities along the Colombian border where guerrilla activity was a continuing problem. In the period prior to the Government's reinstatement of the protection against arbitrary arrest, the press and human rights groups reported a large number of arbitrary detentions during anticrime sweeps in impoverished areas by the Metropolitan Police, the DISIP, the National Guard, and the PTJ. The authorities detained persons during the sweeps for up to 2 days while they checked criminal records; most were released without charges. PROVEA documented 13,177 people detained during sweeps from October 1994 through September 1995.

The law provides for the right to judicial determination of the legality of detention; however, the police may hold persons without an arrest warrant for up to 8 days, and the courts may hold them up to an additional 8 days in court custody. In many cases, the police abused detainees physically and psychologically during the initial 8-day period and illegally held them incommunicado. During the second 8-day period a judge may, on the basis of the police investigation, order either the formal arrest or the release of the suspect. Arbitrary arrests are common, and authorities sometimes exceed the time limits for holding suspects. Prison officials often illegally demand payment from prisoners for transportation to judicial proceedings at which formal charges are made. Those who are unable to pay are often forced to forego their judicial hearings.

The 1939 Vagrancy Law permits the detention for up to 5 years, without warrant, trial, or judicial appeal, of people deemed by the police to be a danger to society even though there is no evidence that they committed a punishable crime. This law is used chiefly against people with previous criminal records who are detained during police sweeps. The Interior Minister said in August that the Vagrancy Law was "the only legal instrument" the State had in the fight against crime. The Ministry of Justice reported there were 106 persons in jail under the Vagrancy Law, but this figure does not reflect the total number arrested under this law and then released.

Forced exile is illegal and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The civilian judiciary is legally independent, but the major political parties influence the judicial selection process as well as decisions in particular cases. The judicial sector is made up of the Supreme Court, which is the court of last appeal; the Attorney General, who provides opinions to the courts on prosecution of criminal cases and acts as public ombudsman to bring public employee misconduct or violations of constitutional rights of prisoners or accused to the attention of the proper authorities; the Ministry of Justice, which manages the national police force and prisons and files complaints in criminal courts; and the Judicial Council, which overseas the lower courts as well as the selection and training of judges. The lower court system includes district and municipal courts as well as trial and appeal courts which deal with civil and criminal matters.

The law provides for the right to a fair trial and considers the accused innocent until proven guilty in a court. The justice system, however, is overburdened and inefficient, suffers from the corruption of some judges, and lacks public credibility. Case backlogs and lengthy pretrial detentions averaging 4 1/2 years are the norm. Judges are underpaid, poorly disciplined, and susceptible to political influence.

The law provides for public defenders for those unable to afford an attorney, but there are not enough public defenders to handle the caseload. The Judicial Council reported that there are 159 public defense attorneys with an average of 133 active cases each.

The judicial process is paper intensive, requiring the costly and time-consuming production of voluminous reports at every stage by judges, attorneys, and witnesses.

Military courts can try civilians in cases of armed subversion and whenever armed forces members are involved. Military courts are subject to a requirement for a speedy trial and a statute of limitations similar to that of civilian courts. Persons convicted by a military court have the same right of appeal to the Supreme Court as do those convicted by the civilian system. Military courts, however, are significantly different from civilian courts in that by law the President must review every case after the initial investigation stage and decide if that case will go to trial. Human rights groups assert that this gives the executive excessive power to intervene in military cases. In addition, the Supreme Court selects military judges from a list of candidates provided by the Minister of Defense, a process which links the careers of military judges to the high command. The tendency of military judges to be responsive to the views of their military leaders, to maintain procedural secrecy, and to act slowly in high-profile cases in which the military is implicated make it unlikely that defendants will be tried in an impartial or timely manner. As a result, military offenders evade punishment for extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Constitutional provisions prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. However, for 13 months prior to July 6, the Government had suspended the constitutional guarantee of freedom from search without a warrant. Furthermore, the suspension remained in effect in some border areas. Even after reinstatement of the provision, security forces often conducted searches of homes without warrants, especially during anticrime sweeps in impoverished areas. In recent years, there have been some complaints of telephone surveillance, and human rights monitors accused the security forces of illegal telephone monitoring.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and these liberties, along with academic freedom, were generally respected. The press criticizes the Government and denounces government interference in the media.

In 1994 the Congress passed and the President signed a law which forbids persons without journalism degrees to practice and requires journalists to be members of the National College of Journalists (CNP). Media owners, the Catholic Church, and certain press groups continued to criticize this law as a violation of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and international agreements on human rights.

