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TITLE: VENEZUELA HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1993 DATE: JANUARY 31, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE VENEZUELA Venezuela is a republic with an active multiparty democratic system, a free press, well established unions, and a longstanding commitment to democracy. These factors enabled the country to withstand the impeachment of a president in 1993 and two attempted coups in 1992. For more than 35 years, power passed peacefully between two large political parties through open elections. Two-party dominance ended on December 5, however, when former President Rafael Caldera was elected President with the support of a diverse coalition of small and medium-sized parties. The new Congress due to convene in January 1994 will be comprised of four major political groupings. The December 5 elections were generally characterized as fair and open, although allegations of fraud cast doubt on results for some state and national legislative contests. The security apparatus has civilian and military elements, both accountable to popularly elected authorities. One of the branches of the military, the National Guard, has arrest authority and supplies the top leadership for one of the country's police forces. The National Guard is also responsible for guarding the exterior of prisons, maintaining order during times of civil unrest, and monitoring frontiers. In addition, independent police forces are operated by the Ministry of Justice, state governments, and many municipalities. Both police and military personnel were responsible for human rights abuses. The public sector dominates Venezuela's economy, particularly the petroleum industry, which accounts for some 22 percent of the gross domestic product. The Government undertook major economic restructuring to reduce its dependence on oil exports, privatize many public sector firms, and enable domestic business to compete more effectively in international markets. Venezuelans traditionally have enjoyed a wide range of freedoms and individual rights, including a free press, active unions, and free elections, but serious human rights abuses continued in 1993. They included arbitrary and excessively lengthy detentions, abuse of detainees, extrajudicial killings by the police and military, the failure to punish police and security officers accused of abuses, corruption and gross inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems, deplorable prison conditions, a lack of respect for the rights of indigenous people, and discrimination and violence against women. In addition, the courts made no progress in prosecuting those responsible for many extrajudicial killings during the two 1992 coup attempts, the November 1992 massacre at Reten de Catia prison, or the 1989 urban riots. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from: a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing There were no reports of targeted political killings, but extrajudicial killings by the security forces continued. The Venezuelan Program for Action and Education in Human Rights (PROVEA), one of Venezuela's most respected human rights organizations, reported 187 extrajudicial killings from October 1992 through September 1993. At least eight of the victims were under 15 years of age. According to PROVEA, 66 of the killings were carried out by the metropolitan police, 33 by state police, 22 by the Intelligence Police (DISIP), 21 by the National Guard, 16 by the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), 11 by the armed forces, 8 by municipal police, and 10 by other branches of the security apparatus. The perpetrators act with near impunity, as the Government rarely brings charges against them. If the perpetrators are prosecuted, sentences issued are frequently light, or, more commonly, the convictions are overturned during the appeal process. Unlike common prisoners, police charged with crimes rarely spend much time in prison. In the La Vega borough of Caracas, a group of five hooded men, alleged by witnesses and family of victims to be local police officers, committed seven killings in a 2-week period, four of them in one night. In a sweep through La Vega near midnight on May 16, the men moved from house to house, fatally shot Orlando Aliendre, wounded two passersby, and then killed 17-year-old Jorman Saavedra. Two witnesses, Douglas Guevara and Jordan Perdomo, were also shot and killed as they ran from the scene. Surviving witnesses, although reluctant to speak to authorities out of fear of reprisals, identified a specific sergeant in the local metropolitan police as leader of the group and matched the killers' clothing and equipment with that of the police. The local police chief reportedly dismissed the allegations by simply stating that no one in his unit belonged to such a group. An investigation by the Ministry of Justice Police moved slowly and failed to identify any suspects by the end of the year. Simple interactions with local police often proved fatal. In February in the city of Maracaibo, an officer of the Zulia State Police allegedly shot 17-year-old evangelist Juan Gabriel Rincon in broad daylight. According to witnesses, the officer stopped the youth on the street and asked to see his identity card. The officer reportedly brandished a loaded hand gun and, in the ensuing conversation, threatened to kill Rincon's sister who was accompanying him. Rincon intervened and was fatally shot. The police officer was jailed, and criminal proceedings were initiated against him. No one was prosecuted for the 34 extrajudicial killings that occurred during two attempted coups in 1992. Investigations of the killings moved slowly, impeded by a resistant bureaucracy. Likewise, no one was prosecuted or even held responsible for the November 1992 killing of at least 63 prisoners at Reten de Catia prison. The National Guard stormed the prison and allegedly fired indiscriminately after having heard that coup leaders had distributed arms there (a police investigation