Venezuela bars foreign funding for NGOs

Critics condemn the law for blocking funding for human rights activists.

Caracas: A congress dominated by President Hugo Chavez`s allies passed a law barring foreign funding for non-government organisations and political parties, adding to a series of measures that critics say aim to stifle dissent.

The law approved by the National Assembly late Tuesday puts in jeopardy human rights groups and other organisations that get money from abroad, providing for fines up to double the amount received.

It is one of many controversial laws Chavez`s government is pushing through in the final weeks of an outgoing congress that had only a token opposition presence. A new legislature with a much larger opposition bloc takes office on January 05.

Human Rights Watch condemned the "Law for the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self-determination”, saying it not only blocks funding for human rights activists but also "severely limits their ability to foster public dialogue with foreign experts who are critical of Chavez`s policies."

According to the language of the law, it targets groups that defend "political rights”, and establishes penalties for inviting foreigners who publicly give "opinions that offend institutions of the state" or high-ranking officials. Organisations can be fined for such statements, and political parties can be fined and barred from elections for five to eight years.

Carlos Lusverti, who heads Amnesty International in Venezuela, said the law is vaguely worded and puts NGOs at risk. He said his branch receives much of its funding from chapters in other countries.

"If we`re going to work only with what our local fundraising gives us ... our activities are going to be severely reduced," Lusverti said. Other warn that some groups could disappear altogether.

Chavez has said the measures are needed to prevent foreign intervention, particularly by the US government and US-based organisations.

"How are we going to permit political parties, NGOs ... to continue to be financed with millions and millions of dollars from the Yankee empire?" Chavez said last month.

The US Agency for International Development has provided millions of dollars to Venezuelan organisations for programs that it says aims to promote democracy. Other groups that have funded programs in Venezuela include the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

The National Assembly also passed a law on Tuesday that would allow for the suspension of lawmakers who leave their political party while in office. That aims to counter the kind of defections that have happened during the current legislative session, when about a dozen legislators broke with Chavez.

Bureau Report