The newspaper photographer whose widely published photo of Hector Rojas in police custody just before he was killed (see Section 1.a.) led to the arrest of five policemen received several telephone death threats. The newspaper, El Nacional, took the photographer off the crime beat to limit his vulnerability to police retribution. There were no prosecutions for the killing of two reporters, Maria Veronica Tessari and Virgilio Fernandez, by members of the security forces while they respectively covered a 1992 student demonstration and a 1992 coup attempt.

When two newspapers, El Nacional and El Diario de Caracas, published a wire service story in June about an alleged coup plot by the President's son-in-law, directors and editors of both newspapers were called in for questioning by the military intelligence directorate.

The Government is a significant source of advertising revenue for the media, and there have been instances where government advertising was apparently channeled for political ends. When the newspaper El Nacional published articles on alleged corruption by high government officials, the Finance Ministry withheld its public announcements in that newspaper for a period of 2 months. Some media owners abuse the right to a free press in their pursuit of personal political or financial advantage.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government normally respects the constitutional provision for freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Professional and academic associations operate without interference, and public meetings, including those of all political parties, are generally held unimpeded. The Government requires permits for public marches but does not deny them for political reasons. As a result of violence that occurred at the Central University of Venezuela campus the day before a planned protest march in September, the Government ordered the march to be postponed. It was held 2 weeks later.

As in earlier years, many demonstrations turned violent and were quelled by security forces. Hooded youths known as "encapuchados" frequently fomented the violence. A student's death during a demonstration in Merida in September precipitated several days of violence, and the local governor called in the military to regain control of the streets (see Section 1.a.). There were also a number of incidents when security forces contained or stopped peaceful protests. According to PROVEA, 4 people were killed during demonstrations, 82 injured, and 521 detained from October 1994 through September 1995.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, provided that a faith does not threaten public order or violate good custom. The authorities respect this right in practice; all religious groups enjoy freedom of worship.

While foreign missionaries proselytize actively throughout the country, they often have to wait many months for the processing of their religious worker visas. For missionaries already in the country, renewal of visas also can take months. During the period of irregular visa status, missionaries experience harassment by authorities, especially at military checkpoints.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens and legal residents are free to travel within the country and to go abroad and return. Although the freedom to travel was suspended from June 1994 to July 1995, there were no reports of the Government actually restricting a person's travel in 1995. Exchange controls limited the ability of individuals to obtain foreign currency for travel abroad.

Venezuela traditionally has been a haven for refugees, exiles, and displaced persons from many European, Caribbean, and Latin American countries. They are given normal residence status and may be expelled only because of criminal activities.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right peacefully to change their government, and citizens exercise this right through periodic, free and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. In state and local elections held on December 3, however, an antiquated and inefficient system for counting votes gave rise to numerous and, in some cases, credible allegations that the political parties that dominated state electoral councils had committed fraud.

Women and nonwhites participate fully in Government and politics but remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions. There are 12 female deputies in the lower house of Congress (out of a total of 203), 3 female Senators (out of 53), and 1 female governor (out of 23). Indigenous people have traditionally not been fully integrated into the political system due to their lack of knowledge of how it works, low voter turnout, and residency in areas far from the capital and other cities. Few indigenous people are in the Government, and only one is a deputy in Congress.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials, though often disagreeing with their findings, are generally cooperative.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin, gender, or disability. The Government, however, does not sufficiently enforce laws which safeguard the rights of indigenous people, protect women against societal and domestic violence, and ensure disabled people's access to jobs and public services. Very few resources are devoted to children's welfare; young delinquents are locked in institutions that are unsafe and dangerous.

Women

Women face substantial institutional and societal prejudice with respect to rape and domestic violence. The law makes rape extremely difficult to prove, requiring at a minimum medical examination within 48 hours of the violation. Few police officers are trained to deal responsibly with rape victims. The PTJ received 2,599 reports of rape in the entire country during the period from January to September 1995 compared to 1994 which had a total of 3,537 for the entire year. Women's organizations, however, assert that this figure is very low and does not portray an accurate picture of the problem of rape. The overwhelming majority of rape victims do not report the incident or press charges due to societal pressure and their own feelings of guilt.

Domestic violence against women is very common and has been aggravated by the country's economic difficulties. According to local monitors, the police are generally unwilling to intervene to prevent domestic violence, and the courts rarely prosecute those accused of such abuse. In addition, poor women are generally unaware of legal remedies and have little access to them.

