President Hugo Chávez is proposing new legislation that would vaguely ban certain activist organizations from receiving foreign money.
The law is one of multiple efforts during Chávez's 12 years in power that have given him new tools to clamp down on critics.
A single number topped the front page of El Nacional one recent morning 1,734.
It was the number of violations of private property rights attributed to President Hugo Chávez's government since 2005, as tallied by an advocacy group that promotes economic and personal freedoms in Venezuela.
Now, that same advocacy group is worried about the enactment of legislation that would clamp down on the foreign funds they need to exist.
"There's great uncertainty in Venezuela today because many organizations are in doubt about whether to continue projects that were financed by U.S., European and Asian organizations," said Alonso Dominguez, whose nongovernmental organization, Liderazgo y Vision (Leadership and Vision), compiled the property rights tally.
He said his NGO relies largely on Venezuelan donors, but has also used foreign funding to run courses in leadership training and community policing. Some of it has come from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Are we to allow political parties, NGOs, figures of the counterrevolution to continue being financed with millions and millions of dollars from the Yankee empire?" Chávez said in a speech in November, a month before his allies in the National Assembly enacted the new legislation.
The "Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-determination" empowers the government to fine a group double the sum it receives from abroad, bar offenders from running for office, and impose similar penalties for inviting foreigners who publicly give "opinions that offend state institutions."
The law is sweeping but unclear about which specific kinds of organizations are affected. It speaks of groups promoting "political rights" and individuals engaging in "political activities" without defining how foreign funding for these might incur prosecution.
The U.S. State Department has condemned the law, and Dominguez and the leaders of six other Venezuelan organizations interviewed by The Associated Press said they will go on soliciting foreign funding and fight any penalties in court.
"Our challenge is how not to disappear," said Marino Alvarado, who heads Provea, a human rights group that relies almost exclusively on overseas funds, including donations from the European Union and U.S.-based NGOs but not the U.S. government.
Provea produces detailed reports on the country's human rights situation and such high-profile cases as those of union leader Ruben Gonzalez, jailed on criminal charges stemming from a 2009 strike, and judge Maria Afiuni, who has been imprisoned for more than a year facing charges over her decision to free a jailed banker who subsequently fled the country.
Provea also publishes annual murder statistics that officials have stopped releasing — 13,985 homicides reported to authorities in 2010, confirming the status of Venezuela, and in particular Caracas, as one of the most violent places in the world.
Some activists are wondering how donors will respond to the law, and whether any will hold back in providing money.
Pro-Chávez politician Roy Daza said human rights groups will not be affected, and that the restrictions target "organizations that attack Venezuelan institutions."
Daza cited Sumate, a group that strongly criticizes the electoral system and helped organize a failed 2004 recall vote against Chávez.
Sumate says it has accepted funding from the National Endowment for Democracy in the past but has received no foreign funds in the past two years. "What this law attempts to do is strangle any possible source of financing," said Ricardo Estevez, a Sumate leader.
Feliciano Reyna, who heads Sinergia, a group of 50 Venezuelan NGOs that are opposing the new law, said concerned groups cover a broad range of issues — the environment, women's rights, Catholic charities, and the promotion of democracy and human rights.
The South Africa-based group CIVICUS, which supports citizen participation globally, says the Venezuelan law sets a dangerous precedent in Latin America.
Already, U.S. aid programs have been barred in two regions of Bolivia, and in Ecuador, NGOs warn that new regulations being considered would increase government controls affecting their organizations.
Chávez has long been suspicious of U.S. aid funding, having survived a brief 2002 coup that he accused Washington of actively supporting. He has since called some critical activists coup plotters, conspirators and U.S. pawns.
Chávez maintains that everything he has done has been in furtherance of a social revolution to close an age-old gulf between rich and poor. He insists Venezuela has free speech and points out that his opponents can air their views on TV.
"There is no dictatorship here, nor will there be a dictatorship," Chávez said in a recent speech.
The country still has critical newspapers like El Nacional, which headlined the property rights figures, as well as radio stations and the anti-Chávez TV channel Globovision. Venezuelans have voted regularly ever since Chávez was first elected in 1998, and he is up for re-election next year.
Critics say Chávez's method consists of carefully calculated actions to chill dissent, pressure opposition media and sideline opponents. Several opposition politicians have fled the country due to criminal charges that they say were trumped up, and the anti-Chávez TV channel RCTV was forced off the air. Another Chávez opponent, Alejandro Pena Esclusa, is jailed on charges of hiding explosives in his home — accusations he says are bogus and politically motivated.
Carlos Correa, whose Espacio Publico group defends free speech issues, was portrayed in cartoons on state TV last year as emerging from the U.S. Embassy with a suitcase stuffed with dollars. He said the cartoon was a lie but made him a target.
Outside the National Assembly last month, someone hurled a traffic cone at his head. As he was getting ice to put on his head, a man approached, cursed and threatened to kill him, he recalled.
The new law is just as much a means of intimidation, Correa said, likening its sweeping character to a pointed gun — "but you don't know whom it's going to fire at."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.