“It is almost impossible to recognise the most minimal democratic aspects of the Venezuelan government when it has become the norm in this trampling.”

Venezuela is currently in a turbulent state. With one of the world’s largest oil reserves, the South American nation should be prospering. However, the reality points in the opposite direction – an economic and humanitarian crisis.

Following a wave of censorship and mass protests against President Nicolas Maduro, the IPF explores what is left of democracy in Venezuela.

Political turbulence in Venezuela

Venezuela has the second highest murder rate in the world, alongside growing inflation and a lack of basic goods, such as good and medicine. The opposition has now called for a referendum to remove President Maduro from office.

Marianne Díaz Hernández is a Venezuelan lawyer, writer and activist focusing on online freedom of speech and digital rights. She told the IPF that the opposition-led National Assembly was stripped of key legislative powers by the Supreme Court during the 2015 election. Then, in October 2016, President Maduro broke a constitutional obligation when the Supreme Court allowed him to present the country’s 2017 budget without going through National Assembly.

Marianne said:

“The prerequisites for a functional democracy in Venezuela aren’t there. There is no separation of powers, the Constitution is interpreted to suit the interests of a political party and there are over hundreds [of] political prisoners.”

On 20 October 2016, an attempt to hold a referendum against President Maduro was once again blocked by officials close to the government. Many have since accused the President and his socialist government of “absolute authoritarianism”.

Venezuela’s corruption problems

Jatzel Roman is the General Coordinator of Red Latinoamericana de Jovénes por la Democracia (Latin America Youth Network for Democracy), a coalition of organisations from 20 Latin American countries fighting for democracy, freedom and human rights.

Jatzel told the IPF that Venezuela’s censorship crisis is the result of the country’s long-term problems, including constant corruption in the politics and oil sectors. He noted that it has become “almost impossible to recognise the most minial democratic aspects of the Venezuelan government”.

“Justified corruption with nationalistic political rhetoric, blaming every critic [of being] paid agents by foreign governments. This kind of rhetoric was always threatening throughout Venezuela’s history but it was later on that it reached levels of dictatorial harassment.”

Increasing censorship

Censorship has long since been an issue in Venezuela, however, those on the ground said that things have only worsened since President Maduro came into power. Not only have economic restraints become common, but harsh defamation charges have also been introduced, including high fines and imprisonment.

With these tight regulations, freedom of speech has decreased, not only for journalists and opposition party politicians, but for everyone seen as a threat by the ruling party. Marianne risks the same threat of being charged. She explained that digital technology  is often used as a spying method against Venezuelans criticising the Maduro government.

“Human rights activists have been detained, their communications have been tapped, and they have been subject of discredit campaigns over and over during several years. The menace of a possible detention, of having our communications intervened without a court warrant, or without any notice, is always there.”

Moving forward with democracy in Venezuela

“Holding fair [and] transparent elections would be the best possible outcome right now,” said Marianne, when asked about how democracy in Venezuela could begin to return. “Given the depth of the political crisis, the only possible way to reach any kind of agreement between the political forces in the country would need to have the backup and the legitimation of the popular will.”

However, she doesn’t believe that the calls for a referendum will be met by the government. Jetzel continues to hope for a referendum, despite acknowledging that it wouldn’t change the situation in his country overnight.

“[A referendum] would open the doors for the release of political prisoners, as well as the necessary transition to leave behind the political war that has characterised the Venezuelan context, to instead replace that with unity to challenge the crisis which is damaging the lives of millions of Venezuelans.”