Der Fall Venezuela
Ligia Bolívar

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The worsening of violent conflicts in Venezuela in recent years, the State's decreasing capacity to cope with them, and the impact that both these factors have on human rights have aroused serious concern among different public and private sectors, both within and outside the country. This phenomenon is viewed by many with a certain degree of surprise, considering that Venezuela has been looked upon as one of the most stable democracies of the region with a relatively acceptable record in the enforcement of human rights.

The purpose of this document is to identify the elements, particularly those of the past decade, that have led to the worsening of violent conflicts in Venezuela in the social, political, economic and legal arenas, and their effect on human rights, as well as the roles played by governmental and non-governmental entities in this worrisome situation.

To achieve the document's overall objective, care will be taken to explain its initial focus and principal issues, as well as how assumptions made will be treated throughout the document. Therefore, the document will begin with a brief historical summary of the causes and expressions of conflict and violence in Venezuela, and the impact that the State's regulatory role has on these situations, while identifying specific characteristics that these have presented and emphasizing their impact on human rights. Finally, the document will reflect on lessons to be learned from the Venezuelan experience that can be of value to other countries of the region in the opportune recognition and handling of situations of violent conflict.

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Preliminary Considerations

It is appropriate to be aware that the assumptions made in this document, with respect to the basic causes of conflict and violence in Venezuela, are presented within a spirit of complete objectivity.

First of all, a clear understanding of the general concept of human rights as assumed in this document is essential. Concisely stated, human rights are constituted by a number of principles, of universal acceptance and legal recognition, designed to guarantee a human being his or her individual, social, material and spiritual dignity as a person.

Secondly, and as a consequence of that previously stated, worthy of mention is the indivisible and interdependent nature of human rights. In this context, international agreeements were signed covering civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; unfortunately, the political climate existing at the time led to a division of the single agreement into two separate agreements, thereby establishing the unjustified ranking of rights which previously had been declared as equal by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Justifiably, however, this division lost ground in the 80s, when the United States in the Declaration of Teheran recognized that "Because human rights and basic liberties are indivisible, the realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights results in an impossibility." This criterion was recently ratified by the Member States of the United Nations, which participated in the World Human Rigths Conference held in Vienna in 1993. Based on the reasoning here expounded, we believe that the study of the phenomena of conflict and violence definitely becomes an integral vision of human rights, considering the indivisible and interdependent nature of these rights.

Thirdly, it is necessary to continue insisting that the Protection of Human Rights should constitute a fundamental role and responsibility of the State. Although many powerful international and regional entities publicly pronounce their support for giving the State the overall responsibility of guaranteeing all human rights, these same powers show little desire to help enforce integral realization; instead, as free market theories increasingly gain force, there is clear evidence of attempts to limit State intervention to aspects involving the protection of basic liberties and legal regulations of social and productive relations. Simply stated, free market proponents would be instrumental in bringing about the return to a division and ranking of human rights, maintaining that the State should not assume responsibility in the sphere of economic, social, and cultural rights. Those who would agree with this approach appear to have forgotten that "history has sufficiently demonstrated that there are many problems related to social policy (or needs) which cannot be resolved through blind faith or confidence in market forces." For this reason, any analysis made concerning conflict and violence myst take into account the role assumed by the State to protect human rights and to what extent the privatization of these rights could contribute to increased conflict and violence, thereby endangering the peaceful existence of the entire society.

