Human Rights and Police Reform in Venezuela: A Venezuelan Perspective

Seeking an experienced, nuanced, and Venezuelan perspective on human rights and insecurity in Venezuela, Venezuelanalysis.com spoke with the Venezuelan human rights organization Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz (Support Network for Peace and Justice).

Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department have put the issue of human rights in Venezuela under much international scrutiny. Seeking an experienced, nuanced, and Venezuelan perspective, Venezuelanalysis.com spoke with the Venezuelan human rights organization Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz (Support Network for Peace and Justice). The Red de Apoyo was founded in 1985 to denounce abuses of power by the police and military and to support its victims. Since then, the non-governmental organization has expanded to include work on a variety of economic, social, cultural, and civil rights. General Coordinator Pablo Fernández Blanco and Coordinator Maryluz Guillén speak about the ways in which the Chávez government has progressed, the areas where there is still much work to be done, the government’s attitude toward human rights activists, the situation before Chávez was elected, and the potential impact on human rights of the February 15th referendum, in which voters approved an amendment to abolish term limits on elected offices.


Please tell me your name and position.

My name is Pablo Fernández Blanco. I am the general coordinator of the Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz.

How do you perceive the human rights situation in Venezuela in general and specifically in the past ten years?

Well, there is a balance in which we can highlight both positive and negative elements, elements on the agenda in which we have advanced and elements that evidently are still pending.

Generally, we at the Red de Apoyo recognize and value that there has been progress in the camp of social, economic, and cultural rights. There are indicators offered by the Venezuelan government as well as international institutions that give evidence of this and we positively value it.

In the camp of civil rights, however, there is a big agenda that is still pending. While it is true that the Constitution of 1999 formalized and amplified the recognition of these rights, in practice it has been very complicated to transform a culture in which the vision of the repressive role of the state remains very present.

For example, with regard to policing, which is the principal issue we manage in the Red de Apoyo, we see it as a positive advance that the government took the initiative in the year 2006 to begin the construction of a police model that is very different than that which we had and that which we have (since the model is still in force), and organized the National Commission on Police Reform (CONAREPOL), which was a very interesting process.

The CONAREPOL produced not only an assessment that was unique to Venezuela, it also produced a police model that adheres to the criteria, principles, and guidelines of human rights. Moreover, the model is characterized by a democratic and civil conception of what a modern police force should be.

The model that the government is attempting to implement now, through the Law on National Police Service and National Police Force, is essentially the model that the CONAREPOL constructed. We believe that it fulfills practically 95% of the CONAREPOL’s proposals. Some very specific points were left out, but this will be the subject of future debate.

Now, the government has created the Police System Commission (COMSIPOL) through which it is developing the standards, procedural manuals, and criteria to implement this model, as well as a new police training institute to bring together the wide range of material on this issue. There is a political orientation and a work agenda that we share and consider to be something positive in terms of human rights.

The flipside of the issue is that, unfortunately, grave abuses continue to exist in the police and military forces. Cases of arbitrary detention, torture, executions, and many other crimes in which state security forces participate continue to exist. We’re talking about very serious crimes: Kidnapping, robbery, executions, and cases like what occurred recently in the synagogue, which was a crime in which almost all who participated were active police. This is evidence of the magnitude of the police problem in Venezuela.

Some years ago, when you asked people what the biggest problem was, evidently the police problem was always among the biggest problems. But in recent years, people’s perception has changed. In the past, they said that the police were part of the problem, but now they say the police are the problem. The police are now seen to be the fundamental cause of the problem of insecurity.

And if this seems like perhaps an extremist argument, it does not lack foundation. Evidently, we have police forces that are totally permeated by criminal networks. We have police functionaries who have never been professionally trained, and who are not valued socially. What’s more, their working conditions leave much to be desired; the very living conditions of police in Venezuela are very difficult, and this represents a vulnerability of human rights.

There is a whole dynamic of corruption that neither this government nor previous governments nor any government has been able to diminish, and this continues to be an arrow in the heel of the process of change that Venezuela aspires to achieve.

So, this presents objective evidence to say that the police issue is a very grave one. It is an issue that we must urgently begin to tackle. It is being tackled, like we already said, we do not deny this, but if the government’s approach toward police reform is not accompanied by substantial changes in the judicial system and the tribunals of this country, well unfortunately, even a very good police reform will fall apart.

