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The Venezuelan authorities’ stubborn denial over the country’s current humanitarian crisis, coupled with their refusal to ask for international aid, are putting the lives and rights of millions of people at serious risk, Amnesty International said as it concluded a visit to the country.

An Amnesty International delegation spoke to public officials, NGOs, human rights defenders, lawyers and survivors of human rights violations in Caracas, Guarenas and the state of Táchira, on the border with Colombia. People spoke of the chronic lack of essential food staples and medicines as the country faces one of the worst economic crises in decades.

“Stubborn politics are seriously affecting millions of lives. The lethal combination of severe food and medicine shortages coupled with sky-high crime rates, persistent human rights violations and ill-conceived policies that focus on trying to keep people quiet instead of responding to their desperate calls for help are a recipe for an epic catastrophe,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“The time for petty politics is over. The government of President Maduro, the opposition, business owners, unions and professional associations and the international community must urgently engage in a meaningful dialogue to identify and implement innovative, efficient and non-discriminatory mechanisms to bring life-saving aid for the millions whose lives depend on it. All political actors must leave their own interests at the door and think of the people they are meant to be serving.

“Unless all those in power make a drastic U-turn in the way they are handling this dramatic crisis, what is already an extremely serious situation will turn into an unthinkable nightmare.”

Food shortages

Shortages of food staples and other basic supplies have increased across the country over the past months.

In a bid to mitigate increasingly high inflation, the government set up a system of “regulated prices” for a number of basic products including flour, rice, pasta, cooking oil and toilet paper, amongst others. These products are sold at considerably lower prices in private and government-owned supermarkets. People are officially allowed to shop only once a week, according to their national ID number.

However, dozens of people who spoke to Amnesty International said products at regulated prices are often not available, forcing them to resort to the black market, where prices are prohibitively high.

The average local salary is approximately between US$30 and US$60 a month (depending on the exchange rate used). A kilogram of flour is being sold in non-regulated markets at around US$2.50, a liter of milk nearly US$2 USD and a kilogram of pasta at US$3.50. Sugar and hygiene products are hard to come by.

Hundreds of people are forced to queue up in front of supermarkets at dawn to ensure they can access products, even without knowing what will be available.

Esperanza, a 59-year-old grandmother of two from the town of Guarena, a 30-minute drive from Caracas, told Amnesty International she had been queuing for five hours and still had not been able to buy any food.

“I have not eaten for a day and a half. If I can’t buy anything today, I will go to bed without having any dinner once again. I will have to put my grandchildren to bed early so they don’t ask me for food.”

People told Amnesty International they have drastically cut the amount of food they eat daily and that arepas (cornflour pancakes) were their main source of nutrition.

Doctors at public hospitals in Guarenas and San Cristóbal told Amnesty International they had seen an increase in cases of malnutrition, weight loss and acute stress caused by the food shortages.

A kindergarten teacher said children are sent to school with only a mango for lunch, which is severely affecting their ability to learn.

Hunger and desperation are also putting people at risk in a country known for its high levels of police violence. Jenny Ortiz, a 42-year-old single mother of two, was shot dead by a police officer during a police operation to control a large number of people who had gathered near a warehouse full of basic food products in San Cristóbal, Táchira. Ortiz’s daughter told Amnesty International that when her mother heard the shooting she had run out to look for her 16-year-old son, who was outside with friends.

“There is absolutely no excuse for people to go hungry in Venezuela. Whether food shortages are caused by incompetent officials or unscrupulous individuals, urgent action must be taken to ensure the right to food of all people,” said Guevara-Rosas.

Medicine shortages

The economic crisis, foreign debt and high inflation rates mean that Venezuela is unable to import medicines, the materials to produce them, or other basic hospital supplies. A number of health professionals told Amnesty International the lack of medicines is having a devastating impact on their ability to treat patients and save lives.

