A.         Introduction


221.     This section will deal with the situation faced by human rights defenders in Venezuela and the actions of the “Bolivarian Circles.”


222.     The Commission has seen how different groups involved with defending and promoting human rights in Venezuela have been growing in strength. These civil society groups have been monitoring and tracking the Venezuelan crisis and all its repercussions on the basic rights of the inhabitants of Venezuela. The active participation of civil society helps consolidate democracies. The Commission understands that the process of democratic strengthening in the hemisphere must incorporate full respect for the work of human rights defenders.


223.     Prior to its analysis, the Commission would like to note the importance of understanding the concept of civil society in democratic terms, without unreasonable exclusions or unacceptable discrimination. In this connection, the IACHR has been able to study several Supreme Court decisions ruling that nongovernmental organizations that receive subsidies from abroad or that have foreigners or agents of organized religions on their boards are not part of civil society and are thus ineligible to participate on the Candidacy Committees established by the Constitution for electing the members of the citizens’ branch, the electoral authorities, and the Supreme Court of Justice. Specifically, the Supreme Court of Justice has ruled that:


Civil society, as considered by the Constituent Assembly, is Venezuelan civil society, wherefrom arises the principle of its general joint responsibility with the State, and its particular responsibility toward the economic, social, political, cultural, geographical, environment, and military arenas. The consequence of this national character is that its representatives may not be foreigners or bodies affiliated with, or led, subsidized, financed, or sustained, either directly or indirectly, by states or by movements or groups influenced by states; nor by crossborder or global associations, groups, or movements that pursue political or economic goals to their own benefit.


Granting collective rights to groups or bodies of foreign origin or with foreign influence, for them to act on behalf of national civil society, would allow ethnic or foreign minorities to intervene in the State’s life in defense of their own interests and not in those of national security, and their interests could be harmful to the country and could evolve into separatist movements, aggressive or conflictive minorities, etc., which could even develop into collective rights such as the right of peoples to self-determination.


The creation of internal, uncontrollable struggles (even surreptitiously) between globalized foreign-influenced society and national society does not appear among the constitutional duties of the Nation set forth in Article 1 of the current Constitution (independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination); hence the reaffirmation of the idea that the civil society referred to in the 1999 Constitution is Venezuelan civil society.


The Chamber is not unaware that in the country there are organizations that receive economic assistance from international agencies, that are the result of collections made in the interests of human solidarity, or that enter into contracts with foreigners for conducting studies. Receiving such assistance or conducting such studies does not mean that those organizations, incorporated in Venezuela, cease to be national; and as long as their national representatives have autonomy over the bodies’ control and direction, this Chamber shall consider them legitimate representatives of civil society under the terms of this ruling.[112]


224.     The Venezuelan Supreme Court also ruled that the representative authority of these organizations is dependent on the number of their members, requiring that they meet the same prerequisites as political parties.[113]


225.     A state’s power to issue reasonable regulations for the right of association within a democratic society notwithstanding, the Commission must draw attention to this legal position which, if applied on discriminatory basis against independent organizations, is exclusive in its impact and could create unacceptable situations for the open participation of civil society in Venezuela. One of the salient points is that of the exclusion from civil society of those organizations that receive foreign subsidies. The Constitutional Chamber’s judgment disqualifies a good number of human rights organizations from participating on the Candidacy Committees that elect high-ranking authorities within the government. This could mean the denying one of the social movements with the greatest impact, permanence, and professionalism in Venezuela the right to contribute to the independence and selection of those public authorities.


B.         The Situation of Human Rights Defenders


226.     The OAS member states have acknowledged the important role that human rights defenders play in fostering greater awareness and observance of basic rights and, consequently, in safeguarding democracy and the values of the inter-American system.


227.     Recognizing the importance of their work, the OAS General Assembly has on several occasions made statements regarding the importance of respecting and protecting human rights defenders. For example, in resolution AG/RES. 1910 of June 10, 2003, the General Assembly “recognized the important work carried out, at the national and regional levels, by human rights defenders, and their valuable contribution to the promotion and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in the Hemisphere,” and resolved to reiterate its recommendation to the governments of the member states to “step up their efforts to adopt the measures necessary to safeguard their lives, personal integrity, and freedom of expression.”


