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Graphics by Alejandra Arjona Marino.
Amid Venezuela’s political crisis, organizations working to defend human rights and respond to the country’s complex humanitarian emergency are increasingly under attack by the Maduro government. In this context, many Venezuelan civil society organizations are pushing back against this repression by creating and preserving spaces to celebrate non-violent, democratic resistance. One recent example was the #EspacioParaDefender campaign, launched by the Human Rights Commission of Zulia State (CODHEZ) in late 2021, which sought to promote a conversation around the urgent need to protect civic space in Venezuela. In recognition of the need to highlight the experiences of Venezuelan civil society, WOLA is publishing this Q&A with representatives of CODHEZ and three other local NGOs on their experiences working in human rights and humanitarian assistance in Venezuela.
Q: Today, Venezuela faces a difficult outlook. There is a lack of democratic institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights, and a constant repression of civic space. The state has lost the capacity, and the apparent political will, to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of the population; the UN estimates that one in every three Venezuelans is experiencing food insecurity and is in need of assistance. Facing this situation, do you believe that there is a potential role for civil society in the advancement of humanitarian or political accords that can satisfy the most urgent needs of the population and defend their basic rights? What are the primary challenges facing civil society actors in Venezuela today in carrying out their work? How can the international community help to address these challenges? What changes do you hope to see in the opening of civic space in Venezuela?
Dayanna Palmar, Project Coordinator at the Human Rights Commission of Zulia State (CODHEZ):
Civic space is a space occupied by civil society to express itself and act in favor of changes and transformations to the reality that we live in. It is the environment in which we listen to each other and where civil society converges. “Civic space” is still a relatively new term, but it has gained recognition internally within countries, and by the international community; International systems of human rights protection recognize civic space as the space used by civil society organizations to carve out their destiny, solve their problems, and improve their lives.
Venezuelan civil society has played a very important role, addressing the humanitarian crisis since its beginning, and articulating itself to build human connections in the country. In the current context, it is essential to facilitate, not hinder the work of human rights defenders and humanitarian actors. To achieve solutions that would put an end to the complex humanitarian emergency, it is necessary to work together with civil society actors that have built the capacities and knowledge needed to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable groups and those who have been denied the ability to exercise their rights.
In recent years, Venezuelan civil society has had to face increasing challenges. In the past, there weren’t impediments to register a civil association or update organizational bylaws, but now there are more and more obstacles to legally register a civil association, regardless of its purpose, because there are many humanitarian organizations that have not been able to register in the country. Also, since 2021, administrative requirements which seek to restrict and stigmatize the work of civil society organizations have expanded, obligating them to register with the National Office Against Organized Crime and Terrorist Financing, as if the work of civil society organizations had anything to do with the scope of that office. All of this operates within a context of threatening discourse from political authorities, which poses additional risks to civic space in Venezuela.
To promote and defend human rights, advance in the country’s development, and build a culture of peace, it is necessary to have an open civic space that allows for the participation of all stakeholders. This is an obligation of the Venezuelan state under international law, which is why it is so important for international human rights organizations to support Venezuelan civil society, which operates in a very restricted space, through the reception of information, advocacy, communications and public statements, among other acts that can help to protect the exercise of human rights.
Strengthening civic space in Venezuela begins by not closing spaces for humanitarian assistance, human rights defense, and freedom of expression. The state must recognize civil society as an important actor in the search of solutions for problems facing Venezuela—not as a threat.
Beatriz Borges, Executive Director of the Center of Justice and Peace (CEPAZ):
Among the primary challenges, we see regulations and threats of closing civic space in the country. In April of 2020, Administrative Providence 001-2021 was made public, which was later substituted by Administrative Providence 002-2021. This sub-legal regulation established a requirement that all non-profit organizations register with the National Office Against Organized Crime and Terrorist Financing (ONCDOFT), which reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. This ad hoc registration requirement is parallel to an existing requirement for non-profit organizations to register with the Civil Registry under Venezuelan law. This additional registration requirement is the manifestation of new forms of indiscriminate requests for information that infringe on the legitimate work of Venezuelan organizations and their capacity to associate. Under the current terms and conditions, Providence 002-2021 criminalizes non-profit organizations, particularly those with a social and humanitarian impact in Venezuela, with the goal of disincentivizing the work carried out by these organizations in the country.
In addition, incidents of harassment, persecution, and criminalization against non-profit organizations and their personnel have progressively increased, by way of unfounded accusations of activities relating to terrorist financing. One example of this is how Diosdado Cabello, in his program “Con el Mazo Dando,” which broadcasts weekly on the main state television channel and is transmitted through the entire public media system, has claimed that many of these organizations “are linked to destabilization programs in our country, including terrorists,” accusations made without any evidence. These recurring threats increase the risk faced by organizations in an already hostile environment characterized by regular attacks and threats.
The protection of civic space and the work of human rights defenders in the country is fundamental. In Venezuela today, we hope to be able to rely on a social fabric and the civil society organizations that work tirelessly to defend the rights of the population, provide humanitarian assistance, and attend to the needs of the population. Supporting and recognizing those who carry out this work in Venezuela is of utmost importance and should be central to the international community’s agenda on Venezuela in 2022.
