VENEZUELA 2021The ongoing human rights crisis was compounded by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The policy of repression implemented by the government of Nicolás Maduro continued, including further reports of extrajudicial executions, excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions and torture and other ill-treatment against those perceived as critical of the government. Human rights defenders, journalists and activists were subjected to intimidation, harassment, attacks and detention. The humanitarian emergency worsened and violations of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights persisted, with an increasingly weakened healthcare system and shortages of water, fuel, food and electricity. Impunity for human rights violations remained the norm. The UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela documented and condemned systemic impunity, and the ICC Office of the Prosecutor found there were grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela and announced the opening of a formal investigation.
Extrajudicial executionsThe security forces, including the Special Action Forces of the Bolivarian National Police (FAES), continued to carry out extrajudicial executions. In January, 14 people were killed during a security operation in the La Vega neighbourhood of Caracas, the capital, in circumstances suggesting that they had been extrajudically executed.1 According to the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), by March, more than 200 people had been killed by police forces. The FFM stated it would investigate the circumstances of the killings and FAES involvement.
Arbitrary detentionPolitically motivated arbitrary detentions continued as part of a government policy of repression. According to the human rights organization Foro Penal (Penal Forum), a further 44 people were detained, bringing the total number of people held in politically motivated arbitrary detention at the end of the year to 244. Among them were political activists, students, military personnel, human rights defenders and others perceived as opponents of the Maduro government. Roland Carreño, a journalist and member of the Popular Will party arbitrarily detained in October 2020, remained held charged with “terrorism” and other offences under the Organic Law on Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism. At least two people who had been arbitrarily detained – Salvador Franco, a member of the Pemon Indigenous people, and Gabriel Medina, who had had health problems for over a month – died in detention without adequate medical attention, according to Foro Penal. The family and lawyer of Raúl Isaías Baduel, who died in October, allegedly due to Covid-19 complications, in the custody of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), called for a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatmentA new criminal investigation into the enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and death of Rafael Acosta Arevalo in 2019 failed to include any chain-of-command responsibility. In September, the FFM reported that the authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations of torture. In 67 of the 183 cases it documented, prisoners were brought to court with visible signs of ill-treatment. In some cases, torture allegations did not appear in the court records, while in others the Public Prosecutor’s Office was ordered to initiate a formal investigation. However, families and defence lawyers told the FFM that they were not aware of any progress in these proceedings. The FFM also documented the practice of kidnapping or detaining the relatives of people targeted as part of the strategy of repression to force them to present themselves to the authorities (known as “Sippenhaft”). Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment during initial periods of enforced disappearance were common.
Excessive use of forceSeveral security operations against criminal gangs took place in Caracas during which police and military forces used unlawful and unnecessary force. There were reports of several deaths caused by stray bullets in two operations in January and July.
ImpunityImpunity prevailed for human rights violations and crimes under international law.2 The FFM expressed deep concern about the state’s willingness to prosecute those suspected of criminal responsibility for human rights violations, stating: “the State is not taking tangible, concrete and progressive steps to remedy violations, combat impunity and redress the victims through domestic investigations and prosecutions.” Authorities announced the establishment of a commission for judicial reform. However, the person appointed to lead this had been named by the FFM as probably responsible for crimes against humanity and was a National Assembly representative, casting doubt on his independence and impartiality. The military officer charged in connection with the death in 2017 of David Vallenilla during a peaceful demonstration was acquitted in September. However, the Attorney General Office appealed against this and in October he was sentenced to 23 years. The command responsibility was yet to be investigated.
Unfair trialsCriminal proceedings and courts continued to be misused to silence dissent. The use of military jurisdiction for civilians and special “terrorism” courts was common. Authorities denied detainees visits from families and lawyers on the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions, leaving many in incommunicado detention and without adequate time to prepare their defence. In its report, the FFM stated that the justice system “played a significant role in the State’s repression of Government opponents. The effects of the deterioration of the rule of law extend beyond those directly affected and impact society as a whole.”
