It was a little strange to hear the phrase “they don’t like it because they want to be perceived as Robin Hood,” during a discussion in Spanish on attempts to close down independent community groups in the barrios of Caracas. I didn’t know Robin Hood was so famous in Venezuela. I did know that the supporters of President Hugo Chavez claimed to be working to deliver health and education to the poorest communities. The activist we were speaking with came himself from a poor barrio and had been active in the communist party. He said that whilst his community group were trying to lift up and improve the barrio they were seen as a threat to the Chavistas who tried to threaten, induce or intimidate them into ceasing their activities or toeing the party line. The complaint became a familiar one over the next days.
Several of those we spoke with had been supporters of Chavez or at least acknowledged the positives from his first years in power. There has been significant progress on access to education and health even if this might be tailing off. One activist spoke of the problems of enduring poverty but qualified it by saying that for all their problems the people of the Caracas barrios would be considered to be millionaires by the barrio dwellers of Colombia or Brazil.
Trade Union activists in Puerto Ordaz complained that they were being persecuted for defending workers rights. They spoke of their colleagues being threatened, attacked and in some cases killed by hired thugs operating under the cover of a pro-Chavez union. They explained that by using this group the attacks could be dismissed as the product of inter-union rivalries rather than political repression.
It was good to meet with Marianela Sánchez, Legal Coordinator in the Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (OVP) whose case had been taken up by Front Line Defenders in May, after threats made against her and her work by armed men who accosted and robbed her husband. Humberto Prado, Director of the OVP, has also received threats and been the subject of an official campaign to defame their work. It was interesting to discuss with them the security system for their office which Front Line Defenders had helped them with.
We also met with journalists, environmental activists and those working with indigenous peoples. Several journalists spoke of the pressure on independent media and how some subjects were taboo including corruption and freedom of expression (the Venezuelan government rejected all 13 recommendations regarding freedom of expression in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) conducted by the United Nation’s Human Rights Council). The office block that is shared by Transparency International who we had met on the Monday was attacked by a group calling themselves the Frente Bolivariano de Trabajadores (Bolivarian Workers Front) on the Thursday and windows were smashed.
A common theme was that the last years had seen increases in corruption fueled by non-transparent public accounting of how the oil wealth is being spent, combined with increasing centralization and authoritarianism. Several people said that Chavez would have won the recent Presidential election even if he hadn’t cheated. But that the blatant use of state resources to fund electioneering, of which we saw plenty evidence in relation to the current elections for State Governors, and the extensive political control of the media was setting a trajectory which would end in dictatorship. Part of me felt that complaints that Chavez was giving housing to the poorest in order that they would vote for him was a model that might be tried elsewhere. But there were also clear signs of of a drift towards authoritarianism. One defender spoke of how the way that Chavez was seeking to exercise control through legally unaccountable community groups was creating a “new grammar of power.”