With Venezuela’s opposition political parties effectively marginalized, the Maduro government now appears to be setting its sights on repressing independent civil society, with a particular emphasis on NGOs, media outlets, and humanitarian organizations.
December and January saw several incidents of stigmatization, intimidation, and harassment of various organizations and media outlets in Venezuela. Those targeted during this period include news sites Efecto Cocuyo and Panorama, community radio station Fe y Alegría, as well as groups like the National Press Workers Union, PROVEA, Control Ciudadano, and others.
After these incidents, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the “constant and growing attacks against civil society organizations, human rights defenders and journalists in Venezuela,” and asked the authorities to stop targeting people for performing legitimate work, be it in the humanitarian or human rights sector, or in the media. The Washington Office on Latin America, alongside Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Brazil’s Conectas, and other organizations, issued similar calls to the Venezuelan authorities to “prevent such harassment and attacks, and to abstain from encouraging or committing them.”
In the most recent incident of the state repression against civil society, state security forces raided the NGO Azul Positivo in the western state of Zulia and arrested six members of the organization, with five of the remaining detained. The state accuses them of money laundering, economic fraud, and association to commit crimes. Azul Positivo is a humanitarian organization that has provided aid to vulnerable communities in Zulia, particularly people living with HIV/AIDS over fifteen years. Over 80 civil society organizations have rejected the decision to detain the members of Azul Positivo, and UN humanitarian offices in the country have also expressed alarm at their detention.
- The new PSUV-run National Assembly appointed Maduro’s political right hand Jorge Rodriguez as its new president. One of the new National Assembly’s first actions was to create three new special assembly. Jorge Rodríguez will chair the first of these, the “Special Committee for Dialogue,” an initiative, as the government claims, to bring all sectors of the Venezuelan political spectrum together and overcome the country’s political conflict. However, in clear contradition to the Dialogue commission, the second committee is charged with investigating the alleged crimes committed against the country by the opposition-run Assembly of the 2016-2021 period. The third committee relates to the Essequibo territory and how to respond to Venezuela’s border dispute with neighboring Guyana.
- Since the beginning of this presidency in the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez has talked about internal reconciliation and hinted about direct talks with Biden’s administration. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Rodriguez highlighted that he hopes that Biden’s administration will roll back the sanctions against Venezuela, and that diplomatic talks may result in the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the release of several jailed American citizens held in Venezuela. Nonetheless, the new Biden Administration has not indicated any sign of a shift in policy, only signalling its continued recognition of Guaido and frustration with the lack of progress in restoring democracy.
- The opposition in Caracas is trying to advance a new strategy amids the changed national and international context, and several proposals have emerged. Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles set three priorities for the opposition: address the humanitarian crisis/pandemic, press for a credible electoral timetable, and reconnect with the interior outside Caracas. Other voices ask for an oil-for-food exchange program that could help the country to mitigate its humanitarian crisis.
- Reuters reported that after the arrest of Vannesa Rosales, a pro-abortion and women rights activist, in the Merida State in October, many women’s rights activists have largely halted unofficial abortion services. Rosales, a university professor, was arrested after she helped a 13-year-old girl to end a pregnancy. She was detained for more than three months without being formally charged, and is currently being held under house arrest. Her arrest has brought the reaction of many civil society associations, including organizations sympathetic to Chavismo. Venezuela has one of the strictest abortion laws in South America, allowing the practice only to save the mother’s life.
- On January 6, fifteen Catholic organizations denounced the death of indigenous political prisoner Salvador Franco while in detention. In their statement, the organizations emphasized that “human life is sacred ” and assert that Franco, together with 12 members of his community, were arbitrarily arrested and detained without due process.
- State security forces killed at least 23 people in a January 8-9 clash between police and gangs in the disadvantaged and low-income neighborhood of La Vega in Caracas. Representatives of the human rights organization Provea said that the 23 deaths are the highest toll of victims in a police operation since Maduro’s government began a heavy-handed approach against crime in 2015. Recently, the government said that due to its heavy-handed approach to crime, homicide rates went down 73 percent between 2016 and 2020.
- Maduro has said that Venezuela will receive 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine. For her part, Maduro’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez announced that Russia and Venezuela agreed on Venezuela to import from Russia, but also to produce in country, the Sputnik V vaccines during the third semester of the year.
- Through its Central Bank, Maduro’s government said that Guaidó rejected a proposed deal to buy coronavirus vaccines in Britain. The Central Bank said that it requested Guaidó’s institutions’ to transfer $120 million in funds frozen in Britain to Gavi, an alliance seeking to improve developing countries’ vaccine access, and they denied it. The opposition dismisses this accusation as false, and instead say they are concerned about distribution of any vaccine in Venezuela, given documented irregularities with Maduro’s distribution of COVID-19 tests.
- Maduro’s government said that it would send emergency oxygen supplies to Brazil’s northern Amazonas state. Amazonas is suffering a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that have placed its hospital system near collapse.
- More banks worldwide cut ties with Venezuela’s wealthy as they fear sanctions and damage to their public profile by doing business with politically exposed clients. Credit Suisse Group AG announced that it reduced the assets it manages for Venezuelan clients by more than half over the past few years, to about $2 billion.
The Essequibo Dispute
- Maduro’s government has taken actions to defend its claim over the disputed Essequibo resource-rich region, a long-standing territorial dispute between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana. The Venezuelan government rejects a recent decision by the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) and appears ready to escalate tensions with Guyana.
- The Venezuelan government announced that it would establish a “Strategic Development Area for the Atlantic Front” (in the area of Essequibo) with the goal of “protecting and safeguarding [Venezuela’s] territorial jurisdiction.” Guyana strongly rejected Venezuela’s plan, while the Caribbean Community (Caricom) said it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by Venezuela’s announcement. The U.S. has expressed support for Guyana’s stance and held joint US-Guyana coast guard exercises on the 8th of January. Venezuela strongly criticized the exercises and said they were an attempt by the outgoing Trump administration to “create provocations, threats.”
- According to Reuters, the Venezuelan government is trying to attract private capital to the oil industry. Venezuelan officials have said that the government has offered small oilfield contractors to operate fields owned by the state-owned PDVSA in exchange for a share of the profits. Venezuelan oil production has collapsed to a 40-year historic low, to 376,500 barrels per day. Maduro stated recently that his goal for 2021 was to recover oil output to 1.5 million BPD, which seems unlikely.