“…while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought…”

Sancho Panza, Don Quijote, Chapter LXVIII

Opponents to the Venezuelan government have been saying for years that the country’s justice system is in a very dark place. The government has always dismissed the allegations as little more than partisan attacks.

How could a true neutral tell which side is right? If a Legal Scholar from Mars was sent to earth to figure out whether the Venezuelan government really was addicted to “rule by law” and showed unhealthy disrespect for due process, or whether the claims to this effect were just a series of politically motivated smears, how would he proceed?

Well, our martian scholar would probably seek out the most highly regarded, internationally renowned and universally respected legal associations and seek their opinions. On Planet Earth, his first ports of call would be the International Bar Association (IBA) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). And he would be in for some troubling reading.

Venezuela Justice System in Crisis

The International Bar Association (IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. It has a membership of 55,000 individual lawyers and more than 190 bar associations and law societies spanning all continents.  

The late Ramón Mullerat co-issued the IBA Human Rights Institute’s Venezuelan Justice System in Crisis and in 2009 the updated Report underlined that public confidence in the Venezuelan justice system continued to erode.  It noted rather diplomatically:

“[t]he irregular actions of the Government, which should be trying to stop the deterioration of the rule of law, are instead only making things worse.”  

Distrust in Justice

In 2011, an IBA delegation funded by The Open Society Institute released Distrust in Justice: The Afiuni case and the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela. The delegation included a former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice for São Paulo State and member of the International Commission of Jurists and a former Prosecutor and Judge of the Supreme Court of Costa Rica.  In this report, the language became tougher:

“…serious concerns regarding the existence of a mechanism of checks and balances between the different branches of government, which are eroding the already-low credibility of the judiciary…”

Execution of Justice

Its 28-page trial observation report entitled The Execution of Justice: The Criminal Trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni details a number of nightmarish irregularities in the trial of Judge Afiuni.  

We are appalled that without full investigation of the allegations made  by Judge Afiuni, Venezuela’s Attorney-General would publicly deny the allegations of torture and rape before the UN Human Rights Committee… [c]onsidering the severity of Judge Afiuni’s allegations of barbaric treatment in detention, we urge the Venezuelan authorities to investigate her claims immediately. It is growing increasingly difficult to comprehend why there is a reluctance to do so.’

The International Commission of Jurists was established in 1952 and is composed of 60 eminent judges and lawyers from all regions of the world. It aims to ensure the progressive development and effective implementation of international human rights and international humanitarian law; secure the realization of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights; safeguard the separation of powers; and guarantee the independence of the judiciary and legal profession.  

The ICJ’s 2014 Report comprehensively documented failures by government authorities to combat political interference, intimidation, arbitrary suspensions and other pressures.  And just last month it published a devastating indictment of Venezuela’s justice system entitled Venezuela Sunset of Rule of Law.Two key passages stand out:

The high level of legal impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and common felonies stands in stark contrast to the robust manner in which preventive and restrictive measures and prosecutions have been deployed to silence members of civil society, social activists and political opponents…”

“There is a clear disconnect between what is contained in the country’s Constitution and international obligations, and what happens in practice,”

While justice sleeps, the unjust do their worst.  There are well-documented examples of government officials using state media to intimidate lawyers who offer representation to those being prosecuted and who offer contrary evidence and argument to the Government’s narrative on human rights.

There have also been cases of human rights lawyers accused of conspiracy and imprisoned along with their defendants with a total disregard of due process.   On this subject, a group of United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights experts have sought assurances that the State stop using Con el Mazo Dando, a late night show hosted by the President of the Parliament, to bully human rights defenders and have called on the Venezuelan authorities “to immediately cease the targeting of rights activists.”  

If you guessed that, in response, senior state officials doubled-down on flagrantly violating and fettering the justice system’s independence, you would be right. On October 26th, Venezuela’s most senior “diplomat” (President Maduro) urged the immediate prosecution of Lorenzo Mendoza for discussing Venezuela’s economy in a private telephone conversation with Ricardo Haussman, a respected US-based academic.

Of course, such things will not come as news to avid Venezuela news watchers. But the reputational weight of the IBA and the ICJ makes it impossible to dismiss the concerns raised as merely partisan attacks. As organizations, they are uniquely positioned to document some sad truths that will build international criminal law cases against some the regime’s chief magistrates.

Of the Chavez-infused judiciary and the Venezuelan people’s reaction, Panza might have said: “[the] bad thing about sleep, as far as I’ve ever heard, and that is that it resembles death, since there’s very little difference between a sleeping man and a corpse.”

When the IBA and the ICJ can’t tell the difference between the two, you know things have come to a head.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.


