Maduro’s government prepares assault on Venezuela’s NGOs

A law discussed in the National Assembly could render independent civil associations in the country ineffective

Nicolás Maduro
Photograph provided by the Press Office of the Miraflores Palace, which shows President Nicolás Maduro during the initiation of the 2024-2025 legislative period, in Caracas, Venezuela.Prensa Miraflores (EFE/Prensa Miraflores)

The Law on Control, Regularization, Operations and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organisation — a feared initiative that could undermine the performance of civil associations in Venezuela — has entered a second phase of discussion in the National Assembly. This legislative body has been controlled by the ruling Chavismo since 2020, following an election in which the Venezuelan opposition didn’t participate. At least 400 national and international organizations have criticized the law in a joint statement.

At the start of 2024, Jorge Rodríguez — president of the National Assembly — tabled the order of priorities. He asked the deputies to begin the process of public consultations to enrich the bill, which was presented by Chavista strongman Diosdado Cabello in 2023. It was already approved during the first reading.

The law could come into force this year, by the time the elections are set to be held. “It’s the duty of the National Assembly to consult with all the people of Venezuela and the organizations that are involved in the scope of this law, in order to have a fruitful second discussion,” Rodríguez stated during a debate session.

Since the time of Hugo Chávez — who governed from 1999 until his death in 2013 — the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has been publicly debating various legal instruments that could limit or bankrupt Venezuelan NGOs, particularly those that question the performance of the government. Consulted experts warn that the law regarding the supervision of NGOs being discussed in the National Assembly goes much further in terms of controls and regulations than the previous initiatives introduced by PSUV Deputy Eva Golinger more than a decade ago.

With extensive volunteerism, the universe of civil associations and NGOs still has force in the social fabric of Venezuela. NGOs have closely monitored the violations and excesses of the ruling party in matters such as human rights, administrative transparency, corruption, environmental management, freedom of expression, or information on societal violence.

The harsh struggle with the opposition has postponed attempts by the government to exercise control over civil society. According to official propaganda, NGOs are instruments of imperialism, which use the loopholes in the Constitution to conspire against the Bolivarian revolution.

This past week, parliamentarians began consultations on the bill, by listening to the observations of the activists involved. In the world of civil activism, there’s a lot of concern. In the sessions, references were made to some of the organizations that most strongly criticize the government — Súmate, Provea, Futuro Presente and Lidera — which were presented as being “linked to the opposition parties Primero Justicia (”Justice First”) and Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”).”

For Feliciano Reyna — director of Alianza Solidaria — the bill being discussed in the legislature is so radical that it would make the existence of NGOs effectively impossible. This circumstance, he explains, would aggravate the ability to provide humanitarian assistance.

“The existing [legislative] project raises unviable issues,” he emphasizes. “It’s not possible to make partial improvements. It seriously violates freedom of association. You’re granted an existence in essence, not in law. New procedures of complex compliance are being proposed to already over-regulated organizations. They want to regionalize the work, with the aim of preventing it from being done from the capital (Caracas). A court ruling could order the dissolution of any organization.”

In general terms, for the past several years, the PSUV government has been trying — slowly but steadily — to reprogram the system of legal relations between society and the state, while colonizing civil activism and placing new actors in this space, who are loyal to the regime and its interests.

Empowered by the Constitution, the National Electoral Council (CNE) — theoretically an independent body created to promote democracy and oversee elections, but which is essentially government-controlled — is authorized to assist and guide the holding of elections among unions and other professional groups. By abusing this clause, consultations are advanced or delayed to absurd extremes.

“The Central University of Venezuela spent almost 20 years without organizing elections for a new rector. Law associations have gone several decades without organizing internal consultations, [along with] the majority of professional circles in the country,” observes jurist Gustavo Linares Benzo, from the Andrés Bello Catholic University. “The decision by the [Supreme Tribunal of Justice] in 2002 to appoint the rectors of the CNE at the convenience of the Chavista movement is the most serious precedent. Subsequently, almost all political parties have been compelled by the Supreme Court’s Electoral Chamber to appoint alternative directors.”

Linares Benzo points out that the architecture of the current Constitution makes it possible for the Electoral Chamber to overlap with the functions of the CNE — which involves itself in civil associations — by handing down rulings in favor of the interests of the Chavista state. This has occurred with the Bar Association of the State of Carabobo, the Red Cross, the Chamber of Commerce of the State of Valencia, the Motorcycle Federation, the Venezuelan Surf Federation and, more recently, even with the Communist Party of Venezuela

From 2014 onwards, the courts — controlled by Maduro’s government — have intervened in the internal processes of political parties (especially opposition ones). This has happened with opposition parties such as Democratic Action, Popular Will, Justice First, COPEI and Vente Venezuela. Similar interventions have been levied against former allies of the government who have distanced themselves from Maduro, such as Patria Para Todos (“A country for everyone”) and, more recently, the Communist Party of Venezuela.

“The violation of the autonomy of unions [by impeding] public consultations is a process that has been in development for a long time,” comments Carlos Correa, from Espacio Público, a human rights NGO. “This law effectively eliminates the existence of non-governmental organizations – the bureaucracy of the Venezuelan state unloads all of its weight on them.” However, at a time when political negotiations are necessary, Correa isn’t so sure how determined the ruling party is to go all the way with such a legal instrument, which would effectively see Venezuela take a step closer towards the model of the Nicaraguan dictatorship.

“The internal composition of [the PSUV’s] tendencies is different from the reality of Nicaragua,” Correa admits. “[This legislative] initiative creates pressure, it’s an instrument [that’s being used] to negotiate [with the opposition]. But whatever happens, the Chavistas aren’t going to give up on having a monopoly [over the NGO sector].”

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