Earlier this month, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), headed by former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, issued a much-anticipated report on human rights in Venezuela. The document is notable for two main reasons. First, it paints a devastating picture of the country’s economic, social, and political situation: 7 million Venezuelans, a quarter of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance; more than 4 million have recently fled the country; between January 2014 and May 2019, more than 15,000 people were detained for political reasons; between January and May 2019, there were 66 documented deaths of political demonstrators; and, according to the government’s own numbers, 5,287 people were killed in 2018 while “resisting authority” in poor neighborhoods. Second, the report cannot easily be dismissed. The Venezuelan government welcomed Bachelet into the country after she’d come under fire last year for failing to label Nicolás Maduro a dictator.
Still, despite its undeniable importance, the report has flaws. While it acknowledges that US sanctions are having an impact, it downplays their tremendous role in Venezuelans’ current suffering. The report also fails to mention the psychological and other damage caused by illegal US threats of war against Venezuela. Third, the report lets the Venezuelan opposition off the hook, making virtually no mention of opposition violence in 2014, 2017, and 2019, which, in addition to causing deaths and suffering, has compounded the challenge of getting both sides to the negotiating table. (To be sure, the government also bears blame on this front.)
Mainstream-media coverage of the report also deserves criticism. On July 4, The New York Times ran a story headlined, “Venezuela Forces Killed Thousands, Then Covered It Up, U.N. Says.” The story opens as follows, “Venezuelan special forces have carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings in the past 18 months and then manipulated crime scenes to make it look as if the victims had been resisting arrest, the United Nations said on Thursday in a report detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” This statement is both technically accurate and misleading. The OHCHR says the government’s Special Action Forces (FAES) killed nearly 7,000 Venezuelans in 2018 and the first half of 2019. Yet the Times story makes it appear as though these deaths were primarily or entirely of political opponents, when the OHCHR documents just six such cases. Even a single instance of state murder for political activity is unacceptable, but six is a far cry from thousands.
The report does note that “OHCHR is concerned the authorities may be using FAES and other security forces as an instrument to instill fear in the population and to maintain social control.” No further details are provided. This is an important concern about what the government “may be” doing, but it remains an open question, at least per the evidence presented in the report. To be sure, the deaths of thousands of civilians at the hands of state security forces is appalling, regardless of whether or not many of these killings were political assassinations.
What the Report Says
OHCHR researchers based the report on nine trips to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Spain to interview Venezuelan migrants and refugees; one visit to Venezuela in March of 2019; and Bachelet’s three-day tour of Venezuela in June. During these visits, OHCHR talked to dozens of state officials, members of the opposition, victims and witnesses of human-rights violations, lawyers, and actors from business, the Catholic Church, nongovernmental organizations, security forces, trade unions, and more.
The report begins with economic and social rights. For regular observers of Venezuela, the findings are at once shocking and unsurprising. As of April 2019, Venezuela’s minimum wage was around $7 a month. The report notes that, “Notwithstanding some general government subsidies, people interviewed by OHCHR consistently stressed that their monthly family income was insufficient to meet their basic needs, covering approximately four days of food per month.” According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 3.7 million Venezuelans suffer from malnourishment, with the NGO Caritas finding “particularly high levels of malnutrition among children and pregnant women.” All this is despite the fact that, according to the government, 75 percent of the state’s budget is allocated to social expenditures.
The findings on health care are equally unsettling: There are “severe shortages in basic medical equipment, supplies and medicines. Families of patients have to provide all necessities, including water, gloves, and syringes.” Measles, diphtheria, and other previously controlled and eliminated diseases have reemerged. Contraception is scarce, according to the report, “with several cities facing a 100 percent shortage.” This has resulted in increased risk of contracting HIV, a 65 percent increase in the number of adolescent pregnancies since 2015, and increased maternal deaths, 20 percent of which are “linked to unsafe abortions.” One of the most horrific statistics is that, according to the National Health Survey, “between November 2018 and February 2019, 1,557 people died due to lack of supplies in hospitals.” An additional 40 patients are reported to have died during the March 2019 power outages.
The report discusses Venezuelans’ increasing reliance on government economic and social programs through the Bolivarian “missions.” It cites the government’s claim that Local Food Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs) provide 6 million households with food boxes. But OHCHR says it heard accounts of people who didn’t receive their CLAP boxes because they refused to support the Maduro government.
