As the oil slide further complicates Venezuela’s economic woes, with inflation and shortages of basic goods dominating the latest headlines from Caracas, another crisis is unfolding over the deterioration of the rule of law. In December, Venezuela’s highest court brought charges against opposition politician Maria Corina Machado, accusing her of a conspiracy to kill President Nicolas Maduro. Machado’s case came amid the ongoing trial of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested in February 2014 during widespread anti-government protests and charged with inciting violence and conspiring to commit a criminal offense. In August, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion arguing that Lopez’s detention appeared politically motivated and recommended the government release him. Both cases reflect a society in which “rule by law” is taking precedence over “rule of law.”
Indeed, the 2014 Rule of Law Index, published by the World Justice Project and based on expert and citizen perceptions, ranked Venezuela dead last overall among the 99 countries they studied. An examination of changes in the Venezuelan justice system over the past decade reveals some of the basic issues generating these perceptions.
Of course, Venezuela was hardly a model of rule of law in the era before former President Hugo Chavez. A survey in 1998 showed that less than 1 percent of the population trusted Venezuela’s judiciary. In 1999, jurists across the political spectrum applauded when the National Constitutional Assembly declared the judiciary to be in a state of emergency. The new constitution passed that year called for a restructuring of the judiciary and established the “Citizen’s Power,” a branch of government consisting of the offices of the attorney general, ombudsman and general comptroller. The new constitution established some important safeguards for judicial independence, such as requiring a two-thirds majority to name and impeach judges, as well as the precedence of international treaties over domestic laws.