Timothy M. Gill
As legislative elections approach on Sunday, the Venezuelan government has renewed efforts to pass the Law on International Cooperation, legislation that would seriously affect the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The law would significantly alter NGOs’ ability to freely access foreign funding, which most NGOs rely on to survive. Critics contend that the law is part of a broader attempt to restrict NGOs and amounts to a threat to human rights and democracy.
The proposed Law on International Cooperation seeks to regulate all international cooperation, including foreign financing, goods, services, and support, that is delivered to the Venezuelan state, private entities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) located within Venezuela.
In order to manage international cooperation, the Venezuelan government has planned to create the International Cooperation and Assistance Fund, which will distribute funds according to national interest, and will be managed by the national executive. The law will thus prohibit direct foreign funding for NGOs and allow the government discretion over what groups will receive foreign funding and for what purposes.
The law also demands that NGOs disclose all of their financing and how it has been used. In addition, NGOs are prohibited from financing activities that threaten “the internal or external security of the Venezuelan state or affect public peace.”
The Venezuelan government asserts that all international cooperation must cohere with eight principles established by the Venezuelan Constitution. These include the promotion of peaceful relations between countries and nonintervention, the defense and promotion of human rights and nondiscriminatory policies, the eradication of poverty, the promotion of solidarity and social justice, the creation of a multipolar world, the consolidation of Latin American and Caribbean integration, and the contribution to political development and interdependence between the Americas and the world.
The Venezuelan government also asserts that international cooperation should focus on several areas, including energy, science, trade, humanitarian aid, education, technology, infrastructure, cooperation in criminal matters, and the environment.
Critics contend that the Venezuelan government has continually attacked independent NGOs due to their criticism of government policies. Guadalupe Marengo, from Amnesty International, has stated that limiting “the work of civil society organizations in this way limits the protection of all human rights, civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.” Amnesty International has also pointed out that National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello has used his television program “Con el Mazo Dando” to routinely criticize NGOs.
On October 5, 2015, for example, Cabello asserted that the National Assembly should pass the Law on International Cooperation, since Venezuelan NGOs “do not defend human rights, they are conspirators against the peace of this country, [and] they receive money from international organizations.“ In June 2015, President Maduro also referred to domestic NGOs as “bandits” that receive foreign funding for criticizing the Venezuelan government after several NGOs presented documentation of human rights abuses before the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Because of these attacks, Rafael Uzcátegui, a representative from Provea, said through email that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has enacted precautionary measures for the safety of several individuals that work for Venezuelan NGOs, including members from Provea. Uzcátegui also stated that “ambiguity [in the law] could be used in a discretionary manner against initiatives that are considered too ‘critical.’” Additionally, he points out that NGOs are already subject to audits and their money passes through the Central Bank of Venezuela. He says that disclosing all NGO materials is a “worrying situation due to the amount of sensitive information handled by NGOs, such as the identity of the victims and records that have been built in their cases.”
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said ¨it is unacceptable that the State wants to restrict and administer the international funding of NGOs and set the priorities and objectives for the projects that receive such funding.¨ They suggest it is particularly concerning in the context of a defamation and stigmatization of their work by that same state.
The Law on International Cooperation passed an initial discussion in the National Assembly in 2006. However, due to pressure from several European countries, the government stalled its passage. In December 2010, precisely after the PSUV lost its super-majority in the National Assembly but before the new AN was installed, the PSUV tried to revive the LCI and push it through. It again stalled.
But the AN did pass a more limited piece of legislation–the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination–that prohibits foreign funding for political parties and NGOs focused on political participation. Although the government has investigated several NGOs and threatened to prosecute several NGOs under this law, there have been no prosecutions.