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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Venezuela

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Venezuela, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4b30.html [accessed 18 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 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. Two-party dominance ended on February 2 when former President Rafael Caldera was sworn in as President after being elected with the support of a coalition of small and medium-sized parties. Four major political groupings comprised the new Congress which convened in January. On June 27, the Government suspended the following political and economic guarantees provided for in the Constitution: the freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, the freedom from search without a warrant, the freedom of travel, the freedom to pursue profitable activities, the right to own private property, and the right to receive compensation for assets confiscated by the State. The Government said, initially, the suspension was necessary to combat unspecified subversion and, subsequently, it was needed to provide the administration with the necessary legal framework to address the country's economic and financial crisis.

The security apparatus has 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 crimes involving subversion, narcotics, and arms trafficking; and 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 throughout the year.

The public sector dominates the economy, particularly the petroleum industry, which accounts for some 22 percent of the gross domestic product. In response to a financial sector crisis, the Government took control over half the banking sector. It also imposed foreign exchange controls and temporary price controls on a number of basic necessities, other products, and selected services.

Serious human rights abuses included incidents of extrajudicial killings by the police and military, abuse of detainees, a 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. The civilian and military courts made little progress towards prosecuting officials responsible for the many killings during the two 1992 coup attempts, the November 1992 Catia prison massacre, and the 1989 urban riots. The authorities also took no action to prosecute the perpetrators of the 1993 massacre of Yanomami Indians.

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 by the security forces continued. The Venezuelan Program for Action and Education in Human Rights (PROVEA), one of Venezuela's most respected human rights organizations, documented 148 extrajudicial killings from October 1993 through September 1994. The killings involved summary executions, the indiscriminate or excessive use of force, death in custody, death as a result of torture and maltreatment, and death as a result of abuse during military or public service. According to PROVEA, the Metropolitan Police carried out 46 of the killings; the State Police, 37; the National Guard, 16; the PTJ, 15; the armed forces, 11; DISIP, 9; municipal police, 7; and other branches of the security apparatus, 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 that they or their law enforcement colleagues allegedly committed, and the judicial system remains highly inefficient and sometimes corrupt. A special pretrial summary phase called "nudo hecho," used in cases involving public officials, often shields members of the security forces from prosecution, as a case can languish in that phase for several years. In addition, military courts are often strongly biased in favor of members of the armed forces accused of abuse. 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. The Government has not taken sufficient steps to overcome the obstacles that permit continued impunity in cases of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuse. One example of an alleged unpunished extrajudicial killing is the case of Marcos Antonio Vivas Sayago. A team of approximately 20 uniformed and plainclothed members of the PTJ and Metropolitan Police shot and killed him in his residence on the morning of July 26. The team reportedly threatened the victim's family with reprisals should they report the incident. The family reported the case to the public prosecutor/ombudsman's office ("Fiscalia General") which opened an investigation. There were no arrests, however, by year end.

Organized groups of police allegedly carried out many additional unpunished extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations reported that one such group, referred to as the "pantaneros" by the local population, and comprised largely of members of the metropolitan police, committed at least a dozen killings during the year in poor areas of Caracas.

In May the Government arrested three members of the Caracas Metropolitan Police allegedly responsible for the unlawful shooting death of 15-year-old high school student German Sotillo Rodriguez. The case remained in the courts, with no prosecutions by year's end. Local human rights groups expressed hope that the arrests indicated the Government would be more forceful in prosecuting members of the security forces accused of committing extrajudicial killings. However, there were few similar arrests throughout the year.

In April government investigators discovered a common grave with an unspecified number of bodies in the remote Sierra de Perija region of Zulia state. At least one of the bodies showed signs of execution-style killing. The contents of the grave were sent to Caracas for forensic examination, although officials failed to identify the bodies positively or provide a definite count of them by the end of the year. Human rights activists placed the number at around 15 and asserted that the victims were likely poor farmers who had come into conflict with large-scale ranchers in the area. Although an ongoing government investigation produced no arrests or charges, a special rural contingent of the Zulia state police--which was being financially subsidized by the ranchers--was alleged to have committed the killings. The governor of Zulia disbanded the rural police largely as a result of this allegation. 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, and that the graves are the result of killings by security forces to intimidate the local population. Subsequent government investigations have produced no results. Human rights groups related that local farmers and indigenous people are afraid come forward with additional information out of fear of reprisals.