noted that only one gun and numerous knives were later inventoried). While the Government officially reported 63 prisoners killed at Reten de Catia, human rights groups asserted that the fate of 25 additional prisoners remained unknown. Although almost 5 years had elapsed, no progress was made on charges of extrajudicial killings by security forces during the riots of February and March of 1989. The Government maintained that 276 people died, while human rights groups documented some 400 cases of persons who were killed or disappeared during the disturbances. At least 68 of those killed were buried anonymously in mass graves in a Caracas cemetery. Some human rights organizations accused the authorities of intentionally disposing of the bodies in unmarked graves to conceal the identity, cause and manner of death of the victims and thus protect the perpetrators from prosecution. Although the bodies were exhumed in 1991, only three have been positively identified. Approximately 300 cases regarding the 1989 killings remained under consideration in both military and civilian courts, but only 1 has been adjudicated: a police officer was found guilty in 1991 of homocide and sentenced to 1 year's imprisonment. The Committee of Family Members of Victims of the Riots (COFAVIC) continued to seek a thorough investigation and prosecution of the cases. The Government and the courts, however, made no substantial effort to hasten proceedings. A military court of appeals ruled in March that the 1988 shooting deaths of 14 fishermen by Venezuelan security forces in the town of El Amparo near the Colombian border was an excessive use of force, not a deliberate massacre as alleged by 2 survivors. Fourteen of the police and military officials responsible for the deaths were sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison, roughly half of which they had already served. Local and international human rights groups and the victims' representatives expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict, asserting that the court had disregarded crucial evidence and testimony demonstrating that the event was a deliberate massacre. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances in 1993. The press and human rights groups, however, reported the unrelated disappearances of two members of the military. Military authorities claimed both were cases of desertion, while family members asserted the soldiers had been killed as a result of foul play on the part of the military. One of the disappeared soldiers allegedly had information that his superiors were involved in narcotics trafficking. No progress was made towards resolving the cases of military personnel who disappeared around the time of the November 1992 coup attempt. Likewise, there were no prosecutions resulting from the unrelated disappearances in 1992 of Jonathan Salazar Rojas or Junior Rafael Barco, both of whom allegedly disappeared while in police custody. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Torture is prohibited by law, but physical abuse of detainees continues. This abuse reportedly includes the use of electric shock, beatings, rape, and near suffocation, usually during the interrogation of detainees. In its annual report on Venezuela released in November, Amnesty International maintained that torture and ill-treatment are widespread and sometimes resulted in death. Most of the victims come from the poorest and least articulate parts of society, but political activists, student leaders, and members of grassroots organizations have also reportedly been victims of torture and ill-treatment as a result of their activities. PROVEA documented 105 cases of torture from October 1992 through September 1993. Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, another human rights organization, reported 90 incidents of torture from March through May alone. All of the major human rights groups asserted, however, that these numbers are low because many victims remain silent about abuse due to fear of retribution. According to PROVEA, 32 of the reported torture incidents were carried out by DISIP, 18 by the Technical Judicial Police (PTJ), 17 by the National Guard, 17 by the armed forces, 13 by state police, 7 by the metropolitan police, and 1 by municipal police. Amnesty International asserts that torture continues in Venezuela, primarily because the courts failed to investigate complaints of torture properly and bring those responsible to justice. In addition, a number of human rights groups report that the lack of independence of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, which is part of the PTJ, prevents forensic doctors from being impartial in their examinations of cases where torture may have been involved. Very few cases of torture have resulted in convictions. Prison administration is very poor due to underfunding, poorly trained staff, and corruption among prison officials. There are 33 prisons for an inmate population that numbered 25,610 in August. Of this number only 9,747 had been sentenced. In 1991 the Attorney General's office assigned representatives to the 14 worst prisons to monitor conditions. The increase in violence and the persistence of deplorable living standards in the prisons, however, indicate that these representatives faced severe difficulties in improving conditions. Funding for prisons remained extremely low. Numerous prison riots occurred in 1993 due to poor prison conditions such as extreme overcrowding, inadequate diet, minimal health care, and physical abuse by guards and other prisoners. Weapons and illegal drugs are easily smuggled into most prisons, and violence within the prison system is growing. PROVEA reported that from October 1992 through September 1993, 195 prisoners were killed and another 387 wounded by other prisoners (these figures do not include victims of the November 1992 Reten de Catia massacre). PROVEA acknowledged, moreover, that these figures were conservative, reflecting only incidents covered in the press or received firsthand by PROVEA. At least one expert on Venezuela's prisons asserted that the total number of violent prison deaths for the year approached 600. In June a brutal revolt took place at the Barcelona prison when two groups of inmates, armed with pointed sticks and guns, fought each other for control of the prison. As a result of the bloody confrontation, 6 inmates were killed and about 20 wounded. According to the police report, the bodies of the dead were found decapitated. On January 3, 1994, a riot in Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo left at least 104 prisoners dead and another 80 wounded. Sabaneta had come to be known as "the prison of death," since throughout 1993 at least 71 prisoners were killed and 100 wounded in almost daily incidents of violence. