Assessing Venezuela's Political Crisis: Human Rights Violations and Beyond

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
As-delivered statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
May 8, 2014

(Click for as-prepared statement)

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Corker, Senator Rubio. Thank you for having us here today and for all of your efforts to make sure that the spotlight continues to shine on Venezuela, even as we face so many other crises around the world.

I want to start by putting this in a broader context, and remarking that in the last several decades democracy and respect for human rights have spread dramatically in Latin America. This has been one of the most extraordinarily positive transformations that we've seen anywhere in the world. As a result of it we've been able to resolve armed conflicts, prosperity has grown, and is benefiting more people throughout the region.

There are more opportunities for countries in the Americas to cooperate than ever before, and the United States has worked extremely hard to support this progress over the years and to push back when it's challenged. We've done so with countries that are our friends, like Mexico and Colombia. We've done so with countries with which we have more strained relationships.

We've done so by providing direct support to empower local communities and give citizens a voice in government. We've done so by championing the Inter-American institutions that are supposed to protect this progress and to hold every country in the region to the same high standards.

But democracy is still under threat in Latin America. This progress is still under threat, and what is happening in Venezuela illustrates the threat perfectly. Venezuela reminds us that democracy is nothing without checks on government power.

It requires a strong independent judiciary, a free press, separation of powers, and respect for individual rights. The idea that winning an election gives the winner the power to impose his will without any institutional limits is as dangerous to democracy as a military coup, a point that we have occasion to make in many parts of the world these days.

If that idea is legitimized in Venezuela, the region could go back to a time when states and societies were in conflict, as we are seeing on the streets of Venezuela today. So those are the stakes for us. That's why this is important.

Well before the current crisis, as you know, successive rulers in Venezuela eroded respect for democratic principles in several stark ways: Engineering the takeover of television stations, blocking Internet sites, stripping opposition parliamentarians of their immunity, politicizing the judicial system, and using it to intimidate and punish selectively critics of the government.

When judges have resisted government pressure, they have been punished. For example, the case of Judge Maria Afiuni, who was imprisoned, abused, spent four years under house arrest, and remains on trial as we sit here today, because she tried to do her job and enforce the law in Venezuela.

The protests in February began as a reaction to increased crime, but they quickly evolved into a movement to restore the democratic freedoms that Venezuelans have lost. The government has responded, as you mentioned, with teargas, with plastic bullets, leaving more than 40 people dead and hundreds injured. It has empowered armed civilian thugs to intimidate and kill those Venezuelans who continue to march, harass and intimidate television and radio stations, newspaper staffs, and independent journalists, prosecute political opponents, like Leopoldo Lopez, shut down the Colombian television station NTN24 to stop its widely viewed live broadcast of opposition protests.

The administration has consistently condemned these human rights abuses, and called for the restoration of democratic rights and freedoms in Venezuela. Just yesterday Secretary Kerry did so again, saying that the people in the streets have legitimate grievances that deserve to be addressed.

We've encouraged constructive pressure and involvement by other countries in the region, and to that end, Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for your help in raising Venezuela with Mexico's president during your visit there in February. We pressed the case at the OAS, at the U.N. We have continued to support targeted programs in Venezuela that promote democratic participation, and help people overcome restrictions on freedom of expression, and we will not be deterred from continuing those programs.

As Assistant Secretary Jacobson described in detail, the United States has also supported the mediated talks led by UNASUR with Vatican engagement, but we do not view dialogue as endless or as an end in itself. It is a means to an end, the restoration of the rights and freedoms Venezuelans have been denied for a generation.

As Secretary Kerry said yesterday, we will not stop defending those rights. So, Mr. Chairman, let me close by thanking you and others on this committee for raising awareness of the crisis. We're grateful for your longstanding commitment to advancing human rights and democracy in this hemisphere. And I'd be happy to join Assistant Secretary Jacobson in answering any questions you have. Thank you.