Finally, we must be continually mindful of the relationship between security of the State and human rights. In this regard, we share Montealegre's thesis according to which the security of the State depends upon the security of each of three integrating factors: territory, government and citizenry. While traditionally it has been of primary concern to preserve the security of the territory (integrity against external threat) and of the Government (stability against internal threat), the security of the citizenry has been ignored (intangibility of human rights). The ignorance of the security of the citizenry - such security being understood in its ample sense of covering all aspects of human rights, more than just personal security- as an integral part of the security of the State, not only provokes human rights violations, but also contributes to the erroneous interpretation of the security needs of the citizenry, thus causing those needs to be perceived as a threat to the security of the Government and its stability, resulting thereby in hardened responses by the Government to satisfy the human rights demands of the citizenry. The situation described here adds weight to our opinion that any analysis of the phenomena of conflict and violence must take into accoun that these are produced within a context of ignorance of the security needs of an integral part (the citizenry) of the State; a repressive governmental response, far from fortifying the State, instead contributes to its further debilitation.

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Conflict and Violence in Venezuela

Commencing with the attempts to overthrow the Government in February and November of 1992, Venezuela has begun to be considered as a "case study" for such topics as social conflict, violence, and democracy. In reality, the mentioned revolutionary actions merely constitute the most visible symptoms of an ongoing and accelerated process - although not well known - of the deterioration of the basic institutions of a democratic State.

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A bit of history

The phenomena of conflict and violence in Venezuela are nothing new, especially in the political and social arena. On the contrary, going back to 1811 when Venezuela became an independent republic1, there have been very few occasions when the country has been ruled by democratically elected governments and during which conflict and violence have not constituted a predominant factor or a strong influence in the nation's history.

Specifically, from 1811 until 1830, the history of Venezuela was distinguished by warring actions carried on to consolidate independence from Spanish dominance. From 1830 until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, national leadership was dominated by a succession of regional caudillos who imposed themselves in the central power through armed force - the phenomenon known as one-man rule - while from 1858 to 1864 the Federal War took place. Between 1830 and 1899, Venezuela was the scenario for "thirty-nine revolutions of importance and 127 minor uprisings, 166 conflicts in all, amounting to a total of 8847 days"2, "while starting with the Federal War in 1858, 418 battles were waged, that is to say, an average of 10 warring actions per year"3; it is estimated that the number of victims resulting from internal struggles during this period amounted to about a million people.4 Between 1899 and 1958, the country was run by autocratic dictators who took power by force or as "natural" successors to the previous dictator and who battled by diverse means against incipient political parties. During this sixty year period, there was an interruption of only three years by a democratic government, which in any case began as a transition also born out of a coup d'état.

In synthesis, if we provisionally assume as "democratic and stable" the period from 1958 to 1995 - on which certain precisions will be developed later in the document - it is clearly evident that of the total 164 years' existence as a republic, conflict and political and social violence together have constituted the predominant factor during 125 of these years.

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Contemporary situation of conflict and violence

Although conflict and violence are not of recent origin nor exceptional phenomena in Venezuela, it is necessary to identify the wherefore that causes their greater relevance at the present time, while also taking into account the emergence of new ideas and concepts to improve the overall situation. This approach permits appropriate appreciation of the contemporary situations, especially by its inclusion as an integral part of the thirty-six year period of constitutional governments beginning in 1958.

A primary element present today, of greater impact than in previous years, is basic knowledge regarding the State. With all its fragileness and imperfections, upon granting to public powers the primary role in the regulation of social, political, economic and legal relations, the modern democratic State differs substantially as regards prevailing customs - at least in the case of Venezuela - during the final years of caudillo rule at the end of the 19th century and by dictatorships during the first half of the 20th century, when violence and conflict became increasingly more visible to the point that the phenomenon could no longer be rationalized or covered up as mere "historical accidents", but instead began to be perceived as manifestations of maladjustment in the social dynamics system, with the State finally recognizing its basic responsibility to perform a regulatory role in the protection of human rights.

A second element to gain force starting with the second half of the 20th century, has been the universal acceptance of human rights as the foundation of a democratic society and the incorporation of this concept in internal legislation of constitutional rank. In the case of Venezuela, this approach forms part of the preamble to the 1961 Constitution, which identifies as an objective of the State "the sustainment of democratic order as the sole and irrenounceable means by which to ensure the rights and dignity of the citizenry." The incorporation of human right, not as a marginal objective, but rather as the intention of the constitutional resolution, and of democracy as the means of achievement, implies a special obligation on the part of the State in reference to the solution of conflicts by other than violent actions, meaning that to comply with the civic duty involves a State responsibility that did not exist in similar terms prior to 1958.