If you look at the figures that the Attorney General’s Office itself reported in its end of the year report to the National Assembly, I am not talking about the reports of the NGOs, but the official information, you will observe that between the year 2000 and 2007, out of all the cases the Attorney General’s Office processed, fewer than 1% of them have been effectively resolved. I do not remember right now the exact number, but we are talking about more than 60,000 cases attended during that period of time, and fewer than 1% of them have been resolved.

So, the evidence that the state itself gives us indicates that the state is incapable of resolving the problem. And this incapacity has to do with the lack of resources of the Attorney General’s office, the reduction of the number of state prosecutors, and the vulnerability of the judicial system itself, with provisional judges that have only little by little been converted into permanent judges, and who also demonstrate a great neglect of the fulfillment of their functions.

A victim that comes to the Red de Apoyo must be conscious from the start that his or her case will not take less than four years to arrive at some type of resolution. We have cases that have been delayed for between four and fifteen years. The Amparo Massacre [of 1988], to give an emblematic example, has not been resolved. The Caracazo [of 1989], now twenty years have passed since this social explosion and the absolute repression against the Venezuelan people, and there has not been any type of solution beyond the monetary one, which is not, in essence, the most important. All of those responsible for planning and carrying out this crime walk freely.

So, to answer your question, there is a large debt to be paid with regard to human rights, and this has to do in large part with impunity. This is the essential factor in which we still have not been able to progress in the past ten years.

What role do the community councils play in police reform?

No police reform can be successful if the organized social actors do not participate in it. Whether they are community councils, which are the novel community organizing structures that are being promoted in Venezuela, or any other form of organization, such as consumers committees, victims committees, and traditional organizations like the NGOs, there are many social organizations that have in some way a social role to play in this.

And, evidently, their role must be one of anti-corruption monitoring over police forces. They also have the possibility of contributing information, presenting proposals and project ideas, and becoming involved in an appropriate manner in the process of guaranteeing citizen security.

I emphasize “appropriate” because some people have understood citizen participation in citizen security to mean arming their neighborhoods. So, now there are neighbors who walk around with pistols and shotguns patrolling their communities. This is not the spirit of the law or the Constitution, nor is it what a serious and responsible police reform should really be. Community participation is not meant to replace the police, but rather to bring to the table ideas that will make police work more effective.

What is another essential factor in order for police reform to be effective?

In addition to anti-corruption monitoring from the community, we need internal monitoring by the police forces as well. Why? Because if there is not a way to guarantee the quality of the police’s work, the communities are not going to report crimes. They will not dare. If I go to the police station to report a crime, and the police instead of capturing the criminal what they do is inform the criminal of my accusation, because they are accomplices in a criminal network, well, just imagine it. What guarantee do people have to report a crime? What guarantee do the witnesses have? What guarantee do the victims have?

So, that is also a very important factor and it is a profound weakness on the part of the state. It has to do with how to guarantee victims, witnesses, and communities in general the ability to participate in this process without putting their own lives in danger.

Do you think that government social programs in the areas of health, education, etc. truly reach to the roots of the problems of violence and crime? Is there a connection between economic, social, and civil rights?

Human rights are integral. We cannot look at civil rights unless we relate them to social, economic, and cultural rights. Personally, I positively value that, after much time, we have a government that has contributed significantly, we’re talking about practically 14% of the country’s budget, to social programs.

These are programs, moreover, that immediately tackle pressing problems. When you see the Barrio Adentro Mission, you see that it started bringing the doctors to the slums, bringing the presence of the health professional to the communities that habitually had to leave their communities to be able to get health services. And you take into account what it means for a person from such a community to be able to go to a health care center and be treated. Now, this proposal has grown, and evidently Barrio Adentro has gone from being primary health care to more and more complex types of health care. It has been diversifying itself.

The same goes for education and the expansion of educational enrollment and graduation rates. This has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The educational missions that attend to those who were historically left out of the formal educational system are initiatives whose value as means of inclusion and guaranteeing rights cannot be denied by any sensible person.

The issue at hand, rather, is how to guarantee the continuity of these proposals. Of course, while we have had significant oil income, as we did last year, sustaining these social programs has been, overall, quite easy. How can we make this system function as a complete whole to guarantee human rights to the population, without forgetting and abandoning the traditional health system that existed before Barrio Adentro’s creation, or the schools that exist beyond the Bolivarian school system that began in the past ten years, or the issue of garbage disposal that is a grave problem that affects the health of our communities, primarily in urban areas?

We must address these issues in the short term, considering that the world economic situation will continue to worsen this year, and this will no doubt affect Venezuela.

[Another member of the general coordinating team of the Red de Apoyo, Maryluz Guillén, enters the conversation.]

