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Friday, March 24, 2023
CARACAS, Feb 27 2023 (IPS) - The Venezuelan parliament, in the hands of the ruling party, is moving towards passing a law to control non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so that, in practice, they could not exist independently.
The new law “not only puts at risk the work of helping victims of human rights violations, but also all the humanitarian and social assistance work carried out by independent organizations,” Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of the human rights group Provea, one of the oldest and renowned NGOs in the country, told IPS.
Ali Daniels, a lawyer who is the director of the NGO Access to Justice, was also emphatic when he told IPS that the law “is contradictory and, by design, is made to be breached, since it is impossible to meet the 20 requirements and 12 sub-requirements that it imposes on civil society organizations.”
The bill, entitled the Law for the Control, Regularization, Action and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations, was approved without dissent at first reading as a whole in the single-chamber legislature on Jan. 24. It must now be debated article by article in order to be passed.
In the current legislature – which has 277 members, many more than the 165 provided for by the 1999 constitution – the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies hold 256 seats, and the rest are in the hands of groups that refused to take part in the boycott of the 2020 legislative elections called by the main opposition party.
The memorandum for the draft law states that it is inspired by a similar law passed in Bolivia in 2013, and highlights that NGOs “depend almost exclusively on ‘aid’ from Western governments, which generally goes to countries of geopolitical importance and is linked to an interventionist framework.”
Diosdado Cabello, the number two in the PSUV under President Nicolás Maduro and the president of the National Assembly, said that through NGOs opposition groups “conspire against the country. They are not non-governmental organizations. They do not depend on the Venezuelan state, but on the gringo (US) government; they are instruments of imperialism.”
The new law will “put an end to their easy life,” he said.
The PSUV not only has control over the executive and legislative branches, but also the judiciary, the electoral commission, the public prosecutor’s office, the comptroller’s office and the ombudsman’s office. In addition, it has staunch support from the armed forces.
The main opposition parties have been intervened by the judiciary, several of their leaders are in exile or disqualified from running for office, and press, radio and television outlets that provide anything but officially sanctioned news have practically been driven to extinction.
In addition, there are 270 political prisoners in the country (150 members of the military and 120 civilians), according to the daily registry kept by the human rights NGO Foro Penal.
In this context, different NGOs and the bishops of the Catholic Church stand out as critical and independent voices.
Nearly a month after the bill was approved in first reading, it has not yet been officially presented, and the text that was leaked from parliament is setting off alarm bells among civil society organizations.
More than 400 organizations, including several from abroad such as Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, Transparency International, Poder Ciudadano of Argentina, Chile Transparente and the Center for Rights and Development of Peru, produced a document expressing their alarm and rejection of the draft law.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, who visited Caracas two days after the preliminary approval of the draft law, said that when he talked to the authorities “I reiterated the importance of guaranteeing the civic space, and I called for a broad consultative process on the law.”
NGOs complain that, first of all, the new law will declare illegal any existing non-profit association, organization or foundation that fails to adapt to the new provisions, even though this violates the principle of non-retroactivity.
In addition to entities defined as NGOs, the law will also apply to charitable or educational foundations, chambers or other business associations and even social clubs – in other words, any kind of civil association.
It creates a long list of requirements and requisites, including mandatory registration and constant renewals, “without setting a time limit or clear evaluation criteria, or providing any guarantee of due process in case of denial.”
Daniels also said the new law requires a sworn statement of assets from the members, representatives and workers of each NGO, together with detailed information on how they obtain and use funds.
In addition, the new law states that organizations must not only register, but also must obtain express authorization from the government, which could thus decide which ones can and cannot operate.
In the event that the authorities suspect any irregularity, it must open an investigation, and by doing so it can suspend operations of the organization, by means of a precautionary measure.
NGOs are generically prohibited from carrying out political activities, which makes it possible to accuse them in cases of defense of rights or criticism of the State.
The sanctions for failing to comply with requirements include fines of up to 12,000 dollars, “which in Venezuela’s current crisis no NGO can comply with without closing down,” Daniels said. Criminal action can also be taken against the organizations.
Carlos Ayala Corao, former chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the new law “violates the national and international legal system, and seeks to control society.”
According to Uzcátegui, the law is the result of a years-long government policy of confronting NGOs, “in first place because we have been effective in attracting the attention of international mechanisms for the protection of human rights.”
“An investigation by the International Criminal Court, unprecedented in this continent, has been launched into possible crimes against humanity (by Venezuelan authorities), a major blow to Maduro’s international image,” Uzcátegui said.
The ICC is carrying out a preliminary investigation into accusations against the president and other political and military leaders, after complaints brought by families of their alleged responsibility in the death of demonstrators in protests, of opponents or military dissidents in interrogations, torture and other crimes.
Venezuela experienced massive protests, some bloodily repressed, in 2014, 2017 and 2019, and so far in 2023 there have been dozens of demonstrations by public sector workers and pensioners, since the minimum wage and millions of pensions are equivalent to less than six dollars a month.
The head of Provea added that so far this year there have been dozens of workers’ protests against low wages and tiny pensions, “and the authorities are trying to curb this scenario of conflict with the actors of democratic society.”
He also said the new law could be another chess piece in the intermittent negotiations between the government and the opposition, “as are the political prisoners,” ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
If the law is passed, “it will prevent the work of critical voices, of support for victims of rights violations, but the most terrible consequences will not be experienced by the organizations but by the people who are the beneficiaries of our activities,” Uzcátegui stressed.
Daniels said the draft law does not cover companies such as banks, for example, but it does cover their chambers, which are civil associations, or the entities that run schools or soup kitchens, many of them in the neediest areas, and which have registered and act as foundations.
“This is the case of the community soup kitchens run by Caritas (a Catholic organization), or free medicine banks run by the NGOs Convite and Acción Solidaria, or the network of community schools run by Fe y Alegría (created by the Catholic Jesuit order),” Uzcátegui added.
Consequences at an international level are also likely, given that most NGOs turn to international donors to finance their activities, and because various international entities do not act directly in the country but do so through NGOs that have become their local partners.
It will also influence the regional political game by following the path taken by Nicaragua, which has outlawed thousands of organizations, and “we are alerting neighboring countries that the crisis in Venezuela will expand and with it emigration, including activists from NGOs seeking refuge,” said Uzcátegui.
During Maduro’s 10 years in the presidency, marked by an acute economic crisis, with a drop of up to 80 percent of GDP and prolonged hyperinflation, more than seven million Venezuelans – almost a quarter of the population – have left the country, mainly to neighboring nations.
More than 90 organizations presented a letter to Colombian President Gustavo Petro, asking him to intervene by making an effort to get the law dismissed and to help persuade the government not to undermine free association as a human right.
Uzcátegui says final approval of the draft law will drive the United States and Europe to impose harsher sanctions on Venezuela.
Thus, “the hardships of the populace and the conflict will increase, when what we Venezuelans need are spaces for dialogue and understanding,” argued the head of Provea.
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