228.     Similarly, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has recognized the importance of human rights defenders and has reaffirmed the right and responsibility of individuals and of society’s groups and organs in promoting and protecting universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.[114]


229.     The United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms also establishes certain principles that offer a useful guide for analyzing the rights enjoyed by human rights defenders. The document states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”[115] For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights, everyone has the right to assemble peacefully, to form or join nongovernmental organizations, associations or groups, to participate therein, and to communicate with such organizations.[116] It also provides that everyone is entitled to present complaints about the policies and actions of government officials and bodies with regard to human rights violations.[117]


230.     The Commission must note that human rights defenders play a key role in the process of ensuring the rule of law. The actions of defenders – in protecting individuals and groups who fall victim to human rights violations, in publicly denouncing injustices that affect large sectors of society, in the necessary civic control they exert over public officials and democratic institutions, and in other activities – make them irreplaceable players in constructing a solid and lasting democratic society.


231.     Attacks on human rights defenders come from a number of different directions. The legitimate work of defenders in reporting abuses encourages some agents to attempt to silence them in different ways. Extreme polarization means that different political sectors attempt to discredit the actions of human rights groups or of individuals who defend justice and truth. Consequently, some human rights workers have been the target of smear campaigns led by public officials.


232.     The IACHR has been receiving a considerable volume of complaints about different kinds of attacks and intimidatory acts against individuals working among the inhabitants of Venezuela to protect basic rights and promote their observance.


233.     Incidents in which human rights workers or human rights organizations are harassed occasionally escalate into attacks on defenders themselves; however, there has also been a series of cases in which human rights defenders have been targeted by vague forms of intimidation, by means of veiled threats perceivable in seemingly insignificant incidents that upset day-to-day routines and, seen as unusual or strange by the persons involved, convince them that they are being watched. One form of such intimidation is to have unidentified individuals make threats against places where human rights defenders work or to loiter in the vicinity. A specific example of this occurred in the human rights vicariate of the Archdiocese of Caracas, with the presence of people who did not explain their reasons for approaching the premises. Curiously, the incident occurred after this NGO had been working with refugees.


234.     The Commission believes that this violence, pressure, and harassment aimed at human rights workers reflects the deepening of the institutional crisis affecting the country, and that the situation has worsened over the past year. The Commission notes that this situation does not reflect a generalized practice; the existence of specific cases is, however, symptomatic of something seriously awry in the field of human rights, in that previously, human rights defenders in Venezuela were able to pursue their functions without any such problems.


235.     One nongovernmental organization, the Committee of Relatives of the Victims of the Events of February-March 1986  (COFAVIC), received a constant string of death threats during 2002, directed at different members of the organization; they have also suffered intimidation, in an attempt to force them to abandon their efforts, particularly as regards what the organization has done vis-à-vis the death squads and the events of April 2002. The harassment of human rights defenders has also been followed by incidents in which they are accosted in the street by strangers who complain about their dealings with the inter-American system, or in which they are followed and physically attacked. This has been the case of Luis Uzcátegui, who has been working to gather together the relatives of alleged death-squad victims in Falcón State; he is also the brother of Néstor Uzcátegui, who was killed by a suspected para-police group in that state. On November 27, 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights granted provisional measures on behalf of the members of COFAVIC and Mr. Uzcátegui, with the aim of protecting their lives and persons.


236.     Another source of grave concern is the murder of Mr. Jorge Nieves, a human rights activist, on April 26, 2003, in Guascadito, Apure State. Mr. Nieves was the founder of the Human Rights Defense Committee in that state’s Paéz municipality. The Forum For Life national organization states that this murder took place against a backdrop of violence that has broken out in the region and in which more than 50 people have died since December 2002.[118] The IACHR condemns this death and reminds the State of its obligation of conducting an exhaustive investigation of the incident, as well as of the deaths described above and the circumstances surrounding them.