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Today's perception of conflict and violence

In addition to the elements that contribute to the greater visibility of violence and conflict, there are factors related to the dynamics of sociopolitical relations of contemporary Venezuela whose influence depends on how the manifestations of violence and conflict are perceived.

Among these, perhaps the most relevant, due to its emergent character in recent years, is the appearance of incipient civil societies that are gaining force as new interlocutors in relations with the State, especially as they become increasingly conscious of their rights and broaden their expectations of positive State action. The progressive emergence of fairly well-organized social movements is pressuring the public powers of the State to be accountable for their actions before an increasingly demanding citizenry. However, the public powers are seldom prepared for these new dynamics; still lacking is a significant degree of positive confrontation based on dialogue, negotiation, and consensus, thereby fueling the tendency to "resolve" conflicts through imposition (the indiscriminate use of force, repression, cutoff of dialogue), assimilation (corruption, patronage), or evasion (delayed answers, negation of responsibility, disqualification of the interested party). This explains why "many of the actions carried out by disfavored social groups are considered "technically illegal" by the public officials of a number of countries, while in practice the application of the law is destined to violate rather than respect the rights of the poor."5

The elements so far identified serve to affirm that the violence and the conflict experienced during recent years in Venezuela in reality are basically the same as that experienced in previous times, but in fact today they may be of more serious significance, considering that different from previous times, and at least formally, there now exists a standard guide for solution through peaceful and democratic means, that is, the idea of a Social State of Rights6 is incorporated into the constitutional process.

Furthermore, the origins and expressions of violence and conflict in recent Venezuelan history are different from those of previous epochs. The constitutional period which began in 1958 - and legally, in 1961 - is characterized by the fragileness of the State's institutions. In this regard, upon termination of the Perez Jimenez dicatorship7, the political parties that participated in the design of the State that today governs Venezuela agreed to what is known as the Punto Fijo Pact, which provided that the three principal political parties to participate in the presidential election of December 1958 pledged themselves to support the winner, while governing in coalition with the objective of ensuring the continuation of the incipient system. Despite the withdrawal from the Pact by one of the parties, after only a short time, the "puntofijism" was converted to a form of government whereby the two parties that have continued in the coalition manipulated the distribution of positions among the public powers for decades; far from becoming stronger, democratic institutionality was seriously weakened by the system which produced, for example, the politization and distribution of political quotas in the Judicial Power, undermining its ability to function independently and without biases. This dynamics was representative of social and political relations between 1958 and 1982.

The fragileness of the institutions of the system as also evidenced by the inability of the Executive Power to handle politically such events as the division of the governing party caused by the emergence of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (Leftist Revolutionary Movement). The opposition of MIR passed rapidly - thanks to forceful governmental represssion - from a political to a military confrontation. By 1961, the fighting was already heavy in urban areas and soon extended and became widespread in rural regions, giving rise to a new period of conflict and violence that lasted seven years. This period was marked by countless human rights violations, under the guise of successive governmental decrees suspending constitutional rights, using as a standard excuse for same the need to quell subversive activities. The first President of Constitutional Venezuela, Romulo Betancourt, was accredited with the expression "shoot first, and ask questions later", based on whose logic the present system sought its consolidation.

