Venezuela: Treatment of suspected whistle-blowers or former government employees, by the government or pro-government groups (2015 - May 2017) [VEN105784.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

Human Rights Watch's World Report 2016: Events of 2015 states that

[u]nder the leadership of President Hugo Chávez and now President Nicolás Maduro, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled the government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute its critics, leading to increasing levels of self-censorship. (Human Rights Watch 27 Jan. 2016)

According to the same source, "[a]uthorities have … brought or threatened to bring criminal charges against dozens of Venezuelans for criticizing the government" (Human Rights Watch 27 Jan. 2016). Similarly, according to Amnesty International Report 2015/16: The State of The World's Human Rights, "[p]olitical opponents of the government faced unfair trials and imprisonment" (AI 24 Feb. 2016, 395).

According to Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2017, "[t]he 2015 [National Assembly] elections were marred by … reported intimidation and monitoring by superiors of state employees with the aim of ensuring that they voted for the government, followed by threats and firings after the results were announced" (Freedom House 2017). Sources report that the opposition obtained the majority in the National Assembly following 2015 elections (DW 1 May 2017; US 13 Apr. 2016, 25).

According to the Amnesty International Report 2016/17: The State of The World's Human Rights, "[p]olitical opponents and critics of the government continued to face imprisonment" (AI 22 Feb. 2017, 393). The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, states that "[g]overnment officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy" (US 3 Mar. 2017, 19). According to Freedom in the World 2017, "[a]s part of its bid to retain power, the [United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV)] government resorted to imprisoning more opposition politicians, detaining journalists, and intimidating state employees" (Freedom House 2017).

2. Protection Measures for Whistle-Blowers

In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, a Lecturer in Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of Toronto who specializes in and has published articles on Venezuelan politics, indicated that protection exists at the "state level" with the Ombudsperson [Defensoría del Pueblo], whose job it is to protect whistleblowers, to represent the interests of the Venezuelan people and to point out when the Government misbehaves, including cases of corruption (Lecturer 10 May 2017). According to the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the website of the Ombudsperson's Office, the Ombudsperson's Office is mandated to act in instances of threats to, or violations of, citizens' human rights by officials or public servants who are part of the National Public Power [Poder Público Nacional] (Venezuela 22 Feb. 2015). According to the same source, the Office of the Ombudsperson cannot resolve conflicts between individuals and the Office of the Ombudsperson can only act when one of the parties is a company providing a public service (Venezuela 22 Feb. 2015).

Without providing further detail, the Lecturer provided the opinion that there is a lack of enforcement of safeguards and that the Ombudsperson has not carried forward high-profile investigations against the government (Lecturer 10 May 2017). The same source added that non-institutional protection measures are of significant importance in Venezuela, including the connections one has and the protection they are able to offer (Lecturer 10 May 2017). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

Sources state that "Venezuela does not have specific whistleblower protections" (Birch et al. May 2015, 75) or that "no legal protection measures exist for whistleblowers in Venezuela" (Aguiar 15 May 2014). Similarly, the US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 states that "[a]ccording to local NGOs, no law on whistleblower protection exists" (US 27 Feb. 2014, 31).

In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, a Caracas-based Senior Analyst of International Crisis Group, who researches the Venezuelan political situation, stated that Article 57 of the Constitution of Venezuela prohibits the censorship of government employees in relation to matters under their control that relate to their work (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017). An English translation of the Constitution of Venezuela published on the website of the Venezuelan Embassy in South Korea provides the following:

Article 57: Everyone has the right to express freely his or her thoughts, ideas or opinions orally, in writing or by any other form of expression, and to use for such purpose any means of communication and diffusion, and no censorship shall be established. Anyone making use of this right assumes full responsibility for everything expressed. Anonymity, war propaganda, discriminatory messages or those promoting religious intolerance are not permitted. Censorship restricting the ability of public officials* to report on matters for which they are responsible is prohibited. (Venezuela 1999, asterisk in original)

The Senior Analyst of International Crisis Group added that, in theory, it is unconstitutional to prevent a state employee from speaking out, but in practice, there is no recourse, because there is no actual legislation that develops the constitutional principle (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017).