In August an ad hoc military court acquitted 16 military and police officers who shot and killed 14 fishermen in 1988 near the border town of El Amparo. The decision overturned an already suspect 1993 ruling sentencing the defendants to only 7 1/2 years in prison for excessive use of force when the circumstances of the killings strongly indicated an execution rather than a military action. Human rights monitors, representatives of the victims, and the two survivors expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the verdict, asserting that the military court had disregarded crucial evidence and testimony demonstrating that the event was a planned massacre. Their criticism of the verdict appears valid. Despite the acquittal, only nine of the defendants in the case were released--the others remained in prison on charges of similar killings in other areas. Three other defendants did not stand trial as they had gone into hiding and were fugitives from the law.

In January the Inter-American Court of Human Rights initiated a trial against the Government involving its alleged responsibility for not assuring justice in the El Amparo case. The case was referred to the court by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which charged the Government with failure to comply with several provisions in the American Convention on Human Rights, including the obligation to protect the lives, physical integrity, and equality under the law of all citizens. Prior to referring the case to the Court, the IACHR reportedly made several recommendations which the Government did not heed, including that the Government ensure punishment for those responsible for the El Amparo killings, compensate the survivors and victims' families, and reform the military justice system to ensure independence and impartiality.

On January 15, 1995, the Court began formal proceedings in the El Amparo case. Three days later the Foreign Minister acknowledged the State's responsibility and said the Government would pay indemnities to the victims. The Court then issued a judgment taking note of the Government's declaration of responsibility and instructing the Government to pay a just indemnification to the surviving victims and the families of the other victims, with the amount to be determined by negotiations between the Government and the IACHR.

The Government withdrew charges against the rebel military officers responsible for the two 1992 coup attempts. The authorities either released the military officers from jail or allowed them to return from self-imposed exile. No one was prosecuted for the 34 reported extrajudicial killings and other serious abuse, including torture, that occurred during the coup attempts. The Government failed to initiate a thorough investigation of the human rights abuses perpetrated during the coup attempts.

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.

Although almost 6 years have elapsed, no progress has been made on resolving the extrajudicial killings by security forces during and after the civil unrest of February-March 1989. The Government maintained that 276 people died, while human rights groups documented some 400 cases of persons dead or missing. The authorities buried at least 68 victims anonymously in mass graves. Some human rights organizations accused the authorities of doing this to conceal the identity and manner of death of the victims and thus protect the perpetrators. Although the bodies were exhumed in 1991, only three have been positively identified.

Approximately 300 cases stemming from the 1989 killings remained under consideration in military or civilian courts, but only 1 has been adjudicated: a police officer was found guilty in 1991 of homicide and sentenced to 1 year's imprisonment. The Committee of Family Members of Victims of the Riots (COFAVIC) continued to seek prosecutions and thorough investigations of the 1989 deaths. The Government still has not initiated the effective investigation needed to resolve these killings.

b. Disappearance

In 1994 PROVEA reported the following three unresolved disappearances allegedly perpetrated by members of the security forces:In January members of the National Guard stopped 20-year-old Elsida Ines Alvarez while she was driving between the towns of San Cristobal and Valencia with her mother. When she was unable to produce her identity card, the National Guard took her into custody, and she has not been seen or heard from since. Alvarez' mother repeatedly visited National Guard headquarters to obtain information on her daughter's whereabouts without success. PROVEA was aware of no official acknowledgment or investigation of the disappearance.

In March a group of armed men took 16-year-old Benjamin Vasquez from his home, saying they were searching for weapons stolen from the armed forces. A few hours later, several of the men returned to inform Vasquez' family that he had been detained, although they did not specify by whom. Vasquez has not been seen or heard from since. Through third parties, the family heard that Military Intelligence (DIM) had taken him into custody, but they were unable to find any record of his detention and received no official acknowledgment of the disappearance.

