Throwing the Book at Civil Society: Antidemocratic Regimes in the Americas Are Using the Law to Narrow Civic Spaces

Associational and organizational rights in the Americas have steadily deteriorated over the last 15 years, contributing to a large decline in freedoms in the region. Beyond heavy-handed responses to protests or defamation against opponents, regional leaders have also embarked on a conspicuous trend of codifying repression through vague and ambiguous legislation, offering a legal façade to justify attacks on civil society. Venezuela has led this trend: The governments of late president Hugo Chávez and current president Nicolás Maduro have enacted 10 legal measures to restrict the country’s civic space since 2006, with another 2 bills introduced earlier this year.

There is well-founded concern that criminalization laws like those scribed in Venezuela are becoming more prevalent elsewhere. In 2020, Nicaraguan lawmakers approved legislation to allow state scrutiny over nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) funding sources and to restrict online expression. In 2021, Cuban officials ratified a similar decree to outlaw online dissent. NGOs in El Salvador and Ecuador are sounding the alarm on indicators that precede a shrunken civic space. Guatemalan officials, meanwhile, are also empowered to monitor local NGO financing. As the region’s NGOs bear the onerous weight of spurious legislation, the international community’s ability to press for accountability and justice for the victims of human rights abuses is weakened. The international community should rebuke the Maduro regime’s tactics and send a strong message to actors across the region: Criminalization of civil society must end.

The Legalization of Repression in Venezuela

The Venezuelan regime has long sought to narrow the country’s civic space, but the last year has marked a significant shift towards making repression official policy. Like other governments in the Americas, the Maduro regime used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to expand social control. Excessive lockdown rules allowed state authorities to harass NGOs and imprison journalists and healthcare workers, as lawmakers took steps to further codify repression. The March and May 2021 bills introduced in the pro-Maduro National Assembly create new, arbitrary requirements for NGOs to operate and grant the state broad leeway to criminalize any dissenting individual or organization, all under the guise of upholding the law.

The Maduro regime has also undertaken purported judicial reforms to feign compliance with international human rights standards and recommendations emanating from ongoing investigations on Venezuela’s protracted crisis. In early November, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a formal investigation into crimes against humanity in Venezuela—a first for the region. Ahead of the ICC’s announcement, top regime officials proposed reforms to address criminal sentencing and procedural delays in pretrial detention centers. These superficial reforms ostensibly fulfill recommendations from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) but practically further the regime’s goals by strengthening the legal framework to criminalize civil society.

Strain, Brain Drain, and Silence

The effects of the Maduro regime’s intensified legal efforts are visible in several emblematic 2021 cases. In January, authorities brutally raided an independent media organization and arbitrarily detained staff members of NGO Azul Positivo on charges related to their humanitarian support for HIV-positive Venezuelans. In July, state agents forcibly disappeared and arbitrarily detained three human rights defenders (HRDs) from NGO Fundaredes for denouncing links between the Maduro regime and irregular armed groups along the Venezuela-Colombia border. Fundaredes director Javier Tarazona has had his preliminary hearing postponed 13 times and remains imprisoned on terrorism, treason, and incitement-of-hatred charges.

Sweeping restrictive measures imperil all Venezuelan civil society, including HRDs, educators, and healthcare and humanitarian aid workers. A brain drain is accelerating, threatening the very survival of the country’s civic space. As HRDs, journalists, and NGOs flee for fear of reprisal, international human rights authorities and accountability mechanisms lose access to important testimony and on-the-ground reporting, further reducing the possibility of justice for victims. For those who remain, the codification of repression forces self-censorship and even silence. Many Venezuelan NGOs anticipate an uptick in repression as a tool to encourage self-censorship and narrow the flow of information to the ICC. As this trend continues, the international community will be challenged to denounce harmful practices that are technically constitutional, and further hamstrung on investigative efforts that rely on gagged local partners.

How to Stop the Regional Domino Effect

The 15-year effort to criminalize civil society in Venezuela is a dangerous reference point for other leaders in the region looking to muzzle local watchdogs and NGOs with minimal international consequences. For instance, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega used similar criminalization laws to imprison all opposition candidates ahead of the November sham presidential elections, winning his fourth consecutive term. Moreover, with Venezuela’s own local and regional elections decided in November and with preceding negotiations between the government and opposition stalling, the international spotlight on the Maduro regime is dimming.

Local and international NGOs and international human rights authorities, like the UN’s fact-finding mission on Venezuela, have drawn increasing attention to the country’s shrinking civic space, but were unable to curb new legislation. Restoring functional democracy in Venezuela and stopping democratic backsliding across the region will take significant, coordinated multilateral action that bolsters civil society-led solutions. But as a minimum first step to preserve Venezuela’s civic space, the OHCHR—which has an in-country physical presence—should speak out directly against the regime’s activities. Individual states should do the same, to further press for the OHCHR’s conclusive condemnation. The international community should ensure that the fact-finding mission’s financial and resource needs are met in order to mitigate the information gap resulting from the effects of repressive legislation. Additionally, the international community should work with Venezuelan civil society to press for the implementation of the fact-finding mission’s 45 recommendations. The international community also should also condemn the Maduro regime’s efforts to derail or manipulate the ICC investigation with its hollow commitments to reform.

If the international community can coalesce around the UN fact-finding mission to counter the closure of Venezuela’s civic space, it can send a strong message to other authoritarian governments in the region that policies of human rights abuse will not be tolerated. Increased accountability should replace the region’s trend of restrictive legislation. In the meantime, it is up to the international community to elevate the state of alarm on Venezuela’s disappearing civic space. A strategic and coordinated international response could safeguard the future of Latin American civil society, while a lax response may do much to stymie it.