After four decades, from the end of the 1950s until the early aughts, during which Venezuela compiled an impressive record for respecting the political and civil rights of its citizens, the governments of President Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have regularly imprisoned political opponents. Political imprisonments have attracted criticism from international monitors such as Human Rights Watch (here and here), the United Nations, and Amnesty International (here and here) and, increasingly, from foreign heads of state, including President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy, and U.S. President Donald Trump (here, here, and here).
Despite the increase in human rights abuses in Venezuela in a hemisphere that prides itself on its democratic and human rights norms, data on political imprisonment in Venezuela have been irregular. The most comprehensive information comes from Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights NGO comprising more than 200 lawyers and 1,700 activists. For more than four years, the group has rigorously and comprehensively documented cases of political opponents that the Venezuelan government has arrested, detained and imprisoned.
This report draws on Foro Penal’s data to illustrate patterns of political imprisonment over time and to compare them across the Chávez and Maduro governments.
At a basic level, they reveal one irrefutable fact: in the nearly four years since Maduro assumed the presidency, the overall rate of political imprisonment has more than doubled.
Foro Penal maintains and updates a list of political prisoners starting with Maduro’s tenure (as of 2013) that includes background information on occupation, judicial status and charge against each prisoner. A 2015 report provided similar information about prisoners of conscience during Chávez’s presidency, though the background information provided was less consistent.
Drawing mainly on newspaper accounts, we supplemented Foro Penal’s background information about each prisoner from the Chávez era to assemble data consistent with that from the Maduro era. (Data on individual prisoners, with links to supplementary data sources are available here).
It is important to note a couple of limitations in the Foro Penal data. First, the count is conservative; Foro Penal does not include information on the protesters (who were mostly students) that were briefly detained for political reasons. For example, the report on Chávez’s political prisoners omits the 253 students who were detained for short periods in 2007 during the protests against the shut-down of RCTV. Similarly, the list of Maduro’s political prisoners does not include the brief detention of 5,853 citizens that were rounded up for protesting against the government in 2014. The datasets used in this post include only dissidents who have been officially charged with crimes and formally held in prison.
Second, the data include date of detention but not length of sentence (if sentenced) or date of release (if applicable). Many of those included in the data remain imprisoned, but certainly not all, and particularly not those whose original detention occurred longer ago. As a result, these data shed light on how the Chávez and Maduro governments have used detention and imprisonment against political opponents, but the information does not provide a precise picture of the volume of political prisoners as it expands or decreases over time.
Patterns of political detention
During his fourteen years as president, Chávez imprisoned 161 political opponents, a rate of just under twelve per year. In four years, Maduro has imprisoned 104, more than doubling the annual rate to 26. In short, detaining political opponents has increased as a tool of repression under the current government.
It’s worth noting, though, that it’s difficult to compare these data to political detentions in other countries. Cross-national data on political prisoners are not uniform; human rights groups in different countries do not necessarily apply the same criteria nor collect the same information on political detainees. With that caveat, however, as of March 2016, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Havana, the Cuban rights monitor, Victims of Communism, placed Cuba’s number of political prisoners at 51. To put it baldly, Venezuela’s prisons most likely hold more political prisoners than the country often cited as the most repressive in the hemisphere, Cuba.
Figure 1 shows the number of political imprisonments, by detainees’ legal status, for each year since 1999. The height of each bar marks the total number of prisoners detained and charged on political grounds in a given year. The red sections show the share of those charged who were also convicted in court and sentenced. The green sections indicate the smaller numbers who fled to exile, whether upon having been charged or having escaped after being sentenced.
Figure 1. Legal status
Chávez refrained from imprisoning political opponents until the failed coup attempt against him in 2002, then accelerated the practice during the massive strikes and protests against his government that followed during 2003 and 2004. There is a second, smaller, spike of detentions in 2007-2009, in the wake of student protests against the government’s efforts to increase its control over broadcast media.
In the last few years of Chávez’s presidency, the rate of imprisoning political opponents trailed off. That pattern shifts under Maduro, who assumed the interim presidency after Chávez’s death in March 2013, and was narrowly elected the following month to a term running until 2018. Within a year, street protests against economic hardship, inflation and rampant criminal violence threatened Maduro’s government, which responded with a crackdown on opposition and imprisonment rates not seen since the early ‘00s. Although the scale of street protests declined in 2015 and 2016, Maduro’s rate of imprisonments dropped only slightly and the early months of 2017 suggest an upward trajectory of detentions.
Most political prisoners, under both Chávez and Maduro, have been charged [see Figure 1, again] but not tried and sentenced (or acquitted). Maduro’s government proceeded with trials for a somewhat higher share of those it detained in 2014 and 2015 than Chávez’s government had in previous years. As a result, the Maduro government’s overall sentencing rate of political prisoners of 29% outpaces Chávez’s rate of 16%. Whether Maduro continues to pursue trials for recent detainees will determine whether that gap persists or narrows.