In April an unidentified man believed to be a member of DISIP apprehended Fidel A. Sanabria in Tachira state. Sanabria's wife related that he was subsequently taken to the local PTJ headquarters, although there was no record of his detention by either DISIP or the PTJ. Sanabria's whereabouts were not known by the year's end.

One 1993 disappearance remained unresolved and uninvestigated. According to Amnesty International (AI), 14-year-old Yolanda Landino disappeared on March 27 following a military raid on her house in the state of Zulia. Her father Mario Landino, a peasant leader, and her brother Henry had disappeared the previous day. Soldiers interrogated the family, accused them of being guerrillas, and asked family members about Mario's activities. Although the family was under house detention, Yolanda managed to leave the house; but soldiers reportedly captured her the next day. She was never seen again. Her father and brother were brutally tortured while in military custody, including application of caustic substances to the eyes (Mario is now almost blind) and injection of an unknown substance that caused a burning sensation inside the body. Soldiers told him Yolanda had been arrested and would be killed if he did not confess. Under duress he signed papers he could not read--a "confession" to collaborating with guerrillas. Mr. Landino and his son were transferred to a police station on April 4, 1993. Mr. Landino remained in prison until March 1994 when he was provisionally released for lack of evidence. Henry Landino remains in prison awaiting trial on the basis of the confession extorted under torture. The public prosecutor/ombudsman's office initiated an investigation of the Landino case in November. That office stated it was unaware of Landino's disappearance and of the allegations of torture until it received the AI information late in the year.

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

The law prohibits torture, but 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 caustic substances, electric shock, near suffocation, and sexual abuse against detainees. In its November 1993 report, AI maintained that torture and ill-treatment are widespread and sometimes fatal. 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. Red de Apoyo, a respected human rights organization, reported 534 incidents of maltreatment and torture from March 1993 through February 1994. PROVEA, discriminating between maltreatment and the more severe forms of torture, documented 2.037 incidents of maltreatment and 39 cases of torture from October 1993 through September 1994. Both organizations asserted, however, that the actual numbers were higher, because many victims remain silent about abuse due to fear of retribution. According to PROVEA, the National Guard was responsible for 15 of the reported torture incidents; the State Police, 7; the PTJ, 6; the armed forces, 4; municipal police, 3; military intelligence, 3; and DISIP, 1.

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 Institute of Forensic Medicine is part of the PTJ, which prevents forensic doctors from being impartial in their examinations of cases where torture may have been involved. Very few cases of torture have resulted in convictions.

Four individuals arrested in August on charges of subversion claimed that officials of the intelligence division of the Carabobo state police tortured them. According to local human rights groups and the President of the Congressional Subcommittee on Human Rights, Jose Manuel Flores, Luben Sanchez, Jose Luis Sanchez, and Jose Gregorio Guedez were hung by handcuffs from a ceiling, beaten, and subjected to electric shocks applied to their tongues, testicles, and feet. A local human rights monitor who visited the four in the days after the alleged abuse said their bodies were severely bruised and they had visible abrasions on their lips, seeming to confirm the accusations. Family members of two of the victims filed complaints with the public prosecutor/ombudsman's office, although there was no known investigation of the alleged torture by the end of the year.

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 inhumane and degrading treatment. At year's end, 33 prisons held 23,554 inmates, of whom the courts had sentenced only 7,508. The Caracas main jail holds three times its intended capacity. Extreme overcrowding, inadequate diet, minimal health care, and severe physical abuse by guards and by other prisoners 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 among prisoners is very common.

On January 3, a conflict between two gangs in Maracaibo's Sabaneta prison escalated into a riot that left at least 105 inmates dead and scores wounded. Most of the casualties occurred in a cellblock the prisoners set on fire, although there were additional deaths by shooting, stabbing, and drowning in the sewage system. 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, permitting numerous additional casualties to occur. The government investigation of the incident led to charges against 52 inmates and only 2 officials--1 member of the National Guard and 1 prison employee. No officials were held responsible for the corruption and neglect that allowed conditions at Sabaneta to deteriorate to such a low level. As a result of a Supreme Court ruling in September that the National Guard member must be tried by a military court, that court will also try the 53 other defendants. It had reached no verdict in the Sabaneta case by year's end.