  1. Superb Sancho Panza quote!!

    Without true separation of powers and a robust, incorruptible Justice branch any country goes to hell.

    No country is perfect, in Europe or the USA, etc. But you can’t buy Supreme Court Judges too easily. That’s why these countries work much better than our Tropical Kleptocracies. The Executive branch and Legislative branch are held accountable in a check&balances system. They are supervised with a Hawk’s eye. And if you break the law, you go to freaking jail. As simple as that.

    In any half-civilized modern country today, Venezuela’s President and Cabello would have been impeached looooooong ago. Not to mention the Ali-Baba y los 40 ladrones at TSJ in Caracas.

  2. The Afiuni case was, and is, bad enough. But for me the Venezuelan “justice system” jumped the shark when the Chief Justice of the Penal Branch of the Supreme Court of Justice sought asylum in the U.S., announcing that the Executive controlled Supreme Court decisions through frequent meetings in which they threatened and extorted the judges to do their bidding.

    That wasn’t the shark jumping moment, though. The moment came when the Attorney General responded, not with a full investigation and public report, but with a comment: “He can’t be believed because he is a drug kingpin.”

    When your defence to claims by a judge you have appointed is that the judge is a drug kingpin, there is nowhere lower to fall.

  3. This completely absurd “Con El Mazo Dando” TV show shouldn’t be stopped at all, as it’s basically Cabello self-incriminating himself for like an hour every week! The more evidence collected against him, the better. He will eventually be brought to justice, and when that happens, a very solid case against him will be needed. Speak, Cabello, Speak!

  4. Marc and Jeffry, Great point regarding the public record of the officials. My jaw has dropped many times over the blatant disregard for law and basic human rights coming out of the mouths of leaders of the judiciary and the legislative branch of government. I am sure that the Hague has a very big file on these people and I do think that they will be brought to justice sooner rather than later. The more they talk, the deeper hole they dig for themselves.

  5. There is no shortage of examples of rotten-ness and of official injustice/mob rule in Venezuela. When the real legal community gets a chance to turn its attention (and the rule of law) to the folks with diplomatic passports the tide will have turned.

  6. Where a country’s judicial system is systematically used to arbitrarily persecute the innocent and protect the criminal at the direction of those in control of Government , it is both perverse and puerile to affirm that such country lives under the Rule of Law. One thing that helps the US Federal Justice System maintain its independence is to make judicial appointments for life , so that no judge may be dependent on a political interest to keep its job.

    • It depends, the US institutions are strong and the presidents can’t run for third terms, there’s also frequent political change between the GOP and Dems, so this procedure works well there. In my opinion, we shouldn’t want STJ judges and at other relevant courts appointed by Maduro and Chavez working for life, at best the ones at lower instances.

  7. I can’t imagine another country that churns out more laws and yet, there is no rule of law. I think it is important to understand too that this condition does not only bear on high level cases.

  8. The real terror of all law breakers in Venezuela, and this includes judicial crimes as well, is extradition to face charges. Such has rarely if ever happened in South American regimes – and the picaros who ran them – voted out of office. God-Given is probably as good as extradited if they can ever get their hands on him. He’s land-locked in Venezuela at the very least. But what are the other options to actually seek justice for those who tanked the judiciary and the good-standing of the institutions and folks in charge. What functional democracy gives ANYONE in the Ven. judiciary any cred? The whole thing has devolved into such a farce that we tire from having to examine it. Enough already. These days running up to the election are seeming like years.

  9. The ICJ’s 2014 Report comprehensively documented failures by government authorities to combat political interference, intimidation, arbitrary suspensions and other pressures.

    An eloquently written understatement.
    Excellent article. Game, set, match to CC and to the above commenters.

  10. My company has a lawsuit against a Venezuelan company which we are trying to have heard in Canadian courts. The Venezuelan company had their Canadian lawyers draft a motion to the Canadian courts saying that the Venezuelan court system was perfectly functional and that we could pursue our claim via the Venezuelan courts without a worry in the world. We responded with reams and reams of data from the International Bar Association and other studies showing that it would be impossible for a foreigner to obtain any justice in Venezuelan, especially when a government connected company was involved.

    • I would be interested to read the judge’s decision on that motion. It should be entertaining.

      But, seriously, this sounds like nothing more than a delaying tactic, just like the Venezuelan government is employing in the dozens of lawsuits against it in connection with all the expropriations.

  11. The problem is that when you try to educate people about separation of powers they either say that it has always been the same or that the oppo just want to replace the existing authorities to do the same. Most people just want to see food on their table and dont feel affected by having an toy court. Probably the only hope is that a mud AN can eventually appoint a really serious TSJ that can earn the respect of everyone. Pretty nice task


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here