Why Is Maduro Harassing Venezuelan NGOs?
Maduro’s dictatorship started 2021 with an increased persecution of independent journalists and the criminalization of humanitarian aid workers and human rights activists. The reasons answer to its strategic reality, part of the script for all autocracies
A version of this piece was originally published at Cinco8.
When did the NGO harassment begin?
Persecution against activists and human rights defenders came to light in 2014, mostly away from Caracas, when civil and human rights organizations in Venezuela started talking about the humanitarian emergency and the urgency to receive international cooperation, specifically in terms of humanitarian aid.
When, at the start of 2019, the opposition majority in the National Assembly joined in claims for humanitarian aid for Venezuela and the regime’s forces closed down the borders with Colombia after the pro-opposition Cúcuta concert, many NGOs questioned the use of the emergency with political ends, since it brought persecution against humanitarian workers in the country. That year, the main targets of harassment were many NGOs who worked inland, distributing medicine and food, organizing health care visits, and writing reports about the humanitarian consequences of the crisis.
NGO Provea registered, between March and October 2020, 15 detained human rights activists, out of 216 arrests against people who denounced the crisis. “The government understands poverty as means for population control,” Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of Provea, explains. “When humanitarian workers distribute medicines or food, the authorities perceive that as a threat.”
What types of attacks are being carried out against NGOs and humanitarian workers?
At the end of 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that Maduro’s government and his security forces were on a systematic campaign against humanitarian and human rights organizations working in Venezuela, which includes a pattern of judicial and extrajudicial aggressions:
- Frozen bank accounts;
- Arrest warrants;
- Office raids;
- Detentions and questioning of personnel;
- Harassment and physical intimidation;
- Threats on social media.
Banking authorities also put restrictions in place limiting the work of civil organizations, and the regime hasn’t given the permits needed so that international staff can enter Venezuela with some of the main humanitarian organizations.
Anyone questioning this narrative is doing so at their own risk, because chavismo perceives it as an attack on the government’s image and its official story.
Why is it a risk to report human rights violations and the existence of a humanitarian emergency?
Human rights are rules that recognize and protect the dignity of all human beings, as well as their relationship with the State, and the obligations the State has towards them. This means that, while human rights are inherent and inalienable, they can only be violated by State or government institutions and authorities. In the context of a complex humanitarian emergency, where the State is unable to tend to the most basic needs of the population as the result of a series of political and administrative decisions (instead of a natural disaster or an armed conflict), human rights violations imply threats to life itself.
NGOs approach the subject by prioritizing social issues and the different needs people might have, as well as trying to relieve some of the effects of the crisis in the most vulnerable communities, meaning: they take over the work that should be done by the State.
Maduro’s regime claims that Venezuela’s needs are covered, and the economic sanctions imposed by foreign countries are to blame for all the problems. Anyone questioning this narrative is doing so at their own risk, because chavismo perceives it as an attack on the government’s image and its official story. It’s a very common pattern in dictatorships: the regime manipulates the deprivations of the people to its own favor, to create foreign and domestic enemies, and rise as the only source of welfare while getting financial benefits from allies.
What are the effects of this persecution?
NGOs aren’t the most affected by the whole harassment scheme; it’s the vulnerable communities who benefitted from that social work and now bear the brunt of the attacks. Getting support from international cooperation is a right and a necessity in cases like Venezuela’s. When those friendly hands disappear, human rights violations go on the rise, along with increased risks to the population’s health, life and personal integrity. On the other hand, remaining NGOs have to spend more money, energy, staff, and logistics in terms of safety protocols, and access to humanitarian work decreases under fear. When Prepara Familia is harassed, for example, the younger patients at the J.M de los Ríos Children’s Hospital are affected; the detention of Azul Positivo members leaves many families from Maracaibo, who used to receive their help, on their own.
What laws should protect human rights activists and humanitarian workers?
Both the Venezuelan Constitution and rights regulated by international treaties compel the State to freely allow humanitarian aid into the nation. Currently, there are different UN agencies in Venezuela, bringing together some of the humanitarian work in the country and this, along with the recent arrest of five workers from NGO Azul Positivo, brought on a social media campaign focusing on a request to the coordinators of humanitarian actions at the UN to have a clear, public, and outspoken rejection to the harassment and detentions, asking for the immediate release of those detained without restrictions.
Or at least that’s the ideal; given the connections UN officers tend to establish with the governments in the countries where they work (either for practical reasons or for political affinity), the actual chances of this happening are slim.
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