Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The Programa Venezolano de Educación- Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), Venezuela’s leading human rights group, has published its latest monthly International Bulletin corresponding to developments in February 2014. This edition of the Bulletin published in English deals with causes of the recent protests in Venezuela. PROVEA argues that the context of these protests is the economic difficulties faced by the country: high inflation and scarcity of basic products. High crime rates are also mentioned as part of the scenario in which the protests erupted.
PROVEA also blames the heavy-handed response by the government to student protests on February 4 in the city of San Cristobal as a direct cause that sparked the spreading unrest. That day students were protesting because of campus insecurity: “The campus [of the Táchira National University] was raided and the arrest of 6 students awoke solidarity from other institutions of higher education.”
The bulletin speaks of a “chain reaction” in which government repression led to more protests: “State action to restore public order has been characterized by a disproportionate use of force and firearms, tear gas and mistreatment of people who are arrested. We understand the State’s duty to act [against] violence; however, there are international and national rules on how to proceed without causing violations of human rights. Now and then the Government actions run [against] the constitutional democratic control of public demonstrations.”
The February bulletin also notes the growing concern among Venezuelan NGOs about reports of involvement of “paramilitary structures” in the repression of protesters. PROVEA speaks of “many testimonies, photographic evidence and videos” of civilians firing on protestors and sometimes taking them away from the scene. PROVEA also warns against simply equating these groups with the so-called Colectivos, pro-government grassroots organizations that do social work in the poorest communities. However, says the bulletin, there are a few groups that are openly armed (the bulletin mentions Carapaica, La Piedrita, and the Tupamaros,) and that have been untouched by the so far timid disarmament efforts of the State. PROVEA criticizes President Maduro for “inciting the population to confront protesters,” as this could be understood as a call for action by “paramilitary and vigilante” groups. PROVEA also asks the Attorney General to investigate the armed civilian groups that have committed documented crimes.
Here is a summary of PROVEA’s monthly International Bulletins from September 2013 on:
In its September bulletin, PROVEA argued that high inflation was having a negative impact on poverty reduction in Venezuela. According to the report, the rise in minimum wage was far surpassed by inflation and that wages were “insufficient to purchase the products of the standard food basket.” The bulletin also criticized Venezuela’s Ombudsman for failing to fulfill the minimum conditions stated by the Paris Principles for such institutions. Finally, the September bulletin tackles the issue of Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took effect on September 10. PROVEA considered that the government’s decision “harms its international image as a promoter and guarantor of rights,” and that it violates several articles of the Venezuelan Constitution related to human rights protection and the constitutional status of international human rights treaties signed by the government.
October marked PROVEA’s 25th anniversary, and its International Bulletin carried a brief history of the group. In 1988 it took over the case of the families of 14 fishermen murdered in “El Amparo,” in the Venezuelan frontier with Colombia. Venezuelan security forces killed the fishermen alleging that they had faced Colombian guerrillas in combat. Since then, PROVEA has also backed victims of human rights abuses during the “Caracazo” riots in 1999, forced disappearances of people by security forces during the Vargas State flooding of 1992, and victims of the coup d’état of 2002, among many other high profile cases.
In its October bulletin, PROVEA also noted the government’s creation of a new intelligence unit, the CESPPA, which PROVEA considers part of an “increasing authoritarian feature of the government.”
The main topic of the November Bulletin was indigenous rights. PROVEA noted the progress in the recognition of “specific and collective rights of indigenous people” since the adoption of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the specific laws approved since then. However, the bulletin also points to the high expectations generated by the new Constitution and new laws and the disappointment at the fact that progress in enacting those laws has been slow to materialize. The most important law according to PROVEA, regarding land demarcation for indigenous populations, has barely reached 5% of its projected aims.
The bulletin also referred to the problem of what it calls “structural impunity” in Venezuela’s judiciary system. PROVEA claims that more than 90% of the crimes committed in the country remain unpunished.
Finally, the November bulletin notes that the special powers to legislate by decree, granted by parliament that month to President Nicolás Maduro, although established in the Constitutional text, weakens the role of the parliament. The main concern for PROVEA is the legislating powers granted to the President in the field of security and defense. Already in November, well before the February 2014 protests, PROVEA worried about the use of special executive powers in the context of a “growing selective fight against peaceful social protests.”
PROVEA did not publish its bulletin for December 2013 and its first issue of 2014, which corresponded to developments in January, was published in February. The main topic of the bulletin was the tentative dialogues undertaken by government, opposition, and business sectors that took place at the end of last year. Those dialogues have since broken down after the events of February and March. At the time however, PROVEA welcomed the calls to dialogue made by President Maduro but gave strong warnings on two issues that could derail those attempts: First it advised that “senior officials, including the President, must stop using derogatory adjectives to refer to those who do not support their political agenda. The language used daily by official media and social networks of officials maintained an atmosphere of confrontation which contradicts the pursuit of peace talks.” PROVEA also argued that the executive should refrain from calling the “Plan de la Patria” a “law” without having followed the proper constitutional procedures of legislative approval. The “Plan de la Patria,” officially the Plan for the Economic and Social Development of the Nation, was the original blueprint of Chávez’ political plan for the 2013-2019 term. On December 3, 2013, the National Assembly voted that it should become National Law. However, the opposition claims that the proper procedures were not followed for its approval.