From disqualification and criminalisation to exclusion of civil society
Parallel to advances in imposing on citizens´ organisations the ‘People´s Power’ structures, the Venezuelan government continued in 2012 to restrict civil society rights. It did so through further closing spaces for constructive dialogue and participation, harassment, smear campaigns, administrative and criminal procedures, and laws criminalising international cooperation. Some examples are described in the following sections.
Promoting and defending human rights before international human rights bodies
Even though the Venezuelan constitution guarantees the rights of citizens “under the terms established by treaties, covenants and conventions on human rights ratified by the Republic, to address petitions and complaints to the international bodies created for such purpose, in order to seek protection of their human rights”, CSOs were the target of smear campaigns and disqualification precisely for exercising such rights.
During Venezuela’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in October 2011 at the UN Human Rights Council, referring to the participation of 150 autonomous organisations, Mr. Nicolás Maduro, then Foreign Affairs Minister, expressed on TV: “…the truth will crush those NGOs paid for by the Empire [the US],” while the Venezuelan News Agency published on its website that “…of the more than 500 reports submitted regarding Venezuela’s UPR, 144 were prepared by NGOs, which attack the Government’s policies. The majority of them are financed by the United States”. As a result, there are no possibilities for holding constructive dialogue with the national government regarding the UPR recommendations and the drafting of a national human rights programme.
In a public hearing on Venezuela’s human rights situation before the IACHR, in March 2012, Germán Saltrón, Venezuelan state representative before the Inter-American Human Rights System, warned that Venezuela would withdraw from the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights, if the Commission continued to admit into evidence the “…unjustified denunciations of Venezuelan and foreign NGOs, which persevere in their smearing and destabilising campaigns against the Bolivarian and socialist government of Commander President Hugo Chávez”. In a forum titled “The IACHR as a mechanisms of domination in Latin America”, held in Caracas in June 2012, speakers Germán Saltrón and María Alejandra Díaz (ex-representative of the Venezuelan government before the Inter-American System), expressed that “…in Venezuela a sort of NGO mafia has been established, which aims at the institutionalisation of human rights as a business, looking at obtaining profits for their organisations and discrediting the image of the Bolivarian Government before world opinion, having as allies bodies such as the IACHR”. 
Together with a group of Latin American states, the Venezuelan government has been attempting to weaken the mandate of the IACHR. In August 2012, Venezuela supported President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, when he expressed that the IACHR was influenced by “ngoism” and had become a besieger of democratic countries, influenced by the interest of capitalism.
In the formal note to denounce the Inter-American Convention, sent to the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States, the Venezuelan Government referred to human rights defenders and organisations engaged in working with the Inter-American Human Rights System as “defamers” of the state and “allies” of political sectors which have violated Venezuelan laws and the constitution. When the denunciation enters into force in November 2013, the Inter-American Court will no longer be able to analyse the violations of human rights that may occur in Venezuela.
The Law against Organised Crime and Financing of Terrorism
In a political and legal context hostile to CSOs, the government approved the Law against Organised Crime and Financing of Terrorism. It contains provisions that led Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to express in a public communiqué: “In Venezuela, in January 2012, a new Organic Law against Terrorism and Organised Delinquency was adopted by Congress, but has not yet been signed into law by the President. The law establishes a broad definition of ‘terrorist acts’ that may apply to legitimate acts of social protest or dissidence. It also places NGOs under the permanent surveillance of a state organ and imposes restrictions on foreign funding.”
Law on the Defence of National Sovereignty and National Self-determination
In its note of denunciation of the Inter-American Convention addressed to the Secretary General of the OAS, the Venezuelan government admitted to having approved an International Cooperation Law in a different form, under the name of the Law on the Defence of National Sovereignty and National Self-determination. The Government also accused the IACHR of “interference” in the legislative sovereign powers of the Venezuela and creating “an affront to the Venezuelan State”, for expressing concerns regarding the approval of the International Cooperation Law, based on the risks it posed for the work of CSOs. The government’s note expressed: “The Commission issued a communiqué on 3 December 2010, in which it referred to substantive matters against the Draft International Cooperation Law, before it was approved by the National Assembly, which occurred 10 days later, on 13 December 2010, when it adopted the name of Law on the Defence of National Sovereignty and National Self-determination.”
