Venezuelan NGOs fear restrictions on foreign funds

Venezuela's human rights groups are raising concerns over pending legislation backed by President Hugo Chavez that would bar non-governmental organizations from receiving foreign funding.

Activists fear the bill being drafted in the predominantly pro-Chavez National Assembly will ban international funds completely, making them fully dependent on limited domestic donations and putting some at risk of disappearing.

The legislation would also compromise the autonomy of human rights groups, critics say.

The International Cooperation Law, which could soon be approved by lawmakers, would "impede NGOs from having sufficient resources," said Liliana Ortega, director of the Cofavic rights organization.

Chavez urged lawmakers this week to pass a law prohibiting Venezuela's political parties, human rights groups and election watchdogs from getting U.S. funds, but the bill being drafted by his political allies would ban all foreign money.

"It doesn't distinguish in regard to the origin of the funds," said Ortega, noting that many of the South American nation's non-governmental organizations depend on financing from European countries — not the United States.

Chavez claims some of Venezuela's NGOs that have received funds from organizations with ties to the U.S. government are conspiring against his government with help from Washington — an allegation that rights activists vehemently reject.

"If any organization is committing a crime, they should be brought to court," Ortega said.

Foro Por La Vida, an umbrella group representing dozens of rights organizations, expressed concern that Chavez aims to criminalize the work of rights activists simply because some have been critical of government policies.

"We are concerned, and we condemn the attempt to create a perception that raises doubts and suspicions regarding the conduct of human rights organizations," the group said in a statement Thursday.

Many of the accusations against non-governmental organizations have come from Venezuelan-American lawyer and political activist Eva Golinger, who claims funds from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development are being used to falsely portray Chavez's government as a violator of human rights.

"They are looking to undermine and destabilize Venezuela's government," Golinger told pro-Chavez lawmakers this week.