237.     The Commission notes its concern regarding the situation of the aforesaid human rights defenders who are covered by either precautionary measures or provisional measures ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and who continue to be targeted by threats and harassment even though those measures remain in force.


238.     Other cases reported to the IACHR include the killings of Armando Douglas García and Carlos Román Parra, agrarian leaders within the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), that took place in Maracaibo, Zulia State, on September 20, 2002; the attack on Estrella Castellanos, leader of the Women For Liberty civil association, who was abducted on September 30 of that year and later abandoned; and the death of Luis Alberto Alcalá, media and publicity coordinator for the People’s Defenders of the New Republic civil association, on September 25, 2002. The information received by the IACHR indicates that most of these attacks remain unpunished.


239.     Finally, the Commission condemns the murder of attorney Joe Luis Castillo Gonzáles, a former coordinator of the Human Rights Office of the Maquiques Vicariate, who was working as a human rights activist with the Yukpa and Bari indigenous communities in the Perijá Sierra as well as with refugees along the country’s border. Mr. Castillo Gonzales  was killed on August 27, 2003, in the town of Tinaquillo de Machiques in Zulia State, close to the border, in circumstances that have not yet been clarified. According to the information received, he was in his car with his wife and son when two individuals rode by on a motorcycle and shot at him 13 times. Mr. Castillo was shot nine times, and died; his wife and son were wounded.[119]


240.     In connection with this, the Commission calls for effective guarantees for the personal integrity of human rights defenders, particularly those who work along the country’s borders, and for a serious and exhaustive investigation of the threats, injuries, and deaths that have occurred among them.


C.          Bolivarian Circles


241.     According to the Venezuelan government, the Bolivarian Circles are organized groups of between seven to 11 people that meet to discuss their community’s problems and channel them to the competent authorities for resolution. They are based on the provisions of Article 52 of the National Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.


242.     Bolivarian Circles comprise a first coordinator, a second coordinator, and their followers, who make up the rest of the unit. The organization also has coordinators at the municipal and state levels. All these representatives are to be elected by the Bolivarian Circles, gathered together at a plenary meeting. According to the available public information, the supreme leader of the Bolivarian Circles is the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and the national and international headquarters where records related to the Bolivarian Circles are to be kept is the Miraflores Palace.[120]


243.     Bolivarian Circles may be set up in function of their missions. Thus, Bolivarian Circles would exist, comprising individuals ready to attack problems in different areas: health, law and order, education, transportation, street maintenance, street sweeping, abandoned children, environment, justice, until all the problems affecting communities are covered. When a problem arises in a sector, block, neighborhood, or parish, the Bolivarian Circles meet, in plenary session, at the location selected for dealing with the issue. They select the Bolivarian Circle that is to be responsible for conducting the necessary formalities with the authorities (town hall, municipal councilors, legislative councils, ministry of the interior, National Assembly, office of the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, public prosecutor’s office, the office of the People’s Defender, or any other authority with competence in the matter.[121]


244.     Since its visit to Venezuela the IACHR has received many expressions of concern about the creation, training, organization, and public funding of these “Bolivarian Circles,” the main purpose of which appears to be to provide political support for President Chávez’s regime.


245.     Some Circles are accused of being chiefly intended to act as shock troops to verbally and physically attack people identified as enemies of the political process – in particular, opposition political leaders, including members of the National Assembly and municipal authorities, journalists and media workers, and social leaders, especially those involved in trade unionism or with universities. It is also claimed that some of the Circles possess weapons. Specifically, these groups are accused of being involved in the events of April 11 and later political demonstrations, and they are blamed for the violence that took place on those occasions. It is also claimed that physical violence and verbal attacks on journalists are the work of the Bolivarian Circles, and that such behavior is encouraged by President Hugo Chávez himself, who publicly questions the actions of journalists.[122]


246.     The government rejects these allegations and maintains that the Bolivarian Circles are simply instruments for social action and solidarity. In March 2003, the Commission met with Bolivarian Circle representatives at the headquarters of Venezuela’s mission to the OAS. These representatives provided detailed information on their structure, functioning, and purpose. The National Director of Bolivarian Circles, Mr. Rodrigo Chávez, stressed that the circles receive no funding from the public coffers and have no political affiliation; sharing in the ideals of Bolívar is the only requirement for joining a Bolivarian Circle. The Circles are structured as social organizations that have no ties to the Fifth Republic Movement.