The Congress reformed the Civil Code in the 1980's to make women and men legally equal in marriage. Women comprise roughly half the student body of most universities, have advanced in many professions, including medicine and law, and have gradually torn down many of the barriers to their full participation in political and economic life. Nonetheless, women are still underrepresented in the higher ranks of labor unions and private industry.

The Labor Code specifies that employers must not discriminate against women with regard to pay or working conditions, must not fire them during pregnancy and for a year after giving birth, must grant them unpaid leave and benefits for 6 weeks before the birth of a child and 12 weeks after, and must provide them 10 weeks of unpaid leave if they legally adopt children under 3 years of age. According to the Ministry of Labor and the major labor federation, these regulations are enforced in the formal sector, although social security payments are often delayed.

Children

Many children face hardship. According to a study by two reputable nongovernmental organizations, one in four children is malnourished. The Government scaled back its expenditure on education, health, and social services, leaving many impoverished children with no government assistance. While the law provides for universal free education, the Government dedicates very little funding to primary and secondary education. Many government agencies responsible for the welfare of children are plagued by corruption, and government funding often does not reach the children it is intended to help. In addition, many reform institutions for young delinquents are in deplorable condition.

According to children's rights groups, the recent increase in poverty has raised the level of stress within families and led to a rise in the number of abandoned children and to more child abuse. However, neighbors often hesitate to report cases of child abuse, due to a fear of entanglement with the authorities and ingrained attitudes regarding family privacy. The overburdened judicial system, though very slow, generally ensures that in most situations children are removed from abusive households once a case has been reported. Public facilities for such children, however, are inadequate and have poorly trained staff.

People With Disabilities

The physically disabled have minimal access to public transportation, and ramps are practically nonexistent, even in government buildings. According to local advocates, the disabled are discriminated against in many sectors, including education, health care, and employment.

In 1993 the Government passed the first comprehensive law to protect the rights of the disabled. The new law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access for the disabled. Among other important provisions, the law forbids discrimination in employment practices and in the provision of public services. However, the Government did not make a significant effort to implement the new law, to inform the public of it, or to try to change societal prejudice against the disabled.

Indigenous People

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin, members of the country's indigenous population frequently suffer from inattention to and violation of their human rights. There are about 315,000 indigenous people comprising 25 ethnic groups, according to a special 1992 census.

The Constitution provides for special laws governing "the protection of indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation." Nonetheless, indigenous people are not able to protect their civil and political rights or to influence decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. In February representatives of the 19 indigenous groups of Amazonas state brought a case to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the law which defines political boundaries and commonly held land within their state. They claim that the law, promulgated in 1994, jeopardizes their collective possession of ancestral lands.

Many of the country's indigenous people live isolated from modern civilization and lack access to basic health and educational facilities available to other citizens. High rates of cholera, hepatitis-B, malaria, and other diseases plague their communities. Major epidemics of equine encephalitis and dengue fever in August and September were particularly serious among the Wayuu indigenous group of Zulia state. Tourists and other outsiders inadvertently introduce new viruses to Indian populations with unprepared immune systems: the common cold often becomes bronchitis, and chicken pox can be fatal. In addition, few indigenous communities hold title to their lands, and many have been displaced in recent years by government-sponsored projects. Fertilizer and machinery have polluted rivers, while strip mining and large-scale farming have destroyed habitats.

The Yanomami, among the most isolated of the indigenous people, have been subject to persistent incursions into their territory by illegal Brazilian gold miners. The miners have not only brought diseases but social ills as well. In August 1993, miners killed at least 16 Yanomami in a remote area of Amazonas state. An indigenous people's group reported two similar killings in 1994. The Government began to bomb illegal airstrips used by the miners and to use force to try to prevent the miners' entry through the porous border. Indigenous people's groups, however, strongly criticized the Government for not forcefully seeking the prosecution of the perpetrators of the 1993 massacre who had retreated into Brazilian territory.

In February 1994, members of the army shot and killed three members of the Yucpa ethnic group after women in the group tried to block the soldiers from taking wood they had cut. The military allegedly responded by firing indiscriminately. To protest the killings, a large group of Yucpas temporarily took over several ranches and blocked roads. There were no arrests of those responsible for the killings.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Both the Constitution and labor law recognize and encourage the right of unions to organize. The comprehensive 1990 Labor Code extends to all private sector and public sector employees (except members of the armed forces) the right to form and join unions of their choosing. The Code mandates registration of unions with the Ministry of Labor, but it reduces the Ministry's discretion by specifying that registration may not be denied if the proper documents (a record of the founding meeting, the statutes, and the membership list) are submitted. Only a judge may dissolve a union, and then only for reasons listed in the law, such as the dissolution of a firm or by agreement of two-thirds of the membership.

