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Venezuela on the list of closed countries: what to do now?

Venezuela as a “closed” country. Civicus 2024 Monitor Tracking.

Almost a third of the world’s population lives in countries with closed civic spaces. This is the highest percentage of countries under this condition, with a total of 28, since 2018 when the organization Civicus began its global monitor tracking. “Closed” is understood to be the worst rating assigned within a classification that varies, in order of severity, from “open”, to “narrowed”, “obstructed”, “repressive” and “closed”. A closed country is one where it is practically impossible, if not highly dangerous, to enjoy the rights of association, assembly, expression and defense of human rights.

In a context of widespread setbacks for democratic guarantees, the Americas has always been a region of special concern. In this regard, Civicus reported that of the 35 countries on the continent, 6 are listed as “obstructed”, 5 as “repressive” and 3 as “closed”. However, when observing its regional balance, one message stands out both in its report and in its communication to third parties: the degradation of Venezuela from a “repressive” country to a “closed” one. Venezuela thus joins Cuba and Nicaragua, which since 2018 and 2021 respectively have kept this qualification.

Civicus recognizes that “the cumulative impact of repressive measures and systemic crackdowns on HRDs and dissenting voices had finally led to a downgrade to the closed category with regard to Venezuela.” The organization states that “these measures have in practice suspended fundamental civic freedoms, leaving civil society in a precarious state of vulnerability”. As part of the background, the arrests grounded on the “law against hatred”, the fact that nearly 55% of civil society organizations face legal obstacles to operate, the more than 81 radio stations closed -only in 2022-, the more than 60 printed media out of circulation indefinitely and the anti-NGO and international cooperation bills are mentioned, including the intervention of the Venezuelan Red Cross through judicial means.

Beyond the seriousness of the antecedents, the political-institutional context is key to understanding the Civicus alarm. The breakdown of the Democratic Rule of Law in Venezuela, whose deepest root is the total absence of independent powers and respect for political dissidence, to which has been added more recently an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and the commission of crimes against humanity with the prevalence of impunity, are some of the contextual variables that make Venezuela a State mired in a complex humanitarian emergency. In this panorama full of difficulties, civic space cannot but suffer serious consequences over time. Today, Venezuelan civil society is the main force resisting the authoritarian resurgence, although paying increasingly high costs.

In its intervention at the event on the Sixth Global Assessment of Data on Civic Freedoms convened by Civicus, the NGO Espacio Publico summarized the Venezuelan situation into three general patterns. First, a permanent climate of hostility and threat against sectors of civil society through targeted violent actions, whose recent victims are social and union activists. Second, a situation of normalized censorship with 400 media closed since its registration began in 2002, of which 330 ceased to exist in the last 10 years, including hundreds of digital media. Finally, social control through access to food programs and state subsidies. In 2022, extreme poverty by income was at 53% while total poverty at more than 80%, which makes social programs benefits highly demanded and that, by virtue of this, are conditioned by the State through acts of political support for the government.

Despite the risks and vulnerabilities, media, journalists, activists, defenders, leaders and communities assume the risk of challenging the abuse of power, which can translate in some instances into exemplary punishments or indirect measures to specific sectors. This is what is happening in Venezuela with a power structure that remains intact, the same one that the international community condemned in 2014, 2017 and 2019, and that has shifted for strategic reasons to a focused attack, but depending on the social context and political, it can be massively reactivated, as has happened in previous years. In the current electoral period, this risk is higher.

AlertaVenezuela calls on the international community to redouble its endeavors in strategically monitoring and advocating the situation of democratic freedoms and civic space in Venezuela by firmly supporting the requests of civil society, as well as demanding greater democratic guarantees from the State through the negotiation spaces and outside of it. It is essential to lead a comprehensive response to protect people at risk of persecution and reverse the major legal and judicial threats that loom over the work of civil society, which ultimately has a negative impact on an already seriously vulnerable population. From the outset, advancing in coordinated strategies with the States, the United Nations and the Inter-American System is needed.