Venezuela’s authoritarian crackdown has been headline news in recent weeks, with Monday's sham vote effectively locking in strongman Nicolás Maduro’s one-party rule. Anti-government protests have raged in the streets for more than one hundred days and over one hundred and twenty-five people have been killed in clashes with government forces. In response to the vote, the American government slapped Maduro with targeted sanctions and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster denounced the Venezuelan president as a “dictator” during a press conference (It’s worth noting that the effects of the sanctions are a bit hard to predict, as it’s not widely known whether or not Maduro directly holds many assets in America).
Of course, further sanctions may yet be on their way, as could any number of other counter-measures—diplomatic, economic, or even military—that policy-makers in Washington consider appropriate to American interests in the region. But another, related question hovers behind the political one: What are American civil-society groups doing to name, shame, and counteract the authoritarian abuses going on in this important regional neighbor?
The question comes into even sharper focus against the backdrop of a recent post by Martín Abregú, the Ford Foundation’s Vice President for Democracy, Rights, and Justice. Ford has made fighting inequality a major theme of its programming (I commented on Ford President Darren Walker’s essay last year) and Abregú now wants to link that general vision to a specific program of supporting opposition voices, combating over-policing, and defending targeted minority groups. (Abregú’s essay may be seen as an attempt to do damage control since Ford recently announced it would discontinue—after thirty years—its freestanding program devoted to supporting human rights systems, but let’s take him at his word that the Foundation’s commitment to human rights remains unchanged.)
Abregú is then quick to tie the Foundation’s support of anti-totalitarian dissident movements in Latin America to its commitment to intersectional justice more broadly. So criminalization of indigenous minorities, for instance, overlaps with abuse of natural resources and government corruption as issues that all collaborate to undermine civic trust and collective justice. This is a fair association for Abregú to make, to be sure. A society is made up of many parts and the abuses endemic to the current Venezuelan political crisis, for instance, are complex and interrelated.
But the Foundation’s commitment to human rights seems less credible in light of its deafening silence regarding Maduro’s recent crackdown. The Foundation claims to support the right of citizens to participate more fully and openly in their government processes and promote ideas of freedom and equality without fear of censorship or repression. Yet they’ve not issued public statements or significant reports on the situation in Venezuela, which grows more desperate each day. Just yesterday morning Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were snatched out of their beds by government agents—it would seem the opportunity for a clear and forceful statement, at the very least, regarding the need for a more inclusive political process from a leading American foundation that claims to care about such things.
The Foundation can’t claim to be above politics, either: in May it commissioned a feature-length report along with the Economist to suggest ways in which the Colombian government’s fragile peace accord with the FARC might be strengthened through social integration and a more “inclusive economy.” But no such policy-specific blueprint for a more equal and just society has come out regarding Venezuela.
The Hudson Institute’s 2015 Index of Philanthropic Freedom ranks Venezuela “one of the lowest scoring countries in the region,” calling its philanthropic environment “neither supportive nor consistent.” Corruption and political repression stifle domestic nonprofits and prevent civil society groups from organizing or fundraising effectively. The report also notes that, “organizations that engage in activities even tangentially related to political reform are prohibited from receiving foreign contributions.” So American groups looking to make a difference in the country face a high regulatory and legal barrier to entry.
But surely they can do more than they seem to be doing now to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis currently underway.
I’m not trying to split hairs. The Ford Foundation makes clear that its primary programming goals in the Andean region revolve around land rights and equal access, especially among indigenous, Afrodescendants, and rural communities. Fair enough. But still—what we are witnessing on the streets of Caracas right now is nothing less than an extraconstitutional takeover by an illegitimate thug. Basic political and legal rights—including the right not to be shot in the street for protesting the government—need to be respected as a precondition for addressing broader questions of cultural and ethnic injustice. The Ford Foundation is sacrificing an important degree of credibility when it turns a blind eye to this fact.