The Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) of Venezuela dismissed the president of the Venezuelan Red Cross, Mario Villarroel, and appointed an intervening board for the entity. The sentence published on August 4 came after the Public Ministry opened an investigation against Villarroel for alleged cases of “harassment and mistreatment” against employees and volunteers of the organization.
The decision generated criticism from several civil agents in the country and abroad. NGOs and sectors of the press classified the judicial measure as “worrying” and stated that it would have raised a warning about possible actions by the government against civil organizations.
The action came to be compared with the decision of the government of Nicaragua that took place in January of this year, when Congress decided to close the Nicaraguan Red Cross under allegations that the organization had acted with partiality during the protests against President Daniel Ortega in 2018.
O Brazil in fact spoke with Venezuelan lawyer Jesús David Rojas, doctor in Human Rights and coordinator of the graduate program at the National School of Magistrates in Venezuela, to better understand the topic.
“It is a procedure that, apparently, so far, seems transparent, nothing is being hidden and, in principle, no one is being attacked. Now, the Venezuelan State has a duty to investigate anyone who is accused of alleged irregular acts,” he says.
For Rojas, what happened to the Venezuelan headquarters of the humanitarian organization cannot be compared with the Nicaraguan case, since what happened to the Red Cross of Venezuela was a legal action taken by the Supreme Court after a request from the MP, while in Nicaragua political action took place, since it depended on the political correlation within Parliament, which has a majority of the ruling party.
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In addition, the lawyer points out that while in Nicaragua the Red Cross was closed, in Venezuela the intervention was decreed “to keep the institution functioning”. Venezuelan red,” he says.
The professor explains that the intervention decreed by the Venezuelan Supreme Court has the character of a precautionary measure and would also serve to prevent current directors of the entity from obstructing investigations, since the accusations are against Villarroel’s entire team.
International Federation will work together
Last Wednesday (09), the delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies (IFRC) visited Caracas and met with the intervening board appointed by the TSJ. An autonomous international organization, the IFRC acts as a link between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, and the National Societies, in this case, the Venezuelan Red Cross. According to documents published on the ICRC’s official website, “each of these components has its own legal identity and role”.
Through social media, the Venezuelan Red Cross said it received IFRC delegates to “work together with the restructuring board on a strategic plan to guarantee the integrity of our volunteers, update our statutes and promote democratic elections within a period of 12 months” .
In addition to the IFRC mission, headed by the Secretary General’s representative, Walter Cotte, foreign ambassadors in Venezuela were present, such as the Argentinean Oscar Laborde. On social media, he stated that “the presentations were very clear and interesting” and that the Argentine embassy is willing to “collaborate in everything we can for the successful conclusion of the process”.
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A day after the meeting, last Thursday (10), Cotte also spoke about the meeting with the intervening board. The IFRC representative said that the organization is committed to “working together” with the new direction of the Venezuelan Red Cross and that he had also met with the vice president of Venezuela, Delcy Rodríguez.
“To ensure that the Venezuelan Red Cross is sustainable, impartial, neutral, independent and autonomous, we are committed to working in an articulated manner to fulfill the tasks requested by the TSJ to the restructuring board,” he said.
Prior to the visit, the IFRC had issued a statement stating that “any intervention in our National Red Cross Societies raises serious concerns” and that the entity has “its own mechanisms to deal with situations when a member of a National Society can be considered a misdemeanor”.
To the Brazil in fact, Eder Peña, a researcher on the humanitarian issue in Venezuela, says that the visit conveyed “security and transparency” to the intervention process. “The new management, in its first statement, said it would work together with its international referent. And the international referent now says the same thing. So, so far, no issues have occurred, no deadlocks, nothing that could lead someone to say there is something shady in the process,” he says.
Lawyer Rojas also claims that the visit brings more security to the process, as she would be “committed to working with the new management”.
How did the investigation start?
