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.
I will tell people around the world to defend their dignity. Do not allow dictatorial regimes to govern your life. You were born in freedom. In my country, we come from one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Was it perfect? No, but it was democracy. It was free. People had the freedom to own property, to say whatever they wanted to say. They had the freedom to participate in politics; they had the freedom to govern. I would ask people to not give up. Stay together for one objective, and the main objective is the freedom of your own country, that is the land of your children, the land of your grandchildren. So never to go bed thinking: I wonder what they will do tomorrow for me. What are you really doing to bring peace, democracy, and freedom to your country?
Get involved. I would ask people not to watch the process of destruction in your country on television. Go out and join the people who are doing something, so everybody can put a grain of sand toward the same objective, so we can overcome tyranny, so we can overcome dictatorial regimes, so we can really have human dignity and freedom in our lives and be able to live like we used to live. Be free.
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.