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Venezuela Politics -

Venezuela is a constitutional democracy with a population of approximately 26 million. In December 2006 voters reelected President Hugo Chavez of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) with approximately 63 percent of the popular vote. Official observation missions from both the European Union and Organization of American States deemed the elections generally free and fair, having noted some irregularities, including continued problems with the electoral rolls (voter registries), a perception of progovernment bias on the part of the National Electoral Council (CNE), and questions about the role of the military in its heavy election day coverage. While civilian authorities generally maintained control of the security forces, there were instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of government authority.

Politicization of the judiciary, harassment of the media, and harassment of the political opposition continued to characterize the human rights situation during the year. The following human rights problems were reported: unlawful killings; disappearances reportedly involving security forces; torture and abuse of detainees; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; illegal wiretapping and searches of private homes; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers' right of association.

The government was complicit with others, including MVR deputy Luis Tascon, in creating and maintaining the "Tascon" and "Maisanta" Lists, which were used to identify and punish regime opponents. Early in the year, the Tascon List, which provided names and identification numbers of all persons who had signed petitions to recall President Chavez, was combined with lists of participants in the country's social missions and voting records. The combined lists created a program, called Programa Maisanta that not only identified the political orientation of individuals but also attempted to characterize the degree of their revolutionary dedication.

The use of fingerprint machines and electronic voting led many citizens to believe their votes were not secret and were subject to government tampering. Opponents of these methods in November 2005 demonstrated that the fingerprint machines held flash memory, in theory permitting vote sequence to be recorded and thereby fueling speculation that voter identity could be reconstructed. Some voters feared that the government, if it could obtain voting records, would use the information against those supporting the opposition. Signatures provided to the CNE for the 2004 recall referendum were circulated via the Tascon List, which the government used to harass, and in many cases fire, opposition supporters. Voter intimidation remained a very significant factor during the December elections.

The president frequently preempted broadcasting on the nation's airwaves to present government programs. Independent media observers criticized the state media for extreme progovernment politicization.

The government denied private media equal access to many official events, and, in cases when private media had access to government facilities, they often did not have access to officials and information. For example, only the government radio and television stations were authorized to have reporters at the presidential palace. Major independent all news outlet Globovision reported on August 15 that independent journalists were denied access to penal installations at Ramo Verde, the military prison from which four high profile prisoners escaped on August 13. According to Globovision, only official government media outlets were given access inside the facility. Globovision also reported that on August 17, several of their journalists were detained while covering the processing of 14 military officials charged with involvement in the escape. State controlled television and radio stations and many foreign news reporters continued to have full access to official events. Amendments to the penal code in March 2005 make insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison and eliminate bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower ranking officials. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are subject to a one to three year prison sentence and a fine. Inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable with a prison sentence of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only "true" information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.

The law requires that practicing journalists have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes three to six month jail terms for those who practice journalism illegally. These requirements were waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.

Throughout the year, various international organizations expressed concern about the country's lack of press freedom and the harassment, intimidation, and violence, including killings, directed at journalists. Such harassment came from government actors as well as other government supporters. Amnesty International's 2005 report, issued in May, expressed concern that the government used tax and administrative measures to restrict freedom of expression, for example by closing the newspaper El Impulso. At its annual assembly in September, the International American Press Association criticized the country's record on press freedom. On October 12, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) presented a report covering the period from July to September 30, which highlighted infringements on freedom of expression in the country. Specifically, the special rapporteur highlighted the unsolved killing of Jesus Rojas Flores and the attack on regional newspaper Correo del Caron.

While the constitution provides for freedom of association, the government only partially respected this right. Although indicating that they generally operated without interference, professional and academic associations complained that the CNE repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections. A 2000 Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruling declared that groups belonging to civil society could not receive money from foreign governments or groups influenced by foreign governments, engage in political activism, or be run by members of the military or religious groups. The government indefinitely postponed its conspiracy case against the NGO SUMATE, which was based in part on the fact that the organization received financing from abroad.

In May the National Assembly appointed a new five-member CNE board consisting of four progovernment representatives and one opposition member, skewing the CNE in the government's favor.

In September opposition members revealed a videotape of the minister of energy and president of the state oil-company PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez, threatening workers with loss of their jobs if they did not vote for the government in December elections. Ramirez invoked the terminology "rojo, rojito" ("red, very red") to describe the political orientation of the oil company. Other government agencies, including the military and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adopted the mantra as a manner of proclaiming their loyalty to the current government.

On December 3, voters reelected Hugo Chavez as president in elections that observers judged to be generally free and fair. The European Union, the OAS, and the Carter Center sent official electoral observation missions and deemed the elections to be generally free and fair. President Chavez was reelected with approximately 63 percent of the national vote. Chavez received the most votes in each state in the country, as well as in the Caracas metropolitan area. While judged to be generally free and fair, the observation missions did note some irregularities, such as the government's failure to heed previous observer missions' recommendations. They also noted minor problems with the "Plan Republica," the military's plan to enforce security at polling sites and protect the integrity of both voters and voting materials.

Eighty-one different political parties appeared on the presidential ballot in December. Notable political party Christian Democrats barely surpassed the threshold of 1 percent of votes needed to remain on the ballot. Movement Towards Socialism failed to obtain enough votes to remain on the ballot, barring collection of the requisite number of signatures. Democratic Action, having boycotted national elections for two elections in a row, also lost the right to remain on the ballot without a signature drive. In December, following his reelection, Chavez announced the dissolution of the primary political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, and his plans to create one unified progovernment party.

There were 34 women in the 165 seat assembly, 3 women in the 21 member cabinet, and nine women among the 32 justices on the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. The constitution reserves three seats in the National Assembly for indigenous people, which were filled in the 2000 election and remained occupied during the year. There were no indigenous members in the cabinet.




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