Interviewed May 2011
Cristal Montañéz Baylor is a freedom and democracy activist. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1960. A former model and Miss Venezuela, Cristal began her work as an activist during the 1978 Venezuelan presidential election.
After Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela, Cristal served as the International Coordinator for the Resistencia Civil de Venezolanos en el Exterior. In collaboration with other organizations, she mobilized Venezuelan and international communities to protest the Chavez government’s crackdown on civil liberties and political rights. In 2004, Chavez’s administration responded by accusing Cristal of destabilizing the Venezuelan government and the National Electoral Council.
From 2003 to 2008, Cristal served as president of the International Venezuelan Council for Democracy (IVCD), an organization dedicated to advancing democratic values, preserving Venezuela’s tradition of free and fair elections, and promoting government accountability. Under her leadership, the IVCD worked to counter propaganda and misinformation campaigns by Chavez’s government.
Cristal now lives in Houston, Texas where she works to advance democracy, justice, and peace. In this capacity, Cristal leads efforts to educate activists on nonviolent action against oppressive regimes. Cristal also sits on the Hashoo Foundation’s U.S. Board of Directors, an organization that empowers vulnerable communities by facilitating their access to opportunity and promoting more tolerant and inclusive societies.
The entire Latin American continent is in danger... The freedom of the entire American continent is in danger, above all when at this moment we see that there are Iranian bases in Venezuela, when at this time we see that the regime is maintaining a civil militia to crush and eliminate the national army and to control the elections of 2012.
We have continued to work to expose the various relations between Chavez and governments that are enemies of the world, exposing the Axis of Evil that was being formed. A very obvious relationship with Cuba, with Russia - and at that time Iranians were extracting uranium from Venezuelan soil, which unfortunately led to what is happening today.
Today, in 2011, we have Iranian soldiers of the Revolutionary Guard established in our country, with our armed forces as their superiors, establishing themselves in numerous bases, and also expanding their influence throughout all of Latin America using the resources of Venezuela.
Now, I ask myself, does this not present a danger for the security of the whole world? Not only for Venezuela, not only for the Western Hemisphere, but rather for the entire world? And again, we Venezuelans abroad began to expose all of the things that began occurring in 2006, that were evident for anyone to see, we began to expose this to the relevant international organizations. To be truthful, I cannot say we received any cooperation, and in the majority of cases we didn't even receive a response to these accusations. It was like Venezuela is over there, so nothing will really happen. Chavez is considered an irrational person, but there is no real serious threat in his policies, so we won't take him seriously. Unfortunately, by not paying attention, the result is that Venezuelans are paying a very high price in a country where there is no right to property, where there is no respect for human rights, where there is no law, where there is no structure, and where all the powers are in the hands of one single man - the dictator of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias.
Venezuela is a South American country of 28.5 million people with a history of multiparty constitutional democracy. President Nicolas Maduro took office after Hugo Chavez succumbed to cancer in 2013.
During the 1998-2013 presidency of Colonel Hugo Chavez, a series of constitutional and legal changes were implemented that make it far more difficult for citizens to change their government. The Chavez government systematically used public resources to secure its power, closed down independent news media, and used legal and extralegal means to harass and intimidate its critics.
Soon after his first election, Chavez called for a new constitution that would give expanded powers to the president and replace Venezuela’s bicameral Congress with a unicameral national assembly. The new constitution was approved by referendum in 1999. Chavez acquired substantial control of the military, the judiciary, the electoral commission, and the news media. The government closed Radio Caracas Television Internacional (RCTV Internacional), the country’s largest television network, and forced into exile the president of Globovision, the other major opposition-aligned network.
The Chavez government’s increasingly repressive methods generated strong public opposition, including a series of public protests by students, workers, and others who were not previously aligned with the political opposition. In the 2010 National Assembly elections, opposition parties received the majority of the votes, but under the new electoral rules the government took a substantial majority of the seats in the Assembly.
Venezuela’s vast oil resources allowed Chavez to implement policies that steered the country towards a socialist economy. The country’s oil wealth funded a major expansion of government social programs, much to the approval of government supporters in the lower class. Oil became the foundation of Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba, which has strengthened substantially over the last few decades due to shared ideology and financial and security interdependence. Venezuela has replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s major benefactor, financially supporting the Castro regime. Cuba in turn has supported the transformation and strengthening of the Venezuelan military. In 2004, the two nations founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a group of socialist and social democratic nations working toward economic integration. ALBA and its member nations often champion anti-American policies and sentiments. This alliance has led to close ties between Venezuela and nations such as Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
Immediately after Chavez’s passing, Vice President Maduro assumed the role of interim President. He then went on to narrowly defeat an opposition candidate by a 1.5 percent margin in the April 2013 presidential elections. Maduro has pledged to complete Chavez’s socialist transformation of Venezuela.
Recently, Venezuela has struggled with a rising crime and homicide rate, blamed by some on a recent economic downturn, the availability of arms, and the weak judicial system. However, Chavez and Maduro both have linked this increase in crime to the media’s portrayal of both fictional and real violence and have continued to influence what programming and content is available. Both leaders have expanded the security forces within the country, calling on police, militias, and the military to fight crime.
In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Venezuela earned “partly free” status, with an overall rating of 5. A rating of 1 represents the most free and 7 represents the least free.