Numerous other riots and incidents of violence resulted in deaths in prisons almost daily. PROVEA registered a total of 498 prisoners killed and another 1,127 wounded as a result of violence from October 1993 through September 1994. In January 9 inmates were killed and 11 wounded trying to escape from Aragua prison. In April an insurrection in Caracas' Catia prison left 6 dead and 20 wounded, largely from a firebomb ignited by inmates.

In December the Government announced it would temporarily "militarize" six of the most violent penitentiaries in order to prevent unrest during the holiday season, which usually is a period of increased prison violence. Consequently, the National Guard--which is primarily responsible for guarding the periphery of prisons--was ordered to maintain a strong presence inside the prisons. While the militarization was generally perceived as a positive action to ensure order and prevent additional prison deaths, there were several reports of physical abuse of prisoners by members of the National Guard. Inmates in San Juan Los Carlos prison filed a complaint with the congressional human rights subcommittee and the public prosecutor/ombudsman alleging that senior Justice Ministry officials had ordered the National Guard to beat the prison population with clubs and blunt saber-like devices called "peinillas."Throughout the year, the Government acknowledged the poor state of prisons and announced several plans to improve conditions, including major construction and renovation projects due to begin in 1995. In addition, many prison administrators were replaced; the new prison director is a former human rights director in the public prosecutor/ombudsman's office. Nonetheless, funding for prisons remained extremely low, and the Government's programs were not yet sufficient to improve the deplorable conditions in most penitentiaries.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In the days immediately after the June 27 suspension of several constitutional guarantees--including the freedom from arbitrary arrest--the press and human rights groups reported the detention and questioning of some 27 persons allegedly suspected of plotting subversion. The authorities held 20 of the detainees for several hours, and the remaining 7 for over a week. Some of the detainees complained that the authorities intimidated them because of their affiliation with a movement led by the released leaders of the February 1992 coup attempt.

The press and human rights groups also reported a large number of arbitrary detentions during anticrime sweeps in impoverished areas by the Metropolitan Police, DISIP, the National Guard, and the PTJ. The authorities detained persons during the sweeps for from a few hours to up to 2 days while they checked criminal records; they released the majority without charges. While such sweeps had been conducted in previous years, the security forces greatly increased the frequency and size of the operations during the suspension of guarantees. PROVEA documented 6,306 people detained during sweeps from October 1993 through September 1994; there were 250 such detentions in the previous 12-month period.

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 reported cases, the police have physically and psychologically abused detainees 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 a formal arrest or the person's release. Arbitrary arrests are common, and authorities sometimes exceed the time limits for holding suspects. Prisoners often have to pay fees extorted by prison officials for transportation to judicial proceedings at which formal charges are made. Detainees unable to pay are frequently unable to get to 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 but against whom there is no evidence of a punishable crime. This law is susceptible to arbitrary and discriminatory interpretation, and police often apply it against people with previous criminal records who are detained during police sweeps. AI noted that many detainees under this law, jailed merely on suspicion, are subjected to torture. In May the Interior Minister urged police to continue to use the Vagrancy Law as a deterrent against crime until the Government and Congress approve an alternative. In October the Ministry of Justice reported there were 187 persons in jail under the Vagrancy Law. This figure did not reflect the total number arrested under the law and then released.

Forced exile is illegal and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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, inefficient, afflicted by the corruption of some judges, and lacking in 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, which governs the judicial branch, stated that there are 150 public defense attorneys with an average of 170 active cases each, but some have as many as 250 cases.

The judicial process is written, requiring the costly and time-consuming production of voluminous reports at every stage by judges, attorneys, and witnesses. The civilian judiciary is legally independent, but the major political parties influence the judicial selection process and decisions in particular cases.

Military courts can try civilians in cases of armed subversion and in cases which involve armed forces members. 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 those under 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 provided by the Minister of Defense, a process which links the careers of military judges to the high command. The tendencies 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 undergo an impartial or timely prosecution. These factors can and do result in military offenders evading punishment for extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.

