VI. Civil Society
The ChAvez government's ability to address Venezuela's long-standing and serious human rights problems has been undermined by its adversarial approach to civil society organizations. During the ChAvez presidency, rights advocates have faced prosecutorial harassment, unsubstantiated allegations aimed at discrediting their work, and efforts to exclude them from international forums and restrict their access to international funding.
President ChAvez and his supporters have sought to justify these measures by arguing that these civil society organizations, despite their professed commitment to human rights advocacy, are actually pursuing a partisan political agenda aimed at destabilizing the country and removing President ChAvez from office. To back this charge, they have cited the fact that some civil society leaders have engaged in partisan activities, and some nongovernmental organizations have received funding from the United States.
It is perfectly reasonable for a government to investigate credible allegations that individuals or organizations have engaged in criminal activity, provided the investigations are conducted seriously and with appropriate due process guarantees. It is also reasonable for governments to regulate foreign funding of civil society groups in order to promote greater transparency, provided those regulations do not interfere with the groups' ability to exercise fundamental rights.
But the actions of ChAvez and his supporters in the National Assembly and other branches of government have gone beyond these legitimate forms of accountability and regulation by:
- Subjecting rights advocates to criminal investigations on unsubstantiated and politically motivated charges;
- Seeking to discredit and undermine rights organizations through unfounded accusations of complicity in subversion;
- Seeking to exclude organizations receiving foreign funding from international forums;
- Pursuing legislation that would allow arbitrary governmental interference in the operations of rights organizations, including fundraising activities.
These actions compromise any professed government commitment or willingness to effectively address the country's longstanding human rights problems. For example, Venezuela faces one of the highest rates of prison violence in the continent, with hundreds of deaths in preventable violent incidents every year. But rather than engage constructively with NGOs that document abuses and advocate reforms to the prison system, the authorities have harassed, intimidated, and marginalized them from policy discussions.
In one notable exception, the government incorporated civil society experts in a commission set up to analyze and make proposals to reform Venezuela's police forces, which have long been accused of corruption and abuse. After an extensive process of consultation, the commission proposed reforms to overhaul the police system. For the first time-and largely due to the involvement of rights advocates with extensive experience in battling impunity for abuses-the government identified and prioritized accountability for police abuse as a major issue, though it did not ultimately adopt all of the commission's recommendations.
Unfortunately, the commission on police reform is the exception that proves the rule. The government most often has sought to discredit and sideline human rights advocates and organizations, including experienced groups that could contribute to governmental efforts to address a wide range of other human rights problems.
International Norms on Civil Society
As part of their duty to promote and protect human rights, governments must ensure that human rights defenders are allowed to pursue their activities without reprisals, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, or unnecessary legal obstacles. Moreover, both the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) have recognized the importance of the work of human rights defenders to the protection of human rights and the consolidation of democracy.
According to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, states must "take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of their legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in this Declaration".
In its report on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stressed the importance of the defense of human rights to the consolidation of democracy. "Human rights defenders, from different sectors of civil society, and, in some cases, from state institutions, make fundamental contributions to the existence and strengthening of democratic societies. Accordingly, respect for human rights in a democratic state largely depends on the human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees for freely carrying out their activities."
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has embraced the same principle. "Respect for human rights in a democratic state depends largely on human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees so as to freely go about their activities, and it is advisable to pay special attention to those actions that limit or hinder the work of human rights defenders."
Among government actions that limit or hinder the work of human rights defenders are criminal proceedings or legal action taken or threatened against them on unfounded charges, or intimidating accusations leveled at them by government officials. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has pointed out that:
… the punitive power of the state and its judicial apparatus should not be manipulated for the purpose of harassing those who are dedicated to legitimate activities such as the defense of human rights…. judicial proceedings brought by the state authorities should be conducted in such a way that-based on objective evidence that is legally produced- only those persons who can reasonably be presumed to have committed conduct deserving of a criminal sanction are investigated and submitted to judicial proceedings.
Governments must not only protect human rights defenders but also ensure that they can engage in public debates through the issuing of findings and recommendations. Among the rights protected by the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is the right:
individually and in association with others, to submit to governmental bodies and agencies and organizations concerned with public affairs criticism and proposals for improving their functioning and to draw attention to any aspect of their work that may hinder or impede the promotion, protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Although governments are under no obligation to heed the criticism or advice of human rights defenders, they are obliged to refrain from actions that undermine the defenders' ability to exercise this right, including unfounded public statements aimed at intimidating or discrediting them.
