Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto, over a photo by PROVEA

Maduro Wants to Turn NGOs Into Informants

A new disposition by the regime would force human rights and humanitarian organizations to report the names of their beneficiaries, including people seeking protection from the State. But the NGOs fight back

The Maduro regime’s criminalization of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) deepens as it creates a new registry that requires non-profit organizations to hand over sensitive information to the National Office Against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing. The measure, published on March 30th, gives non-profit organizations 30 days to register, a process that requires them to reveal the identities of their beneficiaries, their donors, and allied groups. 

Human rights organizations such as Provea assist people who denounce severe violations committed by state security forces, such as the SEBIN or FAES. Marino Alvarado, a member of Provea, said that NGOs won’t comply with the government’s registry effortthe administrative ruling creates unspecified sanctions against non-compliance, allowing for the possibility of the illegalization of NGOs or imprisonment of their members. “How am I going to give the government the names of people who file complaints against the FAES? That would put them at risk of being sought after by FAES, to be detained and killed,” he says.

In a statement released today, over 600 Venezuelan NGOs warn that the registry is illegal and exposes people in need of humanitarian assistance and human rights victims who rely on the support of civil society organizations to state-sponsored intimidation, harassment, and discrimination. And there’s a lot of people in that situation: last year, a United Nations report found that crimes against humanity had been committed by the Venezuelan State, including human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture.

The Siege Intensifies

According to Liliana Ortega, director of NGO Cofavic, the ruling isn’t an isolated event but the latest in a series that displays a state policy seeking to wipe out civil society organizations. In October 2020, the Maduro government required international NGOs to enroll in a unique registry of their own. By November 20th, the government had also ordered banks to improve mechanisms and technology meant to supervise the transactions of NGOs, paying particular attention to operations that could qualify as money laundering and terrorism financing.

A week later, the government froze the bank accounts and raided the offices of NGOs Caracas Mi Convive and Alimenta la Solidaridad, the latter provides free meals for 25,000 children daily. In 2020, state security forces also raided the offices of other humanitarian organizations such as Acción Solidaria, Convite, Prepara Familia, and Rescate Venezuela.

How am I going to give the government the names of people who file complaints against the FAES? That would put them at risk of being sought after by FAES.

Analysts have cautioned that the weakening of opposition political parties has allowed for the regime to put its focus on closing Venezuela’s civic space, and the persecution of humanitarian organizations has had a devastating effect on people in need of assistance. On January 12th, the Maduro regime arbitrarily detained five humanitarian workers of humanitarian NGO Azul Positivo and then forced the suspension of all cash transfer programs in the country. An Azul Positivo beneficiary told local media that, before receiving aid from the organization’s cash transfer program, she would look through the trash to feed her granddaughters.

Maduro has a steady track record of putting political considerations over the livelihood of Venezuelans. A Bloomberg report revealed that Maduro blocked the World Food Programme (WFP) from providing food aid in the country, insisting on controlling its distribution through the national militia and the discriminatory CLAP program, non-starters for the UN food agency. On Monday, the Venezuelan government finally signed an agreement with the WFP to provide food to 1.5 million children in schools. The implementationif it happenswill come late for many: the WFP estimated that, in 2019, one third of Venezuelans were in food insecurity  and in need of assistance.

The civil society organizations now being criminalized were vital in documenting the suffering of Venezuelans that resulted in Ban Ki Moon’s 2016 statement recognizing the presence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Still, the Venezuelan government didn’t allow the United Nations to create a Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela until 2019.

A Human Rights Violation Against Human Rights Organizations

According to Alí Daniels, director of NGO Acceso a la Justicia, the new measure is illegal because an administrative ruling cannot limit the exercise of human rights, especially if its provisions are contrary to constitutional rights. Laws, or the Constitution itself, are the only legitimate frameworks for regulating human rights.

Any attempt to impose regulations illegitimately, without them conforming to international human rights law and the different covenants, will certainly be signaled by human rights bodies.

Daniels holds that the registry represents a violation of the right of association by establishing sanctions for non-compliance and forcing NGOs to attain a government permit for rights that they should freely exercise.

Such a ruling violates the principle of “non-regression” of human rights, which establishes that rights that have already been guaranteed, such as the freedom of association without undue inspection by the National Office Against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing, can’t be reversed.

Non-profit organizations are already subject to registration before Venezuela’s revenue and taxes institution (SENIAT) and their financial operations are supervised by the country’s finance and banking monitoring office (SUDEBAN).

Feliciano Reyna, president of NGO Acción Solidaria, expects the international community to push back on such measures. “Any attempt to impose regulations illegitimately, without them conforming to international human rights law and the different covenants, will certainly be signaled by human rights bodies.”

“I believe that if these types of illegitimate impositions continue,” he says, “certainly the Venezuelan regime will be, once again, characterized in the public arena as an authoritarian regime that doesn’t comply with its obligations to protect human rights and fundamental liberties.”

As of now, the Maduro regime seems undeterred. On April 15th, the chavista National Assembly announced it would consider passing an International Cooperation Law aimed at restricting the operations of non-governmental organizations, foreshadowing darker days for Venezuelan humanitarian and human rights actors.