In a study written in 1970, a historian and social analyst indicated that this period was characterized by "the lack of crystallization of its institutions and the cultural heterogeneity existing within them as well as in the distinct social levels" and in a futuristic exercise warned that "towards 1984 the economy once again will enter into one of its critical points", and that the poor handling of such a crisis could result in an economic slowdown lasting thirty years." The author went on to say: "Those who might cause a crisis to occur in 1984 and those who might provide a successful solution for the country depend greatly on the political capacity of these groups to work efficiently and productively, that is, to manage the conflict in a way that avoids its exceeding desired limits. But this capacity, obviously, is conditioned by the real possibilities of the system to tolerate or implement the structural changes necessary."8

In effect, between 1983 and 1988, an accelerated process of economic deterioration started. The first manifestation of this deterioration was evidenced in the 1983 monetary devaluation, coinciding with the profound perversion of the State institutions as a consequence of the "puntofijism", the loss of confidence in the political parties, and the sustainment of privileges for the political and economic elite, in contrast with the gradual deterioration of the life quality of the majority of the population.

This five-year period was also characterized by increasing patterns of civil and political rights violations, producing various massacres in rural areas - one of which resulted in fourteen victims - and diverse police actions leading to the massive detention of social, community, political and student leaders, affecting various regions of the country. Furthermore, this period was witness to a process of pressure directed at whatever the printed media criticized in relation to the government's performance, denying it official publicity and restricting access to foreign exchange for the importation of paper.

Structural adjustments started to be implemented in 1989. On February 27 and 28 of that year, barely twenty-five days after Carlos Andres Perez was sworn into power, an event took place which has come to be known as Poblada Nacional (National Uprising). This two-day uprising was a generalized, country-wide, spontaneous and violent protest that rocked the nation those two days, in outright rejection to the first effects of these structural adjustments. The Government reacted by suspending certain constitutional guarantees, under the protection of which the security forces left a balance of about four hundred dead and an undetermined number of wounded.

From that moment, the Executive adopted an authoritarian and repressive attitude toward the incipient civil society's demands. Dialogue and participation were suspended, conflicts and censorship became military affairs, all of which led to unprecedented levels of corruption, lack of independence of the Judicial power, poverty and violent crime, and privileges for the political and economic elite. In this scenario, the Government sought to justify its violation of human rights as a necessary recourse to protect the integrity of the State, with repressive measures ostensibly being applied in defense of democracy, personal safety, or national sovereignty. These measures, however, were used against rather than in favor of the general welfare and security of the citizenry.

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Invisible abuses

Despite the seriousness of the situation regarding civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, violations of these privileges went unnoticed for a long time by the international community as well as by national public opinion. It is appropriate, therefore, to reflect upon how a given act can be interpreted differently, depending upon the nature of the image projected by the regime under which the event occurs.

Situations such as the restrictive conditions applied to the news media for the obtention of foreign currency were severely questioned during the Sandinist Government in Nicaragua, while in Venezuela the same restrictions passed unnoticed by the public in general; the El Amparo massacre in which fourteen fishermen lost their lives would have generated all kinds of protests and inquiries by international missions had it occurred in a country under a dictatorial government, while in the case of Venezuela, it was of no international transcendence.

Although it officially exists, democracy appears to provide a cover under which violations of human rights become invisible and do not scandalize due to the confidence placed in the system to correct its "excesses". However, these "excesses" are not looked upon as such when they involve entire institutions of public power.

The myth of a stable democracy enabled the violations of human rights committed in Venezuela to remain hidden for many years. While on the subject of "stable democracy" on this continent, we need only to refer to the case of Mexico, which was governed fraudently by the same political party for more than sixty years, or to the case of Colombia where a pact similar to "puntofijism" has preserved the country's leadership on an alternating basis between two political parties which, for decades, remained in power through the use of successive martial law decrees.

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Impact on human rights

In the field of civil and political rights, the violations of human rights over the past six years is alarming, particularly when we keep in mind that this society is said to be a "stable democracy". The balance of the aforementioned violations is detailed as follows: at least 762 persons killed by State security groups, not including the almost 400 persons that perished during the riots in February 1989; on average, more than one person died daily in penitentiaries, not including the victims of three jail uprisings which resulted in 250 deaths; one out of every three pacific manifestations were violently repressed, resulting in dozens of deaths and thousands wounded and detained; the militarization of jails, marginal areas, cities in different parts of the country, rural and frontier areas, hospitals, media, and labor conflicts, in both the private and public sector.

