Maduro’s latest offensive: criminalization of civil society organizations through new regulations

Lee la versión en español aquí.

Rafael Uzcátegui*

In less than 48 hours more than 650 organizations, Venezuelan and from other countries, agreed to sign a communiqué rejecting the obligation to register in the Caribbean country before a counter-terrorism office, handing over data of the people they serve. This represents the latest decision of the government of Nicolás Maduro to close the civic space in Venezuela.

Last March 30, Administrative Ruling number 001-2021 appeared in the Official Gazette, the state publication that disseminates laws and regulations approved in Venezuela, by means of which the regulations for the Unified Registry of Obligated Parties before the National Office Against Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism were dictated. This very long name fulfilled the prophecy that human rights organizations such as Provea had made months ago: 2021 would be a period of governmental offensive against civil society, after they had managed to erode the voice and cohesion of the political leadership of the country. By imposing the quarantine of silence on the opposition parties, the persecution would be focused against the rest of the society with the capacity to document and denounce, at a time when the international oversight on the human rights situation could escalate mechanisms of pressure on Miraflores.

The persistent work of civil society, catalyzed by the deterioration of the Venezuelan situation, in 2017 drew the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), who released a first special report on the country after a cycle of protests was defused with more than 240 people killed and hundreds of men and women in prison. By that time the Venezuelan government had discredited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), calling it a «puppet of imperialism». That is why when Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was replaced by Michelle Bachelet as head of the OHCHR, Miraflores saw an opportunity in what until then had been its ideological ally. The systematized and processed documentation, as well as the patient advocacy work of the different organizations, made the first report under Bachelet a clear picture of the dramatic situation of Venezuelans. To this would be added the activation of the Commission of Inquiry of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the approval of an Independent Fact-Finding Mission at the UN Human Rights Council and the opening of a preliminary examination at the International Criminal Court. Venezuelan civil society had knocked on every possible door in terms of international human rights protection. And the government had carefully noted that there was an account receivable there.

If the policy of erosion applied against political parties in 2020 had been effective, it was foreseeable that it would be subsequently promoted against the rest of the actors uncomfortable for the government. Maduro’s strategy promotes the same recipe as the rest of populist authoritarianisms against their critics: attacking their legitimacy and effectiveness. The official discourse against the independent sectors repeats the commonplaces of their peers like Daniel Ortega: They are part of a stateless elite that has become millionaires receiving money from abroad with obscure interests, to promote violent and terrorist actions against the government. At a time of general impoverishment of the population and unsatisfied needs of all kinds, placing the focus on money could provide fertile ground for resentment and distrust. This discourse of criminalization is not new, which has caused more than a dozen human rights defenders to receive precautionary protection measures from the IACHR. The curious thing about the Venezuelan case is that this narrative is echoed by a sector of the opposition, which claims that George Soros is behind every conceivable international conspiracy, including the actions of Venezuelan NGOs, who would be responsible for preventing a «radical and definitive» solution to the conflict.

The public positioning of a criminalizing discourse allows the government, in parallel, to promote restrictive regulations, in an attempt to hinder the effectiveness of the work for human dignity and development. The first initiative in this direction is the administrative order, which obliges social organizations to register in a unit of the office against organized crime and financing of terrorism and, subsequently, to hand over all the information on their activities, including a detailed list of their beneficiaries. For historical NGOs such as Provea, this would directly transform them into whistleblowers for victims of human rights violations. Those who do not register by May 1, 2021 would be outside the law, and would be subject to sanctions provided for in the law against organized crime and financing of terrorism, with prison sentences ranging from 2 to 20 years, fines and freezing of assets, among others.

However, this administrative ruling is not the only legal cannon shot against Venezuelan social organizations. According to unofficial information, the Foreign Policy Commission of the National Assembly, under a pro-government majority after rigged elections in 2020, approved the discussion in the parliament of a bill that had been promoted 15 years before, and that due to the controversy was shelved. This proposal proposes the creation of a single fund, managed by the State, to receive international cooperation. And it would be the authorities who would define the priorities and which local organizations would execute the resources.

From Venezuela we believe that the government has taken note of the Nicaraguan bad practices with which they will try to corner, in the coming months, those who act outside the state orbit. But if for Nicolas Maduro Daniel Ortega is an example to follow, for us the reference is the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), who despite the criminalization campaigns, the withdrawal of its legal personality, the raiding and destruction of its headquarters, as well as the confiscation of its assets, continue, against all odds, accompanying the population of their country in denouncing abuses against the dignity of men and women.

 * Sociologist and General Coordinator of Provea.

Foto: AP Images/Matias Delacroix

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