Sign or Else: Venezuelans Coerced into Anti-Obama Petition

Jorge Rodríguez, one of the authors of the Tascón list, is spearheading the latest petition drive. (Bachaconews)
Jorge Rodríguez, one of the authors of the Tascón list, is spearheading the latest petition drive. (Bachaconews)

The government of President Nicolás Maduro is using desperate measures to coerce Venezuelans into signing a petition against the United States. The signature campaign calls for the repeal of Barack Obama’s executive order, which described Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the North American nation.

On Sunday, April 5, authorities in the country’s southern Amazonas State arrested National Guard Second Sergeant Frank Manuel Muñoz for refusing to sign the petition convened by the Venezuelan government. On the day in question, the soldier was called at his home on multiple occasions by local commander José Miguel Alaña for him to come to headquarters to sign the document.

After Sergeant Muñoz failed to present himself, a group arrived at his house to force him to comply. A subsequent confrontation between the soldier and his comrades led to Muñoz’s arrest.

On Tuesday, Muñoz was presented before the Eighth Military Tribunal of Control in Puerto Ayacucho, where he was charged with insubordination and military disobedience, as outlined in the Organic Code of Military Justice. He was then transferred on Wednesday to the pretrial military prison at Ramo Verde, Miranda State.

The government’s stated aim is for one-third of the country’s population to sign against the ruling made by the US president. But the coercive measures used along the way to secure Maduro’s objective constitute violations of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.

It also emerged this week that employees of the PDVAL state food distribution network in Monagas State, eastern Venezuela, have been demanding that people sign copies of the government’s petition. Those affected by the situation showed the PanAm Post images of shoppers being asked to sign the document before they could buy anything.

Tascón List Round Two

The latest episode of political pressure has revived memories of 2004, when Congressman Luis Tascón used data from local NGO Súmate to persecute and stigmatize all those who signed a petition asking for a recall referendum, as outlined in Article 72 of the Constitution, which enshrines citizens’ right to recall elected officials.

The so-called Tascón list was used by government agencies to identify and fire those employees who disagreed with the policies of former President Hugo Chávez. The list was also used to withhold various state services from signatories on a discretionary basis.

Perhaps the most well known use of the Tascón list involved lawyer and director of the Citizen Control NGO, Rocío San Miguel. In 2004, San Miguel, along with Magaly Chang and Thays Peñalver, was fired from her posts as a public employee in Venezuela’s border-control agency, for signing the recall petition against then-President Hugo Chávez.

Eleven years later, and the lawyer is still waiting for international legal justice. Her case is with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to punish the Venezuelan state for having fired her and her colleagues simply for exercising a democratic right.

“Behind this new action by the government of Nicolás Maduro is again Jorge Rodríguez, who was the mastermind behind the Tascón list. The collection of signatures to ask for the revocation of Obama’s degree revives for the country a perverse and very painful episode, to pressure and persecute officials,” San Miguel says.

Now mayor of the Libertador neighborhood of Caracas, Jorge Rodríguez was the one who announced the alleged signatures of 10,408,083 Venezuelans. The signatures had been submitted to a review process by the National Electoral Council and certified by the body’s president, Tibisay Lucena.

Rodríguez was also a member of Venezuela’s highest electoral body in the era in which signatories’ details were leaked to all public agencies.

“There’s a precedent of punishment. This is the greatest threat against Venezuelan society at the moment. What happened with the Tascón list is in the collective memory of Venezuelans, because we are all affected or know someone who was,” San Miguel explains.

“Now it generates more fear, above all because we’re facing a state that controls the distribution of goods and social rights, from getting an ID card to buying diapers. In 2004, it meant reprisal, but now not signing can even mean the denial of access to buy food or medicine,” the legal expert adds.

Media Offensive

The reprisals of the Maduro administration against those who have refused to sign the latest petition constitute, according to San Miguel, a flagrant violation of the Constitution. The fifth paragraph of Article 89 “prohibits any kind of discrimination for reasons of politics, age, race, sex, creed, or any other condition.”

Despite this, in the same week as the collection of signatures was announced, a case came to light concerning a senior employee with state carbon production company Carbonorca, who was fired for refusing to add his name to the petition.

With the application of the Tascón list, the Venezuelan state repeatedly violated the first article of the American Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines non-discrimination on any grounds, including political character.

The persecution of employees for not signing the decree against Obama violates the same principle. Labor sanctions against those who refuse to sign also violate Article 13 of the legal text, which enshrines freedom of thought and expression.

In the case of San Miguel and her colleagues, the Venezuelan state has also been accused of violating Article 25 of the convention, related to judicial protection. No Venezuelan court has yet punished the alleged wrong-doing, despite the legislative means to do so.

“After 11 years, we continue to wait for reparation and the truth. The road has generated irreparable damage, but we trust that international justice will value our rights. The important thing is that episodes like that of the Tascón list aren’t repeated in the history of the country,” the Citizen Control director added.

Aside from the threats, the government has orchestrated a massive media campaign, both in public and private outlets and on social media, using the the hashtag #ObamaDerogaElDecretoYa (Obama revoke the decree now). Television and radio channels are broadcasting day and night a government commercial employing the music of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s unknown whether royalties have been paid to the former Beatle’s estate.

Judge Dread

Employees of other state institutions have been directed to participate in signature drives — among them the Scientific, Criminal, and Penal Investigations Body, who received a direct order this week from Chief Detective José Gregorio Sierralta to that effect.

Sierralta has further designated a supervisor for each state level department to ensure compliance. On Monday, April 6, this over-eagerness was extended to all those who visited police departments to report crimes: officers were directed to set up booths outside their front entrances to collect signatures from the general public.

It was a similar story in Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice, where employees of all stripe — from janitors to judges — were obliged to take part in an event where they were ordered to sign the petition, which the government will reportedly send to US authorities.

“They passed through each one of the rooms and offices giving the same speech. They said that each one of us knew what could happen if we didn’t sign, because although no one said it openly, many of us don’t agree with the government,” said one lawyer at Venezuela’s highest court, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

“But to keep our jobs, we have to avoid giving our opinions. We simply couldn’t refuse to sign,” she added.