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile Although the right to judicial determination of the legality of detention is provided by law, arrested persons or those under investigative detention legally can be held for as long as 8 days without a formal detention order. During this time detainees may be held incommunicado and, according to human rights groups, are sometimes physically and psychologically abused. On the eighth day of detention, a judge, taking the police investigation into account, issues a formal arrest order; if no evidence is found, the police release the person. Arbitrary arrests and arrests without proper warrants are common, and time limits for holding persons are frequently exceeded. Prisoners often have to pay fees extorted by prison officials for transportation to judicial proceedings at which formal charges are made. Detainees without money to pay such unauthorized charges are sometimes unable to get to their judicial hearings. In addition, the 1939 Vagrancy Law permits the detention for up to 5 years, without warrant, trial, or judicial appeal, of people deemed by the police to be a danger to society but against whom there is no evidence of a punishable crime. According to human rights groups, the law is open to arbitrary and discriminatory interpretation and practices. It was used in the past to detain political dissidents, and in November 1992 the head of the Caracas Metropolitan Police threatened to use this law against two human rights activists if they persisted in their activities. The more common application of the law, however, is against poor people with criminal records who are detained during police sweeps. Amnesty International noted that detainees under this law, placed in jail merely on the basis of suspicion, are frequently victims of torture. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial Although the right to a fair trial is provided by law and some procedural safeguards exist, the accused bears the burden of proof regarding innocence. Lengthy pretrial detention of 2 to 4 years and case backlogs are the norm. The justice system is overburdened, corrupt, and inefficient. The law provides public defenders for those unable to afford a defense attorney, but there are not enough public defenders in the country to meet this obligation. The Judicial Council, the governing body of the judicial branch, stated that there are 150 public defense attorneys with an average of 170 active cases each. Because of the unequal distribution of cases, some defenders handle as many as 250 cases. The judicial process is written, requiring the costly and time-consuming production of voluminous reports by judges, attorneys, and witnesses at every stage. Some Venezuelan leaders and legal experts also blame delays and other irregularities on corruption and the use of personal influence. The civilian judiciary is legally independent, but connections to the established major political parties are important in the judicial selection process, and political parties can and do influence judicial decisions in particular cases. This overburdened justice system also suffers from a lack of public credibility. Civilians charged with armed subversion can be tried by military courts as insurgents. There is neither a statute of limitations nor a requirement for a speedy trial for cases in military courts, although persons convicted under the military justice system have the same right of appeal to the Supreme Court as those prosecuted under the civilian system. Military judges are appointed by the Supreme Court. The lack of deadlines in the military system, combined with its procedural secrecy and tendency to "close ranks," makes it unlikely that defendants undergo an impartial or timely prosecution. These factors resulted in military offenders receiving impunity for extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. In March the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the decree which established accelerated military tribunals for persons allegedly connected to the November 1992 coup attempt. The cases of the 87 individuals (both military and civilian) convicted by the special tribunals were placed in regular military courts (where the cases remain), while the 109 acquitted were not retried. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence Venezuela has constitutional safeguards protecting citizens against arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. In general, these safeguards are effective and were respected in 1993. After the 1992 coup attempts, however, the following constitutional safeguards were briefly suspended: freedom of travel, freedom of speech, the right to strike, personal security and liberty, inviolability of one's home, the right to assembly, and the right to demonstrate. In recent years, there were many complaints of telephone surveillance, although there were few reported cases in 1993. Both private individuals and the security forces have been accused of illegal wiretapping. