#LupaElectoral: the attack on civic space prior to the Venezuelan Presidential elections

#LupaElectoral: the attack on civic space prior to the Venezuelan Presidential elections

Published on 16 Feb 2024

The persecution and detention of activists, together with legislative projects and political disqualifications, regained strength at the beginning of 2024.

Rocío San Miguel is not here. She was taken away, or rather, she disappeared. Since it was reported on February 9 that she was detained by State agencies at the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía and then transferred without a court order, without lawyers, without due process and without even knowing where to, human rights organizations have raised their voices to demand her release. But nothing happens. They do not let her be seen and her case is already added to the long list of complaints about arbitrary detentions, disqualifications and violation of human rights by Maduro’s government.


It is not something new, but it is something that is intensifying. What is happening to the well-known human rights defender is part of the reactivation of threats by the government against non-governmental organizations and human rights activists.


The year 2024 began with the reactivation of threats from the government towards Venezuelan non-governmental organizations and activists, despite being under the national and international public eye due to the presidential elections (which still have no formal electoral chronogram). The draft Law for the Control, Regularization, Performance and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations returned to the limelight by Diosdado Cabello at the end of 2023 and was reinforced by Jorge Rodriguez in January, with the announcement of the beginning of the public consultation on the same from the National Assembly.


The promotion of this bill by the government has been based on threats but also on misinformation. To justify it, unsubstantiated statements have been made, ignoring the legal framework already in force in the country and opening the door to discretionality as State policy; something that representatives of social organizations, including those who have been close to Maduro’s government, have claimed. In addition, campaigns have been created in social networks to defame, attack and increase the siege of activists and organizations.


On January 27, a statement from the delegation of the opposition Unitary Platform for the negotiation process provided an additional and hitherto unknown element. According to the head of the group, Gerardo Blyde, “we had managed to freeze” the bill in question. For this reason, he qualified as a “direct threat to the NGOs” to have “dusted off” the instrument.


Fact vs. fiction: #DóndeEstáRocío (“Where Is Rocío”)


Rocío San Miguel, director of the NGO Control Ciudadano, was arrested on February 9, 2024 and taken to an unknown location by an undetermined security force. 60 hours later, prosecutor Tarek William Saab informed of her capture “by virtue of an arrest warrant against her for being allegedly linked and referenced in the conspiracy and attempted assassination plot called Brazalete Blanco“. At that time it was not disclosed where she was or which agency was in custody or if she has had access to lawyers.


On February 10, before the confirmation of San Miguel’s detention, civil society started a campaign in networks under the hashtag #DóndeEstáRocío which accumulated more than a thousand messages and has remained active for more than five days despite not appearing among the trends in Venezuela in X. According to ProBox’s tool to analyze this conversation, 95.9% of the messages that have been made with this hashtag have been organic; that is, real users reporting San Miguel’s disappearance and following up on the case.


On February 11, groups of accounts linked to the regime and anonymous networks promoted the hashtag #RocíoNoEsSanta (“Rocío is no saint”) as a response to civil society. Although they did not manage to become a trend, they produced at least one thousand messages with this hashtag, promoting the narrative that San Miguel was a “traitor of the Homeland” behind the plan to “assassinate Maduro”. It should be noted that, although on February 11 it was not known where San Miguel was being held, messages with this hashtag already indicated that she was being held in El Helicoide.


On February 13, five days after her arrest, it was announced that San Miguel was charged with the crimes of “treason to the Homeland, conspiracy, terrorism and association”, and her place of detention was set as the El Helicoide headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), in the center of Caracas, as had been promoted on social media days before. The activist has not been able to communicate with her lawyers since her disappearance on February 9 and several of her relatives were also detained but are currently “at liberty” under a presentation regime.


For a better understanding behind #RocíoNoEsSanta and the momentum of narratives created to defame activists in Vzla, ProBox conducted a crosswalk of users using this hashtag with a list of others who promoted #SonTerroristas (“These are terrorists”) positioned on January 22, 2024 against several opposition leaders such as María Corina Machado, Leopoldo López, Juan Guaidó, among others; at least 65 accounts that made tweets with the hashtag #RocíoNoEsSanta also previously participated in the attack trend against opposition leaders.