Within this very same time frame, constitutional guarantees have been suspended on six different opportunities; the most recent of these suspensions, implemented in June 1994, still is in force.9 Inevitably, this suspension of guarantees has led to human rights violations, such as executions, unjustified detainments, searches, torture, press censure and arbitrary decisions in the field of economic rights, all of which will probably go unpunished due to the Legislative and Judicial powers' inefficiency in both exerting control over measures and sanctioning the abuses. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that since the first suspension of constitutional right in February 1989, not a single judicial decision has been handed down determining the responsibility of the officials involved in human rights violations in the framework of exceptional measures, despite the fact that hundreds of complaints have been filed with the courts.

Beyond the sphere of the suspension of guarantees, there is also the matter of the general impunity of police and security officials and the cover-up of their wrongful deeds by their superiors and the high-level Executive authorities. This sends a clear signal to those responsible for ensuring that the Law is complied with and encourages human rights' violations. Based on this, it can be stated that police brutality has not emerged simply in response to higher levels of criminal actions caused by worsening levels of poverty; the fact is that the lack of control over police conduct was already evidenced prior to the rise in poverty levels and, during moments of social, economic or political crisis, the arbitrary actions taken by police and military security corps become more vehement because of the certainty that these actions will not be sanctioned, and, at times, may even be supported or covered up. In a framework such as the one described above, a statement made by the Ministry of Justice at a human rights course for penitiary personnel is viewed as "normal": "I consider that all lives are worthy, but in my opinion, the life of a father who is responsible for his family is worthier than that of a delinquent."10

Moreover, if the police has not been adequately trained in intelligent crime prevention, one cannot expect that when delinquency levels rise it will be controlled by means other than the use of force. So despite all its inefficiency, roundups or "razzias" continue to be the main tool used to "fight delinquency", thus affecting thousands of innocent citizens.

"Solutions" that rely on the use of force will continue to be endorsed inasmuch as one deals with the consequences of crime instead of those factors which lead to its increase in the first place. In this manner, the denial of economic, social and cultural rights also adds to the conflict. In 1991, a mayor of the Caracas Metropolitan Area initiated the formation of self-defense groups in the marginal areas of the municipality, without having created a single employment programme for its youth, or applied a single plan to lower the rate of school dropouts or to increase the number of sports and recreational facilities. Other proposals made in 1994 by ministers, mayors and parliamentarians with different political tendencies included readopting the death penalty in the first country which was the first to have abolished it,11 lowering the age for penal imputability to 14, arming the population and creating self-defense groups. These proposals, however, were not coupled with by any budgetary increases in the items related to social development, which have been subject to serious cutbacks since the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme in 1989.

These budget cuts together with the poor management of existing resources has placed a strain on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, as can be evidenced by the rising numbers attributed to the informal economy (calculated to be approximately 45% of the economically active population). This entails rising numbers of individuals that are not covered by social security, higher levels of malnutrition and infant mortality, resurgence of epidemics eradicated more than forty years ago and whose incidence is directly related to poverty levels and the lack of environmental health, the discontinuation of preventative medicine programmes, the dismantling of hospital and educational networks, higher percentages of school dropouts and - for the first time in the history of this country, demand for higher level education dropped. On the other hand, the lack of transparent and stable rules and procedures at the legislative level is aggravating the legal insecurity of small- and medium-sized farmers, threatening the country's food security and stimulating uncontrolled migrations from rural areas to cities. (These migrations are estimated at 600000 persons in the past five years). Likewise, the legal uncertainty that prevails also affects the possibility of access to adequate housing: ten percent of the population does not have housing, and of that portion which does, only twenty-two percent has basic services while seventy percent of the population has postponed satisfying its need for housing in order to meet other survival needs.

