International

A nation of informers

That seems to be Hugo Chavez’s plan for Venezuela, based on this New York Times report:

President Hugo Chávez has used his decree powers to carry out a major overhaul of this country’s intelligence agencies, provoking a fierce backlash here from human rights groups and legal scholars who say the measures will force citizens to inform on one another to avoid prison terms.

Under the new intelligence law, which took effect last week, Venezuela’s two main intelligence services, the DISIP secret police and the DIM military intelligence agency, will be replaced with new agencies, the General Intelligence Office and General Counterintelligence Office, under the control of Mr. Chávez.

The new law requires people in the country to comply with requests to assist the agencies, secret police or community activist groups loyal to Mr. Chávez. Refusal can result in prison terms of two to four years for most people and four to six years for government employees.

“We are before a set of measures that are a threat to all of us,” said Blanca Rosa Mármol de León, a justice on Venezuela’s top court, in a rare public judicial dissent. “I have an obligation to say this, as a citizen and a judge. This is a step toward the creation of a society of informers.”

The sweeping intelligence changes reflect an effort by Mr. Chávez to assert greater control over public institutions in the face of political challenges following a stinging defeat in December of a package of constitutional changes that would have expanded his powers.

Mr. Chávez, who has insisted the defeat will not dampen his ambitions to transform Venezuela into a Socialist state, said the new law was intended to guarantee “national security” and shield against “imperialist attacks.”
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On Sunday, Mr. Chávez referred to critics of the intelligence law as de facto supporters of the Bush administration and of the Patriot Act, the American antiterrorism law that enhances the ability of security agencies to monitor personal telephone and e-mail communications.

Mr. Chávez’s new intelligence law has similar flourishes. For instance, it authorizes his new intelligence agencies to use “any special or technically designed method” to intercept and obtain information.

But the new law may also point to the influence of Cuba, Venezuela’s top ally, on intelligence policies. For instance, the use of community-monitoring groups to assist in gathering intelligence resembles Cuba’s use of neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to report on antigovernment behavior.

“This is purely Cuban-style policy,” Juan José Molina, a legislator with Podemos, a leftist party that broke from Mr. Chávez’s coalition last year, said of the new intelligence law. “Our rulers want to impose old models upon us.”
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The drafting and passage of the law behind closed doors, without exposing it to the public debate it would have had if Mr. Chávez had submitted it to the Assembly, also contributed to the public uproar and suspicion.
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One part of the law, which explicitly requires judges and prosecutors to cooperate with the intelligence services, has generated substantial concern among legal experts and rights groups, which were already alarmed by the deterioration of judicial independence under Mr. Chávez.
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“This is a government that simply doesn’t believe in the separation of powers,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights organization. “Here you have the president legislating by decree that the country’s judges must serve as spies for the government.”

Among many other things, I can’t help wondering if all those who have protested (rightly) the Bush administration’s approval of warrantless wiretapping and some elements of the USA Patriot Act will be equally vehement in denouncing Chavez’s apparently open-ended intrusion on personal rights. Let’s just say I think we’re moving into double-standards territory here.

Venezuelan bloggers Daniel Duquenal and Miguel Octavio have more.

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