Ratifying the coordination between accounts of the radical ruling party and anonymous networks to promote trends against activists and opposition leaders, a final cross-check of users was made between the tags #RocíoNoEsSanta and #TarazonaMercenario (“Tarazona is a mercenary”), also promoted by the ruling party in 2021 when Javier Tarazona was arrested; this resulted in 18 accounts in common between the two trends.


By doing the same exercise with the trend #AntidotoFuriaBolivariana (“Antidote Bolivarian Fury”) promoted by Diosdado Cabello in his program “Con el Mazo Dando” on January 24, ProBox found at least 49 accounts in common that also posted messages with #RocíoNoEsSanta.


While the Venezuelan State violates human rights, in parallel it lashes out against NGOs, since in the midst of San Miguel’s forced disappearance, the Attorney General and other members of the pro-government cabinet dedicated themselves to question the demands for the activist’s freedom and the “audacity” of NGOs for -allegedly- producing campaigns of “discredit and lies” against Maduro’s government.


The persecution and hunting down of activists goes back a long way


This is not the first time that the spotlight has been put on citizen organization in Venezuela. The antecedents date back to at least a decade ago. Since 2014, Vice Minister William Castillo began to label NGOs as “international franchises” that attack Venezuela. Since then he has been one of the main actors in the discrediting of organized civil society.


In 2015, the pro-government propaganda portal Misión Verdad published a report that was presented on social networks as “The orchestrated conspiracy of NGOs against Venezuela and the “humanitarian crisis”. The writing, now deleted from its website, portrayed the organizations that had presented reports before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as organizations that “do business” and participate in an “international parapet” that sought to “impose in the media field” the humanitarian crisis as an excuse for an “intervention”.


In 2017 Editorial CLAP No. 42, a PSUV outreach tool, claimed that NGOs are instruments to destabilize financed by George Soros and several international institutions.


In February 2020, the then president of the National Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, assured that the Assembly would review laws related to the financing of NGOs from other countries in order to apply “the maximum sanctions against those who receive financing from the United States to conspire against the homeland”.


In January 2021, the government of Nicolás Maduro began to act directly against NGOs and human rights defenders with the arrest of the directors of Azul Positivo. They were imprisoned for a month and finally acquitted in June of that year. The following month, Javier Tarazona, director of Fundaredes, was arrested and continues to be behind bars and with continuous judicial delays. His trial hearing took place in December 2023.


The same year, with a National Assembly dominated by the ruling party, the International Cooperation Bill entered the legislative agenda, which already then generated alarm in the organized civil society, under suspicion of receiving money to “destabilize”. At that time, Cabello pointed out several organizations for allegedly belonging to “the criminal opposition”, among them Alimenta la Solidaridad, Fundación Futuro Presente, Asociación Civil Manos al Aire, Transparencia Venezuela, Provea, Foro Penal, Acción Solidaria, Rescate Venezuela, Caracas Mi Convive, Alimentando Esperanza, Fundación American Venezuela Engagement, Fundación I Love Venezuela, Fundación Ven Da Tu mano, Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, among others.


That bill did not advance further in parliament, but its principles were replicated in the instrument that was approved in 2023 and has been taken up again at the beginning of this 2024. Several of those organizations mentioned are now again being used as justification to move forward with the instrument; a total of 60 NGOs. They include Súmate, Provea, Futuro Presente, Lidera, Instituto de Estudios Parlamentarios Fermín Toro, Más Ciudadanos, among others, as listed by Deputy Pedro Infante (PSUV) on January 12.


Disinformation as the main weapon against NGOs and activists


As soon as January began and during his first program of the year, Diosdado Cabello said that some organizations “do work” but others “seek to destabilize the government, set up conspiracies, receive money for writing badly against their own country”. A year before he had said that “they either dedicate themselves to politics or they dedicate themselves to social work”.


During the first public consultation organized at the Federal Legislative Palace on this project, which was accompanied by a significant number of uniformed military personnel, Deputy Julio García Zerpa (PSUV), said that “95% of the entities participating in the country comply with all the requirements. The alarm is generated by a small group that does not comply and perhaps does not adhere to the law”.


For Garcia there are two types of NGOs, those dedicated to social work which is the nature for which they should be constituted” and those that are a “vest” for political activities. His counterpart Pedro Infante, first vice-president of the parliament, added that “the NGOs that are not linked to politics should not be concerned”. Both statements generate concern.


When he postulated the project, Diosdado Cabello said in 2023 that there is no law regulating this sector”. However, this is not entirely true.


