You Have the Right to Know

Today is International Day for the Universal Access to Information: a noble UN goal that doubles as a sinister joke to Venezuelans living in the dark under a dictatorship that wants them not to know.

Governments must be held accountable. Power is not a gift. Officials are there to serve us. They use our money and make decisions that impact our lives, so what they do must be put under constant public scrutiny. None of this works without information.

In Venezuela, public information is as scarce as food. The country has become a case study in how a democracy can be ruined, how a society can be broken. And that process starts at the very beginning, by concealing information.

Today, on Access to Information Day, Venezuelans are less than citizens. The dictatorship hasn’t made up its mind on whether to treat us like subjects or like future protein reserves. That’s why it operates on the military logic of “never revealing information to the enemy.” They feel in their bones that revealing their positions makes them vulnerable, vulnerable to the enemy. Only “the enemy” in this case is made up of the entire civilian population.

Either that or they infantilize us, reasoning that certain information must be hidden because the public isn’t prepared to handle it. This includes, for instance, the Central Bank of Venezuela not reporting every month on inflation rates, to avoid causing panic in the population. The NGO Transparencia Venezuela has denounced that none of Venezuela’s 32 ministries is in compliance with the Inter-American Law of Access to Information.

What they withhold

Concealing information is a human rights violation: it not only undermines the transparency of public administration and increases the probability for corruption, it also prevents people from making good decisions. A democracy can be strengthened with better information and by maximizing avenues for dissemination. Digital platforms make the task easier, because they can include data troves that can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

None of Venezuela’s 32 ministries is in compliance with the Inter-American Law of Access to Information.

Good information is like good nutrition: denying it condemns people to confusion, and increases their susceptibility to State propaganda. And that’s not the worst of it: it also means that there can be no response to early alerts that only later become full blown crises.

In Venezuela, chavismo not only hides inflation figures, but it also does as much as possible to hinder, cover up, manipulate and even stop the collection of data that is absolutely necessary for the proper operation of any constructive public administration.

  • Epidemiological bulletins are withheld, which means that some epidemics go unnoticed.  It’s shameful not only that malaria spreads unchecked, but also that some of the partial reports are available through the Cuban Health Ministry, and through patients who’ve crossed borders and ended up in Guyana or Uruguay. Recently, when the Health Ministry uncharacteristically published an epidemiological bulletin, the minister paid for it with her job.
  • Homicide figures are withheld, as well as robberies and everything that could help the State respond more effectively to crime and violence. Homicide numbers are partially accessible through leaks, institutional conflicts and skilled journalists. But there’s no public and accessible website with nationwide data, detailing and discriminating between the types of deaths, to finally bridge the discrepancy between NGOs, researchers and the mathematic-arithmetic expression model of the soldier in charge.
  • Officials’ wages are not revealed, and thus, something that’s absolutely normal in other societies becomes taboo here. This whole subject is so far off-limits that the Comptroller’s Office has been hiding for years behind a Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruling, to safeguard the CO’s own data. In the past, they’ve said that demanding information hinders their work, revealing that, in many instances, the spending and lifestyle of public authorities doesn’t match their formal income. They never reveal public servants’ sworn declaration of assets, which is supposed to be a public document.
  • Public contracts aren’t revealed, so people never know which companies bid to take on a public works project and which won the contract. And nobody knows why one choice is better than another. Most public contracts in Venezuela are direct awards, so withholding data greatly increases the chances of engaging in corruption and, due to a chain of complicity, things like overpricing, and quality of materials stay hidden from citizens with the right to know. The bells toll for Odebrecht and its beneficiaries, for overbilling in the electrical power sector, for contracts burned by Corpoelec and for Albanisa’s debt in Nicaragua, which went unpaid.
  • There’s a risk of making people sick with dirty water, because there are no public, verifiable tests on the quality of water pumped into homes. It’s also unknown whether gasoline has the octane rating it promises. Or the expiration date of medicines managed by the revolution. Responsibilities are diluted in pestilent water.
  • Budgets and debts aren’t submitted to the National Assembly, which means that the main space for public debate in the country is excluded from the process of accountability and liability that must be legally fulfilled by the administration.

The Digital Arena

Any review of access to information in Venezuela runs up against chavista laws and newspeak on free culture, interoperability and free software, all aiming for a culture of access and openness. In the hands of the revolution, these global trends sink in discussions about which power group would keep that slice of the budget for software, which cooperativa of former ministry employees would profit from reselling old codes as digital solutions. Years have gone by and the Venezuelan State is more opaque than ever. Data opacity protects those responsible for embezzling public budgets, which is why the access to information is intimately related to the perception of corruption and, according to Transparency International, we’re in the world’s lowest basement on that score.

So demanding free access to public information turns out to be quite subversive. It’s an assault against a structure of relations and businesses that controls oil rents, indebtedness and people’s lives. That’s why this is the best day to get acquainted with Coalición Proacceso, and finding a specific area about which we can demand as much info as possible. So we can not only say that the emperor is naked, but also take an X-ray and look at the drugs he’s carrying in his body cavities.

Luis Carlos Díaz

Glocal journalist, cyberactivist and knitter of networks. I speak about technology and politics where I am invited. I also cook.