Venezuela’s Human Rights NGOs Under Fire Again

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

Earlier this month, following the presentations of the Venezuelan government and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, President Nicolas Maduro strongly criticized the NGOs that participated. “These bandits go there and speak ill of the country and earn thousands of dollars [for doing so,]” declared Maduro in a national radio and television broadcast (cadena).

Other government officials have backed Maduro in what, leading human rights NGO PROVEA, says is a “criminalization campaign against NGOs.”

PROVEA was especially incensed by the comments of a long-time human rights activists who now serves as Executive Secretary of the General Police Council. Pablo Fernandez Blanco, denounced what he calls “the instrumentalization of human rights as political weapons.”

Fernández suggested that independent NGOs are critical of the government because they are in need of external funding. “They count on international funders and they [the NGOs] end up generating an image of persecution, that they can’t do their work. This self-generated image of victimization helps them continue to receive large revenues from international donors, many of them of dubious origin and reputation.”

A few days before the UN Committee meetings the President of the National Assembly and vice-President of the ruling PSUV party, Diosdado Cabello, had also accused activists of PROVEA and Espacio Público, an NGO focusing on freedom of expression, of traveling to Switzerland and New York to criticize the Venezuelan government and present “false” reports.

Both NGOs formally requested that Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz investigate Cabello for illegally having tapped their private communications and for making them public in his national television show. In their complaint, the organizations argued that according to the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, Cabello had used derogatory remarks against at least 165 human rights activists, politicians, and journalists in his public television show Con el Mazo Dando.

PROVEA has asked President Maduro to “end the attacks against human rights NGOs.” Rafael Uzcátegui, representative of PROVEA, also reminded Maduro of the long history of the NGO in defense of human right, dating back from before the Bolivarian Revolution. 

According to Uzcátegui, Maduro appealed to PROVEA for help back in 1993 when he was a union leader: “In 1993, when he [Maduro] came to PROVEA he didn’t ask who was paying for the fees of the lawyers that helped him…PROVEA heard his case, perhaps he doesn’t remember this: in that year he was the victim of harassment. We took up his case and accompanied him to several government institutions.” said Uzcátegui.

Accusations that NGOs are being funded by international enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution, or even that their activists are foreign spies, have increased in recent years as NGOs become more critical of the government’s human rights record.

In April 2013, PROVEA was attacked by the Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, and by the Ombudswoman Gabriela Ramírez after the NGO claimed that the Barrio Adentro health modules (CDIs), supposedly vandalized and burned down by opposition supporters, showed no sign of such attacks.

In November 2014, during hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Right (IACHR) of the Organization of the American States, Venezuelan representative Germán Saltrón responded to criticisms by human rights NGOs COFAVIC and PROVEA by claiming that human rights organizations in Venezuela were “financed by the United States” as part of a plot to attack the Venezuelan government.

After the hearings Saltrón published an article in the pro-government web page Aporrea claiming:

In order to achieve social justice the eternal president Hugo Chávez Frías decreed the nationalization of our oil industry and strengthened the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for the defense of a fair price for oil. As a consequence of these actions of sovereignty, the government of the United States, together with the Venezuelan opposition, initiated since 1999 an internal and external campaign of discredit, falsely presenting president Chávez as a dictator and a human rights violator. To accomplish this they have used Venezuelan and foreign NGOs to present reckless, unfounded, and false denunciations [of human rights violations].

In 2012, the National Assembly threatened to investigate the funding of anti-corruption NGO Transparency Venezuela when it released a report criticizing the National Assembly for irregularities in the importation of medicines from Cuba.

Foreign funding of NGOs has been under fire in Venezuela since pro-government analyst Eva Golinger accused them in The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela of being a form of covert operations for the US government. She argued in 2007 that at least 300 NGOs in Venezuela were “related” to the US government in comparison to only 64 in 2004, and that “the amount of money they are receiving is much more [than in 2004].”

Golinger has been a key proponent of a Law on International Cooperation, which would regulate the foreign funding of local NGOs. The law stagnated in 2006 and again in 2010, receiving widespread international criticism (see here, here, here, here and here). It never passed, but in December 2010 the National Assembly did approve the Law for the Defense of National Political Sovereignty and Self-determination, which is narrower in scope but regulates NGOs’ funding and restricts them from working on issues of political participation.