Alí Daniels, lawyer and director of the NGO Acceso a la Justicia, explained in conversation with the #LupaElectoral team that it is grotesque to talk about an “abuse of the freedom of association” when for at least seven years to constitute a non-governmental organization the bylaws cannot say “human rights”, “vulnerable” and other terms that are prohibited by the State. He also recalls that all civil associations go through a registration process by submitting their bylaws and other documentation until they are authorized under the current regulatory framework.


“Without this law there are already enormous difficulties in setting up an NGO, and it is a cumbersome and slow process. How can there be abuse when setting them up is something almost exceptional?” the lawyer asks.


He also disputes that freedom of association in the country is not sufficiently regulated. “This bill has 17 articles and two transitory provisions, but the Civil Code alone, which regulates everything related to this, has 40 articles. So it regulates even more. In Access to Justice we have studied that at least 40 laws and more than 130 articles of law in different instruments regulate the right of association. The rules of the Civil Code have been in place since 1942, and they are principles and rules that have been applied peacefully and without the need for courts to intervene to interpret because they are very well done”.


Daniels points out an additional factor: if this law is approved, it prevents the basic exercise of freedom of association, which is a human right, because it imposes goals, objectives, and activities. “It is an intervention that prevents its exercise,” he said.


In 2023, Espaja.com published the report Las ONG toman la palabra ante la desinformación regional, in which the contribution of civil society in the monitoring of public affairs and the dimensioning of problems is evident. If it were not for Fundaredes, for example, 51 missing persons would not have been counted in Táchira during the second quarter of 2022.


In the same vein, the monitoring of judicial cases, the prosecution of political prisoners, the number of homicides, prison conditions in the country’s prisons, income inequalities, malnutrition problems, shortages of medicines and medical supplies, and corruption, among many other issues, often enter the public agenda thanks to the work of various non-governmental organizations.


All this in a country where official opacity has become a habit. An investigation by Espaja.com, counted that 64.22% of 47 official documents that should have been published between 2010 and 2022, were never released. To this amount, it must be added that 4.9% of the documents were submitted untimely, reads the research entitled Opacity in Venezuela, a way of governing, carried out with the support of Transparencia Venezuela. The research found that as of 2013 the publication of official data began to decrease, while 2016 was a critical year in that matter.


Finally, the oft-repeated accusation that NGOs are used to launder money and that is why they have to be audited, is dismantled by the Venezuelan State itself before international organizations, such as the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) in the Mutual Evaluation of March 2023, where it stated that these alleged facts have a very minor occurrence and that there are judicial procedures to investigate and clarify them.


The report states that the National Financial Intelligence Unit attributed a high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing to only 44 non-profit organizations out of 9,960 analyzed (0.4%). “In that same report it is clear that the State did not attend 60% of the international recommendations”, says Alí Daniels to #LupaElectoral.


Entrenching authoritarianism by overriding free association


A document signed by more than 200 civil organizations expressed the alarm generated by the reactivation of the bill, despite the fact that in 2023 the State received numerous well-founded objections from the international community: the Office of the High Commissioner and Special Procedures of the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission and the national and international civil society expressed their opinion on the matter. In the document they denounce that its application would cause the definitive closure and militarization of the civic space as well as irreparable damage to the rights of the population that are already being violated.


They point out that with this article the right to free association is transformed into a matter of “public order” which strengthens the suspicion and presumption of crime, opening the door to the unjustified intervention of military and security forces in its surveillance and control. “Specifically, the law violates Article 5 of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which prohibits the destruction of rights or their excessive restriction”.

In Venezuela, NGOs are supervised by the Autonomous Registry and Notary Service (Saren) with the registration and annual update of bylaws and representatives; the National Integrated Customs and Tax Administration Service (Seniat) with the payment of taxes; the Venezuelan Social Security Institute (IVSS) with social security; the Instituto Nacional de Capacitación y Educación Socialista (Inces) with the payment of monthly installments for labor training; the Banco Nacional de Vivienda y Hábitat (Banavih), with the payment of monthly installments for housing credits; and the Ministerio del Trabajo, for the supervision of labor safety conditions, among others. In addition, they are subject to money laundering prevention regulations applied by financial institutions.

With the new instrument, the Executive could suppress uncomfortable organizations thanks to discretionary powers. For example, the legal personality of the organizations becomes dependent on the approval of an express resolution issued by the competent authority (Article 8), changing the nature of the registry from notifying to enabling.