Throughout, the report draws attention to the disproportionate harm facing women, many of whom spend an average of 10 hours a day in line waiting for food, and face harassment and reprisals for protesting the lack of necessities and participating in opposition political activity. The report also draws attention to the harm government practices have wrought on indigenous communities in Venezuela.
The report places the blame for all of this squarely on the government: “Misallocation of resources, corruption, lack of maintenance of public infrastructure, and severe underinvestment has resulted in violations to the right to an adequate standard of living related to the collapse of public services such as public transportation, access to electricity, water, and natural gas.”
OHCHR mentions US sanctions, claiming they amplified but did not cause the situation: “The economy of Venezuela, particularly its oil industry and food production systems, were already in crisis before any sectoral sanctions were imposed.… Nevertheless, the latest economic sanctions are exacerbating further the effects of the economic crisis, and thus the humanitarian situation, given that most of the foreign exchange earnings derive from oil exports, many of which are linked to the U.S. market.”
Next, the report moves on to violations of civil and political rights, and points to a decline of independent media. Over the last year, dozens of print outlets closed, the government shut down radio stations and TV channels, and journalists have been detained and expelled from the country.
The OHCHR also highlights the government’s clampdown on political activity and work-related protest. “Successive laws and reforms have facilitated the criminalization of the opposition and of anyone critical of the Government,” the report says. Trade union leaders and workers have also been “fired or detained after protesting for decent salaries and working conditions.” In addition, the report notes the government’s violent crackdown on opposition politicians, and the detention, deaths, and treatment of protesters in 2018 and 2019.
Arguably the most alarming finding of the report is that thousands of mostly poor citizens have been killed during Special Action Forces (FAES) operations. The report says that state security forces separate men from their families before shooting them, and then routinely manipulate crime scenes to retroactively justify their actions. The skyrocketing number of these extrajudicial killings is deeply frightening. It is important to note that Venezuela is not the only country to suffer from this kind of abuse. Human Rights Watch issued a report in December 2018 titled, “Brazil: Police Killings at Record High in Rio.” The report says that 1,444 people were killed in Rio de Janeiro between January and November 2018. This does not, of course, justify the appalling situation in Venezuela. It does, however, show that the problem of extrajudicial killing of mostly poor black and brown men is not limited to Venezuela.
What the Report Leaves Out
While the report acknowledges that US sanctions are harming Venezuela, it fails to capture the full scope of suffering that the United States has caused. The report wrongly suggests that US actions have hurt Venezuela’s economy only since August 2017. Non-sectoral US sanctions on Venezuela date to 2014. While these sanctions did not produce Venezuela’s crisis by themselves, they undoubtedly contributed to Venezuela’s pariah status on international credit markets. In May 2017, Goldman Sachs faced severe criticism for buying Venezuelan bonds, which points to the pressure financial institutions faced to avoid business with Venezuela before the August 2017 sanctions. And the report fails to mention the damage wrought by the appalling and repeated illegal US threats of war on Venezuela. This threat is, among other things, connected to what the economist Francisco Rodriguez has called the “toxification of Venezuelan debt,” or the reality that international finance has been even less likely to loan money to Venezuela because the United States is targeting it.
The report also largely ignores the role that the opposition played in causing and exacerbating Venezuela’s crisis. Juan Guaidó’s ill-fated April 30, 2019, coup attempt is mentioned only in passing. And the report contains nothing on past or current opposition violence. For a document that aims to be comprehensive and accurate, not only in terms of what is happening but why, this omission is glaring.
So far the government’s response has not been helpful. Instead of accepting Bachelet’s findings and outlining steps to address the problems, the government has condemned the report and sought to present Bachelet as a US puppet. The opposition, on the other hand, has done a 180. During Bachelet’s June visit to Venezuela, Guaidó suggested the OHCHR would do little to resolve the crisis. But after the report’s release, opposition websites have publicized its findings.
In comments to the UN presenting the report, Bachelet called for negotiations to end Venezuela’s crisis. This remains an urgent need. And there is room for some optimism, with the government and opposition set to continue talks in Barbados.
It is also critical to end the needless suffering caused by US sanctions. Trump’s former State Department undersecretary of political affairs, Thomas Shannon Jr., recently recognized this point, telling Financial Times, “Keeping these sanctions in place, with no mediating action, will have a profoundly negative impact on the Venezuela people.” He added that the sanctions highlight the US “willingness to cause great damage to Venezuela to drive Maduro from power. Kind of like the fire bombing of Dresden or Tokyo.” It is rare to find myself agreeing more with a former Trump official than with a center-left politician such as Bachelet, but on this point, Shannon is absolutely right.