247.     The Commission was told that the Bolivarian Circles are organized groups that meet to discuss problems in their communities and to direct them to the competent bodies for resolution. The are based on provisions contained in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.


248.     They also reported that the organization was structured horizontally. Specifically, commissions had been set up in ten areas, covering all the activities of interest to a community: for example, health, education, employment, etc. Through the Bolivarian Circles a community can also promote, foster, encourage, and celebrate culture, science, and sport, and undertake other activities in pursuit of development. The Circles’ philosophy has been defined as that of the Bolivarian Revolution, centered on education and productive work, with a fair distribution of wealth and social justice. The representatives also said that Circle members can establish cooperatives and submit projects covering these ten areas to the organization’s general coordinator. The project will then be assessed and channeled through different sources of public funding. Thus, they stressed, the goal of this form of organization is the full exercise of true participatory democracy, in order to encourage the decentralization of public funds.


249.     The Commission would like to offer a series of comments in connection with this. First of all, the IACHR notes that all the information dealing with the functioning, features, and purposes of Bolivarian Circles can be found on the webpage of the Venezuelan President’s office; not only does this give the impression that it is affiliated with the national government, it also formalizes that affiliation. The point is driven home by the fact that the President of the Republic is the Circles’ supreme leader.[123] Secondly, as regards the acts of violence with which the Bolivarian Circles are accused, the Commission holds that the impunity that has characterized all the cases in which they have allegedly been involved, and as a result of which the relevant responsibilities have not to date been identified, is a factor that must awaken suspicion or sow latent doubts with respect to their actions. Thirdly, the IACHR understands that political participation, the right of association., and freedom of expression are rights guaranteed by the American Convention; thus, the Bolivarian Circles, as free groups of citizens or grassroots organizations, can, in certain circumstances, serve as suitable channels for exercising those rights. Irrespective of this, the Commission understands that the expression of certain party-political ideas cannot serve as the justification for acts of violence or restrictions placed on the rights of others who have different political views or professional roles; as the American Convention stipulates, the rights of each person are limited by the rights of others, by the security of all, and by the just demands of the general welfare, in a democratic society.[124]


250.     In addition, the existence of other armed groups – supporters of either the government or the opposition – cannot be discarded. The IACHR thus acknowledges the existence of certain opposition groups that could also be armed, as was evidenced by the weapons and explosives found on some of the arrested participants in the coup d’état of April 11-14, 2002. It is therefore essential to investigate the existence of such groups and to proceed to dismantle them as swiftly and as completely as possible since, according to the reports, in addition to being armed, these groups have been the driving force behind violence and direct threats made against human rights defenders, media workers, social leaders, and members of the political opposition. In particular, a monopoly on force must be maintained solely by the agencies of law enforcement, under the legitimate rule of law; the most complete disarmament possible of all civilian groups must be undertaken immediately.


251.     To conclude, the Commission would like to note one legislative step forward of particular importance in addressing these problems. Thus, the IACHR applauds the National Assembly’s enacting of the Civil Population Disarmament Law, which was published on August 20, 2002.[125] This legislation’s stated purpose is to “disarm those persons who carry, use, or conceal firearms, illegally, in order to safeguard peace, coexistence, civic security, our institutions, and the physical integrity of individuals and their property.”