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press Venezuela has a free and lively press, which frequently criticizes the Government and denounces instances of government interference in the media. The Constitution provides for freedom of the press and free speech, and in 1993, these liberties, along with academic freedom, were widely honored, although some restrictions exist. Particularly in the months prior to the suspension from office of President Carlos Andres Perez, the Government met regularly with media owners to discuss issues considered sensitive, resulting in some self-censorship. Journalists claimed that the Government indirectly practiced censorship throughout the year by denying reporters access to many government buildings and officials. Journalists and local human rights groups also asserted that security forces specifically targeted and used excessive force against reporters covering public demonstrations. In April the Government suspended two satirical television programs for allegedly broadcasting scenes with "explicit sexual connotations" in a time frame when that type of programming is not allowed. Most in the media argued, however, that the suspension was aimed more at the political satire and parodies of government inefficiency featured in these programs. A week after the suspension, the Supreme Court overturned the Government's action, and the programs returned to the air. Bombs damaged the homes of two journalists known for being highly critical of the Government, one of whom received a series of telephone threats. Subsequent police investigations failed to identify those responsible for the bombings. In June the Government banned for alleged security reasons the broadcast of an interview by a popular journalist with former coup plotter Hugo Chavez. The media continued to criticize the Government for abuse and restrictions that occurred in reaction to the two 1992 coup attempts. In the aftermath of the February 1992 attempt, the Government temporarily imposed censorship, seized some publications, screened articles, and briefly impeded the distribution of newspapers. During the November 1992 attempt, the Government temporarily closed a radio station which it charged had broadcast messages of support for the coup forces. Two journalists were allegedly killed by security forces and others reportedly beaten while covering the coup attempts and related civil unrest. Investigations and court cases regarding the abuse of journalists moved slowly. In February a group of journalists formed the Committee of Human Rights of the National Association of Journalists to monitor the investigations and court cases and promote respect for human rights and the freedom of information. Venezuela has 4 nationwide television networks (2 of which are government owned, although only 1 was functioning), 2 cable companies, 9 regional television stations, over 300 radio stations, and numerous newspapers and magazines, with 12 dailies in Caracas alone. The Government is a significant source of advertising revenue for the media, but there appear to be no recent instances in which government advertising was channeled for political ends. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The constitutional provision for freedom of peaceful assembly and association is normally respected in Venezuela; however, this provision was suspended after the February 1992 coup attempt although it was restored the following April. Public meetings, including those of all political parties, are held generally without interference, but demonstrations often attract police intervention. Professional and academic associations operate without interference. Permits are required for public marches but are not denied for political reasons. PROVEA reported 1,047 peaceful demonstrations from October 1992 through September 1993. Of these, 157 were reportedly either stopped or repressed by security forces. During these demonstrations, about 720 people were detained, 308 wounded, and 5 killed. All of these casualties were attributed to government security forces. In January security forces in Caracas were criticized for throwing tear gas canisters into a school bus full of children caught in a university student demonstration. c. Freedom of Religion The population is predominantly Roman Catholic, although other religious groups enjoy freedom of worship and proselytize actively. Foreign missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, are active throughout the country. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation Citizens and legal residents are free to travel within the country and to go abroad and return. Venezuela traditionally has been a haven for refugees, exiles, and displaced persons from many European, Caribbean, and Latin American countries. They are given normal residence status and may be expelled only because of criminal activities. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Venezuela is a multiparty democracy with a government freely elected by secret ballot. Suffrage is mandatory for all those 18 years of age or older, and the political process is open to all. Elections for President and the Congress were held successfully on December 5. For the first time, half of the members of the House of Deputies were elected by name, based upon the provisions of an electoral reform law approved in 1989; the rest were elected proportionately from party slates. Elections for the President, Congress, and state legislative assemblies are held every 5 years. Charges of irregularities and fraud as well as delays in proclaiming the winners marred the 1992 state and local elections and the 1993 national elections. The Supreme Court ordered new gubernatorial elections in two states (these elections took place in May); however, Supreme Court decisions are still pending in the cases of 4 other state gubernatorial contests. In addition, individuals and political parties have alleged voting irregularities in several congressional contests in the 1993 elections which may result in ballot recounts or new elections in some districts. The domination of the electoral institutions by the traditional political parties and the absence of automated vote counting machines have undermined public confidence in the fairness and transparency of the election process. In May President Carlos