Finally, states may not impose arbitrary limitations on the right of organizations dedicated to human rights protection to solicit and receive funds for their activities. According to the UN Declaration:
Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.
The Inter-American Commission's view is that civil society organizations may legitimately receive money from foreign or international NGOs, or foreign governments, to promote human rights.
Deteriorated Relations with Civil Society
At the outset of his presidency, ChAvez's relations with human rights groups were better than they later became as opposition to his presidency gathered steam. Nongovernmental rights advocates participated actively in the debate over the new constitution in 1999 and had decisive influence on its human rights provisions. The Forum for Life, a consortium of nongovernmental human rights groups, submitted proposals to the constituent assembly responsible for drafting the new bill of rights. At its recommendation, many long-overdue reforms, such as limiting the number and types of rights that could be restricted in states of emergency and the use of military courts, were incorporated in the final text.
In December 1999, ChAvez initially described reports of human rights abuses during floods and landslides in Vargas State as "superficial" and "suspicious," but he later recognized their seriousness and promised action.During the same year, ChAvez described one of the organizations that documented these reports-the Venezuelan Program for Education-Action in Human Rights (El Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA)-as "an institution I know about, and with which we share its defense of human rights, they are in favor of our rights and those of our families."
Five years later, ChAvez was to accuse the same organization of conspiring against his government. As detailed below, the government's relations with civil society organizations more generally deteriorated over this period (1999-2004) as political divisions deepened over his presidency and some civil society organizations engaged in openly political advocacy. New organizations dedicated to the defense of democracy and the rule of law participated in broadly based opposition coalitions which engaged not only in litigation and political advocacy in defense of democratic rights, but also supported street protests and strike activity intended to force the president's resignation. Some NGOs received funding from institutions in the United States, which the Venezuelan government accused of backing the April 2002 coup, heightening government suspicions about their ulterior motives.
The government publicly accused both institutions and individuals in civil society of supporting the coup, or of being paid by the "empire." The attacks were directed at groups advocating peaceful and constitutional channels to change the government-in particular the 2004 recall referendum-or merely exercising their right to criticize government policies. 
Activists belonging to high profile human rights groups in Caracas have been threatened and intimidated. They include Liliana Ortega, the director of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Events of February-March 1989 (Comité de Familiares de las Víctimas de los sucesos ocurridos entre el 27 de febrero y los primeros días de marzo de 1989, COFAVIC)-a long-established human rights group that works for victims of police violence-and other COFAVIC members; Carlos Nieto, director of Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad, a prison reform group); and several relatives of victims of police killings who have sought justice in the courts. Ortega was one of several activists whose life and personal safety the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Venezuelan government to protect.
Two Divergent Approaches to Rights Advocates
Venezuelan human rights NGOs, formed in the 1980s to defend victims of prison and police abuses, have decades of experience documenting, analyzing, and seeking solutions to these problems. Unfortunately, instead of collaborating constructively with these groups, the ChAvez government has often treated them with hostility and suspicion and, in some cases, has actively sought to discredit and marginalize them.
In one notable instance, however, the government did actively collaborate with civil society groups to devise a major police reform, proving that even in the midst of political polarization such collaboration was possible, as well as productive.
Persecution of Prison Reform Advocates
The costs of sidelining human rights monitors can be clearly seen in the case of prison reform. Authorities have harassed and intimidated civil society groups that speak out about prison conditions rather than tap their commitment and expertise to find solutions to the systematic failings of Venezuelan prisons.
Nine years into his presidency, ChAvez has failed to address the chronic crisis in Venezuela's prisons, which remain among the most violent in the continent after decades of neglect by successive governments. Violence between inmates rages without check, causing hundreds of deaths every year. Inmates effectively control prisons, overwhelming the scant number of security guards. The system fails to provide minimum standards of hygiene, medical care, and internal order.ChAvez himself has described the conditions as "infernal."
Venezuelan Prison Watch (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones,OVP), a nongovernmental organization whose stated mission is "to promote and monitor state protection of the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty," has done much to bring the problem to public attention. OVP publishes annual reports on prison conditions and compiles statistics on violent prison deaths and injuries through an extensive network of contacts within the prison system. Little official data is publicly available on Venezuela's prison population. The national press, civil society groups, and international organizations appear to rely on OVP for all but the most basic statistics. OVP Director Humberto Prado is a prominent critic of government prison policy and appears regularly before the Inter-American Court and Commission to testify on conditions.