Thus the appearance of non-State actors in the field of human rights. One observes how these actors, who have assumed State responsibilities, have privatized human rights. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other private entities dedicated to social development have thus begun to substitute the State in economic and social areas, but their resources are limited which makes it difficult for them to satisfactorily meet the needs of those living under the poverty line, which is 80% of the population. Furthermore, private groups that take justice into their own hands are on the rise in high class and middle class urban areas as well a in urban and rural marginal areas, independently from State power and control.

This trend is starting to have a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights; debilitated State institutions and the State's passive role as regards relations between individuals have led to the erosion of the State and of democracy. If the security of the State depends on the stability of its government, the integrity of its territory, and intangibility of its citizens' human rights, it is clear that we are dealing with a situation that seriously attempts against the security of the State and which opens the door to new modalities of conflict and violence that easily escape State control inasmuch as it has handed over its powers to other illegitimate actors lacking the necessary capacity to preserve security within the parameters of a democratic society.

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Handling the Conflict - The role played by government leaders

Despite the depth of this crisis and proliferation of analyses in its respect, there is truly no serious acknowledgement of the threat it poses to social and political frameworks; the concern expressed by both political and economic leaders do not reach beyond the realm of rhetoric.

At a seminar that brought together a large part of the region's political leaders, the then recently elected President, Carlos Andres Perez stated: "We must recognize that, many times, the leaders of democracies may be partially to blame for their downfall: shortsightedness, irresponsibility and incapacities of democratic leaders are elements that have combined in varying degrees giving way to the deterioration of the best of political systems. Numerous democracies succumbed ... because the men and groups linked to them did not act accordingly in order to preserve them."12 This, undoubtedly, portrays a good example of the rhetoric deployed by a President, whose leadership is tainted by poor management of the deepest crisis attributed to Venezuela's democracy.

In recent years, political discourse has abounded in rhetorical solutions. But it has not been accompanied by a serious attempt to find alternatives to face the crisis. Perhaps one of the examples that speaks most eloquently of this situation is the debate on constitutional reform, which was strongly undertaken by the parties represented in Congress immediately after the first coup attempt in 1992 and abandoned, almost immediately also, as soon as the population began to manifest its first signs of opposition, demanding greater participation in the design of this Constitution. Not only does this clearly evidence the political leaders' incapacity to handle conflict, but also its unwillingness to give way to radical solutions that could in some way endanger their own privileged situation.

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Other Actors' Roles

Undoubtedly, the media is one of the sectors with potential to play an important role in this situation of conflicts. This, however, has not been the case; instead, the media has worsened the conflict. On the one hand, one observes that prime time television overwhelms the spectator with images of violence, portraying "heroes" who take justice into their own hands. This does little to rescue lost values, such as tolerance, the idea of citizenry, compliance with the rules established by the State of Law, etc. Television news editions allocate more time to information that involves violence, and make it possible to view bloody scenes. This lack of respect towards the viewer also raises tolerance levels, soon making the viewer see them as a daily and normal affairs. In addition, the public opinion programmes are mainly directed toward underscoring polemics and very few times make any serious attempt to provide constructive proposals or show examples that stress civic duty. More recently, the Executive developed a campaign aimed at rescuing the nation's values, making use of all the existing types of media. This campaign however has stirred nationalist feelings which could easily become "chauvinistic", xenophobic and intolerant vis-à-vis millions of foreigners, particularly Colombians, residing in the country. Following a Colombian guerilla attack in which eight Venezuelan military personnel were killed, this malconstrued nationalist sentiment manifested itself in a massive expulsion of Colombian citizens, as well as in the arbitrary detainment and torture of a group of citizens of both Venezuelan and Colombian nationality residing in the frontier with Colombia. This episode worsened when the Church and NGOs in the area of human rights protested and the authorities accused them, too, of being subversive elements.

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