Rigoberto Lobo, Founder and Director of Promotion, Education, and Defense of Human Rights (PROMEDEHUM):
The primary role of Venezuelan civil society is to raise awareness of the complex humanitarian emergency that we are living in all ways possible, beyond simply publishing reports. Communicating the reality of the situation could contribute to increased international pressure, not only from international agencies and organizations, but also from countries, which can push for a more effective humanitarian response. It is essential that civil society is able to exert more pressure so that the international humanitarian response can open up and flexibilize certain processes; It is very difficult to work in such a restrictive international banking context that closes the door to many actors who could join the effort.
Venezuelan civil society should be assertive. Political issues needn’t be partisan. If we are able to separate these things, our pressure can be more effective and we can achieve more in the political arena. Humanitarian issues are also inherently political; understanding this could help to generate positive alternatives.
Venezuelan civil society works in a context that is very adverse, repressive, and dangerous, a situation which is likely to get worse in 2022. We knew that 2021 would be a difficult and dangerous year, especially for human rights organizations, and we have seen that this was indeed the case. [The Maduro government] has fine-tuned its repressive apparatus, its strategies appear to be more effective than before, and international denunciation of this reality continues to be low, as is the case with many organizations in high-risk situations in other parts of the world.
To be able to continue working from other regions of the country, in a context where basic services are much more deficient, is a great challenge; it is very difficult for organizations to achieve proposed objectives while feeling unsafe due to their relative isolation. Working through daily life and in a tough economic situation, where life is more arduous than in other parts of the world, is a giant barrier to overcome.
The international community, in some cases, has been slowly flexibilizing procedures so that civil society can carry out its work. It is important to understand that in such restrictive contexts, achieving certain processes and goals is impossible for many actors. In this sense, it is inconsistent for international actors to on one hand acknowledge that Venezuela is suffering a Complex Humanitarian Emergency, and at the same demand things from civil society that are not possible in that context.
Luis Francisco Cabezas, Director of Convite:
With respect to the advancement of humanitarian and political accords, as Venezuelan civil society, we have a fundamental role in various areas. The first is to document what the people are experiencing. This is important because it has served to visibilize, both nationally and internationally, the violation of the rights of the most vulnerable individuals in Venezuela. In the same vein, in the face of opacity from the government in disclosing information, civil society organizations have had to design and implement alternative systems to provide information on sensitive issues such as epidemiological statistics. On the other hand, we have played a fundamental role in the international recognition of the fact that a humanitarian emergency exists in Venezuela, and also in putting together the different humanitarian response plans from 2019 to 2022.
Regarding the primary challenges that civil society actors face in carrying out their work in Venezuela today, we have to consider the growing criminalization of the work of civil society organizations. In our case of Convite, we operate both in the defense of human rights and in the deployment of humanitarian aid. In the case of deploying humanitarian aid, there is no support from the state; on the contrary, we have faced many obstacles from the state itself in implementing the humanitarian response. There is a permanent risk of criminalization and judicialization of our work. Convite was subject to a raid two Decembers ago. It’s also important to add that this type of criminalization generates fear among our staff. Another challenge that we have seen with the arrival of international humanitarian organizations and the UN, is an asymmetrical competition for human resources. We have international organizations that, unfortunately, have recruited personnel from local organizations, leaving them practically incapacitated. This too has been an important debilitation of the human capital of civil society organizations in Venezuela.
The other challenge is the fear that we have that Venezuela becomes a forgotten crisis. How can the international community address this? Well, the international community has done what one would expect, which is denounce the situation, and we also hope for greater assistance for the organizations in the humanitarian sector. Overall, the international community must not stop supporting the cause and the humanitarian programs that are being implemented; for example, programs to protect human rights defenders who are at risk. It’s also important that the international community tries to separate humanitarian issues from the political agenda. On occasion we have seen a tendency to politicize humanitarian issues, and this ends up affecting those of us who are on the ground carrying out this humanitarian work.
With respect to which changes we hope are achieved to open civic space in Venezuela: First, I believe that we need to open a dialogue, a space to build confidence in which we can resolve, for example, logistical complications in the implementation of the humanitarian response, that would make it possible to resolve complications that often arise regarding the mobilization of assistance for the country. Finally, I believe that civil society also has a fundamental role in lobbying outside of Venezuela. To show members of Congress, individuals within the international political agenda, EU countries, and the U.S., the perspective of those of us who are working on the ground and take on enormous risks. In many cases, the international community has contributed to the aggravation of the situation in Venezuela, perhaps unintentionally, but as a collateral effect. So, it is important the role that we can have in lobbying in these different spaces, and offering another point of view regarding what we live through in Venezuela. It is important to make clear that there are political measures that have an impact on the humanitarian situation. For this reason, we should play a role in raising awareness of the undesired impacts of unilateral measures, which have not provided a solution, and have in themselves become a problem for the most vulnerable sectors of the country; At the same time, these measures have provided a justification for the government to abandon its mandate to protect the country’s most vulnerable populations.