In March 2008, hunger strikes broke out in 15 prisons in which thousands of prisoners across the country participated. The striking prisoners were pressing for the repeal of reforms to the criminal code dating from 2005 which exempted individuals convicted of violent crimes from sentencing benefits such as work outside the prison, probation, and conditional release.
The government squarely blamed NGOs that work with prisoners for the unrest. For example, Interior and Justice Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín insinuated that unnamed human rights defenders who received their orders in the United States had incited the strike: "Coincidentally, when those individuals were in the United States, a prison strike began here in Venezuela to ask that an article of the Organic Penal Procedure Code not be applied." Chacín called the prison groups "humanitarian organizations with political ends" and added that they had "dubious moral solvency" and "live off prison problems."
In April 2008, a newspaper article indicated that members of OVP were under investigation by the Ministry of Interior and Justice on charges of treason and inciting rebellion. The day after the charges appeared in the press, Prado presented himself before the public prosecutor, asking for an impartial investigation of the matter and signaling his willingness to cooperate to clear the name of the organization. No charges have been brought as of this writing.
On several prior occasions, government officials and pro-government legislators publicly accused Prado of starting prison riots to undermine the government. In January 2006, then-Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacón called Prado a "political spokesperson" with "false" accusations to "destabilize the country." The president of the National Assembly Sub-Commission on Human Rights said that Prado "promoted prison riots." "We all know who he is, he goes from prison to prison causing problems," he added. In September 2007, Congressman Freddy Rojas announced on public television, "Each time Humberto Prado comes on television speaking about the prison situation, riots begins in the prisons … I don't discount that this has to do with a destabilization plan."
Harassment has often followed criticism of the ChAvez government's record on prisons. For instance, just days after Prado briefed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the prison situation in Venezuela in November 2005, Minister Chacón publicly questioned his moral integrity and motives.Similarly, after testifying before the Inter-American Court in 2006, Director General of Prisoner Rehabilitation and Custody Erling Rojas said that Prado's statements about prison conditions "intended to destabilize the country when we are in an electoral year." Prado reported receiving threatening phone calls in May 2007 after he described the appalling conditions in the Barinas prison to the newspaper El Mundo.
Humberto Prado is not the only prison rights advocate who has suffered reprisals for his work. In 2004 the Inter-American Court ordered the government to take measures to protect Carlos Nieto, director of Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad). The court acted after receiving reports that Nieto had received a house visit by government agents who issued veiled threats to his 9-month-old nephew, and that his neighbors had received pamphlets with death threats against Nieto.
The Court acted after Nieto's house was broken into several times, his nine-month-old niece was threatened, and death threats were sent to him and his neighbors.
The government's suspicion of human rights monitors and its refusal to treat them as valid interlocutors has direct practical consequences that limit the groups' effectiveness. Officials have ignored their requests to visit prisons, thereby hindering independent monitoring of prison conditions. Instead, OVP observers had to visit prisons in the company of family members of inmates.
The government has also excluded prison groups from taking part in government-sponsored forums on the prison system. According to the government, two investigations against Prado for human rights violations during his tenure as the director of the Yare I Prison (1996-1997) are still underway. On these grounds, the government disqualified Prado from taking part in government discussions on its "humanization" plan in 2005. Prado said that he did not know of any investigations against him and that the accusations were baseless. More generally, Prado said that OVP has been eager to participate in government discussions on prison policy, but that the government has never invited NGOs.
Government hostility also has broader ramifications for the public policy issues at stake. By publicly belittling the work done by prison groups, state officials attempt to discredit the complaints and evidence presented. The focus on the purported "destabilizing" intentions of prison groups has allowed the government to gloss over the institutional crisis in the prison system.
Although the government has announced a "humanization plan" to improve prison infrastructure through the construction of 15 new prisons between 2006 and 2012 and the expansion of recreational and occupational activities for prisoners, so far there have been few concrete advances. While OVP has commended the spirit of the government project, it has pressed the government to take further steps-often buttressed by the recommendations of the Inter-American Court-such as increases in the number and training of security guards, the separation of inmates awaiting sentencing from convicted prisoners, effective controls to prevent the entrance of weapons, hiring professional prison managers, and greater reliance on conditional liberty. These proposals have been largely ignored.
