Venezuela’s Race Against Time

By Alex Wilks

The lack of food staples and medical supplies, failing public services, frequent blackouts and brutal insecurity have become so serious in Venezuela that earlier this month, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon described the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Colombia has even opened humanitarian corridors to allow thousands of Venezuelans to cross the border for the weekend to buy basic necessities. Once one of Latin America’s richest countries and with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is now in a race against time to save itself from collapse.

When the charismatic Hugo Chávez came to power in the late 1990s amidst the ‘Pink Tide’ of leftist governments that swept the continent, his ambitious social and economic reforms were broadly welcomed. Generous government subsidies for the poor and huge oil pay-outs to political allies became central tenets of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. However, the global drop in oil prices hit the Venezuelan economy hard, with more than 95% of exports being based on oil, exposing the alarming mismanagement, lack of investment in basic infrastructure and corruption that have left the country effectively bankrupt. By the end of the year, the International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will hit 720% and a default on the national debt is imminent.

In order to push through the policies of his revolución bonita and bulldoze any opposition, Chavez also systematically dismantled independent checks and balances on executive power. This has left the justice system in an ugly state. As part of a ‘transitional’ regime that has been in place for over 15 years, approximately 66% of judges are ‘provisional’, meaning they can be freely appointed or removed by the Government. The competitive judicial service exam required by the Constitution has been suspended so that judges are appointed in an opaque process by a politically-appointed body. The majority of the members of the Supreme Court are former politicians or government officials and a recent study found that 92% of challenges against government decisions were dismissed.

The shocking treatment of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is as emblematic of the judicial crisis as it is tragic. In 2009, Afiuni released a political prisoner on bail, correctly applying the Venezuelan penal code and a decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. She was charged with ‘spiritual corruption’ and held in the same maximum security facility as prisoners whom she had sentenced, where she was severely tortured and raped. Five years later she is still locked in a Kafkaesque criminal process in which the prosecution has already admitted it has no proof against her. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, himself a torture survivor, ‘it is growing increasingly difficult to understand what Judge Afiuni is living through’. The chilling effect generated by her case means that judges and lawyers now fear prison or worse for returning decisions against the Government or representing politically unpopular clients and a compliant judiciary is frequently used as a weapon to convict and imprison any opposition, perceived or otherwise – from the elected Mayor of Caracas to supermarket owners, lawyers and students.

Impunity is rife and the justice system is simply unable to ensure accountability. According to the Attorney-General Office’s own statistics, 99% of human rights complaints did not make it to trial phase. The premise that where there is no rule law, people are more likely to take the law into their own hands is starkly demonstrated by the alarmingly high levels of violence on the streets of Caracas, which was recently rated as the most dangerous city in the world, with a higher homicide rate than many conflict zones.

Venezuela urgently needs strong political unity and leadership to resolve the crisis and last December, there was a window for some kind of political reconciliation following parliamentary elections in which the opposition gained control of the National Assembly.  However, just before the inauguration of the newly composed legislature, the Government unlawfully packed the Supreme Court with political appointees through specially expedited procedures. One of the first acts of the newly composed Court was to strike down a recently passed amnesty law calling for the release of Venezuela’s many political prisoners, resulting in a constitutional and political deadlock.

The toxic mix of rampant inflation and corruption, acute shortages and insecurity have led to widespread protests and last week, tens of thousands marched in Caracas demanding a recall referendum to oust the Government.   Former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero has been engaged in brokering dialogue between the opposition and the Government but talks are flagging and a political settlement looks increasingly remote. Ominously, the military has been given extraordinary powers to deal with food production and distribution with several government ministries now reporting directly to the defence minister. In a more bizarre move, the Government recently passed a ‘forced labour’ decree  that gives the Labour Ministry the power to compel “all workers from the public and private sector with enough physical capabilities and technical know-how” to work in the agriculture sector for renewable 60 – day periods.

As one university professor told me on a recent visit to Caracas: “It is as if we are living in wartime conditions, but there is no war”. Despite the growing public anger, Maduro continues to stubbornly blame ‘international warmongers’ for sabotaging the economy. Whilst the humanitarian crisis worsens and the military waits in the wings, it is clear that the country’s real battle is for democracy, the rule of law and public faith in the fair administration of justice. Only then can it have a chance of solving its political and economic crisis and progress towards recovery and stability. Time, however, is running out.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

Alex Wilks is a UK-qualified lawyer and has a wide range of experience in human rights and rule of law work (2003-2004, LLM in International Human Rights Law).