Rejection of NGO “regularization” vs. state propaganda online


In view of the initiative of the draft Law for the Control, Regularization, Performance and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations, the alarm and rejection in X was reactivated, which already existed before any attempt to regularize NGOs that violates their principles, with at least 5 trends speaking on the subject between 2022 and January 2024.


On May 18, 2022 ProBox identified the hashtag #LeyAntisolidaridad (“Anti-Solidarity Law”) positioned as a trend with at least 3,150 tweets, a coordinated campaign among more than 500 civil society organizations rejecting the then international cooperation bill. That same day, the Ministry of Communication (MIPPCI) promoted two hashtags that totaled more than 172 thousand messages: #4MillonesYMás (“4 millions and more”) talking about the anniversary of the Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela (which was eliminated, since said mission was created on April 30 and not on May 18) and #VenezuelaTierraFértil (“Venezuela fertile soil”) talking about the national agricultural production.


On February 10, 2023, the hashtag #LeyAntiSociedad against the NGO oversight bill was positioned for the first time, adding just over two thousand messages; MIPPCI again promoted two trends with more than one million 500 thousand messages together in the framework of the Caribbean Series held in the country.


Three months later, on May 10, the trend #LeyAntiSociedad returned, accompanied by #RecetaNicaragua (“Recipe Nicaragua”) as a campaign of Venezuelan NGOs and civil society in rejection once again of the bills promoted by the government to close the civic space, comparing the situation with the illegalization of NGOs that occurred in Nicaragua, accumulating just over two thousand messages. In parallel, the government promoted a propaganda trend in favor of Maduro, #MaduroEsPueblo (“Maduro is the people”), with more than 600 thousand tweets.


The most recent record around the topic on social media according to ProBox occurred on January 18, 2024 with the hashtag #SociedadInhabilitada (“Disabled Society”) with close to one thousand tweets, in the framework of the reactivation of the conversation by the National Assembly to move forward with the bill. In parallel, MIPPCI promoted #VenezuelaFuerzaEconómica (“Venezuela Economic Force”) with pro-government propaganda with more than 38,500 tweets.


With the reactivation of the conversation about the draft Law for the Taxation, Regularization, Performance and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations between December 2023 and January 2024, ProBox conducted a specialized keyword search on X, Facebook and Instagram with a social listening tool, dividing the study into two parts.


The first covers terms used by civil society such as #SociedadInhabilitada, ley contra sociedad civil, fiscalización regularización financiamiento ONG, libertad de asociación en venezuela, #LeyAntisociedad, persecución de ONG, ley anti ONG and ley de fiscalización contra ONG; this search identified at least 1,206 mentions of these terms, with January 18 as the day of greatest activity, coinciding with the citizen protest and the conversation of the National Assembly (AN) for the beginning of the “consulta popular” on the bill.


Twitter (X) was the social media platform with the most conversation in this regard, grouping 54.31% of the mentions, followed by Facebook with 28.28% and Instagram with 17.41%. It also highlighted the use of words associated with the consultation of the NA that were not included in the search, including tags that have not managed to position themselves as a trend but are being used to alert about the bill such as #JusticiaVE (“Justice VE”) and #AsociarseEsUnDerecho (“Association is a right”).


The second part of the study consisted in searching for the narratives promoted by the regime around this topic and on the same dates, using keywords that encompass the trends promoted by “Con el Mazo Dando”, Diosdado Cabello’s program, main proponent of the bill: #FuriaBolivarianaActiva, #PuebloEstableDePaz, #JusticiaYVerdad, Furia Bolivariana, #VenezuelaHumanista, #LaPazLeGanaATodo, #PaLoLoQueSalgaConChavez, Ley regulación y financiamiento ONG, and vandalizes NGOs between December 31, 2023 until February 01, 2024.


This search yielded around 6,717 mentions, with January 23 and 29 being the most active days, coinciding with the announcements of the reactivation of the “Bolivarian Fury to defend the homeland”.


Unlike civil society, most of the chavismo’s conversation took place on Instagram with 75.99% of the registered mentions, followed by Facebook with 17.52% and finally X (Twitter) with 6.49% of the registered mentions. Despite the fact that the conversation was concentrated on Instagram, the accounts that alone made the most mentions were found on Facebook and X, being the accounts of the Governor’s Office of Guárico, the Governor of Portuguesa, Primitivo Cedeño, @ElNoEsSublime on X (currently suspended) and Con el Mazo Dando the most active.