Although government officials have often sought to discredit Prado and OVP, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any examples of information published by the organization shown by authorities to be false or misleading.
Engaging civil society groups could help the government address the critical situation in Venezuelan prisons. By recognizing that the long-term goals of prison reform advocates-to construct a more humane prison system where basic rights are respected-align with those of the government, the authorities could stimulate productive discussions on how to address the inhumane conditions that have persisted for decades in Venezuelan prisons. However, such constructive dialogue will remain difficult so long as government officials continue publicly denouncing and undermining the credibility of prisoners' rights advocates.
An Alternative Approach: Police Reform
In contrast to the government's harassment of prison reform advocates and other human rights activists, recent experience with police reform provides a positive model for how the government can collaborate with civil society groups to address pressing issues. Faced with rampant violent crime and a largely discredited police force, rather than attack and question human rights groups with experience in public security issues, the government has harnessed their knowledge to draft and pass legislation to overhaul the police and improve police accountability. While the ultimate effectiveness of these reforms will depend on whether the government is willing and able to implement them in a serious manner, the experience underscores the potential for productive collaboration between government and civil society. Instead of antagonizing expert NGOs and ignoring their critiques, the government has taken important steps toward addressing a critical human rights issue with their assistance.
Venezuela has long been notorious for its high rates of common crime and violence. Nonetheless, the security situation has deteriorated since ChAvez took office. The investigative police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC) registered over 13,000 homicides in a country of 27 million in 2007, up from just under 6,000 homicides in 1999. Citizens believe that the most serious problem confronting the country is violent crime. Not only have law enforcement efforts failed to reduce crime levels, but the police themselves have also been responsible for widespread abuses.
Police have been accused of thousands of violations of the right to life and personal integrity in past years, and impunity has allowed police abuse to persist. According to the Attorney General's Office, between 2000 and 2007, 6,300 law enforcement officials were investigated for alleged human rights violations. Authorities have lodged charges against 1,500 of them. But as of February 2007, only 204, or roughly 13 percent of those charged, have been convicted.
Despite the gravity of the situation revealed by these official figures, the government has blamed the media and civil society groups for exaggerating crime and impunity. The press office of the investigative police, traditionally responsible for crime statistics, was closed in 2003 on the pretext that the opposition manipulated statistics for political gain. As former Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez noted in a press conference speaking about human rights groups:
We are conscious that they want to manipulate impunity as a simple theme, nationally and internationally, in order to articulate insecurity and with the help of the media create a sense of an epidemic that affects governability, public peace and the political and social stability of the country.
Despite the denials, the government has acknowledged the centrality of police reform for effective crime control. In particular, the extreme decentralization of the police has been blamed for the high levels of abuse and uneven performance of police departments. As such, the 1999 Constitution included a transitory provision that committed the National Assembly to form a national civilian police. In 2001, legislators drafted the first version of the National Police Law, but the law languished in legislative discussions.
The idea of sweeping police reform resurfaced in 2006 after a wave of street protests following the kidnapping and murder of three brothers with Canadian citizenship. Minister Chacón responded by forming the National Commission for Police Reform (Comisión Nacional para la Reforma Policial, Conarepol) to analyze the police system and make recommendations for its improvement, including the potential formation of a national police force.
Conarepol was unusual in several respects. First, the commission drew together a diverse group of experts, including civil society groups, academics, and government officials. Its technical secretary was a member of the NGO Justice and Peace Support Network (Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz), which has worked for more than a decade offering legal assistance and counseling to victims of police abuse. Another of Conarepol's members was the director of the Centro Gumilla, a Jesuit research institute. Given the government's frequent antagonism toward civil society groups, the inclusion of representatives from NGOs was a rare recognition of their work. 
Second, the commission conducted an unusually thorough diagnostic process. Over the course of nine months, some 70,000 citizens took part in focus groups, interviews, online forums, and telephone surveys.
Third, the government did not interfere in the work of Conarepol. Its technical secretary, Soraya El Achkar, told Human Rights Watch that the autonomy and political neutrality of the commission was central to its success: "We were given complete autonomy to contract the best people in each given area so we didn't enter into political debates."