Marylúz Guillén: I would like to comment on the issue of integral human rights. I think that, indeed, during the beginning of the government of President Chávez, economic, social, and cultural rights took precedence because we were coming out of a tremendously deteriorated economic situation. The missions were practically humanitarian aid; we were almost at that level.

However, the issue of citizen security was pushed into the background. Then, it was always pushed back and pushed back and pushed back until the year 2006 when the CONAREPOL began.

I think it is crucial to recognize that human rights are integral and that we cannot postpone some of them in order to make progress on others. The government has the responsibility to treat the entire situation integrally.

In fact, there are Barrio Adentro modules that have been victim to delinquency. They have been robbed and there are doctors who have been raped. This shows that both things should be treated parallel to each other. I am not saying we should pay attention to security and neglect the missions, not at all.

I think that what the president said in his address following the victory [in the February 15th referendum] on the balcony of Miraflores was very important. One of the things he emphasized was that in the years to come, we must tackle the problem of insecurity because it was effectively an issue that was not treated enough in the state’s agenda, and now it has generated a situation that is overflowing with police corruption and the strengthening of mafias.

How has the issue of insecurity been treated in the media?

Pablo Fernández Blanco: The issue of insecurity is an emblematic issue that should be able to unite our visions and our willpower, like what occurred with the CONAREPOL, but unfortunately it has fallen in the quicksand of political polarization. In this way, the issue of insecurity is converted into another source of disturbance in the everyday lives of people rather than a subject of objective analysis and discussion.

I say this because we have seen how the issue gets a lot of attention in the run-up to electoral processes and then afterward falls into the background again. We must remember that insecurity can be measured in objective terms with reference to the victims, but also in subjective terms with reference to people’s perceptions. Insecurity is a perception, it is not a concrete and tangible phenomenon. So, to construct or generate conditions that affect this vision of insecurity is also part of the political agenda.  

That is where we fall into two dangerous extremes. On the one hand, those who work with and around the government, who devalue the issue by considering criticism to be an effort toward political conflict, and on the other hand, the opposition, who magnify the issue as a political strategy. Neither position contributes to solving the root problem, which is how to make it so all people can live in security.

What is your opinion of President Chávez’s call during last month’s referendum to defend the peaceful demonstrations but quickly dissolve the violent protests?

We thought the tone and the form of the president’s declarations were not very good.

We understand that from the perspective of the government and its responsibility to control the public order, it must call on the state security forces to act in those cases in which demonstrations arise that do not comply with the constitutional parameters of the right to protest.

In Venezuela, the right to protest is guaranteed constitutionally, it is recognized as a human right, but with some logical conditions. It should be a peaceful protest, a protest without guns. When these criteria are broken, the demonstration no longer has the legitimacy of the constitution and it becomes an act that prejudices the right of the rest of the collective to exercise its rights. That is when the public forces should intervene to control the situation, but always adhering strictly to the principles of progressive use of force, which are principles that are very clearly defined in international treaties, in the constitution, in the code of conduct of police functionaries in Venezuela, in the Law on National Service of Police, that is to say, they are widely known and well-defined norms.

So, beyond whether there is a presidential order, or the president in some spur of the moment remark suggested that the police must launch tear gas at the protestors, if they must use gas, it will have to be in a context in which it is fully justified and all other contention mechanisms have been used.

I think the terms in which this issue has been brought up have been fully erroneous. I think they demand a rectification on the part of the president of the republic. And, I think the police forces must adhere strictly to the law.

Marylúz Guillén: The problem of the repressive mentality of the police forces comes from beyond the orders the police are given. Repression is the culture of the police as well as the military. They do not act because they are given an order, they act because it is the way they know how to act, in which they are educated, in which the order and culture within the police is communicated.

Since he came to power, President Chávez has maintained a policy that military and police cannot shoot at the people because they are forces that should respond to the interests of the people. So, what do these forces do? They are paralyzed, because they do not know how to act in a manner that is not repressive. So, in serious situations of public order, you have two options. Either totally repressive police, or police who are incapable of any action. Neither is useful.

One of the fundamental things is to re-train the police so that they have effective dissuasive tools, and that they are conscious of this, and that they use force only as a last resort and in accordance with the law.
How has the government of President Chávez reacted to and treated you?

The Red de Apoyo has a very clear position. We are an organization that publicly denounces the abuses and violations of human rights that state institutions commit, that is what it implies to be a human rights organization that works with victims.

