Interviewed December 2010
Claudio Jose Sandoval is a Venezuelan human rights advocate. He was trained in social work and studied law at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. After the government of President Hugo Chávez closed down the country’s largest private television network, RCTV, in 2007, Sandoval became active in student organizations supporting freedom and democracy in Venezuela. He was active in the pro-democracy coalition Foro por la Vida (Forum for Life) and co-founded an organization called Generación de los Puentes (Generation of Bridges). His book “Beyond the Student Movement” discusses how Venezuela might achieve national reconciliation.
I want to make it understood that the problem of repression in Venezuela is a problem that affects all Venezuelans. Or the problem of discrimination is a problem that affects not only activists, but also all those who speak out against the regime. For example, recently, there was a spontaneous demonstration by users of Caracas metro, the subway in Venezuela. Simply, the ordinary person from Caracas is tired of that service, which is state-owned, which is getting worse day by day. And one time, as I was saying, simply in a spontaneous manner, the subway wasn't working properly, and its users started to protest.
Immediately after, the State security forces arrived to the location and repressed the people and arrested them. Ordinary citizens, there weren't even activists. So they said that they were infiltrators and they were destabilizing and they were lackeys of the North American Empire. All these kinds of actions are aimed at sowing fear in society, fear and censorship, in order to avoid this kind of action, or to... prevent actions or to simply limit people to not expressing or freely developing and showing discontent against the different situations that they are facing every day, but which the government must see. For example, basic public services. Every day in Venezuela there are protests. Every day.
And not by exactly by activists but by ordinary citizens. Groups, unions, members of the unions or labor unions, nurses unions, etc., who do not agree with what is happening in the country or who simply aren't referring to politics, but have other demands, like salary, for example. The activists also experience various persecutions, not only physical, as I mentioned before, what happened to me, like repression in marches by state forces, but also at an intelligence level. For example, with hackers on the Internet. They tap the telephones. They try to plant crimes or create crimes, and they create situations to imprison the activists. I mentioned one case, which was brazen, that of activist Carlos Melo, where the state intelligence forces arrived, and they simply wanted to plant FAL rifles in his car, which are war weapons that the army uses.
So, evidently, of course, the activist was able to exert socio-political pressure and got the support of all the organized civil society and political parties, and it was proved that it was simply a way to try to silence him, to try to make him stop working. There have also been activists who have been accused of assassination, and so they tried to detain them. There is also psychological harassment, death threats by phone, with bombs, in cars, or through hired killers. People hired to kill that try to....to intimidate the activists. For example, there have been activists that have parked their cars in front of their organizations, and when they came out, the cars were full of gunshots or marked with death threats, etc.
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.