Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 25,100,000
GNI/Capita: $5,794
Life Expectancy: 73
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (96 percent), Protestant (2 percent), other (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, indigenous people
Capital: Caracas

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Venezuela's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the resiliency of civil society in the face of pressures from the government of President Hugo Chavez.


Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez successfully escaped his overthrow and imprisonment in a April 2002 coup attempt, and was returned to power as a result of the continued loyalty of key military garrisons around the country and significant sectors of the population. However, throughout the year, the country saw protests by a broad spectrum of civil society and unprecedented discontent in the barracks by officers tired of Chavez's threadbare populism. Chavez, himself the onetime leader of two coup attempts, appeared to remain confident of his own ability to keep order, despite the increasing disorder.

The Republic of Venezuela was established in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military rule ended with the establishment in 1961 of civilian rule. Under the constitution approved that year, the president and a bicameral congress are elected for five years. The Senate has at least 2 members from each of the 21 states and the federal district of Caracas. The Chamber of Deputies has 189 seats.

Until 1993, the social-democratic Democratic Action (AD) Party and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics. Former president Carlos Andres Perez (1989-1993) of the AD was nearly overthrown by Chavez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts in which dozens were killed. In 1993 Perez was charged with corruption and removed from office by congress. Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969-1974) of COPEI and a populist, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party National Convergence, which included Communists, other leftists, and right-wing groups. With crime soaring, public corruption unabated, oil wealth drying up, and the country in its worst economic crisis in 50 years, popular disillusionment with politics deepened.

In the 1998 presidential contest, Chavez's antiestablishment, anticorruption populism played well in a country whose political establishment was famous for its interlocking system of privilege and graft and whose elites considered politics their private preserve. Last-minute efforts to find a consensus candidate against Chavez were largely unsuccessful, and the Yale-educated businessman Henrique Salas, the other leading presidential contender, also steered away from association with the old political order. Salas, a respected two-term former state governor, won just 40 percent of the vote, to Chavez's 57 percent. In February 1999, Chavez took control of the world's fifth-largest oil-producing country.

A constituent assembly dominated by Chavez followers drafted a new constitution that would make censorship of the press easier, allow a newly strengthened chief executive the right to dissolve congress, and make it possible for Chavez to retain power until 2013. Congress and the Supreme Court were dismissed after Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum on December 15, 2000. Despite Chavez's 21-point lead in the presidential contest, the July 2000 election marked a resurgence of political opposition that had been hamstrung in its efforts to contest his stripping of congress and the judiciary of their independence and power. Opposition parties won most of the country's governorships, about half the mayoralties, and a significant share of power in the new congress. In November, Chavez's congressional allies granted him special fast-track powers that allowed him to decree a wide range of laws without parliamentary debate.

By 2001 a dramatic rise in street crime threatened the working class and poor Venezuelans who make up the core of Chavez's constituency, as well as frightening those belonging to the country's beleaguered middle class. The crime wave was centered in Caracas and made even wealthy neighborhoods in the capital city subject to serious public safety threats. Venezuela's continued economic woes and natural disasters, together with weapons and narcotics trafficking, added to the heightened sense of insecurity. A recent study ranked Venezuela as second of the 10 most violent nations in the Americas and Europe; the overwhelmed police proved unable to halt the carnage, which was responsible for one Venezuelan being killed nearly every hour. On December 10, 2001, political opponents and business and labor leaders staged a widely supported national protest strike against Chavez's rule.

The failed coup against Chavez, which the United States was slow to condemn, included a near total shutdown of Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly, a general strike, a short-lived provisional government, and the slaying of 19 people in an opposition march. Despite Chavez's May announcement of wide-ranging fiscal reforms, political tensions have kept foreign investors wary. In August, charges against four alleged military-coup leaders were dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In October an estimated one million Venezuelans marched in Caracas demanding that Chavez call either early elections or a referendum on his rule – and threatening a general strike if he did not accede. As the United Nations and the Organization of American States desperately tried to mediate peace talks meant to break the country's political deadlock, the country appeared to move closer to civil war. In November, the government took military control of the 8,000-member Caracas city police, which Chavez claimed had repeatedly repressed pro-government demonstrators. Armed groups operating along Venezuela's western border with Colombia have stepped up their illegal activities, which range from killing and kidnapping to extortion and the smuggling of cocaine. In November a grenade was thrown at the home of the Caracas archbishop, in yet another attack believed to be carried out by government supporters against the Roman Catholic Church.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government democratically, although supporters of President Hugo Chavez appear at times on the verge of mob rule, particularly as constitutional checks and balances have been removed. The July 2000 elections were considered by international observers to be free and fair.

Until Chavez took power, the judicial system was headed by a nominally independent supreme court that was nevertheless highly politicized, undermined by the chronic corruption (including the growing influence of narcotics traffickers) that permeates the entire political system, and unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. An unwieldy new judicial code has hampered some law enforcement efforts, resulting in low rates of conviction and shorter jail terms even for convicted murderers. Police salaries are woefully inadequate.

Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as dozens of extrajudicial killings by military security forces and the police, have increased as crime continues to soar. By mid-2000, an estimated 500 people had been killed by the police, a sign that, some observers say, is evidence of a growing vigilante mentality among law enforcement personnel. Since the 1992 coup attempts, weakened civilian governments have had less authority over the military and the police, and overall rights abuses are committed with impunity. A separate system of armed forces courts retains jurisdiction over members of the military accused of rights violations and common criminal crimes, and decisions cannot be appealed in civilian court.

Venezuela's 32 prisons, the most violent in the world, hold some 23,000 inmates – fewer than one-third have been convicted of a crime – even though they were designed to hold no more than 14,000. Deadly prison riots are common, and inmate gangs have a striking degree of control over the penal system. Chavez's government has announced an emergency program to modernize the country's prisons, including plans to build five or six new penitentiaries.

The press is mostly privately owned, although the practice of journalism is supervised by an association of broadcasters under government control. Since 1994, the media in general have faced a pattern of intimidation. International media monitors have condemned a constitutional article approved by the Constituent Assembly that would require journalists to publish or broadcast "truthful information," a move that they say opens the door to governmental censorship. In 2001, the Inter-American Press Association accused the government of using the judiciary for its own political purposes and of intimidating the media. Chavez frequently interrupted soap operas, and even a World Series baseball game, to broadcast hours-long diatribes on the government-run television station.

Few Indians hold title to their land, and indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including murder, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. In 1999, the Constituent Assembly voted to include a chapter in the new constitution that sets forth the legal rights of indigenous peoples and communities. Chapter VII would guarantee "the right to exist as indigenous peoples and communities with their own social and economic organization, their cultures and traditions, and their language and religion." In the July 2000 national elections, three indigenous candidates were elected to the National Assembly, eight were elected to regional legislative congresses, and four Indians won mayoralties. The lack of effective legal rights, however, has created an unprecedented emigration by Indians to poverty-stricken urban areas.

Labor unions are well organized, but highly politicized and prone to corruption. Chavez supporters have sought to break what they term a "stranglehold" of corrupt labor leaders on the job market, a move labor activists say tramples on the rights of private organizations. The referendum approved in December 2000 allows Chavez to dissolve the Venezuelan Workers Confederation and to organize new state-supervised elections of union representatives, a move that opposition and labor leaders say is the first step towards establishing a government-controlled labor union. The government continued to interfere in union elections, although international observers said they saw no evidence of election fraud. Security forces frequently break up strikes and arrest trade unionists.

Women are more active in politics than in many other Latin American countries and comprise the backbone of Venezuela's sophisticated grassroots network of nongovernmental organizations.

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