But, we understand that we should also be a pro-active organization. In this sense, we have attempted to approach distinct government institutions over the years to present our proposals.

We were very well-received in 1999, which was when the Constitution was written. We participated directly in that process. We were able to influence the construction of the constitutional text with regard to human rights. And this is something that is very praiseworthy. Never before in this country had a constitution been constructed with popular participation. That was unthinkable.

We have also been able to influence and participate in legislative processes. With the new Bolivarian curriculum, for instance, we have been very close to the Education Ministry, giving suggestions, contributing recommendations, making critical observations, and offering ideas that we think the new curricular design should have. Unfortunately, like we said, amidst the polarization, such heavy and sensitive issues have been put on hold.

But anyway, we have always made contributions to the government and also to those who have alternative proposals, always from the perspective of human rights.

In general, it is possible to work with the government. But we must understand that amidst so much confrontation and polarization, it is not always easy to bring NGOs, social groups, and the government closer to each other. There are places where doors are opened, and there are places where doors are shut. This happens not only in institutions, but with the political officials who are in power at the time. Sometimes one political official will open all doors, and then another political official arrives and shuts all of them. This is more or less the dynamic in which Venezuela is living.

You all have not been the target of persecution by the Chávez government?

No, in the Red de Apoyo, in the past ten years I can tell you that there has not been any kind of persecution in which we have felt vulnerable to the actions of state institutions.

Or rather the opposite, in previous years, it was indeed more habitual. There were even threats, death threats related to some cases that our organization handled.

Also, we did fear persecution in the month of April 2002, during the coup d’etat, because we took on a very active role in denouncing the coup and trying to disperse information within and outside of Venezuela about what was going on, and that put us under scrutiny.

However, it does greatly worry us that other defenders of human rights have been vulnerable. Concretely, I am referring to the small farmer rights organizers and indigenous leaders, such as the case of the Yukpa communities. For us, a leader who struggles for the right to possess land, or who struggles to transfer the land of large estates to small landless farmers, is a human rights activist.

Sometimes, when we talk about these issues, we tend to invisibilize these sectors of the population, thinking that the defenders of human rights are those who act under the umbrella of recognized NGOs with well-known names. We disagree with this concept. We are human rights activists, of course, we recognize ourselves as such, but we also recognize small farmers from Apure or Barinas, and the indigenous peoples who are struggling for their land in Bolivar state or Zulia state or in any other corner of Venezuela, to be human rights activists.

Are the results of the February 15th referéndum, in which voters approved an amendment to eliminate term limits, going to expand or contract human rights in Venezuela?

We released a statement before the day of the election. In principle, the position of the Red de Apoyo in this election and in all electoral processes has been the same. Everything that presents an opportunity for the popular will to be expressed through democratic channels is appropriate, pertinent, and should be applauded, especially in a country like ours that is so polarized and at times and we lose our perspective on discussions of political issues. If the population has the possibility of choosing options by way of the vote that is a positive thing.

These results, just as it would have been had the inverse occurred, must bring with them first and foremost respect for the popular will. Just like when the government loses, as was the case in the 2007 constitutional reform referendum and in the recent regional elections in which the government lost some local elections, there has been an explicit recognition of the results, the adversaries of the government should also make an explicit recognition. To us, this is a sine qua non condition for establishing a real commitment to the democratic system.

Whether these results imply an expansion of rights or not, well, that was part of the debate that occurred. Evidently, there are diverse positions.

Some have made the comparison with European countries or countries that call themselves developed. These countries have political systems that permit a person to run for office repeatedly. Well then, why couldn’t this occur here?

I am among those who believe, and it is not just my electoral stance, that a government that does well should have the possibility of continuing to do well, if this is the will of the electors, of the citizens. A government that does not respond to the perspective of the electors, well it should simply go. These should be the rules of the game.

In objective terms, the possibility of maintaining a government in power does not have anything that is anti-democratic. The problem would be if the effort to maintain oneself in power went outside of the democratic system. That would be another matter. Attempts to impose governments by force, attempts at coup d’états, these are examples. We have much experience with this in Latin America, all of us have lived through it, we haven’t heard stories about it, we have lived it.

Marylúz Guillén: It is about valuing popular sovereignty. That is the value that is stressed in this whole process. If we recognize the sovereignty of the people as the fundamental basis for civil rights, the criterion that is placed above all others, then we are getting better. This does not eliminate the possibility of arbitrary actions, abuses, etc., but rather it gives the people the tool of direct power to take action against this.

I want to thank you sincerely for your time and your very interesting comments.