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Venezuela’s government fires employees who refuse to sign against U.S. sanctions, NGO claims

  • Signature-gathering post outside the National Institute of Ground Transportation (INTT), with a loud sound system at work.

    Signature-gathering post outside the National Institute of Ground Transportation (INTT), with a loud sound system at work.  (Franz von Bergen)

  • Supporters of President Maduro sign a petition asking the U.S. to end sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

    Supporters of President Maduro sign a petition asking the U.S. to end sanctions against Venezuelan officials.  (ap)

Two employees at Venezuela’s Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness were far from happy last week when they were fired for refusing to sign a manifesto against the Obama administration, a Caracas-based human rights organization is claiming.

In Petare, a suburb of Caracas, a woman who asked to remain anonymous said she had to step out of a two-hour line to buy fish because she refused to sign the petition, while in the western state of Merida government officials were offering the opportunity to buy milk to those who agreed to support President Nicolas Maduro in his anti-U.S. campaign.

“We also received a case of a worker who was fired for the same reason in Carbonorca [a government-owned company in the state of Bolívar],” said Inti Rodríguez, from the NGO Provea, to Fox News Latino.

For the past week, Venezuelans have been lining up in plazas, government offices and even prisons to add their signatures to a manifesto against the Obama administration's recent decision to sanction seven Venezuelan officials over human rights abuses during anti-government protests.

Maduro has set a goal of gathering 10 million ahead of the Summit of the Americas taking place April 10-11 in Panama City, saying he will personally hand them to president Obama.

Provea, an acronym for Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, warns that the government is coercing people, especially public employees, in order to get as many signatures as possible.

“These type of harassment has also been reported in [Venezuela’s state-owned oil company] PDVSA, the Finance Ministry and in Bolivariana de Puertos [state entity in control of the country’s ports],” Rodríguez told FNL.

“Their workers are being required to sign and gather signatures in public places,” he said.

This past Saturday, the government set up a Socialist Fish Fair in Plaza Caracas, one of the capital’s main squares, to offer low-price fish for the Holy Week. People lined up since 3:00 in the morning and, during their hours-long wait, government supporters tried to persuade them to sign the document.

“If you really are a Venezuelan, you should sign,” one of the supporters told a woman who refused to sign. “This is about our country, it is not about politics,” he added. Here, however, people who refused to sign were still allowed to buy food.

Provea fears Venezuela is falling deeper into a “political apartheid.”

“This already happened in 2004, when the government composed a list out of the people who requested a referendum to try to oust Hugo Chávez,” Rodríguez said. “Many were retaliated against back then. This time the opposite may happen: those who don’t sign could be excluded” and listed as persona non grata to the regime.

Since the campaign launched a few weeks ago, President Maduro has referred to it every single time he has been on public TV. On Thursday, he went a step further and asked members of his United Socialist Party (known as PSUV) to knock on doors, house by house, and ask people to sign the petition.

Each party base, or unit – the so-called Hugo Chavez´s Units of Battle, or Unidades de Batalla Hugo Chávez – is expected to collect at least 700 signatures, Maduro has said.

The round of sanctions announced by the U.S. on March 9 is being regarded by the government as “a threat” to the nation.

The situation is giving some oxygen to Maduro’s administration, whose approval rating recently climbed up to 25 percent, according to Datanalisis, the first time his numbers have gone up in more than a year.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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