The final recommendations of Conarepol, published in January 2007, called for the formation of a new national civilian police force and for the establishment of a national police system to monitor and standardize the quality of state and municipal police forces. However, while the initial consultation process granted civil society groups an important role, the final discussions to translate the Conarepol project into law occurred behind closed doors with little explanation of the final form.
The Organic Law of Police Service and National Police (Ley OrgAnica del Servicio de Policía y del Cuerpo de Policía Nacional), passed by decree in April 2008 after numerous delays, is largely based on the proposals of Conarepol. A key part of the law offers measures to improve police accountability, a vital element championed by NGOs like the Justice and Peace Support Network, which had dedicated years to combating impunity. For example, Conarepol recommended a system of routine evaluation of police departments and the law creates a new office within the Ministry of Interior and Justice, called the Police Rector, to continuously evaluate the performance of all police departments, including their compliance with human rights standards. The law also requires all police forces to establish internal affairs units, as well as independent disciplinary units.
Similarly, as recommended by Conarepol, the law envisions a central role for citizens in police supervision. Through community councils, in particular, citizens are assigned an audit function in which they can request reports on police activities and make recommendations to improve policing.
Conarepol also identified serious shortcomings in police recruitment and training that have resulted in low levels of police professionalism. The commission recommended standardized police training and common criteria for the entrance, promotion, and demotion of officers. These recommendations were followed in the law, which requires that all police attend a police academy to complete a uniform curriculum and receive specialized instruction.
The law decreed by ChAvez differs in some important ways from the Conarepol proposal, however. Commission members have criticized the law for its failure to create a special public defender to conduct independent investigations of alleged human rights abuses committed by police officers, as proposed by Conarepol. Another concern, aroused by recent government statements, is that politicization of the force could undercut the goal of professionalization.
The government's constructive engagement on the issue of police reform has been the exception during the ChAvez presidency. Much more typical has been a tendency to discredit human rights critics, especially those that have links to the United States or have engaged in vigorous advocacy in Inter-American human rights forums.
In two major cases, the authorities opened criminal investigations against prominent civil society members. In the first case, the charges were apparently without any substance; in the second they were grossly inflated.
In April 2005 the attorney general opened a criminal investigation for conspiracy against human rights lawyer Carlos Ayala, president of the Andean Commission of Jurists and a former president of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Ayala was to be investigated for having allegedly participated in the drafting of the "Carmona decree," by which Pedro Carmona, the de facto president briefly installed during the 2002 coup, proposed to suspend Venezuela's democratic institutions.
The attorney general did not state on what evidence Ayala was under suspicion of engaging in conspiracy. In a reply to a press release issued by Human Rights Watch expressing concern about Ayala's legal situation, Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez stated only that he was under investigation for the presumed commission of a crime "in relation to the events of April 2002." Ayala was not told when he appeared before the prosecutor what the evidence against him was, beyond press articles that appeared immediately after the April 2002 events. The only article that mentioned Ayala by name reported him as saying that he had been alarmed when he read the draft decree, promptly left the government palace, and met with human rights advocates to agree to a position rejecting the coup.
Despite the attorney general's categorical denial that Ayala's incrimination was politically motivated, his office never issued detailed information about the evidence warranting investigation. Ayala's activities as an advocate in the inter-American system for Venezuelan victims of human rights abuse were well known. On March 3, 2005, a month before his first appearance before the prosecutor, he participated in a special session of the Inter-American Commission devoted to an examination of human rights in Venezuela. After the meeting, the commission issued a statement expressing concern at the stigmatization of human rights defenders in Venezuela and risks they face as a result.An official of the Venezuelan permanent mission to the OAS later justified the legal action against Ayala because of his alleged failure to question the coup d'état publicly and before the international community. "The rule of law was dissolved and it was his duty to denounce it to the world and he didn't, but Ayala doesn't mention that when he's accused."
By December 2007, two-and-a-half years after the investigation was opened against Carlos Ayala, no charges had been filed but he had received no notification of its closure either. He found himself in a legal limbo: not guilty, not formally indicted for any crime, but not declared to be innocent either. In December 2007 Ayala was granted amnesty under a presidential amnesty decree, but he continued to press the Attorney General's Office to formally close his case.
