Attempted recall referendum
On January 26, Venezuela’s electoral authority initiated the process to hold a recall referendum of de-facto president Nicolás Maduro. Under Venezuela’s constitution, the right to hold a recall referendum of an elected official can be invoked halfway through their term; as Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in an election marred by widespread irregularities, January marked the halfway point for his second presidential term. However, the process was compromised from the beginning, after the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced on January 21 that the initial gathering of signatures for the recall referendum would take place in an extremely limited 12-hour time frame only five days later, during which it would have been practically impossible to collect the minimum number of signatures to move the process along. After the CNE unveiled these provisions, WOLA joined a group of 61 Venezuelan organizations in denouncing this effort to limit the constitutional right to hold a recall referendum, as well as efforts by the Maduro government to intimidate those who chose to participate in the process.
Ultimately, the CNE reported that only 42,421 signatures were collected—far short of the threshold of 4.2 million signatures, representative of 20 percent of Venezuela’s voting population, required to move the recall referendum process to the next stage. The signature collection process was marked by intimidation by pro-government public officials, and militarized collection sites, contributing to the low turnout. As a recall referendum can only be held once per term, the next chance to vote Maduro out of office will be in presidential elections in 2024.
On January 9, opposition candidate Sergio Garrido won in a historic repeat election in the state of Barinas following national mayoral and gubernatorial elections on November 21, 2021. While the November regional elections saw pro government candidates win most gubernatorial races, the opposition won in the states of Zulia, Cojedes, and Nueva Esparta. Furthermore, opposition candidate Freddy Superlano won by a slim margin of 0.4 percent in Barinas against pro-government candidate Argenis Chávez, the incumbent governor and brother of late president Hugo Chávez. But Superlano’s candidacy was then retroactively disqualified by the government-aligned Supreme Court, which called for a repeat election in January. Superlano’s disqualification was widely denounced by international organizations including the Carter Center, which documented irregularities in the November elections in its preliminary report after accompanying the process.
In the January special election, which did not have the same level of international observation as the initial elections in November, and was marked by a heightened military presence in the state, Sergio Garrido of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática won by a much larger margin—garnering 55.36 percent of the vote, with pro-government candidate Jorge Arreaza far behind with 41.27 percent. Before Venezuela’s electoral authority even announced the final results, Arreaza, Maduro’s former Foreign Minister, admitted defeat on social media. The process constituted an unexpected victory for the opposition in a historically Chavista state, where the governorship has been occupied by members of the Chávez family since 1998. WOLA published an episode of The Venezuela Briefing podcast, in which electoral expert Eugenio Martínez breaks down the results and implications of the historic election.
- On January 19, the Maduro government approved a law to reduce the number of justices on the Supreme Court (TSJ) from 32 to 20, with nominations for new justices being accepted until February 15. Some civil society organizations are considering presenting recommended candidates for the 20 TSJ seats, as they similarly presented candidates to be considered for the new electoral council (CNE) that was named in May 2021. The change to the TSJ is one in a series of judicial reforms being made by the Maduro government since the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in November that it was opening an investigation into crimes against humanity committed by the Venezuelan security forces. Critics, however, claim that these judicial reforms are only superficial measures that will not change the lack of judicial independence in the country.
- On February 3, head of the opposition negotiating team Gerardo Blyde called on the Maduro government to return to the negotiating table in Mexico City, after the government negotiating team suspended the talks last October following the U.S. extradition of Maduro government ally Alex Saab. Blyde also suggested in an interview that the Vatican and the UN would coordinate a group of ‘friendly countries’ that will accompany the negotiation process, which has taken place under the mediation of the Norwegian government. However, shortly thereafter UN Secretary General António Guterres claimed that the UN has not received a formal invitation to participate in the process in this capacity.
- On January 21, the Mexican government instituted a new visa requirement for Venezuelans that makes it significantly harder for Venezuelans to enter the country legally. This new restriction comes amid pressure from the Biden administration on Mexico to limit the northward flow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, following unprecedented numbers of Venezuelans arriving at the U.S. border in 2021.
- On January 31, news emerged that the Biden administration has begun deporting Venezuelan migrants apprehended in the U.S. to Colombia under the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said would be commonplace for Venezuelans who previously resided in Colombia. The reports prompted immediate backlash, including from Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who regarded the reports as “extremely disturbing” and urged the Biden administration to cease third-country deportations under Title 42.
- On February 6, Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard officers fired shots at a boat carrying Venezuelan migrants, hitting a mother and killing the baby she was holding. The story has brought international attention to the inhumane treatment of migrants in Trinidad and Tobago, where many Venezuelans have fled by boat in recent years.
