Venezuela is formally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an increasingly authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, citizen, and electoral branches of government. Nicolas Maduro won the presidency in 2013 by a 1.5-percent margin amid allegations of pre- and post-election fraud, including government interference, the use of state resources by the ruling party, and voter manipulation. The opposition won in a landslide control of the National Assembly in the December 2015 legislative elections, but the executive branch exercised extensive influence over the judiciary to secure favorable decisions from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice that undermined the National Assembly’s autonomy, ignored the separation of powers, and enabled the president to govern through a series of emergency decrees. The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) subsequently thwarted opposition efforts to recall the President under terms laid out by the constitution, and gubernatorial elections slated for December 2016 were summarily postponed.
Civilian authorities maintained effective, though politicized, control over the security forces.
Principal human rights abuses reported during the year included systematic, politicized use of the judiciary to undermine legislative branch action, and intimidate and selectively prosecute critics; indiscriminate police action against civilians leading to widespread arbitrary detentions, unlawful deprivation of life, and torture; and government curtailment of freedom of expression and of the press. The government arrested and imprisoned opposition figures and showed little respect for judicial independence or generally did not permit judges to act according to the law without fear of retaliation. At times the government blocked media outlets and harassed and intimidated privately owned television stations, other media outlets, and journalists throughout the year using threats, fines, property seizures, arrests, criminal investigations, and prosecutions.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and government agencies reported extrajudicial killings by police and security forces; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and lack of due process rights that contributed to widespread violence, riots, injuries, and deaths in prisons; inadequate juvenile detention centers; corruption and impunity in the police; arbitrary arrests and detentions; abuse of political prisoners; interference with privacy rights; lack of government respect for freedom of assembly; lack of protection for Colombian migrants; corruption at all levels of government; threats against domestic NGOs; violence against women; employment discrimination based on political preference; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.
The government sometimes took steps to punish lower-ranking government officials who committed abuses, but there were few investigations or prosecutions of senior government officials. Impunity remained a serious concern in the security forces.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution, the country’s twenty-sixth since independence, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but government interference, electoral irregularities, and manipulation of voters restricted the exercise of this right. In January government agencies harassed or fired workers following the December 2015 legislative elections. In June the CNE made available online a database of identifying citizens who had signed a petition requesting a recall referendum against President Maduro. PSUV politicians later used the database to fire or engage in employment discrimination against public employees and to withhold subsidized food benefits under the newly created Local Committees for Supply and Production program.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On December 6, 2015, nationwide legislative elections took place largely peacefully, and the government initially accepted the results. Opposition candidates won 112 seats in the 167-seat National Assembly, while ruling-party PSUV candidates took 55 seats, despite a process that heavily favored the ruling party. The government rejected international election observation by the Organization of American States but permitted an “accompaniment” mission by the Union of South American Nations. Domestic observers reported voting machine failures, ruling-party tents illegally close to the entrance of the polls, improper use of public resources (e.g., state oil company vehicles with campaign slogans and government buses transporting supporters to vote), and press intimidation. In response to losing control of the legislative branch of government for the first time since 1999, the PSUV mobilized to appoint to the Supreme Court 13 new justices and 21 new alternates loyal to the PSUV.
On December 30, 2015, this newly reconstituted TSJ blocked one ruling party deputy-elect and three opposition deputies-elect from Amazonas State from taking office, based on allegations of electoral fraud, a decision that deprived the opposition of its two-thirds super-majority in the legislature. On July 28, the National Assembly, ignoring the TSJ’s decision, swore in the three affected opposition deputies-elect for the second time. The TSJ subsequently ruled that the National Assembly was in contempt and all of its actions and future actions were invalid. In accordance with agreements from the dialogue talks, on November 15, the three opposition deputies from Amazonas State submitted their resignations to Congress. The government subsequently called for new elections in Amazonas State for late December, but the TSJ’s contempt ruling against the National Assembly stood.
On October 20, the CNE suspended a nationwide, constitutionally based recall referendum process against President Maduro; the CNE referred to allegations of fraud in brought by government supporters before several state-level criminal courts. The CNE also declined to organize constitutionally mandated elections in December for the country’s 23 governorships.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties operated in a restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access. On September 2, after a series of partisan decisions favoring the ruling PSUV, the TSJ annulled all actions taken by the opposition-dominated National Assembly because of its failure to comply with previous TSJ rulings. Some political organizations reported their main activists and leaders were victims of harassment and violence by the government and progovernment groups.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process. A 2015 regulation requires political parties to put forth gender-balanced slates of candidates for legislative elections. Women held 24 of the 167 seats in the legislature and nine of the more than 30 cabinet-level positions.