Right to truth, justice and reparationEfforts to seek truth, justice and reparation through international mechanisms, in the absence of effective national remedies, continued to be thwarted by the authorities’ attempts to avoid international scrutiny. The Maduro government did not recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the oversight of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), despite several rulings and recommendations from both organizations. Although the OHCHR maintained the mandate for technical cooperation with officials in the Maduro government and oversight of the human rights situation, invitations to special rapporteurs and treaty bodies such as the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, on freedom of assembly and on extrajudicial killings, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, among others, to visit the country remained pending. In February, the Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights visited Venezuela. In November, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor opened an investigation into the situation of Venezuela. In a visit to Caracas, the Prosecutor signed a memorandum of understanding with the authorities, who committed to fully cooperate with the investigations, although they did not agree that the criteria had been met to move the investigation forward.
Repression of dissentPolitical opponents, real and perceived, of the Maduro government faced constant attacks and harassment and were at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and other human rights violations, as part of a long-standing policy of repression. In July, Freddy Guevara, a high-profile member of Popular Will, was arbitrarily detained in Caracas and held for over a month. Although the government subsequently allowed him to join negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition in Mexico City, his detention was emblematic of the ongoing repression. Media outlets close to the governing party, such as the national TV programme Con El Mazo Dando, continued to stigmatize and attack human rights defenders and others perceived as government opponents.
Freedom of expression and assemblyAccording to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a local NGO, between January and June, there were 3,393 protests. These were largely over economic, social and cultural rights, such as labour rights, healthcare services, high food prices and lack of basic services, including fuel. At least 59 protests were attacked by the police, military or pro-government armed groups, resulting in the death of one protester and injuries to seven others. The Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público (Public Space) reported that between January and August there were more than 292 attacks on the press and journalists, including harassment and intimidation, arbitrary detention, censorship and digital attacks. These attacks compounded the lack of transparency regarding epidemiological data on the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) banned several programmes, including Punto de Corte Radio aired on Radio Fe y Alegría, and one of the country’s main newspapers. A court ruled against one of the main newspapers in Venezuela, El Nacional, which was fined the equivalent of US$13 million after losing a court case for defamation relating to Diosdado Cabello, a high-ranking government official. In October, police raided the home of journalist Roberto Deniz, from the Armando Info portal; he and his family had been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR in 2020. Journalist Luis Carlos Díaz remained subject to severe restrictions and prosecution.
Human rights defendersThe crackdown on and criminalization of civil society and human rights defenders intensified. In January, five members of Azul Positivo, a humanitarian organization, were arbitrarily detained and charged with offences including “terrorism”. They were conditionally released in February, but remained subject to restrictions and prosecution at the end of the year. In March, the government approved an administrative regulation requiring local NGOs to register with an “anti-terrorism” oversight organization and disclose confidential and sensitive information about victims of human rights violations and how the NGOs are funded and function. Following international pressure, the government reversed some of these provisions. However, the regulation remained in place and local organizations risked criminalization under the Organic Law on Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism if they failed to register. National and international organizations viewed this administrative regulation as a clear crackdown on human rights defenders and humanitarian workers. In July, Javier Tarazona, Rafael Tarazona and Omar de Dios García, members of the local NGO FundaREDES, were arbitrarily detained by SEBIN officers. They were charged with inciting hatred, treason and “terrorism”. Despite numerous requests, their chosen legal representatives were denied accreditation to appear before the court. All three were awaiting initial pre-trial hearings at the end of the year. Rafael Tarazona and Omar de Dios García were conditionally released in October. Javier Tarazona, who had a serious health condition that required urgent attention, remained in detention. According to the Centre for Human Rights Defenders and Justice, in 2021 there were 743 attacks against human rights defenders, an increase of 145% compared to 2020.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rightsDespite border closures and restrictions on movement due to the pandemic, the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country to escape mass human rights violation continued to rise, reaching 6 million by the end of the year. Many continued to use unofficial crossings, including by sea in precarious vessels and overland via hazardous routes, leading to reports of deaths at sea as well as at border crossings. (For violations of the rights of Venezuelan refugees in Curaçao, see Netherlands entry.)
