A Bill Could Criminalize NGOs and the Media in Venezuela

A lot has been said about how the International Cooperation Law could hinder the work of NGOs, but in reality, it affects all civil society and universities

At the beginning of May, Human Rights NGO Provea denounced that the draft of the International Cooperation Law, which is currently under debate in the National Assembly with a Chavista majority, could criminalize NGOs, or at least seriously hinder the work of human rights organizations in the country. It is a strategy that has been slowly creeping into Venezuela, but that has already been carried out in Cuba and Nicaragua, where more than 200 non-governmental organizations have already been closed. “If we review this regulation out of context, we could say that it is an acceptable norm in a democratic country, but this is not the case in the authoritarian context of Venezuela. We do not call the project the Law of International Cooperation but the Law Against International Solidarity,” explains the general coordinator of human rights NGO Provea, Rafael Uzcátegui.

The bill has not been formally presented in an ordinary session of Parliament yet, but many alarms have been raised because it’s considered that it could justify the control, persecution, or suspension of these organizations, and leave them without access to external financing. “NGOs must have independence of influence and financial autonomy, and governments must respect their existence and encourage and facilitate their operation. Unfortunately, in Venezuela, this relationship between local and international NGOs and the government has been very aggressive,” explains Manuel Parejo, the finance director of communitiarian NGO Mi Convive. “It is also revenge against the NGOs that managed to activate the international mechanisms for the protection of human rights, including the ICC and the UN,” adds Uzcátegui.

This explainer tries to answer some of the many questions raised by this new threat against Venezuelan civil society.

Which articles of the bill are considered risky and problematic?

The statement of purpose (the explanation of the need for this legislation) clearly states that this is a mechanism to silence people considered internal enemies who carry out destabilization tasks. The tone of the statement is so violent and stigmatizing that it qualifies the Lima Group as the Lima Cartel. Articles 12, 18, 23, 25 and 26 are the ones that have been most questioned by human rights activists.

How does it affect the financial structures of NGOs?

Article 12 proposes a fund in which the Maduro regime would receive all the money from international cooperation, and would distribute it according to the hierarchy it deems appropriate. Although this fund could be used in a discriminatory manner, international cooperation institutions and countries that finance projects through their embassies would never agree to give the money to the Venezuelan authorities, knowing how it can be used. That is to say: the funding that Venezuela receives for development work and human rights will suffer an important cut.

“This law is going to hamper and hinder the strategy and financial operations of NGOs,” explains Parejo. “For several years we have seen different attempts from the government to detect the origin of NGO funding, which mostly comes from countries that oppose or question Maduro’s public policies, some of which no longer have diplomatic relations with Venezuela. The law would not only change the structures, but it would also increase financing costs.”

Could this affect victims of human rights violations?

Article 23 requires organizations to report where the resources come from, how they are managed, and the destination (final beneficiaries). This information would tell the regime, for example, how much money Provea uses to legally assist victims of torture and people who are denouncing the Venezuelan State in the International Criminal Court, and also who these people are; as well as patients with HIV who are cared for by organizations such as Acción Solidaria.

To access this common fund, you would have to register in a new database. What is the problem with this registry?

Article 18 creats an NGO registry to access this fund. Again, something normal in a democratic country, but in Venezuela, it makes you think of the history of discrimination, control, and persecution. “It’s like with the Carnet de la Patria. Organizations already have what, according to the Constitution, are the only legitimate identification mechanisms: we have registered with a notary, we submit to controls by the Seniat and we contribute to Social Security. We have already fulfilled the requirements of laws approved in a democratic context,” explains Uzcátegui. “They are going to say that there are registries all over the world and that one must act transparently, while at the same time the government has a permanent campaign to discredit NGOs. For example, in the case of Provea: Misión Verdad has published 43 articles on the financing of the Open Society Foundation (George Soros) to Provea, there is an open criminalization campaign just for being linked to this type of international organization.”

What requirements must NGOs meet to register?

We don’t know yet. That should be clarified in pending regulations. Meanwhile, the Executive Branch has the discretionary power to arbitrarily propose a list of requirements in order to make it difficult for NGOs to register.

Do sanctions have anything to do with this?

Articles 25 and 26 state that NGOs that directly or indirectly participate in the application of unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela will be eliminated and prohibited. “We must remember that in the case of NGOs, many of us have publicly expressed that we are in favor of individual sanctions—and we have asked that they be increased—against human rights violators, although we have been critical of financial sanctions,” Uzcátegui explains.

Can this law be applied to independent media and journalists?

Yes, the work of all independent civil society would be at risk with the approval of this law. There are three structures, in addition to NGOs, that could be at risk with this law:

  1. Union worker associations that receive funds from international union centers.
  2. Independent media outlets that cannot be sustained through advertising and subscription and survive only through participation in projects financed by international organizations. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has already warned that this type of legislation could seriously limit press freedom by restricting or blocking sources of financing for the media.
  3. Universities. For example, UCV receives funds from UNESCO for the maintenance of its infrastructure.

Will it also affect international organizations?

Yes. Article 22 establishes that foreign NGOs must legalize their documentation, and participate in the registry.

When will the new bill be discussed?

It still does not have an approval date in the National Assembly. According to Timoteo Zambrano, president of the AN Foreign Policy Commission, the draft is in the internal consultation phase of the parliament, which is why it is far from being published and put into effect.

Is there a history of actions against NGOs in Venezuela?

This bill is the continuation of a policy of persecution against NGOs that began in 2004, when Chávez said in a public speech that the funds received by these organizations had to be tracked because it was money used to “conspire.” This line of discourse immediately became State policy. This bill is an old objective of Chavismo.

In 2020, Diosdado Cabello said that he was going to ask the Public Ministry to apply the law to some NGOs, which he accused of hiding the funds to benefit various politicians: “Where is the money that the Venezuelan criminal opposition received? In the bank accounts of the NGOs created and controlled by the opposition in the satellite countries.” At that time, some NGOs had their bank accounts frozen (Alimenta la Solidaridad, Fundación Futuro Presente, Asociación Civil Manos al Aire, Transparencia Venezuela, Provea, Foro Penal, Acción Solidaria, Rescate Venezuela, Caracas Mi Convive, Alimentado Esperanza, American Venezuela Engagement Foundation, I Love Venezuela Foundation, Ven Da Tu Mano Foundation, A World Without a Gag, among others).

Why does the Maduro government harass NGOs?

We made an explainer about this, and you can read it here.

Do these initiatives affect any fundamental right or any treaty?

Yes, both the Constitution and international law protect humanitarian work and human rights. The state cannot hinder the work of humanitarian NGOs.

What kind of work will the bill impact?

It could affect the execution and effectiveness of programs, social projects and humanitarian and human rights activities carried out by NGOs. It will also shut down the strategies that have activated international mechanisms of international protection, including the investigation of the International Criminal Court and the investigations of the UN.