Venezuelan law may aim to stifle dissent

A new intelligence law asks Venezuelans to become informants on national security.

.CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuelans may be forced to spy on their neighbors or risk prison terms under President Hugo Chavez’s new intelligence decree, raising fears of a Cuba-style system that could be used to stifle dissent.

Chavez says the intelligence law that he quietly decreed last week will help Venezuela detect and neutralize national security threats, including assassination or coups plots. But many Venezuelans are alarmed they could be forced to act as informants for the authorities – or face up to four years in prison.

“It’s a system just like Cuba,” said Raul Barbiera, an 80-year-old barber who was born in Spain and immigrated to Venezuela decades ago. He said the law reminds him of his experiences as a young man during the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, when “you couldn’t speak against the government.”

Barbiera said people will watch what they say because “anyone can start a file on you.”

Chavez’s leftist government maintains links to community activist groups and also has set up neighborhood-level “communal councils” that decide how to spend government funds for community projects.

The law says community-based organizations may be called upon to provide intelligence. Critics suspect such groups could become like Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which often are a forum for neighbors to snoop on each other and report suspicious activities to authorities.

Nancy Silva, a 45-year-old shopkeeper, said she worries about the creation of neighborhood-level spying networks.

“The government wants citizens to spy on each other. That’s scary,” Silva said.

Justice Minister Rodriguez Chacin denied that Venezuela is copying Cuba’s intelligence services, saying “this is a Venezuelan product.” He said on Monday that all Venezuelans have an obligation to cooperate.

But constitutional law attorney Alberto Arteaga Sanchez noted that Chavez “is constantly calling opposition leaders coup-plotters and pro-imperialists.

“And that makes me suspect this law may be used as a weapon to silence and intimidate the opposition,” Sanchez said.

Many Venezuelans distrust the intelligence agencies, whose members have been accused over the years of crimes ranging from executions to obstruction of justice.

But most Chavez opponents acknowledge that Venezuela remains far from a tightly monitored society like Cuba or North Korea.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Tuesday that the measures appear from press reports to “establish some kind of Soviet-style ideological conformity brigades, or otherwise require people to spy on their neighbors.”

“We always look with concern at any measures that are taken that would restrict people’s ability to exercise their fundamental human rights,” Casey said. “And that includes the ability to speak out against the government, if they so choose.”

Chavez has denied the law would infringe on freedoms, saying it falls into “a framework of great respect for human rights” and is necessary to thwart efforts by U.S. spies to gather information on his government. Chavez says the law would help prevent military rebellions like the 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power.

Rights groups say the law’s surveillance provisions also are a cause for concern.

Security forces do not need court orders for wiretapping and authorities can withhold evidence from defense lawyers if that is deemed to be in the interest of national security.

Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, compared the decree to the U.S. Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, in the sense that they both allow authorities to eavesdrop on suspects’ phone calls and e-mails without court permission.

Venezuela’s new law also revamps the intelligence services, replacing the Disip secret police and Military Intelligence Directorate with four new agencies, two under the Justice Ministry and two under military command.

One security and civil liberties monitor said military involvement in domestic security does not bode well for democracy.

“Getting the armed forces involved in domestic security tasks are typical of the dark times of military dictatorships,” said Rocio San Miguel, who heads a Venezuelan nongovernmental group that monitors security and defense issues.