252.     The most important aspect of the law is that it rounds out Article 68 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which prohibits the bearing of firearms at public demonstrations of any kind. Thus, Article 10 of the new law provides as follows:


The bearing of firearms shall be prohibited in the following instances:


1. At public demonstrations or meetings, marches, strikes,rallies, and at elections.

2.  In public places where alcoholic beverages are consumed.

3.  While inebriated or under the effects of narcotics or psychotropic substances.


The provisions of paragraphs (1) and (2) of this article shall not apply to members of the National Armed Forces, civic security bodies, or state or municipal police forces, while in pursuit of their duties.


253.     Article 11 goes on to stipulate:


Should the terms of the preceding article be disregarded, the competent authorities shall proceed to confiscate the weapons and to prepare a deed recording the circumstances of the confiscation and the bearer’s details.


The weapon shall be forwarded to the Armaments Directorate of the National Armed Forces, from where it may be reclaimed by the bearer, if proof is furnished of its legality and a fine equal to twenty tributary units is paid.



D.         Recommendations


254.     As noted above, human rights defenders play a valid and productive role within society, at times of both conflict and peace. The Commission has directly observed the dedicated, objective, and highly positive work carried out by human rights organizations in Venezuela. Accordingly, the Commission maintains that organizations dedicated to the defense and promotion of human rights play a crucial role within democratic states.


255.      The Commission notes its concern regarding the attacks on human rights defenders that, both directly and indirectly, prevent them from carrying out their tasks or hinder them in their duties. It therefore recommends that the Venezuelan government:


1.         Adopt the measures necessary to prevent the weakening of the guarantees enjoyed by human rights defenders in their work and to ensure effective protection for their lives and personal integrity, in compliance with the terms of the American Convention and of the different resolutions adopted by the OAS General Assembly.


2.         Design training activities for the members of law enforcement agencies, in order to ensure proper and effective protection for human rights defenders, particularly in the country’s border regions.


3.         Draft unequivocal statements to be given by high-level officials, in which they confirm the legitimacy and importance of the work of human rights defenders and of their organizations.


4.         Act with redoubled resolve to ensure the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of threats, attacks, and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders.


256.     With reference to the activities of armed groups in Venezuela, the Commission reminds the Venezuelan State that it is its responsibility to guarantee the effective exercise of their rights by all Venezuela’s inhabitants. The State’s international responsibility is triggered if civilian groups act freely, violating human rights with the support, tolerance, or approval of the government. In this connection, the Commission recommends that the State:


1.         Step up its efforts aimed at investigating the acts of violence committed by armed groups, and some of the incidents of violence and aggression with which certain members of the Bolivarian Circles have been accused.


2.         Adopt urgent and necessary measures to dismantle the armed civilian groups that operate outside the law, by strengthening the capacity for criminal investigations and punishing illegal acts committed by such groups in order to prevent their repetition in the future.



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[112] Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela, Constitutional Chamber, Justice Jesús Eduardo Cabrera Romero, “Overseers’ Network v. National Electoral Council,” judgment of November 21, 2000.

[113] In this regard, see also: Supreme Court of Justice, Constitutional Chamber, “Office of the People’s Defender v. National Legislative Commission,” judgment of June 30, 2000; and “Governors v. Minister of Finance,” judgment of November 21, 2000.

[114] Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted on December 9, 1998.

[115] Declaration, Article 1.

[116] See: Ibid., Article 5.

[117] See: Ibid., Article 9(3).

[118] Forum For Life, press bulletin: Forum For Life Condemns Killing of Human Rights Defender, May 2, 2003.

[119] Forum For Life, press bulletin: Forum For Life Condemns Murder of Human Rights Defender: Weakness of the State along the Border Causes Insecurity, Caracas, August 28, 2003.

[120] Office of the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, On-line registration of Bolivarian Circles, general guidelines, <>, last visit: July 18, 2003.

[121] Ibid.

[122] IPI/IAPA, Press Release, Mission of the Inter American Press Association and the International Press Institute expresses concern about the serious decline in press freedom prevailing in Venezuela, September 25, 2002.

[123] Ibid.

[124] American Convention on Human Rights, Article 32(2).

[125] Disarmament Law, Official Gazette No. 37,509, August 20, 2002.