By Tamara Taraciuk Broner
The Venezuelan government is tightening its stranglehold on the country’s basic institutions of democracy at a terrifying speed.
In March, President Nicolás Maduro’s government used the Supreme Court, which is now entirely subservient to the executive branch, to take over legislative functions from the opposition-led National Assembly. Then it oversaw the creation of a Constituent Assembly, made up exclusively of government supporters, that is acting as a shadow legislature. This new assembly adopted a law in November that grants authorities broad powers to ban political parties and sentence Venezuelans who publish “messages of intolerance and hatred,” including through social media—one of the few avenues of free speech left in the country—to up to 20 years in prison. It is also working with the executive and the judiciary to strip key elected opposition legislators of their parliamentary immunity.
A brutal crackdown on the streets between April and July left dozens of people dead, hundreds injured, and thousands detained. Many of those detained were civilians who were arbitrarily prosecuted in military courts for offenses including rebellion and treason, and were denied basic due process. Some remain in detention; others were conditionally released but remain subject to arbitrary prosecutions. Detainees have been systematically abused by Venezuelan security forces, and in some cases have been tortured with techniques including electric shocks and asphyxiation.
The dismantling of democratic institutions goes back to the presidency of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, who initiated a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004. When Maduro assumed office in 2013, he intensified the already strong concentration of power and has since used it to commit all sorts of abuses. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan economy is collapsing, and a profound humanitarian crisis is leaving many people unable to feed their families or access basic medical care. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country.
Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship is not likely to be reversed without the help of strong international pressure. Some recent steps are setting the stage for multilateral action, and now is the time for other countries and international organizations to build on that progress.
Perhaps recognizing that the world is starting to pay closer attention to what is happening in Venezuela, the Maduro administration has recently called several rounds of elections. But these are only a charade of democracy. The July election of Constituent Assembly members was marred by allegations of fraud leveled by Smartmatic, a British company hired by the government to oversee the vote. It concluded that the turnout figures were tampered with and estimated that actual voter turnout was probably at least 1 million less than the 8 million officially reported.
In October, the electoral council organized gubernatorial elections and government supporters emerged with 18 out of 23 governorships. The opposition contested the results. As with previous elections, the playing field leading up to the vote was far from even. Opposition candidates, including several opposition leaders, were arbitrarily disqualified. Without an independent judiciary, any irregularity in the electoral process will likely remain unchecked.
Venezuelan authorities announced that they would carry out municipal elections on Dec. 10. Several opposition parties have refused to participate, saying there are no guarantees that the elections will be free and fair. Even if the opposition put candidates forward and won some of these mayoralties, the experience of the past few years suggests they would not be allowed to govern.
On July 28, the Supreme Court sentenced Alfredo Ramos, the mayor of the Iribarren municipality in Lara state, to 15 months in prison and disqualified him from running for office for the same period. This was punishment for failing to comply with a prior Supreme Court injunction that had ordered Ramos to ensure that people could freely circulate in his municipality—in other words, for not stopping the anti-government protesters from erecting barricades.
Ramos’ sentence followed summary proceedings without basic due process guarantees. No prosecutor participated in the accusation. Instead, during the trial, which lasted a few hours, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber was responsible for both accusing Ramos of not complying with its own injunction and, then, of sentencing him. The ruling is not subject to appeal, violating international law.
Ramos learned he had been sentenced from a Supreme Court tweet. Immediately afterward, at least 20 masked and heavily armed men forcefully entered his office. They took Ramos away without even showing a judicial order. He was not allowed to see his family or lawyer for 26 days, suffered a hypertension crisis, and remains behind bars.
Ramos is one of five opposition mayors the Supreme Court sentenced after similarly summary proceedings in mid-2017. The court seemed to copy-and-paste its own injunctions, only changing the name and ID number of each mayor. The four other mayors fled the country under threat of arrest. Two of them took small fishing boats to an island in the Caribbean, where they purchased tickets to fly to the United States. Another, in disguise, made it through checkpoints to Brazil, and the fourth managed to reach Colombia.
Harassment of mayors for their politics began in 2014 when, during a previous crackdown on anti-government protests, the Supreme Court instituted summary proceedings against two opposition mayors. One of them, Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of San Cristóbal in Táchira state, remains behind bars three years later on fabricated charges. His lawyer has announced this week that Ceballos has been held in isolation at intelligence headquarters in Caracas for over 50 days. At least three other opposition mayors were prosecuted between 2014 and 2016, including Antonio Ledezma, a former mayor of Caracas who spent over two years under house arrest before fleeing the country in mid-November 2017.
Between May and July 2017, the Supreme Court ordered at least another nine opposition mayors to clean up barricades in their municipalities, as it had ordered Ramos. This could lead to another round of prosecutions anytime. One of the mayors is Omar Lares of the Campo Elías municipality in Mérida state. On July 30, dozens of members of various security forces and armed pro-government groups burst into his home. Lares and most of his family fled, but Juan Pedro, his 23-year-old son, was captured. The officers forced Juan Pedro to kneel on the ground, handcuffed him, and told him they could shoot him anytime “because no one is watching,” according to a family employee who witnessed the events. They threatened to spray him with gasoline and set him on fire, and then drove him away in an official vehicle.
Omar Lares is currently in Colombia. His son remains in detention at intelligence headquarters in Caracas.
The steps taken in recent months by regional governments and the U.N. provide a foundation for a decisive multilateral response to Venezuela’s crisis. At the regional level, the Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro has played an active role exposing abuses in Venezuela and pressing regional leaders to address them.
The “Lima Group”—a group of 11 Latin American governments and Canada that met for the first time in Lima in August—has condemned the breakdown of democratic order and the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela. The group stated that its members would not recognize the Constituent Assembly or its resolutions, expressed concern about the Venezuelan government’s alleged refusal to accept international humanitarian aid, and agreed to impose an embargo on arms sales to Venezuela.
On Nov. 13, members of the U.N. Security Council held a special meeting to discuss developments in Venezuela. The same day, the European Union placed an arms embargo on Venezuela and targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials, freezing their assets and cancelling their visas. These sanctions followed the ones imposed earlier this year by Canada and the United States.
Governments should build on these developments to keep up the pressure and hold Venezuelan officials accountable for the violations they have committed. They should enforce existing sanctions, and members of the Lima Group should join in the targeted sanctioning of key Venezuelan officials implicated in abuses. If the Venezuelan government is unable or unwilling to hold perpetrators accountable at home, the international community should explore ways for victims to access justice abroad.
Without stronger measures by influential governments, the already grievous damage suffered by Venezuelan democratic institutions and victims of state violence may become irreparable. It is not too late to stop that from happening.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner is a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.
[Photo courtesy of Voice of America]