Andres Perez was removed from office through constitutional means due to allegations of corruption, the first time an incumbent President had been so removed in modern Venezuelan history. Congress named Ramon J. Velasquez as President until the February 1994 inauguration of the new President. Political views are freely expressed, and persons from the entire political spectrum contend for positions ranging from municipal council seats to the presidency. The two largest parties are centrist: the Democratic Action (AD) and the Social Christian (COPEI) parties. Although AD and COPEI remain the two largest political parties, the results of the December elections represented a major defeat for the traditional parties (which lost considerable ground in the national Congress). The principal victors in the 1993 elections were the political alliance supporting President Caldera (Convergencia/MAS) and the working class-oriented CAUSA R Party. Due to the number of presidential candidates and the nature of the voting system, President Caldera was able to win with only about 31 percent of the vote. Women and minorities participate fully in government and politics, albeit not in proportion to their representation in society. There are no legal impediments to their free participation, but traditional attitudes produce some de facto impediments. Women and minorities are promoted into high-level positions at a slower rate than nonminority men. Indigenous people have traditionally not been fully integrated into the political system owing to lack of knowledge of how it works, low voter turnout, and residency in areas far from the capital and other cities. Indian rights advocates have noted that few indigenous people work in government agencies responsible for Indian affairs. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights A number of local human rights groups are active throughout the country and vigorously criticize perceived government inadequacies in redressing grievances. The groups operate free of government restriction and interference, although some have complained of police harassment in the past. Two regional groups--the Latin American Foundation for Human Rights and Social Development and the Federation of Families of Disappeared Persons--have offices in Caracas and likewise operate free of government intervention. International human rights groups also act free of government restriction and have openly conducted investigations in Venezuela. Late in the year, both Amnesty International and Americas Watch released comprehensive reports on Venezuela's human rights problems. The reports received extensive coverage in the local press, although the Government appears to have largely ignored the findings. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status Women The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, and the Civil Code was reformed in the 1980's to make women and men legally equal in marriage. Women comprise roughly half the student body of most universities, have advanced in many professions, including medicine and law, and have gradually torn down many of the barriers that previously prevented them from fully participating in political and economic life. Women's rights groups are active in Caracas and throughout the country. Women, nonetheless, are still underrepresented in political positions and in the top ranks of the labor unions and private industry. Many Venezuelan women also face socially ingrained discrimination that prevents them from receiving fair treatment in the workplace and under the law. The Labor Code specifies that women may not be discriminated against with regard to remuneration or working conditions, may not be fired during pregnancy and for a year after giving birth, are entitled to unpaid leave (and compensation from the social security agency) for 6 weeks before the birth of a child and 12 weeks after, and are due 10 weeks of unpaid leave if they legally adopt children under 3 years of age. According to the Ministry of Labor and the major labor federation, these regulations are enforced in the formal sector, though social security payments are normally delayed. There is a high level of violence directed against some Venezuelan women. Women's groups point out the rape is extremely difficult to prove, requiring at a minimum a medical examination within 48 hours of the violation. Few police officers are trained in how to deal responsibly with rape victims. Likewise, although there are laws that protect women against domestic violence, the police generally are unwilling to intervene to prevent abuse. The 40 percent of women who fall below the official poverty line often have no choice but to stay with abusive spouses for economic reasons. Although Venezuela theoretically has an elaborate web of social programs, few poor women and families receive more than nominal assistance. In addition, poor women are generally unaware of and have little access to legal protections available to them. Children Many Venezuelan children face extreme hardship. The Government scaled back its expenditure on education, health, and social services, leaving many impoverished children with no government assistance. The Central Office of Statistics and Information (OCEI) reported that 72 percent of children remain in school past the sixth grade and 49 percent past the ninth grade. According to a 1993 study sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), about 206,000 children under the age of 18 loiter in the streets and another 176,000 beg for money. While Venezuelan law provides for universal free education, children's rights groups assert that the Government dedicates insufficient funding to primary and secondary education. About 50 percent of an already tight education budget reportedly goes to universities, 45 percent to pay the salaries of education staff and administrators, and only 5 percent to primary and secondary school students and the maintenance of their schools. Government agencies responsible for the welfare of children are understaffed, and