While Ayala was never formally charged, the attorney general did bring charges of criminal conspiracy against members of Súmate, a non-profit organization that played a key role in promoting voter participation in the recall referendum against ChAvez in 2004. The conspiracy charges were based on the fact that, while engaged in its referendum-related activity, Súmate had received a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based institute funded by the United States Congress.
What was particularly troubling about the Súmate prosecution was the gravity of these charges. If Súmate's use of foreign funding indeed violated Venezuela's campaign finance laws, it would have been reasonable for the attorney general to seek an appropriate sanction. Instead the prosecutor sought a conviction for the far more serious crime of "conspiracy to destroy the nation's republican form of government," which carries a maximum 16-year prison sentence.
Both Súmate and the NED insist that the funds, totaling U.S $53,400, were not used for electoral activities but rather for workshops to educate citizens regarding Venezuela's constitutional referendum process. But even if the NED funds did actually support electoral activity, the recall referendum was itself a legal process envisaged in the 1999 Constitution, not an act of subversion.
In July 2005 a Caracas court ordered a trial for Súmate Vice-President María Corina Machado, her colleague, Alejandro Plaz, and two other Súmate staffers. The trial was suspended in February 2006, when the appeals court ruled that the trial judge had committed due process violations, including refusing to empanel a jury or to allow key defense witnesses, such as the NED directors, to testify. A new jury trial ordered by the appeals court has been repeatedly postponed. After three years, the case against Súmate is still open.
The ChAvez government has repeatedly denounced and sought to discredit the work of human rights advocates by making unfounded accusations that they are funded by and doing the bidding of foreign governments.
In a broadcast on February 15, 2004 about alleged destabilization efforts by the United States, ChAvez complained that the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a Washington-based organization that litigates human rights cases in the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights, had received a $83,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to file complaints against Venezuela in the inter-American system. ChAvez also accused several Venezuelan organizations-including PROVEA, COFAVIC, the Justice and Peace Support Network, and some church-affiliated groups-of conspiring against his government because they had worked with CEJIL. "They are nothing but actors in a macabre cast, in a great conspiracy against Venezuela," ChAvez declared.
PROVEA wrote to ChAvez, pointing out correctly that it had received no money from NED and is independent of CEJIL, and requested that he retract his factually incorrect comments. After receiving no response, it sent another letter to ChAvez in August 2004, which was also ignored. To date, ChAvez has never acknowledged his mistake or offered an apology to the organizations affected.
PROVEA is one of Venezuela's most important human rights organizations. It is non-partisan, and works on a wide range of human rights issues, including prisons, police abuses, women's rights, and the defense of social and economic rights. Because PROVEA's work brings it into close contact with many committed ChAvez supporters, suspicions that it has a hidden political agenda could seriously damage the organization's credibility. According to PROVEA advocates, ChAvez's comments thus had serious implications for the effectiveness of PROVEA's human rights work. As a result of ChAvez's comments, which came at a moment of intense political polarization in the lead up to the 2004 referendum, PROVEA advocates received insulting emails and came under questioning and criticism from residents in a poor neighborhood where they were working on a project for the homeless.
ChAvez has appeared on the main state channel's popular evening program La Hojilla (The Razorblade) to denounce or ridicule rights advocates. An example is ChAvez's comments about Sinergia, a consortium of community and human rights groups, made during the December 2007 referendum campaign. Sinergia distributed pamphlets in parts of Caracas with cartoons intended to provoke critical debate about the proposed constitutional reforms. It also broadcast radio spots featuring imaginary conversations between barrio residents discussing the reforms, using the voices of popular actors. On his November 18, 2007, program, La Hojilla host Mario Silva denounced the series for "confusing the people." ChAvez then called La Hojilla in person from Saudi Arabia, where he was attending an OPEC meeting. Asked by Silva for his opinion of the Sinergia radio spots, ChAvez replied, "without doubt, this comes from the hand of the empire, which has all the money in the world" and is the work of the "devil's commando." He told listeners: "We must pulverize this pretension."
During another broadcast of La Hojilla on April 16, 2008, Silva commented on a view expressed by Rocío San Miguel, director of Citizens Control for Security, Defense and the National Armed Forces (Control Ciudadano para la Seguridad, la Defensa y la Fuerza Armada Nacional), an NGO that monitors political rights, transparency, and military affairs, in which she had criticized the creation of a military reserve under the sole command of ChAvez. "The trouble with Rocío," said Silva, "a beautiful woman but a liar, is that she was fired from her job because she participated in the April 2002 coup." (As we saw in chapter 2, San Miguel reports that she was fired from her job because she signed a petition for the recall referendum.) Minutes later, during the TV show, Silva spoke to ChAvez, who was in a ministerial meeting in the presidential palace. Silva asked the president's opinion of the "opposition" comments about the reserve force. "They want to articulate destabilizing actions because the regional elections are coming up," ChAvez replied.