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

Constitutional provisions prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. After the Government suspended the freedom from search without warrant on June 27, however, the press reported a number of incidents of searches without warrants by security forces. According to the media, DISIP searched the homes of a prominent Caracas businessman and of a noted intellectual, and the DIM similarly searched 30 homes in the city of Cumana. In recent years, there have been some complaints of telephone surveillance, and human rights monitors accused the security forces of illegal wiretapping. In September the Interior Minister announced that the telephones in his office were being wiretapped, apparently by former employees of his Ministry.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of the press and free speech, and in 1994, these liberties, along with academic freedom, were widely respected. Venezuela has a free and lively press, which frequently criticizes the Government and denounces government interference in the media.

However, in December the Congress passed and the President signed a law which forbids persons without journalism degrees to practice the profession and requires journalists to be members of the National Association of Journalists. Media owners, the Catholic Church, and certain press groups criticized the bill as a violation of the right to freedom of expression contained in the Constitution and international agreements on human rights. The Newspaper Publishers' Association began a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of nine articles in a 1972 law governing the practice of journalism and said it will also challenge the new regulations.

There were no prosecutions for the killing of two reporters, Maria Veronica Tessari and Virgilio Fernandez, by members of the security forces during the 1992 coup attempts. The human rights committee of the National Association of Journalists, created in 1993, continued to seek a thorough investigation of the deaths and of other alleged abuses against journalists.

PROVEA documented 48 violations of freedom of expression between September 1993 and October 1994. These violations included incidents of physical abuse of reporters by members of the security forces and incidents where the civilian and military courts sought to prevent the publication or broadcast of certain information. The figures for this period, however, represented a positive trend, since PROVEA had documented 125 such violations during the previous 12-month period. Moreover, most of the reported instances took place at the end of 1993 or in early 1994, and were not characteristic of the situation after the new Government assumed power in February.

Venezuela has a wide variety of electronic and print media. The Government is a significant source of advertising revenue for the media, but there appear to be no recent instances in which government advertising was channeled for political ends.

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 in earlier years, a number of demonstrations turned violent and were then repressed by security forces. PROVEA reported, however, that the security forces also stopped 133 of 1,099 reportedly peaceful demonstrations from October 1993 through September 1994, during which 5 people were killed and about 657 detained. PROVEA noted, however, that the level of repression was much lower than in previous years. From 1990 through September 1993, security forces had killed 35 people during peaceful protests.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for the right for everyone to profess and practice a religious faith, provided it is not contrary to public order or good custom. The authorities respect this in practice; all religious groups enjoy freedom of worship. Foreign missionaries proselytize actively throughout the country.

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. 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. Despite the June suspension of the freedom to travel, there was only one report of an effort to restrict travel. In October immigration officials at the Caracas airport temporarily prevented an opposition Congressman from traveling outside the country. The Interior Minister promptly apologized for the action and acknowledged that it was improper. The suspension, however, was still in effect at year's end.

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

Venezuela is a multiparty democracy with a government freely elected by secret ballot. Suffrage is mandatory for all those 18 years of age or older, and the political process is open to all. Elections for the President, both houses of Congress, and the state legislative assemblies are held every 5 years. President Rafael Caldera, elected in the December 1993 national elections, took office in February.

Charges of irregularities and fraud which marred the 1992 state and local elections, as well as the 1993 congressional elections, carried over into 1994. On the basis of such complaints, the Supreme Court ordered new gubernatorial elections in three states, which took place in April. The absence of automated vote counting machines undermined public confidence in the fairness and transparency of the election process.

Political views are freely expressed, and persons from the entire political spectrum contend for positions ranging from municipal council seats to the presidency. The Democratic Action Party (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI), both centrist, remain the two largest political parties. However, following the 1993 elections, political power in the Congress is effectively divided roughly equally among four parties: AD, COPEI, the Convergence/Movement towards Socialism Alliance (the group supporting President Caldera), and the Causa R party.

Women and minorities participate fully in government and politics, but remain underrepresented. There are no legal impediments to their participation, but traditional attitudes led to some de facto impediments. Women and minorities are promoted into high-level positions at a slower rate than nonminority men. There are 12 female deputies in the lower house of Congress (out of a total of 203), 4 female Senators (out of 53) and 1 female governor (out of 23). Indigenous people have traditionally not been fully integrated into the political system owing 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 government and only one is a Deputy in Congress.

