(Buenos Aires) – Venezuela’s customs and tax agency has allegedly fired dozens of workers nationwide in apparent retaliation for supporting a recall referendum for President Nicolás Maduro, Human Rights Watch said today. Hundreds of other referendum supporters have reportedly been fired in similar circumstances by other government agencies.

Two public sector employees who supported the recall referendum display letters firing them from their jobs in Venezuela on June 27, 2016. 

© 2016 Human Rights Watch
“Venezuelan authorities are seeking to intimidate and punish state workers for exercising their basic political rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should instead ensure that Venezuelans who support a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency can express and promote their views without reprisals.”

The Venezuelan Constitution allows for a recall referendum if a president has been in office for half of their six-year term. In Maduro’s case, the timeline under procedures adopted in 2007 by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) would allow for the referendum to take place before the end of 2016. If the vote occurs in 2016, and Maduro loses, new presidential elections would take place. If it is delayed until 2017 and Maduro loses, the vice president would assume the presidency until the next regular election.

 
The government should instead ensure that Venezuelans who support a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency can express and promote their views without reprisals.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

 
In March 2016, Venezuelan opposition groups asked the electoral council to initiate the recall referendum process, but the council has dragged its feet despite the specific deadlines in its own regulations.

The council’s pro-government membership has compromised its impartiality, as evidenced by its failure to ensure a fair playing field for all participants leading up to the December 2015 legislative elections, Human Rights Watch said.

In May 2016, Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Chavista politician who was the head of the National Assembly until January 2016, said on state TV that “if there are infiltrated escuálidos [in government offices] and they are discovered, they have to leave their positions.” Escuálidos is a disrespectful term used by some government supporters to refer to the political opposition.

In June, Cabello called on “everyone in governors’ offices, mayors’ offices, [and] ministries to review name by name, position by position” to identify those who want Maduro to leave government. Other pro-government politicians have threatened to publicly disseminate a list of names of those who signed a petition for the referendum and stated that government supporters “will no longer tolerate escuálidos in the revolutionary government.”

During in-country research in June and phone interviews in July, Human Rights Watch documented the firing of 16 officials with permanent positions at the Customs and Tax Administration Office (Servicio Nacional Integrado de Administración Aduanera y Tributaria, SENIAT) in Caracas and nine states – Anzoátegui, Barinas, Bolívar, Carabobo, Guárico, Lara, Mérida, Táchira, and Zulia – who had signed the opposition’s recall petition. All were supposed to ratify their signatures before electoral authorities the week of June 20.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the dismissal letters sent to 14 of these workers. All the letters, issued on or around June 20, have identical text and none indicate the cause for dismissal.

All 16 employees had worked at SENIAT for more than a decade, and none had been subject to administrative sanctions for their performance, based on the interviews and a review of the personnel files of several of the employees.

Venezuelan administrative law provides a specific procedure for firing workers with permanent positions at SENIAT. The procedure includes opening an administrative investigation and allowing the worker to present a defense. Despite the fact that all of the workers Human Rights Watch interviewed were permanent employees, SENIAT did not follow the legal process in any of the cases, the workers said.

Mayela Rujano, a SENIAT permanent employee in Mérida state for 23 years, was fired on June 20. Rujano told Human Rights Watch that her supervisor, when handing her the dismissal letter, had told her: “This is a second Tascón list.” In 2004, the pro-government legislator Luis Tascón published online a list of those who had signed a referendum petition on Hugo Chávez’s presidency, which was later used by public authorities to target government opponents for political discrimination. Rujano’s 2015 evaluation says her work was “extraordinary.”

Eva Elisa Belloso de Prieto, a SENIAT permanent employee in Zulia state for 23 years, was also fired on June 20. Belloso’s 2015 evaluation says that she “exceeds excellency parameters,” which warranted her a special congratulation in September.

Eleonora María Dappo Álvarez, a SENIAT permanent employee in Lara state for 21 years, was also fired on June 20. Dappo told Human Rights Watch her boss said she was one of the best workers at the office, but the dismissal decision came “from Caracas.” Dappo, who is the mother of a 1-year-old child, was fired despite legal provisions that prohibit firing mothers before their children turn 2.

Two of the interviewed workers told Human Rights Watch that over 80 SENIAT workers were allegedly fired nationwide under similar circumstances. They shared a list with 35 names of workers, which includes also their ID number, date of birth, title, years worked for SENIAT, and their contact information. The majority of the workers Human Rights Watch interviewed, whose cases fit into the pattern for the arbitrary firings, are on the list.

The recent firings in Venezuela appear to be an act of open retaliation against supporters of the recall referendum. International law guarantees the right to free expression, and forbids governments from discriminating or retaliating against people because of their legitimate efforts to exercise that right.

“These firings appear to be not only an act of retaliation, but also an attempt to intimidate other Venezuelans who would like to support the recall referendum,” Vivanco said.