Let’s put the magnifying glass on the Bill


The draft law prohibits organizations from engaging in “political activities” or receiving contributions to organizations for political purposes, without defining what is meant by political activity or purposes (Article 15).

Article 7 limits the purposes of NGOs to “the satisfaction of humanitarian, social, assistance, cultural, educational or other tasks”, and number 6 states that the activities contemplated only cover those oriented “to charitable, social, or general interest purposes, related to the preservation of the environment, health, scientific, technological, human rights, artistic, literary, religious, educational or other areas of general utility”.


Likewise, changes in the purpose of the organization must be submitted for authorization by the competent entity according to the same article 7, which has no established deadline to respond or reasons to deny them; the inventory of assets must be registered and updated annually (article 12), and its members must file a sworn statement of assets with the Comptroller General of the Republic (article 14.3) as if they were public employees.

The defense of human rights, support for victims of human rights violations, the fight against corruption, the promotion of voting as a tool for political participation, social control, denunciation, criticism, questioning or peaceful dissidence, among others, are excluded.


Could this generate a system of permitted and proscribed NGOs? “No. There is no distinction. Any NGO that handles sensitive information is suspect to the government. For example, Caritas handles information on child malnutrition and the government doesn’t like that. We will all be equally under suspicion,” Daniels points out.


Hashtags for rights: how NGOs are seen on Twitter


Deputy Minister William Castillo said in the Parliament that “it cannot be that an NGO gets on Twitter to say that a hospital has to be stopped because there is a lack of supplies, or that NGOs are used to alter the life of a hospital or to damage the provision of the service”. He added that “they spend their time making reports on the State, on the reports and accounts, on the public budget -all documents that the government censors-, and those who receive money are not accountable even to their associates”.


The conversation about human rights in Venezuela has been present in the digital world continuously, not only as a demand but also as a documentation of the different cases and failures of the Venezuelan State, but not as Castillo expressed it. According to ProBox records, civil society in general has been the actor that has talked the most about this topic on Twitter (now X) between 2020 and January 2024, driving 291 trends in this regard and almost 2 million messages.


Of these 291 trends, 193 have been promoted by different NGOs totaling almost one million messages between January 01, 2020 and January 26, 2024. here are the top 5 topics:


  1. Human rights, 136 trends and 680,497 tweets apx.: denouncing arbitrary detentions, persecution of activists, media closures, etc. For example: #LiberenALos33, #InformarNoEsDelito, #LosDerechosNoSeNegocian, #LiberenActivistasDeFundaRedes.
  2. Health, 23 trends and 175,990 tweets apx: talking about the lack of medicines in Venezuela, the failures of the health system and the lack of vaccines against COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic. For example: #DiálisisEnRisk, #CrisisHospitalaria, #VacunasYaParaTodos.
  3. Services, 8 trends and 12,792 tweets apx: reporting failures in the national territory. For example: #TachiraSinElectricidad, #VzlaSinInternet, #MéridaSeApaga.
  4. Economy, 5 trends and 53,522 tweets apx.: demanding wage improvements and supporting the protest of different unions. For example: #PorPensionJustaYDigna, #InsumosySalariosDignos.
  5. Politics, with 5 trends and 32,515 tweets apx.: calling for the respect of existing laws in the country and the legalization of other measures, such as: #ElAvilaSeRespeta and #AbortoLegalYaVzla.


The main narratives promoted by NGOs have been devoted almost entirely to making visible human rights violations, documenting failures in the national health system, basic services, economic demands and other issues affecting citizens in general and which are usually addressed by these organizations rather than “political activities”.


In a year with presidential elections at the door, with no defined timetable and with the reinforcement of political disqualifications to further close citizen participation, the persecution against activists and NGOs is intensifying, further increasing the authoritarian character of the regime in Venezuela who, on February 15, 2024, announced the suspension of the activities of the Technical Advisory Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Venezuela, giving a period of 72 hours for its workers to leave the country after having declared its concern for the detention of Rocio San Miguel.


For more information on these issues you can search for the hashtag #LupaElectoral on social media or follow the official accounts of ProBox, RunRunes, El Pitazo, TalCual, Redes Ayuda, Medianálisis and EsPaja.

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