On July 28, the attorney general of Venezuela, Tarek William Saab, announced the opening of an investigation against Mario Villarroel “and his team” for “alleged harassment and mistreatment against volunteers and workers of the Venezuelan Red Cross”. According to the decision of the TSJ, the MP filed the complaint with the anonymous testimony of eight people, including workers and volunteers of the institution, who would have substantiated the prosecutor’s accusations.
Denunciations of abuses allegedly committed by the now former president of the Venezuelan Red Cross did not just come from the MP. According to victims interviewed by the newspaper the stimulus, the alleged cases of harassment within the organization have deepened in recent years and Villarroel would have used these practices to persecute anyone who disagreed with his decisions. When announcing the opening of the investigation, the Venezuelan attorney general stated that the identity of the volunteers and employees “will be preserved during the investigation”.
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Opposition politicians and some civil organizations, however, claim that there are political motivations behind the sentence. That’s because Saab’s announcement came days after Chavista deputy Diosdado Cabello said publicly, during a program on state TV aired on July 19, that he had received complaints about the actions of the now former president of the entity. According to the parliamentarian, Mario Villarroel and his son, Miguel Villarroel, who was vice-president of the Venezuelan Red Cross, had “used the institution to accumulate power and resolve personal issues.”
Cabello’s statements had a negative impact on the press, which accused the deputy of allegedly trying to “persecute” non-governmental organizations in the country. To support the accusations, many critics cited a Bill presented by the parliamentarian in January that would have the intention of regularizing and supervising the funding of NGOs in Venezuela.
During his presentation speech for the PL, the chavista stated that he had “a list of at least 62 NGOs that operate with political ends” in the country. The bill presented by the deputy has not yet entered into force. It was approved in the first discussion in Parliament, but will still have to be submitted to popular consultation to return to Congress and, only then, be voted again.
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Eder Peña explains that suspicions regarding the work of some NGOs occur because there is, on the part of the government, concern about external funding and possible political motivations of the organizations. “There are many types of NGOs, some humanitarian and some political. The government always tries not to interfere with the work of humanitarian workers, but it is aiming to increase inspections of organizations with other areas of activity”, he explains.
Regarding the government’s relationship with the Red Cross, Peña says that it has always been stable and that “many state institutions, after the crisis, began to recommend that Venezuelans turn to the Red Cross and all this happens normally”.
“The relationship between the intervention in the Red Cross and political motives is made based on loose elements, because in fact what detonated was the request for an investigation made by the MP and is restricted to the labor issue and the work environment that existed within the Red Cross, unless this new direction demonstrates something in an audit and starts a deeper investigation process”, explains Peña.
After all, is the intervention legal?
According to lawyer Jesús David Rojas, the intervention by the Venezuelan Red Cross “has no relation to the bill [apresentado por Diosdado Cabello] because it has not yet been approved and, therefore, is not in force and could not be used by the TSJ to justify the decision”.
For him, the jurisprudence adopted by the TSJ to appoint the intervening board is based on what the Court’s own sentence stated to be “diffuse and collective interests of Venezuelan citizens”.
“These are the interests of people who need humanitarian assistance from the Venezuelan Red Cross. These would be the diffuse and collective interests that are being defended, because the Court understands that the institution cannot stop working while investigations take place,” he says.
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The TSJ, in turn, has already announced the members of the intervening board. In the presidency, will be businessman Ricardo Cussano, former president of Fedecamaras, the largest employer in the country. After his appointment, he stated that he would start “a process of restoring the institutionality of the Venezuelan Red Cross”.
Shortly after the International Federation’s visit to Caracas, the ousted president of the Venezuelan Red Cross, Mario Villarroel, spoke for the first time about the case. In a video published on his social networks, the lawyer denies all the accusations made by the Public Prosecutor’s Office regarding the alleged cases of harassment against employees and says that the Supreme Court did not respect his presumption of innocence and right to a defense.
Rojas states that, in theory, “the decision of the TSJ admits an appeal that can be filed by the cited parties once they are notified”. “There should even be a public call for anyone who might feel interested in the topic to participate in the process and expose whatever they want, evidence that corroborates or refutes the accusations,” he says.
Editing: Rodrigo Durão Coelho