In a context where the Venezuelan government only focuses on retaining power and people are left to fend for themselves, the notion of NGOs coming in to take on the responsibilities of the State is garnering some popularity among observers of today’s Venezuela—and even the citizens. As explained by Daniel Cooper Bermúdez, a Maracaibo-based US-educated human rights defender and activist founder of Hearts on Venezuela, this isn’t quite so, although NGOs have certainly upped their game to lend a hand for the common good. In this interview, Daniel explains what NGOs are doing for Venezuela, what limits they have, what are the threats they get from a notoriously authoritarian regime, and what’s the work he’s doing with Hearts on Venezuela, an organization aimed at raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis that the country’s going through:
Tell us the story of Hearts on Venezuela: its purpose, the work it’s doing, the feedback.
Hearts On Venezuela is born out of the need and desire to translate our unique experiences as Venezuelans to people who don’t understand our context, our plurality, our language, our contradictions. Many, if not most Venezuelans, especially abroad, are confronted by these misunderstandings regularly. This need reached a peak during the political turmoil of early 2019; I was scrolling down my Instagram feed when I saw that a close friend had posted the image of artwork made with Venezuelan bills and, in the caption, a statement of solidarity with Venezuelans. The post, unfortunately, ended with the hashtag #HandsOffVenezuela sparking, first, a feeling of shock in me at the lack of alternative frameworks of solidarity, even for people who supported the protests and, second, the determination to fill that void by offering a vision autonomous from the Venezuelan State and from political parties, rooted in democracy and human rights as fundamental values. A few days later, Codhez and Provea were supporting the launch of Hearts On Venezuela, an initiative that translates the work of Venezuelan civil society organizations to English, with support from hundreds of volunteers throughout the world.
Today, Hearts On Venezuela works to bridge the gap between the international public agenda and that of Venezuelan civil society organizations through a variety of means. Translation and interpretation continues to be our foundation, but we’re also playing with the construction of empowering narratives for Venezuelans while trying to side-step the false dichotomies that ideological visions try to impose. Another exciting aspect of our work involves connecting local organizations with international actors to cultivate alliances that may draw attention to Venezuela in spaces where our civil society is not yet present.
How would you describe the function NGOs are providing to common Venezuelans right now?
Venezuelans are organizing themselves in autonomous organizations and initiatives to put work into building the common good, which has been severely affected after the State abandoned its obligations. This, of course, involves tremendous humanitarian efforts undertaken by a diversity of actors throughout the country who have taken up the soul-stirring vocation of saving lives. But it also involves organizations dedicated to the re-establishment of democracy, the protection of human rights, and sustainable development. In short, by forming associations, Venezuelan civil society is saving lives while solidifying the social fabric necessary for the future.
The suffering and abuses currently occurring in Venezuela are so widespread that despite the growing association of individuals and communities, civil society doesn’t cover all of society’s needs—nor is it our role to take on the State’s obligations.
We feel that NGOs are doing a lot more than political parties, a dramatic contrast with an opposition that seems to exist only in social media and the eventual communiqué of some foreign governments.
Political parties have their role in society as actors that exercise political power by governing or by influencing the State in representation of society’s interests and their own vision for the common good. In our case, while Venezuelan opposition parties have been severely affected by political persecution, they could strengthen their work by deepening their accountability to the population and their collaboration with the civil society.
Which are the areas that concentrate the work of NGOs in Venezuela? Humanitarian emergency, human rights, food insecurity?
There are organizations of all stripes and colors in Venezuela, the plurality is truly astonishing. There are networks of indigenous communicators, committees of victims’ family members, organizations that promote creative and non-violent protests, women’s rights organizations, environmentalists, and the list goes on and on. There’s definitely been a rapid growth of organizations working to attend the complex humanitarian emergency given its immense impact on society. However, there’s also been a surge of human rights organizations, due to massive and systematic violations committed by the Venezuelan State. The suffering and abuses currently occurring in Venezuela are so widespread that despite the growing association of individuals and communities, civil society doesn’t cover all of society’s needs—nor is it our role to take on the State’s obligations.
Which are the areas that you feel the NGOs are not covering, or where more NGOs are needed?
More organizations and stronger efforts are needed in every single sector. There isn’t a single issue I can possibly think of in which all the work that can be done is being done. This means that Venezuelans need to continue organizing themselves to contribute to the common good beginning from their areas of interest. These deficiencies also imply that significantly more international cooperation is necessary to support existing efforts that are barely able to persist amidst the hostile and restrictive context.
We’re in a complex humanitarian emergency, meaning that the causes and consequences are multifactorial, impacting every aspect of our lives. In such contexts, forming networks amongst organizations and social actors is key in building up each other’s work along with the resiliency of the whole. It’s our ability to work together and collaborate that has allowed our civic space to persevere. This means showing up when someone is detained, it means sharing key information, it means lifting each other up because that’s the only way to lift everyone up.
To what extent is the State cooperating with NGOs? Do you know if in some cases the police or the Armed Forces, or people in ministries and central or local governments are helping NGOs do their jobs?