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

Numerous local human rights groups are active throughout the country and vigorously criticize perceived government inadequacies in redressing grievances. The groups operate free of government restriction and interference, although some have complained of occasional police harassment. In the summer and early autumn, the Red de Apoyo human rights group received a series of telephone threats after some of its members were interviewed on local radio and television programs. The nature of the threats led the group to believe that the perpetrator was a member of the police.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have released comprehensive reports on Venezuela's human rights problems. These received extensive press coverage, as have those produced by some local organizations. At various times in the year, several cabinet ministers, state governors, and members of the military met with representatives of local human rights groups to hear their concerns. In July President Caldera and a number of cabinet ministers also met with foreign representatives from AI. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened a special human rights unit to address both domestic and international human rights concerns; it is too early to assess its effectiveness.

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

The Government does not sufficiently enforce laws ensuring children's welfare, safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples, and protecting women against societal and domestic violence.

Women

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, and 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 political positions and in the top 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 compensation from the Social Security Agency) 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.

Women face difficulty in countering institutional and societal prejudices regarding rape and domestic violence. The law makes rape extremely difficult to prove, requiring at a minimum a medical examination within 48 hours of the violation. Few police officers are trained in dealing responsibly with rape victims. The PTJ received 3,985 reports of rape in the entire country in 1993. Women's organizations, however, assert that this figure is very low and does not portray an accurate picture of the problem of rape, as the overwhelming majority of victims do not report the incident or press charges due to societal pressure and feelings of guilt.

There are very few laws to protect women against domestic violence other than statutes against assault and battery. Domestic violence against women, however, 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 recourses and have little access to them.

Children

Many Venezuelan children face hardship. 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, children's rights groups assert that the Government dedicates insufficient 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 increased stress on families and led to a rise in child abuse. Neighbors are often hesitant to report cases of child abuse, however, due to a fear of becoming involved with authorities and ingrained attitudes regarding family privacy. The overburdened judicial system, though very slow, generally assures that in most situations children are removed from abusive households once a case has been reported. A representative from the leading children's right group in Caracas, however, asserted that in many cases a child is better off even in an abusive household than in a public facility, where staff are often poorly trained and funding is low.

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. Venezuela is home to about 315,000 indigenous people in 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. For example, indigenous groups were not successful in obtaining the legislation they sought to preserve ancestral lands and cultures, or to enact proportional representation to provide more ethnic minorities in the country's legislative bodies. Indian rights advocates have noted that few indigenous people work in government agencies responsible for Indian affairs. Many of the country's indigenous people live isolated from modern civilization and lack access to basic health and educational facilities theoretically available to all Venezuelans. High rates of cholera, hepatitis-B, malaria, and other diseases plague their communities. 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, the most primitive of the indigenous people in Venezuela, have been subject to persistent incursions into their territory by illegal Brazilian gold miners. The miners have not only brought diseases but reportedly coerced some of the Indians to be servants and prostitutes. 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 along the porous border. Indigenous peoples' 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 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. The investigation of the killings was impeded in March due to a jurisdictional dispute between military and civilian courts. There were no arrests by the end of the year.

People with Disabilities

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 law, to inform the public of the new law, or to try to change societal prejudice against the disabled.

The physically impaired still 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. There have been a few reported incidents in which public university programs expelled disabled people and hospitals turned them away, even for the treatment of afflictions unrelated to their disability.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Both the Constitution and labor law recognize and encourage the right of unions to exist. 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 play active international roles. The CTV's top leadership includes members of several political parties. The majority are affiliated with the country's largest party, AD, and the CTV and the AD reciprocally influence 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 1994 most strikes occurred among government employees. With the exception of a prolonged strike by public school teachers, which was settled through Labor Ministry mediation, 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 they can impose a maximum fine of twice the minimum monthly wage for a first infraction. Under the Code, union officials have special protection from firing. 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 and 14 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 may not work without permission from their legal guardians . Minors may not work in mines, 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 age 18 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 in which employment of children is believed to be substantial.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Venezuela has a national urban minimum wage and a national rural minimum wage. The monthly minimum wage was $90 for urban workers and $60 for rural workers. Mandatory 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 call for 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 requirements 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 "2 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 still awaits implementing regulations and is not enforced. The delays are 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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