New legislation proposed by the Venezuelan government to regulate civil society groups would kill the last functioning remnant of the country’s democracy and take it a step closer to a police state, leading NGOs have warned.
The bill passed its first reading in the country’s legislature on Tuesday and, if approved in a second reading, will obligate NGOs to provide the government with all their financial records so that their political agendas and funding can be scrutinized.
Those deemed to be involved in political activities or endangering national security would be banned.
“If you are genuine and dedicated to social and humanitarian work, do you have anything to fear?” said Diosdado Cabello, the president’s right-hand man and the bill’s proponent, in a state TV broadcast.
But humanitarian and human rights groups have blasted the project, saying it is a pretext to take further control of the country after decades of democratic erosion under the regimes of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
“If this were a normal state with freedom of expression this proposal wouldn’t concern us,” said Rodrigo Diamanti, president of un Mundo Sin Mordaza (No Gags), a Venezuelan rights group. “But this is Venezuela, where there is no freedom of expression and we are persecuted by our own government. This is simply another facade of legality for them to stop whoever they want from exposing the truth.”
Maduro has used state repression to cling to power as the country’s economy has collapsed and more than 7 million Venezuelans have fled rampant hyperinflation, hunger and human rights abuses.
Diamanti said the new law was the latest attempt to intimidate civil society into silence, with many organizations afraid of following Javier Tarazona, the director of the NGO Fundaredes, who has been imprisoned since July 2021.
While proposing the bill Cabello publicly singled out the leading human rights group Provea and said that the government had a list of 62 NGOs under watch.
Provea told the Guardian it could not comment on the announcement for fear of retaliation.
“Freedom of expression and taking control of TV and radio was the regime’s first priority, then came the political persecution, preventing candidates from running for office. What remains to take absolute control is civil society,” Diamanti said.
The work of civil society has become more important as the Venezuelan government has cracked down on freedom of the press. Their work often forms the basis of reports from international organizations such as the UN, which concluded last year that the Venezuelan government was using its military to systematically quash dissent through human rights abuses.
Their research is also used by the international criminal court (ICC), which is investigating the Venezuelan government over alleged crimes against humanity.
“The regime is turning Venezuela into another North Korea where it’s impossible to get our information outside the country and the reality of the millions who are suffering,” Diamanti said.
The law could also be used to prevent humanitarian groups from operating so that the control of food and medicine could be used for political gain, he warned.
Four years ago, Maduro’s rule appeared shaky when more than 50 countries, including the US, recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president after Maduro’s election victory was widely condemned as a sham.
But after clinging to power the dictator returned to the international sphere in 2022, when the need for an alternative to Russian oil following the war in Ukraine made Venezuelan crude more attractive.
With the Venezuelan opposition in disarray, the government’s best political strategy was to remain quiet, said Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola).
But long-dormant protests flared up again last week when public sector workers voiced their discontent at hyperinflation of more than 200%.
“The timing of the bill is no coincidence,” Ramsey says. “With renewed protests the government is cracking down on dissent.”
The bill also came just days before the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, visited Venezuela.
Türk told journalists at a press conference in Bogotá that he would be discussing key human rights issues, including the new legislation, with the Venezuelan government, NGOs and the opposition.
“It is my duty to raise human rights issues with the government … and also to ensure that the human rights perspective is loud and clear when it comes to whatever measures governments are taking, particularly when it comes to civic space,” Türk said.
The government has not set a date for the bill’s second discussion but similar bills are typically passed within a month of the initial discussion, Provea told the Guardian.
Even if not passed, the threat of the new law is likely to force rights groups into silence, said Diamanti, who fled the country after being detained by the country’s intelligence services.
“My fear is that they already have all of these NGOs under watch and will do precisely what they have done to us,” he said.