Doctors in a hospital in Guarenas said they often lack saline solution, antibiotics and medicines to treat patients with epilepsy. Drugs to treat life-threatening illnesses including cancer and HIV are also hardly available.

According to Datanalisis, a Venezuelan opinion poll, shortages in food and medicine are estimated to be as high as 80 percent.

Javier is a 33-year-old university professor. His 73-year-old father was released from a private clinic in the city of San Cristóbal on May 23, 2016. He showed Amnesty International a letter from the doctor in charge saying his father had an advanced type of cancer and that the hospital did not have the medicine he needed, as it is not available in Venezuela. Javier’s father was discharged because of the lack of medicines and died a few days later.

Javier suffers from a heart condition which also requires medicines that are not available in Venezuela.

“I only have 18 pills left. After they run out, I do not know what I will do. In Venezuela, the pills cost a little more than US$5 for a month’s supply but they are no longer available. Right now, if you get ill in Venezuela, you die,” he said, tears running down his face. “I do not know if I will make it past next month.”

Misuse of the judicial system

Venezuela is home to some of the most violent cities in the world – with a national murder rate of 58 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to official figures. Local groups, including the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia) put the figure even higher at 91 per 100,000.

The proliferation of illicit small arms only compounds the problem.

In this context, Venezuela’s judicial system has been blamed for being incapable of tackling violent crime and instead focusing resources on criminalizing those who dare to speak up against government policies.

The judicial system has been highly questioned for its lack of independence and impartiality – judges, for example, do not have permanent posts and can be removed at any moment by the authorities, which undermines the critical function it is set to perform.

Anti-government protests across the country in 2014 erupted into clashes with security forces, leaving 43 dead, scores injured and dozens behind bars. Only two investigations into this violence been opened to date and no police officer has been sanctioned for the excessive use of force.

Lawyers representing imprisoned activists have told Amnesty International that two years on from their arrest, many are still languishing in jail alongside violent criminals without having been convicted of a crime. In some cases, the defendant’s lawyers and relatives have been intimidated and harassed in a bid to stop them from campaigning publicly for the release of their loved ones. 

Rosmit Mantilla, an opposition member of parliament, LGBTI activist and an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was detained in 2014. He was charged with public incitement and intimidation, obstructing a public highway, arson, violent damage and conspiracy to commit a crime, in the context of the anti-government protests that took place between February and July 2014. His trial has been merely based on a statement by an unidentified individual alleging that Mantilla had received funds in order to finance the protests, but there is no objective evidence and his rights to fair trial and due process have been violated.

Lawyers representing people imprisoned for politically motivated cases also complained at the excessive delays in their client’s processes and of the barriers that prevent them from representing their clients effectively – including by preventing them from accessing their client’s legal files, visiting them in prison and accessing all evidence against them. 

“Venezuela is home to a judicial system whose independence and impartiality is highly questioned. The authorities must ensure that the justice system is not misused to target or harass activists and human rights defenders, and should immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience,” said Guevara-Rosas.

Lawyer Raquel Sánchez, who represents a number of imprisoned protesters, has been the subject of a pervasive campaign of harassment and attacks aimed at stopping her work.

Most recently on the evening of June 6, as she travelled in a car with fellow lawyer Oscar Alfredo Ríos Santos, three hooded men brutally attacked them. The men hit the windshield of the car the lawyers were travelling in, injuring Sánchez on the head.

Venezuela lacks a legal and institutional framework to effectively protect human rights defenders, including journalists, lawyers and judges, who are threatened or whose life is in danger for the work they do.

“President Maduro’s government and the National Assembly must immediately engage in a meaningful dialogue to find effective ways to tackle the urgent needs of people in Venezuela, including by agreeing a system to request international cooperation. The dialogue must the based in the full respect and protection of the human rights of all people in Venezuela with no discrimination,” said Guevara-Rosas.

“Authorities must also urgently recognize and respect the legitimate work of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists and promote a legal and institutional framework to effectively protect them, and ensure they are able to work in a safe and enabling environment.”