3. Treatment of Suspected Whistle-Blowers or Former Government Employees, by the Government or Pro-Government Groups

Information on the treatment of suspected whistle-blowers or former government employees by the government or pro-government groups was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response. Without providing further detail, the Lecturer stated that over the past five years, there have been people who were fired as a result of exposing corruption in the state oil company PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.] (Lecturer 10 May 2017). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to Amnesty International (AI),

Alcedo Mora Márquez, an employee of the Government Secretariat in Mérida State and a community leader in the area, went missing in February 2015. Before his disappearance, he submitted reports on the misconduct of local public officials. (AI 22 Feb. 2017)

Infobae, an Argentinean news website, cites the son of Alcedo Mora as stating that his father disappeared for reporting corruption in the government (Infobae 12 Nov. 2015). The same source cites Alcedo Mora's niece as stating that Alcedo Mora was investigating the trafficking of fuel to Colombia by members of the government of Mérida State and by officials of Petroleum of Venezuela Ltd. (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., PDVSA), the state oil company (Infobae 12 Nov. 2015). The same source cites the niece of Alcedo Mora as further stating that the Public Prosecutor's Office categorized the investigation in the frame of fundamental rights, which implies that the state is investigated as a suspect (Infobae 12 Nov. 2015).

The information in the following paragraph regarding the case of Alcedo Mora was provided by the Senior Analyst of International Crisis Group:

As a state employee, Alcedo Mora was the secretary to the second most important person in the state government and he was a left-wing activist and pro-government. He disappeared on 27 February 2015. Apparently, he had information about corruption in the oil industry as he had been investigating gasoline smuggling by people in the Mérida state government and the national oil corporation PDVSA. Those close to Alcedo Mora believe that his disappearance is related to the fact that he was going to reveal information. His son said that Alcedo Mora sent a message before disappearing that there was an arrest warrant for him in the hands of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN), the government intelligence service. The government has never seriously investigated his disappearance and there is no information about an investigation on his disappearance (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017).

An article in the news (noticias) section on the website of the Office of the Ombudsperson in April 2015 indicates that the Ombudsperson reported via Twitter that he met with the family of Alcedo Mora and that the Ombudsperson stated that his institution does not rule out any motive about the disappearance of Alcedo Mora Márquez (Venezuela 28 Apr. 2015). A May 2015 article from the same source states that the Ombudsperson reported via Twitter that [translation] "a commission of the [Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Corps (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC)] in Caracas had transferred to Mérida to intensify" the search for Alcedo Mora (Venezuela 21 May 2015). A June 2015 news article from the same source reports that, via Twitter, the Ombudsperson expressed concern about the [translation] "slow progress" of the investigation of the disappearance of Alcedo Mora (Venezuela 19 June 2015). The article states that the Ombudsperson further indicated that the Office of the Ombudsperson carried out the appropriate proceedings before the CICPC and the Public Prosecutor's Office (Ministerio Público, MP) in order to solve the case (Venezuela 19 June 2015). In the summer of 2016, sources reported that the case has been submitted for review by the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (Panorama 12 July 2016; TalCual 1 Aug. 2016), after the Venezuelan authorities did not provide an answer to the family regarding the reported disappearance (TalCual 1 Aug. 2016).

4. Dismissal and Blacklist of State Employees

According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report entitled A Decade Under Chávez. Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela, "[c]itizens who exercised their right" to call for a recall referendum against President Chávez in 2004 "were threatened with retaliation and blacklisted from some government jobs and services" (Human Rights Watch Sept. 2008, 10). The same source explains that after Hugo Chávez denounced the recall referendum as an "'act against the country'," and the list of those who signed the referendum petition was given to legislator Luis Tascón, which was then posted on the internet (Human Rights Watch Sept. 2008, 10). The same source further states that this "Tascón List" and "an even more detailed list of all Venezuelans' political affiliations," known as the "Maisanta Program," were "used by public authorities to target government opponents for political discrimination" (Human Rights Watch Sept. 2008, 10). According to the 2008 Human Rights Watch report, "[t]here were also reports that private sector employers utilized the [Tascón List and the Maisanta Program] to discriminate against Chávez supporters" (Human Rights Watch Sept. 2008, 10).

The Senior Analyst of International Crisis Group provided the opinion that if one is inclined to reveal anything that the government does not want revealed, one will be blacklisted on the Maisanta List (Lista Maisanta) (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017). The same source indicated that the Maisanta List is the "present-day" form of the Tascón List, and that the objective of the Maisanta List is to cover the entire electorate and identify who is pro government and who is not (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017). According to the same source, those on the "wrong" side of the list are prevented from obtaining public sector jobs and can be denied government services (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017). The same source further stated that "there have been cases where state departments and corporations, like state oil corporations, pressured private companies not to employ those on the blacklist" (International Crisis Group 5 May 2017).