One major union confederation, the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV), and three small ones, as well as a number of independent unions, operate freely. About 25 percent of the national labor force is unionized. There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and many union organizations are active internationally. The CTV's top leadership includes members of several political parties. The majority are affiliated with the country's largest party, Democratic Action (AD). The CTV and the AD exercise reciprocal influence on each other.

The law recognizes the right of public and private sector employees to strike. However, public servants may only exercise it if it does not cause "irremediable damage to the population or to institutions." The Labor Code allows the

President to order public or private sector strikers back to work and to submit their dispute to arbitration if the strike "puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population." During 1995 most strikes occurred among government employees. With the exception of a slow-down by air traffic controllers and strikes by judicial workers and university professors, the threat to strike was sufficient in most cases to achieve a resolution satisfactory to the workers.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Code protects and encourages collective bargaining, which is freely practiced. According to the Code, employers "must negotiate" a collective contract with the union that represents the majority of their workers. The Code also contains a provision stating that wages may be raised by administrative decree, provided that the Congress approves the decree.

The law prohibits employers from interfering with the formation of unions or with their activities and from stipulating as a condition of employment that new workers must abstain from union activity or must join a specified union. Ministry of Labor inspectors hear complaints regarding violations of these regulations, and can impose a maximum fine of twice the minimum monthly wage for a first infraction. Under the Code, union officials enjoy special protection from dismissal. If a judge determines that any worker was fired for union activity, the worker is entitled to back pay plus either reinstatement or payment of a substantial sum of money, which varies according to his years of seniority.

Labor law and practice is the same in the sole export processing zone as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There is no forced or compulsory labor. The Labor Code states that no one may "obligate others to work against their will."

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Labor Code allows children between the ages of 12 to 14 years to work only if the National Institute for Minors or the Labor Ministry grant special permission. It states that children between the ages of 14 and 16 years may not work without permission from their legal guardians. Minors may not work in mines or smelters, in occupations "that risk life or health" or could damage intellectual or moral development, or in "public spectacles."

Those under 16 years of age must by law work no more than 6 hours a day or 30 hours a week. Minors under the age of 18 years may work only during the hours between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Ministry of Labor and the National Institute for Minors enforce the law effectively in the formal sector of the economy but much less so in the informal sector, which accounts for 55 percent of total employment. According to a 1993 study, some 1 million children work in the informal sector, mostly as street vendors; there is no other occupation which comprises large numbers of children.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Venezuela has a national urban minimum wage and a national rural minimum wage. The monthly minimum wage was $52 (15,000 bolivars) for urban workers and $43 (12,500 bolivars) for rural workers. In addition, most minimum-wage workers received mandatory bonuses amounting to $59 (17,000 bolivars). Fringe benefits are added to these minimum figures; they vary with the workers' individual circumstances, but in general increase wages by about one-third. In the past, this combined income provided a living wage. However, unions now argue that purchasing power has declined enough over the last several years to warrant a doubling of the minimum wage. The law excludes only domestic workers and concierges from coverage under the minimum wage decrees. Under the Labor Code, the rates are set by administrative decree, which Congress may either suspend or ratify but may not change. The Ministry of Labor enforces minimum wage guarantees effectively in the formal sector of the economy but generally does not enforce them in the informal sector.

The 1990 Labor Code reduced the standard workweek to a maximum of 44 hours, and requires "two complete days of rest each week." Some unions, such as the petroleum workers, have negotiated a 40-hour week. Overtime may not exceed 2 hours daily, 10 hours weekly, or 100 hours annually, and may not be paid at a rate less than time and a half. The Ministry of Labor effectively enforces these standards in the formal sector.

The 1986 Health and Safety Law is still awaiting implementation regulations and is not enforced. The delay is due largely to concern that the law provides penal sanctions against management when violations of health and safety occur and to ambiguity in the law over what constitutes a violation. The Labor Code states that employers are obligated to pay specified amounts (up to a maximum of 25 times the minimum monthly salary) to workers for accidents or occupational illnesses, regardless of who is responsible for the injury.

It also requires that workplaces must maintain "sufficient protection for health and life against sicknesses and accidents," and it imposes fines of from one-quarter to twice the minimum monthly salary for first infractions. Inspectors from the Ministry of Labor appear to enforce the law effectively. Workers can remove themselves from dangerous workplace situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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