Attempts to Exclude NGOS from International Forums
Government officials have repeatedly challenged the participation of Venezuelan NGOs in international forums.
For example, a senior foreign ministry official insisted that representatives of NGOs which received funds from foreign governments could not be civil society members of the Venezuelan delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meeting on HIV/AIDS in June 2001. The official referred to a Supreme Court ruling that NGOs which received funding from foreign governments could not be considered part of civil society, nor could civil society be represented by foreigners. The announcement affected an important NGO working for HIV/AIDS victims, Citizen's Action against AIDS (Acción Ciudadana contra el SIDA, ACCSI), which received foreign funding and was helping to organize Venezuela's participation in the landmark meeting. In the event, the government invited two members of ACCSI to participate in the official delegation, but the organization's executive director was excluded because of her German nationality.
The Venezuelan government has continued to cite this Supreme Court ruling to justify efforts to bar some NGOs from participating in international forums. In April 2006 a Venezuelan ambassador at the UN wrote to the chief of the UN's Non-Governmental Organizations Section requesting that the Venezuelan NGO Consortium for Development and Justice (Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia), be denied consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The ambassador stated that the Consortium had received funds from foreign governments "to develop political activities," which she said was against the law in Venezuela, citing the November 2000 Supreme Court ruling to this effect.
The Consortium had received funds administered by the United States government and Congress (from USAID and NED, respectively). In fact, according to a Consortium representative, the USAID grant helped support training programs for young community media journalists in low-income sectors of Caracas. The NED funds were provided to monitor judicial independence, to organize workshops for the defense of civil society, to present cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and to organize youth training programs in human rights and conflict resolution in TAchira state. The Consortium's founding statutes expressly prohibit it from engaging in political action. After the Consortium successfully lobbied other governments for support, it gained consultative status with ECOSOC in 2007.
In December 2006, the comptroller general wrote to an OAS judicial cooperation official opposing the participation of the Venezuelan branch of Transparency International in the debate on Venezuela's implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. The comptroller general used the same arguments as those given in the earlier case and cited also the November 2000 Supreme Court decision, as well as an earlier opinion of the court excluding organizations that receive foreign funding from being considered part of civil society. Specifically, Venezuelan officials objected to a Transparency Venezuela document posted on the OAS website, which criticized Venezuela's lack of compliance with the recommendations of the OAS committee of experts in their 2004 report. According to the OAS website, publication of the document was suspended at the request of the Venezuelan government. When the executive director of Transparency Venezuela traveled to Washington in late June 2007 to brief the panel of the OAS on the document's conclusions, Venezuelan officials vetoed her appearance, thereby preventing her from speaking.
The government has also tried, so far unsuccessfully, to have Súmate excluded from OAS meetings. In May 2005, the OAS Permanent Council approved a list of 119 invitees to an OAS civil society summit to be held the following month at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, disregarding Venezuela's formal objection to the presence of Súmate at the gathering.  A second attempt to veto Súmate's participation in an NGO follow-up meeting in Panama in June 2007 failed when the OAS Permanent Council accepted Súmate's participation and that of the Consortium for Development and Justice. 
Proposed Legal Restrictions
The ChAvez government and its allies have promoted legislation that would, if enacted, allow arbitrary governmental interference in the operations of human rights organizations, including fundraising activities.
In June 2006, the National Assembly approved the first reading of a bill aimed at bringing the activities of Venezuelan NGOs receiving funds from abroad under closer government scrutiny and control. Presented by the Foreign Relations Committee, the bill required NGOs to register with a government agency in order to receive funding from foreign sources, whether public or private.
The committee's justification for the bill centered on the potentially negative consequences of foreign aid for Venezuela, which it considered to be "one of the most commonly used tools of imposition and intervention by the big powers." Congressman Saul Ortega, one of those who drafted the bill, made it clear that this demand for transparency was mainly directed at opposition organizations:
These are the same organizations that supported the coup, that didn't denounce the killings of April 11, 12, and 13 … they are lackey organizations that don't care about what all Venezuelans want…. Most have a façade of defending human rights, while what they do is receive money from foreign governments to destabilize the government of President ChAvez.
