The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter, IACtHR) published a recent decision (only available in Spanish) in the San Miguel Sosa and others vs. Venezuela case, by means of which it rebuts frequent arguments relied on by the Chavista[d1] –i.e. based on the ideas of former president Hugo Chávez— regime of Nicolás Maduro that label external and foreign criticism against its policies, frequently seen as abusive against political dissidents and others as contrary to human rights, as forms of intervention in its domestic affairs. This post translates relevant excerpts of the judgment on merits and reparations, and introduces some observations on the right to political participation under the American Convention on Human Rights.
The case was about the termination of contracts of persons who worked with the state of Venezuela soon after they participated in an initiative that sought to call for the celebration of a referendum on the termination of the mandate of then-president Hugo Chávez (para. 1). The list of those who signed in support of the referendum had been transmitted by the National Election Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral) to a ‘chavista’ member of parliament, Tascón (para. 131). Several state agents had told the applicants that the termination of their contract was the result of their disloyalty (paras. 137-139). While the defendant state argued that the contracts were terminated in order to lower costs and personnel (para. 140), the Court considered that this was not demonstrated. In this sense, it argued that the mere invocation of “convenience or reorganization, without providing more explanations” made the state arguments seem weak and lack precision “in relation to motivation”, supporting the “strength of circumstantial evidence” about actions that were actually meant to target lawful political and legitimate opposition action of some persons. Thus, the IACtHR concluded that there was a “reprisal against them for having legitimately exercised a political right enshrined in the Constitution, i.e. signing their support of the call for a referendum on the revocation of presidential mandate. The Court added, hence, that “the termination of the contracts was a “deviation of power” (para. 150), which exists when “there is a motivation or purpose that differs from that of a norm that confers powers to a state authority, [case in which it can be demonstrated that] the action can be regarded as an arbitrary one” (para. 121).
It is interesting to note that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had stated that the state of Venezuela’s assertion that the alleged victims had to fully demonstrate a nexus between an alleged discriminatory treatment and the authorities’ decisions would imply placing an excessive and absolute burden of proof on the applicants without the state having exhausted all the measures at its disposal to find out the truth, considering the complexity of the issue (para. 174). The Court, in turn, considered that while the termination of contracts was permitted by the legal system, it is possible to rebut a presumption that authorities acted in good faith (para. 122), as the Court found in this case based on circumstantial evidence (supra) flowing from evidence on the “Tascón list”, testimonies on conversations with state agents, statements of the president of Venezuela, and other elements that made the Court consider that “the termination of contracts took place in a context of high instability, political polarization and intolerance towards dissent, which could encourage forms of persecution or discrimination […] made possible by acts and declarations of members of the Executive and Legislative Powers, as well as of the competent electoral authority”, there having been no adequate state “precise and detailed explanation as to the motivation of its decision. In cases as the present one, the mere invocation of convenience or reorganization, without providing further explanations, is not sufficient, because the weakness of precisions as to motivation reinforces the likelihood of contrary circumstantial evidence […] Reason why the Court concluded that the termination of contracts was a form of deviation of power, which used [a] clause as a veil of legality to conceal the actual motivation or real purpose: a reprisal […] for having legitimately exercised a political right” (paras. 124-150).