The Lecturer provided the opinion that it is not common to speak out in Venezuela, unless one seeks to make a career of it, as there are cases where individuals spoke out against the government, for example denouncing corruption, and then immediately joined the opposition to run for office (Lecturer 10 May 2017). The same source explained that this is more prevalent with high profile people and less so among people in lower-ranking administrative or bureaucratic positions, partially because there is a fear of reprisal (Lecturer 10 May 2017). The Lecturer provided the opinion that reprisal does not only mean physical intimidation, but also not being able to get a job, given that both the government and the opposition are using lists, including the Tascón List, and that if someone's name appears on this list, it is "impossible" for that person to get a government job, or they may have issues accessing housing (Lecturer 10 May 2017). The Lecturer further added that the list is also used by the opposition as a "litmus test to see who is really with them" (Lecturer 10 May 2017).

A 2015 article on the dismissal of two employees from a state corporation published in La Verdad, a Maracaibo-based newspaper, cites a representative of the Trade Union (Unidad de Acción Sindical) as stating that since the publication of the Tascón list, [translation] "more than two million Venezuelans have lost their jobs" (La Verdad 1 Apr. 2015). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

4.1 Incidents

The 2008 Human Rights Watch report indicates that

[p]olitical discrimination has been openly endorsed and practiced in the oil industry, which is one of the country's largest sources of employment and the backbone of the national economy. After a two-month-long strike in December 2002, the government fired close to half of the workforce from the state oil company, [PDVSA], and blacklisted them from future employment in the oil sector. A month before the 2006 presidential election, the energy minister (who also serves as PDVSA president) boasted that the company had "removed 19,500 enemies of the country from the [oil] business" and would continue to do so, telling PDVSA employees that anyone who disagreed with the government "should give up their post to a Bolivarian." Although the minister issued a memo almost a year later proscribing political discrimination, there is credible evidence that the discriminatory mindset reflected in his initial remarks was also embodied in actual employment policies in some departments of PDVSA. (Human Rights Watch Sept. 2008, 11)

Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

La Verdad reports that in April 2015, two employees of the Organization for Development in the Zuliana Region (Corporación de Desarrollo de la Región Zuliana, Corpozulia) were fired for not signing a decree against then-US President Barack Obama, as mandated by President Maduro (La Verdad 1 Apr. 2015). La Verdad cites the representative of the Trade Union as stating that signatures for the decree were requested at other organizations as well, including [Cantv][1], PDVSA, governor's offices and municipalities (La Verdad 1 Apr. 2015). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to Al Jazeera, "[t]he opposition coalition …, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) [Mesa de Unidad Democrática], submitted a petition to the electoral authorities in May [2016] with 1.8 million signatures calling for [President] Maduro to face a recall vote" (Al Jazeera 23 Aug. 2016). According to Freedom House, in 2016, "[s]tate employees were told they would lose their jobs if they endorsed the [recall] referendum" (Freedom House 2017). The Al Jazeera article cites spokesperson Jorge Rodriguez of the PSUV as stating that "Venezuelan civil servants who signed a petition for a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power must be sacked within 48 hours" (Al Jazeera 23 Aug. 2016). The same article describes Rodriguez as President Maduro's "designated aide to monitor the opposition's referendum drive" and further cites him as stating that "[t]hose who signed the petition had 'publicly expressed their closeness to the Venezuelan right' and had no place in Maduro's government" and that "[p]eople who are against President Nicolas Maduro's revolution cannot be in management positions ... in ministries, public institutions, or state or local governments" (Al Jazeera 23 Aug. 2016). The same aide was further cited as stating that "lists of employees in managerial posts who signed the recall referendum petition" were distributed to five ministries, including the "food, finance, labour and basic industries ministries and the presidential office" (Al Jazeera 23 Aug. 2016). Similarly, a BBC article cites PSUV spokesperson Jorge Rodriguez as stating that "President Maduro had given the ministries of food, basic industries and finance among others a deadline of 48 hours to dismiss those in senior positions who had signed the petition" (BBC 23 Aug. 2016). In October 2016, media sources reported that the campaign for the referendum to recall President Nicolás Maduro was suspended by Venezuela's electoral council (BBC 21 Oct. 2016; Al Jazeera 21 Oct. 2016).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Note

[1] Cantv (Compañia Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezula) is a Venezuelan telecommunications company which is part of the Ministry of Popular Power for Science, Technology and Innovation (Venezuela n.d.).