many reform institutions for young delinquents are in deplorable condition. According to children's rights groups, the recent increase in poverty has increased stress on families and led to a rise in abuse against children by parents or others. Neighbors are often hesitant to report cases of child abuse, however, due to a fear of becoming involved with authorities and ingrained attitudes regarding family privacy. Special procedures in the judicial system generally assure that children are removed from abusive households once a case has been reported. Indigenous People The Constitution provides for special laws governing "the protection of indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation." Nonetheless, indigenous people are not able to protect their civil and political rights or to influence decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. While there are a few indigenous congressmen who are members of the dominant political parties, indigenous people are underrepresented in Government. Indigenous groups were not successful in obtaining legislation they sought to preserve ancestral lands and cultures or to enact proportional representation to provide more ethnic minorities in the country's legislative bodies. Although Venezuelan law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin, members of the country's indigenous population frequently suffer from inattention to and violation of their human rights. Venezuela is home to about 315,000 indigenous people in 25 ethnic groups, according a special census conducted in 1992. The Wayuu ethnic group, which makes up well over half of the indigenous population, resides in the western part of the country on the banks of Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela. Other groups populate the dense jungle of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins and the marsh along the Caribbean coast. In August at least 16 Yanomami Indians were killed by illegal Brazilian gold miners who crossed the border into southern Venezuela. The massacre resulted from a feud related to the miners' persistent incursions into Yanomami-protected territory. The press and human rights groups strongly criticized the Government for its neglect to protect the Yanomamis, as authorities had been repeatedly informed of the miners' incursions and the potential for conflict. Many of the country's indigenous people live isolated from modern civilization and lack access to basic health and educational facilities theoretically available to all Venezuelans. Their communities are plagued by high rates of cholera, hepatitis-B, malaria, and other diseases. Tourists and other outsiders inadvertently introduce new viruses to Indian populations with unprepared immune systems: The common cold often becomes bronchitis, and chicken pox can be fatal. In addition, few indigenous communities hold titles to their lands, and many have been displaced in recent years by government-sponsored projects. Rivers have been polluted by fertilizer and machinery, and habitats plowed down for strip-mining and large-scale farming. The Yabarana tribe, one of the smallest indigenous groups with only 237 members, is in danger of extinction. Government- condoned ranching in Yabarana territory turned many of the fields of corn and yucca that members use for subsistence into grazing ground for cattle. The Yabarana petitioned the courts and government agencies but were not successful in having the cattle removed. The plight of the Yabarana is paralleled by numerous ethnic communities throughout the country who face hardship and even extinction due to encroaching development. People with Disabilities Rights for the disabled are very limited. According to local advocates, the disabled are discriminated against in many sectors, including education, health care, and employment. Disabled people report having been expelled from public university programs and turned away at hospitals, even for the treatment of afflictions unrelated to their disability. The physically impaired have minimal access to public transportation, and ramps are practically nonexistent even in government buildings. In 1993 the Government passed the first comprehensive law to protect the rights of the disabled. The new law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access for the disabled. Among other important provisions, the law forbids discrimination in employment practices and in the provision of public services. The Government did not make a significant effort to inform the public of the new law or to try to change the societal prejudice against the disabled. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association Both the Constitution and labor law recognize and encourage the right of unions to exist. The comprehensive 1990 Labor Code extends to all public sector and private sector employees (except members of the armed forces) the right to form and join unions of their choosing. The Code mandates registration of unions with the Ministry of Labor, but it reduces the Ministry's discretion by specifying that registration may not be denied if the proper documents (a record of the founding meeting, the statutes, and the membership list) are submitted. Only a judge may dissolve a union, and then only for reasons listed in the law, such as the dissolution of a firm or by agreement of two-thirds of the membership. One major union confederation, the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV), and three small ones, as well as a number of independent unions, operate freely. About 25 percent of the national labor force is unionized. There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and many union organizations play active international roles. The CTV's top leadership includes members of several political parties. The majority are affiliated with the country's largest party, the AD. The CTV and the AD party reciprocally influence each other. The CTV, however, repeatedly demonstrated its independence from the Government (in which the AD held the presidency and a plurality of