Timothy Gill and David Smilde
The political confrontation over the April 14 presidential election has re-polarized Venezuelan society, including its human rights community.
On April 16, Foro por la Vida (FV), a coalition comprised of 15 human rights groups including Provea and Espacio Publico, published a statement on the April 14 elections and the ensuing electoral crisis. In its statement, FV criticizes the use of state resources used for Maduro’s electoral campaign as well as 3,200 alleged electoral irregularities. In its press release FV “calls on civil society to channel their support into the documentation and formalization of complaints and to follow the verification process of the results in a civic manner.”
The FV statement encourages the government to accept the technical assistance offered by the Organization of the American States (OAS) to assist in a full recount of all the votes. The press release also urges the opposition and the government to engage in peaceful dialogue concerning electoral irregularities and the future of Venezuela, and asks the government to thoroughly investigate the political violence and “to refrain from abusive and disproportionate use of force” to quell opposition protests.
The next day FV went on to publish an open letter to Latin American human rights organizations concerning the electoral crisis. In it, the organization describes their historical relationship with the government. “They welcomed the  election of Hugo Chavez as president as an opportunity to work on a national human rights plan.” Indeed many human rights organizations assisted the government with the drafting of the 1999 Constitution and shaped certain elements within it, most notably Title III which deals with human rights and guarantees for political and civil rights.
They describe how their relationship with the Venezuelan government has become increasingly contentious as access to public information has become difficult and the government has increasingly sought to legally limit their activities. In December 2010, for example, the Venezuelan government passed the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which forbids organizations that promote and inform citizens about their political rights from receiving foreign financing.
The letter suggests that despite all the alleged irregularities of the campaign, Nicolas Maduro was declared the winner by a margin of less than two percent and declared that he would accept an audit of 100% of the votes. FV suggests that Maduro then reversed his position and rejected the audit and suggests this was the “trigger for the crisis” that resulted in protests and violence that left nine persons dead and hundreds injured. The letter criticizes Maduro’s decision to ban Capriles and his supporters from holding a protest march through Caracas on April 17.
On April 22, 51 human rights activists, including several with ties to the groups making up FV, put out a press release responding to FV’s statements. They criticize FV’s presentation of the circumstances surrounding the electoral crisis. They argue that FV’s statements “omitted public information … about the first victims of the political violence, which included regional and national CNE functionaries, ordinary citizens, and government workers.” In addition, they criticize FV’s pronunciations for omitting the fact that all those who died as a result of the political violence were supporters of chavismo whom were targeted by supporters of the opposition.
The statement also criticizes FV for placing blame on Maduro for the political violence as well as for criticizing his decision to ban the April 17 opposition march as a result of the escalating violence. The statement argues that protest “is not an absolute right. Its exercise can and should be weighted, in this case, in relation to other rights, such as life, integrity, personal security.” The statement argues that FV purposely omitted the context surrounding the violence and, in doing so, “undermined the credibility that human rights organizations that define themselves as autonomous ought to have.” The statement also criticizes FV’s pronunciations for endorsing a recount of 100% of the votes wherein the OAS would provide technical assistance, while failing to recognize that the Venezuelan elections were accompanied by several international and national bodies, including the Union of South American Natuions (UNASUR) and the Council of Latin American and Caribbean Heads of State (CELAC), as well as the fact that all Latin American presidents have recognized the constitutionality of Maduro’s presidency.
The statement places blame for the political violence on the segment of the opposition that has refused to accept Maduro’s electoral victory. And finally, it “calls upon human rights organizations in Latin America and the international community at large to weigh the information coming from Venezuela, contrast different sources, and assume with responsibility, fairness and balance the statements they make, in order to contribute to the strengthening of peace, democracy, and the enforcement of human rights in our country.”