References

Aguiar, Yanet. 15 May 2014. "Whistleblowing - What Protection Do Employees Have in Venezuela?" Norton Rose Fulbright blog network. [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017]

Amnesty International (AI). 22 February 2017. "Venezuela." Amnesty International Report 2016/17: The State of The World's Human Rights. [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017]

Amnesty International (AI). 24 February 2016. "Venezuela." Amnesty International Report 2015/16: The State of The World's Human Rights. [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017]

Al Jazeera. 21 October 2016. "Venezuela Suspends Recall Vote Against President Maduro." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Al Jazeera. 23 August 2016. "Venezuela Civil Servants Face Sack over Referendum." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 21 October 2016. "Venezuela's Maduro Recall Referendum Drive Suspended." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 23 August 2016. "Venezuela Public Workers Face Sack over Referendum." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Birch, Joshua, Joshua Dyer, Melissa Pasos, Melissa Sandoval, Kelsi Schagunn, Juanita Taylor, Scott Tuurie, Jorge Valdes, and Seiko Yoshitake. May 2015. The State of Whistleblower & Journalist Protection Globally: A Customary Legal Analysis of Representative Cases. [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017]

Deutsche Welle (DW). 1 May 2017. "Venezuela President Maduro Hikes Wages, Distributes Social Housing." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Freedom House. 2017. "Venezuela." Freedom in the World 2017. [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017]

Human Rights Watch. 7 February 2017. "Amicus Curiae: Political Discrimination in Venezuela." [Accessed 10 May 2017]

Human Rights Watch. 27 January 2016. "Venezuela." World Report 2016 : Events of 2015. [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Human Rights Watch. September 2008. A Decade Under Chávez Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela. [Accessed 9 May 2017]

Infobae. 12 November 2015. "La historia de Alcedo Mora, el chavista desaparecido por denunciar corrupción." [Accessed 9 May 2017]

International Crisis Group. 5 May 2017. Telephone interview with a Senior Analyst.

La Verdad. 1 April 2015. "Despiden a 2 trabajadores de Corpozulia por negarse a firmar." [Accessed 5 May 2017]

Lecturer, University of Toronto. 10 May 2017. Telephone Interview.

Organization of American States (OAS). 28 October 2015. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Report No. 75/15 Case 12.923 Report On Merits Rocío San Miguel Sosa And Others Venezuela. [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Panorama. 12 July 2016. Sabrina Machado. "Dirigente político Alcedo Mora cumple 17 meses desaparecido, familiares claman respuestas." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

TalCual. 1 August 2016. "Transcurre otro mes sin saber de Alcedo Mora y los hermanos Vergel." [Accessed 16 May 2017]

United States (US). 3 March 2017. Department of State. "Venezuela." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016. [Accessed 2 May 2017]

United States (US). 13 April 2016. Department of State. "Venezuela." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015. [Accessed 16 May 2017]

United States (US). 27 February 2014. Department of State. "Venezuela." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013. [Accessed 2 May 2017]

Venezuela. 19 June 2015. Defensoría del Pueblo. "Defensor pide intensificar investigaciones sobre desaparición de Alcedo Mora y hermanos Vergel." [Accessed 10 May 2017]

Venezuela. 21 May 2015. Defensoría del Pueblo. "Defensor del Pueblo exhorta al MP y CICPC a no descartar ninguna hipótesis sobre desaparición de Alcedo Mora y hermanos Vergel." [Accessed 10 May 2017]

Venezuela. 28 April 2015. Defensoría del Pueblo. "Defensor del Pueblo recibió en su despacho a familiares de Alcedo Mora" [Accessed 10 May 2017]

Venezuela. 22 February 2015. "¿Cuál es el alcance de la Defensoría del Pueblo?" [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Venezuela. 1999. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. [Accessed 5 May 2017]

Venezuela. N.d. "Somos Cantv." [Accessed 10 May 2017]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Amnesty International; Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University; Associate Professor of Sociology and faculty affiliate, Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies Program, Binghamton University; Transparencia Venezuela; UN – Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Washington Office on Latin America; Whistleblowing Research Unit, the Middlesex University London.

Internet sites, including: Analítica; Anti Corruption Digest; Bloomberg; CBC; Council on Foreign Relations; El Tiempo; El Universal; The Economist; Factiva; Freedom House; GlobalPost; Government Accountability Project; The Guardian; IRIN; Jane's Intelligence Review; Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme; Latin News; The New York Times; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Organization of American States; Radio France internationale; Radio Free Europe; Today Venezuela; Transparency International; Transparencia Venezuela; UN – Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, Refworld, Reliefweb; Venezuela – Ministerio Público; Whistleblowing International Network.