Economic, social and cultural rightsThe complex humanitarian emergency in the country continued to intensify. According to the OHCHR, access to basic services during the pandemic, including medical assistance, water, gas, food and gasoline, was limited and deteriorating. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced that 2.7 million people had received aid of some kind by 31 August as part of the Humanitarian Response Plan.
Right to healthThe infrastructure of the healthcare system continued to deteriorate. Public data related to Covid-19 was unclear. The local NGO Médicos Unidos (United Doctors) reported that more than 815 health professionals had died of Covid-19 since March 2020; authorities withheld detailed figures of deaths of health workers. Access to Covid-19 vaccines was one of the main challenges, as well as the use of vaccines that had not been deemed safe and effective by objective and independent regulatory agencies. No national vaccination plan was published. Health personnel continued to demand protective equipment as well as salary increases. The shortage of antiretrovirals stood at 58.68% between January and June, according to the NGO Acción Ciudadana Contra el SIDA (Citizen Action Against AIDS). Civil society organizations continued to demand the reactivation of the Organ Procurement Programme, suspended four years earlier. The WHO registered a yellow fever outbreak.
Right to foodThe OHCHR noted that a third of Venezuelans suffered from food insecurity. The Centre for Documentation and Analysis for Workers calculated the cost of the basic basket of goods at US$260.77 a month in October, while the monthly minimum wage was US$1.66. In July, the World Food Programme announced assistance for children under six in areas it identified as most affected by food insecurity. The food distribution system, Local Supply and Production Committees, continued operating but did not meet nutritional needs, according to Bengoa Foundation. According to the National Survey of Living Conditions, 94.5% of the population was living in poverty while 76.6% was living in extreme poverty.
Right to waterFailures in the supply of drinking water and sanitation continued, sparking protests in local communities. In June, the National Assembly approved the Draft Organic Water Law; there were concerns about the law’s lack of a human rights perspective.
Sexual and reproductive rightsLack of access to sexual and reproductive health services remained a concern. High costs and restrictions related to the pandemic prevented access to contraception. The UN Population Fund carried out activities in some communities to help reduce maternal mortality and facilitate access to contraceptives. The IACHR urged Venezuela to eliminate barriers preventing access to sexual and reproductive health services and to review its restrictive legislation on abortion. Vannesa Rosales, a human rights defender in Merida state – arbitrarily detained in October 2020 for providing a 13-year-old girl, who was pregnant as a result of rape, with information on abortion – was released on 21 July after spending nine months detained, six of them under house arrest.3
Inhumane detention conditionsLack of medical care, adequate food and drinking water, unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and violence in prisons and other detention centres persisted. Malnutrition and tuberculosis were the main causes of deaths in prisons, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons and A Window to Freedom, two local NGOs. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, 94 detainees died in custody, most due to malnutrition. A Window to Freedom reported overcrowding in preventive detention centres of 292%, while the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons pointed out that overcrowding in other prisons reached 198% and that 56% of the prison population was held in pre-trial detention.
LGBTI peopleThere was a lack of legislation and public policies guaranteeing the rights of LGBTI people. The IACHR called on the state to take effective measures to recognize the rights of LGBTI people and to eradicate discrimination, violence and situations of vulnerability to which they are exposed.
WomenThe Attorney General’s Office announced that there were 72 prosecutorial offices nationwide specializing in criminal investigations into gender-based violence. Local NGOs continued to report that prosecutors, judges, police officers and other officials remained ill-equipped to protect women’s rights and women were often re-victimized as a result of institutional violence. The lack of detailed official data made it difficult to assess the situation of gender-based violence. However the Centre for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ) documented 235 femicides in Venezuela between January and October. CEPAZ criticized the lack of state protection for breast cancer survivors, requested by the IACHR in 2020.
Indigenous peoplesThe situation of the Orinoco Mining Arc and illegal mining remained of concern and continued to seriously affect the rights of Indigenous peoples, who were subjected to abuses including labour exploitation and gender-based violence. Covid-19, malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis and gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases, as well as a measles epidemic, were among the health issues affecting Indigenous peoples during the year, according to civil society organizations.
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