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Venezuela: 'meddling' charities may be forced to leave

The Times

November 14, 2006

HUGO CHAVEZ is preparing a broad clampdown on charities and pressure groups working in Venezuela, echoing draconian measures imposed by Russia earlier this year.

Under the International Co-operation Law, currently in Congress, the Venezuelan President will take control of foreign funding for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and force them to open their files. Groups will also have to register with the Government and get permission to operate.

If approved "there will be no NGOs in Venezuela," said Liliana Ortega, of Cofavic, the human rights group. "There will only be groups permitted by the Government."

Embassies from the European Union are deeply concerned about the law, which could disrupt the work of cultural bodies such as the British Council. But they are reluctant to say anything that might be construed as interference in Venezuela's Presidential election on December 3. Mr Chavez is poised to sign it into law after the election if he wins a new six-year term.

The Venezuelan Government says that the law is needed to halt US meddling in its affairs. Prosecutors have filed charges against a voter education group, Sumate, after it received more than $30,000 (? 17,000) from the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

The fiery, left-leaning Venezuelan President has clashed constantly with the US since coming to power in 1998, accusing Washington of planning to assassinate him and to invade the oil-rich country. A close ally of President Castro of Cuba, he has cast the Venezuelan election as a contest between himself and George Bush, refusing to name his opponent or debate with him on TV.

At a five-hour press conference last week Mr Chavez said that he was preparing "a counter-attack" against what he called US-backed efforts to "destabilise the country" after the elections. He said that his opponent, Manuel Rosales, "could end up in jail" if he alleged fraud at the election.

Eight years after Mr Chavez swept to power, polls show that Venezuelans are more divided than ever about him. To supporters, the former paratroop commander ended a cozy, two-party system that for 50 years had divided up Venezuela's oil wealth while leaving half the population in poverty.

Since 2003 Mr Chavez has poured more than $15 billion into his flagship "missions" in Venezuelan slums, which give out subsidised food and free medical care. But experts say that the programmes are riddled with corruption and do not represent a sustainable solution to Venezuela's social ills.

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