- From January 24 to 30, the Colombian government carried out a mass registration and distribution of its Temporary Protection Permit (PPT), issuing permits to more than 60,000 Venezuelans in Bogotá. Colombia’s migration authority reportedly plans to hold several mass distribution campaigns across the country to expedite the distribution of the PPT, which provides regular status to Venezuelans for a period of 10 years, ahead of Colombia’s presidential elections in May.
- Thousands of Chilean protesters marched on January 30 against crime and insecurity allegedly caused by Venezuelan migrants in the northern town of Iquique, destroying migrant encampments and attacking one migrant man. The protest is the latest in a series of violent and xenophobic demonstrations in Iquique, near Chile’s border with Bolivia and Peru.
- In January, Victoria Lugo Mayor, a 7-year old Venezuelan girl, was found dead after attempting to make the dangerous trek across the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the United States. Victoria’s mother was taken into U.S. custody shortly after identifying her daughter’s body, and has since been released to pursue her asylum case.
- Hundreds of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, as well as dozens of Venezuelan and Colombian indigenous families, were among the more than 2,000 displaced in January following violent confrontations between armed groups in the state of Arauca, Colombia, along the border with Venezuela. Facing continued violence in the region, the UN is considering opening a humanitarian corridor to bring humanitarian assistance to the affected communities.
Attacks on Journalists and Activists
- On January 28, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement expressing concern regarding the limitations, defamatory statements, and threats facing independent journalists and media outlets in Venezuela, and calling on the Venezuelan authorities to cease threats and arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of expression. In December 2021 alone, the Venezuelan NGO Centro de Justicia y Paz (CEPAZ) documented 10 cases of persecution against independent journalists, in addition to another 7 cases of persecution against perceived political dissidents.
- On January 27, Venezuelan NGO Centro para los Defensores y la Justicia (CDJ) published its report for 2021 on the situation of human rights defenders in Venezuela, finding that there were 743 cases of threats and attacks against human rights defenders over the course of 2021, representing a significant increase from the 303 attacks registered in 2020. On February 10, CDJ also published a new report with Amnesty International and Foro Penal, documenting repressive tendencies and arbitrary detentions for political reasons in Venezuela. Read the report in English here.
- On January 10, José Gregorio Urbina, activist and director of the popular local radio station 92.5 FM, was killed by armed groups in the state of Apure. Urbina’s killing comes a few days after he recorded a video denouncing ongoing armed confrontations and human rights violations by the Venezuelan security forces along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
- Carlos Luis Revette, one of Venezuela’s most prolific gang leaders, was killed in a police operation on February 8 in the state of Aragua. Revette, known by his alias “El Koki,” led the criminal group that controls several neighborhoods in Caracas, and was on the run from the authorities following violent clashes between his gang and the Venezuelan security forces in July 2021.
- On February 5, the International Contact Group on Venezuela issued a statement urging the parties of the latest negotiation process to “resume the dialogue in Mexico and act in good faith for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.” The statement also expressed concern regarding the threats facing political and civil actors, and the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela.
- In January, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov floated the possibility that Russia would send military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with the United States over Ukraine were to escalate further. In response, several high-level U.S. officials including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and former Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams have dismissed the threat as a “bluster.”
- Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James “Jimmy” Story reiterated in his weekly program that the U.S. is ready to revise existing sanctions on Venezuela in the case that there is “significant progress” at the negotiating table in Mexico. A few days later, a State Department spokesperson clarified that improving the political situation, reducing repression, and freeing political prisoners, would be preconditions for the lifting of sanctions.
- On February 4, Venezuela’s Supreme Court rejected an attempt to appeal the prison terms of six former Citgo oil executives who have been imprisoned in Venezuela since November 2020 and are carrying out sentences ranging from 8 to 13 years for corruption charges. The Supreme Court decision follows a visit by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens to Caracas in December, an apparent attempt to negotiate for the release of the six U.S. citizens, known as the “Citgo 6.”
- In January, Nicolás Maduro claimed in a video on social media that Venezuela is “on its way to 100 percent vaccination” for COVID-19, with 95 percent of the population currently immunized. This claim is inconsistent with official data provided by WHO, which puts the current number of Venezuelans fully vaccinated for COVID-19 at 49.26 percent.
- Doctors Without Borders is providing mental health care for medical staff and COVID-19 patients in two public hospitals in Venezuela, to support those coping with the pandemic in the context of a severely deteriorated public health system.