The law made registration compulsory but did not specify the requirements for registration. These were to be defined in regulations (reglamento de la ley) to be issued subsequently by the executive branch at its discretion and without legislative debate. This meant in essence that NGOs that failed to meet the as yet undefined conditions for registration would not be authorized to receive foreign funds. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has urged governments to avoid onerous registration procedures that impede the work of human rights organizations. After the European Union actively engaged the government on the issue, the National Assembly postponed debate on a final text of the bill, which has since been shelved.
More recently, a constitutional amendment, which was proposed by ChAvez as part of the reform package that was defeated in the December 2007 referendum, explicitly prohibited "associations with political goals" from receiving foreign funds. The ambiguity of the term "association with political goals," and the way government officials have interpreted it in the past, could have extended the prohibition to NGOs that are implementing projects in Venezuela with funding from foreign donors.
While the defeat of the reform package in the referendum removed this immediate threat, ChAvez promised after the vote to continue to pursue all the proposed reforms through ordinary legislation.
Judicial Rulings Affecting Civil Society
The Supreme Court helped establish the tone for discrediting NGOs early on in the ChAvez government by ruling in two decisions that NGOs that receive funds from abroad do not form part of civil society. In these rulings, issued in 2000, the court defined "civil society" in such a way as to exclude organizations that receive foreign funding, thereby preventing them from exercising the rights to political participation that other NGOs enjoy. Such rulings remain in effect today.
In a June 2000 decision, the court defined civil society organizations as:
Venezuelan associations, groups, and institutions (without external subsidy) that through their purpose, permanence, number of members or affiliates and continuous activity have been working from different angles of that society to achieve a better quality of life for its members, without being attached to the government or to political parties [emphasis added].
The following November, the court ruled that no NGO that is affiliated with or receives funds from foreign governments, or from "transnational or global associations, groups or movements that pursue political or economic goals to their own benefit," may be considered part of civil society. No foreigners may "represent" civil society, nor may foreign groupsor those influenced by them. The court reasoned that:
To recognize the collective rights of foreign groups or entities or of those that are influenced by them, and to allow them to act in the name of the national civil society is to permit ethnic and foreign minorities to intervene in the life of the state in defense of their own interests and not those of the security of the nation, interests that may be harmful for the country and could end in separatist movements, aggressive and conflictive minorities that could even be founded on separatist movements like the self-determination of peoples.
The court allowed an exception to the foreign funding rule in the case of organizations receiving money from international charities or those commissioned by international organizations to "carry out studies," provided that Venezuelans retained autonomy and control. By implication, those that received money for activities other than studies, such as human rights advocacy, were excluded.
As we have seen, government officials have cited these rulings on various occasions as grounds for opposing the participation of Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations in international forums.
The rulings also denied NGOs receiving funds from foreign governments the possibility of participating as representatives of civil society in the appointment of key officials in the government and the judiciary. Under the constitution, "different sectors of society" are represented on the committees which select candidates for the Supreme Court, for the National Electoral Council (CNE), and for attorney general, the human rights ombudsman and comptroller general. As a result of these rulings, NGOs that receive funds from foreign sources to carry out development, social, or human rights projects in Venezuela have been excluded from participating in such selections.
The ChAvez government should abandon its aggressively adversarial posture toward local human rights defenders and civil society organizations. As the experience with police reform demonstrates, even in the midst of a polarized political situation, constructive engagement is possible and can contribute to finding solutions to the country's chronic human rights problems.
Specifically, government officials should:
- Refrain from unfounded attacks on the credibility of human rights defenders and civil society organizations;
- Publicly retract unfounded public statements against rights advocates and organizations;
- Engage constructively with human rights defenders in seeking solutions to address Venezuela's chronic human rights problems; and
- Cease discrimination against civil society organizations that receive international funding, including by blocking their participation in international forums or public appointment selection processes.
In addition, the Attorney General's Office should:
- Conclude outstanding criminal investigations against human rights defenders and civil society representatives in a timely manner; and
- Refrain from filing unsubstantiated or grossly exaggerated charges against human rights defenders and civil society leaders.