The criminalisation of the work of CSOs, in the implementation of this law, was confirmed in June 2012, when the Permanent Comptroller Commission of the National Assembly threatened to start legal procedures against Transparency Venezuela and the CSO network Legislative Monitoring, after they published a report ‘Ranking of Parliamentarians´ Performance’. In this report, the organisations evaluated all of the National Assembly representatives on their contributions to sessions, accountability, participation in public consultations and use of social networks. Pedro Carreño, President of the Commission and Second National Assembly Vice President commented:
“Transparency Venezuela is an appendix of Transparency International, and receives foreign funding. In order to justify this financing, it produces an annual report that is used as a demonisation mechanism, of interference in the internal affairs of the people whose policies are not in accordance with those of Western powers… [T]he Law on the Defence of National Sovereignty and National Self-determination and the constitution do not allow for this type of financing. We have unanimously decided to start an investigation… [W]e do not need international groups to come and illegally finance these NGOs, since this is against the constitution and the law which regulates this matter”.
After Transparency Venezuela and Legislative Monitoring issued a communiqué rejecting these attempts to question the legitimacy of their activities and the legality of their sources of funding, Parliamentarian Carreño insisted that they would carry out their investigation, in order to confirm that both groups were “political organisations”, without the legitimacy to carry out their missions. He declared:
“There is no reason for them to exist in this country, since the Venezuelan Constitutional framework establishes that Parliamentarians have the responsibility to keep their constituents informed regarding their performance. There are strong suspicions that both groups receive funds from foreign governments and are ‘political’. We will continue with this investigation, even if they say that they comply with our legal order, we will investigate them.” 
Smear campaigns and lack of recognition of CSOs as valid interlocutors
An area of human rights in which both the Inter-American and the UN human rights systems have expressed serious concerns relates to Venezuelan correctional institutions and people deprived of their liberty. Every year for the past 10 years, the rate of violent deaths within prisons has been approximately 100 to 120 deaths per 10,000 inmates. One of the most respected organisations dealing with the human rights of people deprived of their liberty is the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (VPO).
Besides carrying out research work on prison conditions and making recommendations on issues such as infrastructure, health, personnel training and decentralisation as mandated by the constitution, the VPO publishes a thorough Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Prisons. After publishing its report on the previous year in January 2012, highlighting the many incidents in which inmates were violently killed, Tarek El Aissami, Internal Affairs Minister, discredited the VPO´s Report stating that “…anything that the Venezuelan Prison Observatory says can be qualified as lies and manipulation.” In turn, Iris Varela, Minister of Correctional Affairs, followed by saying that:
“Those NGOs cannot handle reliable information, since the moment I took office [July 2011] I forbid their working inside prisons. All of that ‘guachafita’ (mischief), in which they even video-taped censored scenes in order to show it on the internet, is over. Intelligence reports gathered on Humberto Prado [VPO’s Coordinator] show his contacts with international media, trying to fire-up an international campaign [against the Venezuelan government]. Also, he is shown as receiving 50,000 Bolívares [around US$5,000 at the time] to cover operational costs of his organisation, from Empresas Polar [a large Venezuelan business group], for the first semester of 2012.” 
In April 2012, after the escape of a group of inmates from a correctional facility known as La Planta, the remaining men started rioting in order to prevent the National Guard from taking over the prison grounds. The confrontation lasted more than 15 days, in which houses and residential buildings were affected. After video tapes of the riots were shown on the opposition TV channel, Globovisión, Minister Varela accused the NGOs of being behind the situation: “This morning, a young inmate tried to escape jumping to a rooftop and was caught in the crossfire, there were shots fired, and after that, some journalists, so-called ‘human rights defenders’ and members of NGOs got in touch with some of those deprived of liberty in order to exchange information and sabotage our work.” 
In such a climate of hostility towards the NGOs, Foro por la Vida, a coalition of Venezuelan Human Rights Organisations, called a press conference to present a communiqué. This communiqué recalled that the Coalition, “…on several occasions has expressed its concerns about the increasing weakening of the guarantees for the work of human rights organisations in the country, together with the increase in personal risks for defenders, as well as the continuous disqualifications and harassment they face in doing their work.” The Coalition called on the Venezuelan state, among other petitions, to “…guarantee the rights to life and due process to inmates at la Planta, to respect the work of human rights defenders, and to open channels of communication and dialogue with civil society organisations in order to find a common path for solutions which make the full observance of human rights in prisons a reality.”
A pattern of CSO exclusion was also evidenced in the reforms to the Organic Code on Criminal Procedures, approved on 15 June 2012. The code eliminates the rights of CSOs to present complaints against public officials or law enforcement agents involved in violations of human rights. The power to assist victims and to defend human rights before the courts was given exclusively to the Ombudsman’s Office. This is an institution that has interpreted its “non-coercive nature” as an excuse to refrain from exercising its constitutional powers to “intervene in situations of unconstitutionality, interpretation, protection, habeas corpus, habeas data, precautionary measures, and other legal actions” in situations of state restrictions, violations or non-compliance with the guarantees of protection to human rights.