The State is not monolithic, despite the ruling party’s authoritarianism. Thus, while it is State policy to exclude actors from the public sphere who are not a part of the State itself (or the ruling party), there are cases of officials who cooperate with individual NGOs or international agencies. That is, the little cooperation which does take place, occurs with fear of reprisals, significant obstacles, corruption, exclusion, and persecution. The United Nations has a key role in rebuilding collaboration with local humanitarian and human rights actors. Unfortunately, United Nations agencies have been slow to take up this work.
This means showing up when someone is detained, it means sharing key information, it means lifting each other up because that’s the only way to lift everyone up.
Are NGOs as persecuted and threatened by the security forces as opposition parties or individuals?
The State represses actors in society according to their objectives of maintaining political, economic, and social power over the population. Therefore, all Venezuelans are at risk of being persecuted and threatened by security forces and other powerful actors. The manifestation that this persecution and social control takes depends on how the interests of government officials are affected by the actions of an individual or organization—opposition parties and individuals, along with dissenting military officials, bear a large part of the brunt of persecution by security forces. However, there’s also systematic persecution against those who exercise their right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful protest. This includes NGOs, which have been subject to abuse, threats, and human rights violations by security forces and officials at all levels of government.
Given that political actors are competing for control over the State, the scene tends to be louder and ripe for confrontation. In Venezuela’s authoritarian context, these forms of direct confrontation and competition over power are persecuted more heavily as they directly threaten the most fundamental interests of the governing coalition. Human rights organizations, instead, work according to the codes and standards of our area of work. Our role is not to be against the government, it’s the protection of people’s dignity. It’s more uncomfortable for the government to attack these organizations, despite their being serious cases of harassment and persecution, but we expect persecution to become an increasing risk for human rights defenders and activists as civil society’s influence increases.
Where are NGOs mostly operating, other than Caracas?
There are organizations in every single state of the country. From Delta Amacuro to Zulia, from Táchira to Nueva Esparta. These efforts sometimes take the form of legally registered non-governmental organizations, especially in spaces that have proximity to power and economic resources where access to these requires legal recognition. In Venezuela’s case, the history of State centralization in the capital centralizes the influence and resources in organizations working in Caracas. This is also true in urban centers of other states, to a far lesser extent. The point, however, is that people all over the country are taking action for the sake of other individuals or society as a whole. You see this, for example, in protests that occurred in small towns throughout Yaracuy earlier this year. People came together to protest not only the lack of basic services, they were also demanding freedom and social change. These protests occurred independently from political parties because there’s a pre-existing social fabric that operates in the public sphere.
The humanitarian response is heavily affected by fuel shortages, which could only get worse if sanctions that affect the supply of diesel are implemented.
How are NGOs affected by OFAC sanctions and by the regime’s laws, in terms of access to imported medicine and supplies, or foreign funding?
The government has restricted access to imports like medicine and supplies, as well as to foreign funding, in such significant ways that humanitarian actors are always at risk of being harrassed by officials. This occurs both through legislation and de facto restrictions, such as extortion or theft by security forces. My impression is that we’re so far away from the norm that it’s hard for us to even gauge what the State’s response should be like. The State also has the legal obligation to accept and facilitate humanitarian assistance when it can’t attend to the population’s basic needs, not doing so is a human rights violation according to international treaties Venezuela has signed and ratified. Since at least 2016, when civil society organizations were pleading for a humanitarian response to be set up in the country, the government has denied the existence of a crisis. That denial undoubtedly caused incredible preventable harm to the population.
The complex humanitarian emergency and the oil industry crisis predates sanctions against the Venezuelan State, yet the use of sectoral sanctions that affect the economy more broadly worsens the living conditions of Venezuelans. The humanitarian response is heavily affected by fuel shortages, which could only get worse if sanctions that affect the supply of diesel are implemented. Additionally, over-compliance of sanctions has made it increasingly difficult to open, maintain, or operate bank accounts in foreign currencies, which are necessary to operate given the hyperinflationary phenomenon with the local currency.
Is the Venezuelan population aware of how useful NGOs are?
Increasingly so. Having awareness of what’s happening around us is quite challenging without having access to newspapers, where independent radio stations have been closed down, and internet access is limited, among other forms of censorship. The State has made sure to isolate people from the public sphere; I know of people in Yaracuy who had no idea that there were protests in a nearby town, for example. Nonetheless, recognition of the value of organizations is increasing as the civil society continues to fight for its own space. The population is able to have more information regarding the scale and nuances of the multiple crises we face due to the work of NGOs. When folks don’t have medicine, food, or need legal protection, they go to an NGO because the State does not have the capacity to provide assistance.
How do you think the independent media is covering NGOs activity?
Independent media has been key to the recognition of civil society organizations’ work. Organizations and independent media have a mutually beneficial relationship. Organizations provide data, stories, and support journalists by accompanying victims of persecution and defending freedom of expression. Independent media raise awareness of the actors in civil society and in doing so, reaffirm that all is not lost, multiplying the effects of the work that organizations do. Some NGOs and independent media have formalized alliances to amplify human rights messages and provide a soapbox to a diversity of leaders, defying the State’s policy of censorship and criminalization of dissenting perspectives.
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