In Figure 2 we group into four categories the criminal charges that the government brings against against political prisoners. Conspiracy-related charges refer to plots to overthrow the government or to finance terrorism directed at the government. Protest-related charges target public acts, such as blocking roads, disobeying law enforcement, looting, or possession of illegal explosives, as well as second-order offenses such as instigation of public disorder, for which opposition leader Leopoldo López was famously convicted in 2014 and sentenced to nearly fourteen years (Foro Penal 2017). Economic charges include trading goods that are subject to price controls on black markets, or gaining access to foreign currency at government-subsidized exchange rates for transactions that government prosecutors determine to be unauthorized. This category also includes illicit enrichment, such as the charge of embezzlement against Manuel Rosales, the former Governor of Zulia state and Chávez’s principal opponent in the 2006 presidential election. The “Other” category includes charges that do not fall into any of the above categories, such as the case of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni who, after granting parole to a fierce government critic, was sentenced for procedural irregularities in conducting her judicial duties.
Figure 2. Type of criminal charges
As with legal status, there is little difference in the aggregate numbers between the Chávez and Maduro presidencies. In both cases, the majorities (54% and 57%, respectively) of imprisonments were on conspiracy charges, and about a third (32% and 36%) were related to protest activities. Notably, economic crimes are one of the lesser used reasons to imprison political opponents. Only 4% of those imprisoned during the Chávez years were under this category, while none of those imprisoned during Maduro’s tenure has been charged with an economic crime (at a time, ironically, when reports of graft and diversion of economic resources has grown).
Despite the government’s sustained narrative that Venezuela is subject to an economic war fostered by opponents of chavismo both domestic and foreign, it has relied mostly on charges of conspiracy and political disorder, rather than economic crimes, when it has imprisoned political opponents.
In terms of timing, the use of conspiracy and protest-related charges varies. Almost all the conspiracy-related charges during Chávez’s presidency came early on, in the aftermath of the 2002 coup attempt and the 2002-2003 strikes coordinated largely by the country’s state-managed oil company PDVSA’s management. Subsequent political imprisonments were fewer and rested primarily on protest-related charges. In Maduro’s shorter time in power, no clear pattern has yet emerged. The protests of 2014 prompted a mix of conspiracy- and protest-related charges, with conspiracy predominating in 2015. In 2016, protest-related charges re-entered the mix as discontent returned to the streets in the wake of the December 2015 National Assembly elections and efforts by the government to deny the opposition a super majority and as economic conditions deteriorated further.
Finally, Figure 3 shows the distribution of professions among those who have been imprisoned in each year. Here again, the aggregate patterns are mostly similar across presidencies. Professionals are the most commonly imprisoned occupational category in both cases, at 25% and 21%, respectively. Twenty one percent of Chávez’s prisoners were military officers, almost all related to the 2002 coup attempt; 19% of Maduro’s political prisoners were military officers. Students also represented a significant share of those that both presidents put in the gaol with 16% under Chávez and 20% of prisoners under Maduro. Government officials were not immune from repression under either government with 12% of political prisoners under both administrations former public sector employees.
Sharper differences show up in the share of police officers and politicians. Ten percent of Chávez’s prisoners were police officers, but only 4% of Maduro’s are; while 2% of those jailed as political prisoners under Chávez were politicians, 12% of those under Maduro have been. Those differences stem from the fact that a substantial number of those imprisoned in the early ‘00s were Caracas police officers whom Chávez regarded as disloyal during the 2002 coup and 2003 protests. Maduro, by contrast, has targeted political and party leaders for their ostensible role organizing and leading street protests against the government in 2014 and 2016.
Figure 3. Occupations of those imprisoned
Imprisoning political opponents is a common tool of authoritarian governments, and it has become commonplace during Venezuela’s steady democratic decline since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, the numbers and stories of political detentions and prisoners are not always well kept or told in the case of Venezuela, limiting our understanding of the deterioration of democracy in the Andean country.
Building on the thorough documentation provided by Foro Penal, we have assembled data that illustrate the patterns of political imprisonment during the nearly two decades under chavismo. Not surprisingly, imprisonments spike in response to direct challenges to governments—from the notorious failed coup of 2002 to the general strikes of 2002-2003 and subsequent waves of street protests. As expressions of opposition have been more consistent and widespread during Maduro’s government, the overall rate of imprisonments has grown and shows no sign of declining.
The details of whom the chavista governments have detained—in terms of when and how they are charged—are revealing and deserve more study. The profiles of those imprisoned vary only slightly across administrations. Of those detained most are not tried and sentenced. The most common charges revolve around the government’s attempt to shut down public protest and opposition, and relate to conspiracy against the government and public protest. Charges on economic crimes are far less frequent than government rhetoric about economic warfare might suggest.
Guillermo Amaro Chacon is a student in the Departments of Government and Economics and John M. Carey is the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.