The attempts by the Venezuelan Government to impose the Communal State will have a deep effect on people´s lives. It is important for CSOs to recognise its advances in order to be able to respond to its negative impact on the broad spectrum of human rights. This project, given its undemocratic and discriminatory nature, cannot benefit the Venezuelan people: examples abound in history regarding the horrible effects on human dignity produced by the attempts of “visionary leaders” to shape the whole of society according to their particular ideas of right and wrong.
The Communal State implies control and submission of individuals and, therefore, their loss of sovereignty, autonomy, liberty and the development of their own capacities and creativity in fulfilling their aspirations to a better life. The increases in protests during the past five years — from less than 1,800 in 2008 to over 5,400 in 2012; 80% of them demanding social rights — are a clear evidence of problems unsolved. Hunger strikes have become a common way of protesting, with 312 occurring between 2011 and 2012.
In spite of the restrictions imposed on the civic space and the challenges faced by CSOs, their role is now more essential than ever, keeping close to the people, putting their common skills to work to solve problems, recognising their own talents, their leadership and the perspectives from which they develop their own responses. In this sense, the framework of human rights and democratic practices are fundamental: they are the source of such recognition and the possibilities to accompany people´s demands for the enjoyment and exercise of human rights.
Venezuela faces new Presidential elections on 14 April. We believe this is an opportunity, for whomever is elected, to return to the constitutional path, with its broadly developed guarantees for human rights and democratic liberties, the separation of powers and the rule of law. It will be an opportunity for open dialogue and inclusion. If such is the case, CSOs will also have a vital role in working towards the people´s unfulfilled demands for social justice. If a new government insists on imposing an unconstitutional state, the Communal State, or is exclusive and closed to dialogue with vast sectors of society, many will suffer the consequences. If this is the case, CSOs will also have a crucial role alongside the people, not as a means for power struggles, but as an end in themselves.
 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 2008 Report, http://www.cidh.org/annualrep/2008eng/Chap4.f.eng.htm (52-58).
 See http://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=E-307/12.
 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Article 31
 Video: Venezuela is prepared for a Human Rights Exam before the UN, 6 October 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtelnM5V8vA.
 AVN: Maduro at the UN: We will crush the NGOs financed by the Empire, 6 October 2011, http://www.avn.info.ve/contenido/maduro-onu-derrotaremos-verdad-ong-financiadas-imperio
 IACHR. 144 Period of Sessions: 19 to 30 March 2012. Public Hearing. Compliance by Venezuela of its international obligations: http://www.oas.org/OASPage/videosasf/2012/03/032712_RDario_3.wmv; Germán Saltrón Negretti: the IACHR is not impartial. 17 April 2012: http://www.aporrea.org/venezuelaexterior/a142049.html.
 MINCI: Human Rights as a Business and the NGO mafia. 29 June 2012. http://www.minci.gob.ve/2012/06/29/derechos-humanos-como-negocio-mafia-ong/.
 Public Prosecutor: IACHR: An out-dated organisation. 31 August 2012.
 National Assembly: Comptrollership Commission will investigate Transparency Venezuela and Legislative Monitor. 17 June 2012.
http://www.asambleanacional.gov.ve/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=40634%3Acomision-de-contraloria-investigara-financiamiento-a-transparencia-venezuela-y-monitor-legislativo&catid=1%3Alatest-news&Itemid=246&lang=es ; National Assembly: Pedro Carreño: “Transparency Venezuela seeks to discredit the Venezuelan Government”.
 Communiqué by Transparency Venezuela and Legislative Monitor: http://www.monitorlegislativo.net/media/comunicado_1.pdf.
 National Assembly: Carreño ratifies that Transparency Venezuela and Legislative Monitor will be investigated
 Diario El Siglo: Venezuelan Government disqualifies the work of NGOs. 26 January 2012 http://www.elsiglo.com.ve/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=13209.
 Ciudad Caracas: “Prisons do not work; there must be a correctional revolution”. 23 January 2012 http://www.ciudadccs.info/?p=252526&print=1.
 VTV: Min. Varela: Private media and NGO´s seek to promote violence in prisons. 30 April 2012 http://archivo.vtv.gob.ve/index.php/nacionales/81206.
 Article 10, Organic Law of the National Human Rights Institution. Official Gazette Nº 37.995 del 05/8/2004.
 Article 15, numeral 2, Organic Law of the National Human Rights Institution.