the seats in the Congress) and from the AD party (as evidenced by its frequent criticism of the Government's economic policies). The right of public and private sector employees to strike is recognized legally but may only be exercised by public servants if it does not cause "irremediable damage to the population or to institutions." The Labor Code allows the President to order public or private sector strikers back to work and to submit their dispute to arbitration if the strike "puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population." In recent years workers seldom resorted to strikes, but a perceived decline in living standards increased the willingness of workers to consider them seriously. During 1993 most strikes occurred among government employees. With the exception of a prolonged strike by public schoolteachers, which was settled through Labor Ministry mediation, the threat to strike was sufficient in most cases to achieve a resolution satisfactory to the workers. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively Collective bargaining is protected and encouraged by the Labor Code and is freely practiced. According to the Code, employers "must negotiate" a collective contract with the union that represents the majority of their workers. The Code also contains a provision stating that wages may be raised by administrative decree, provided that the Congress approves the decree. The law prohibits employers from interfering with the formation of unions or with their activities and from stipulating as a condition of employment that new workers must abstain from union activity or must join a specified union. Complaints regarding violations of these articles of the law are heard by Ministry of Labor inspectors, who can impose a maximum fine of twice the minimum monthly wage for a first infraction. Under the Code, union officials have special protection from firing. If a judge determines that any worker was fired for union activity, the worker is entitled to back pay plus either reinstatement or payment of a substantial sum of money, which varies according to his years of seniority. Labor law and practice is the same in the sole export processing zone as in the rest of the country. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor There is no forced or compulsory labor. The Labor Code states that no one may "obligate others to work against their will." d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The Labor Code allows children between the ages of 12 and 14 to work if given special permission by the National Institute for Minors or the Labor Ministry. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 may work if given permission by their legal guardians. Minors may not work in mines, smelters, or in occupations "that risk life or health," in occupations that could damage intellectual or moral development, or in "public spectacles." Those under 16 years of age must by law work no more than 6 hours a day or 30 hours a week. Minors under age 18 may work only during the hours between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The law is enforced effectively by the Ministry of Labor and the National Institute for Minors in the formal sector of the economy, but much less so in the informal sector, which by the end of 1990 (latest available figures) accounted for 41 percent of total employment. According to a UNICEF study, some 1 million children work in the informal sector, mostly as street vendors; there is no other occupation in which employment of children is believed to be substantial. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work Venezuela has a national urban minimum wage rate and a national rural minimum wage rate. The monthly minimum wage, effective February 1992, was $95 (9,000 bolivars) for urban workers and $63 (6,000 bolivars) for rural workers. Mandatory fringe benefits are added to these minimum figures; they vary with the workers' individual circumstances, but in general increase wages by about one-third. In the past, this combined income provided a living wage. However, in 1993 unions, arguing that purchasing power declined significantly over the last several years, called for an increase of up to 50 percent in the minimum wage. Only domestic workers and concierges are legally excluded from coverage under the minimum wage decrees. Under the Labor Code, the rates are set by administrative decree, which Congress may either suspend or ratify but may not change. Minimum wages are enforced effectively in the formal sector of the economy by the Ministry of Labor, but compliance is generally not enforced in the informal sector. The 1990 Labor Code reduced the standard workweek to a maximum of 44 hours, and requires "two complete days of rest each week." Some unions, such as the petroleum workers, have negotiated a 40-hour week. Overtime may not exceed 2 hours daily, 10 hours weekly, or 100 hours annually, and may not be paid at a rate less than time and a half. These standards are effectively enforced by the Ministry of Labor in the formal sector. The 1986 health and safety law still awaits implementing regulations and is not enforced. The delays are due largely to concern that the law provides penal sanctions against management when violations of health and safety occur and ambiguity in the law over what constitutes a violation. The Labor Code states that employers are obligated to pay specified amounts (up to a maximum of 25 times the minimum monthly salary) to workers for accidents or occupational illnesses, regardless of who is responsible for the injury. It also requires that workplaces must maintain "sufficient protection for health and life against sicknesses and accidents," and it imposes fines of from one-quarter to twice the minimum monthly salary for first infractions. Enforcement of the law by inspectors from the Ministry of Labor appears to be effective. Workers can remove themselves from dangerous workplace situations without jeopardy to continued employment.
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