Following the interception of the Teknik Perdana, by a Venezuelan warship on October 10 last and prior to the meeting of the Guyanese and Venezuelan foreign ministers in Port of Spain on October 17, our October 13 editorial (Venezuelan arrest), in attempting to give some context to the incident – Venezuela’s economic woes, President Nicolás Maduro’s political weakness, nationalist sentiment in the opposition and military with regard to Essequibo – asked whether Mr Maduro himself was responsible for approving the less than good neighbourly action or whether his hand was forced by the navy. Part of the answer to this increasingly worrying question may lie in the creation, on October 7, of the Strategic Centre for Homeland Security and Protection (CESPPA in Spanish).
Established by Presidential Decree No. 458, CESPPA falls directly under the Venezuelan Presidency and is headed by a general. The new agency is ostensibly responsible for managing information flows on strategic issues relating to security, defence, intelligence, internal order and foreign affairs, to facilitate presidential decision-making. CESPPA has, however, in its articles, been granted sweeping powers to “anticipate and neutralise potential threats to national interests” and “declare any information as being of a reserved, classified or limited” nature regarding its dissemination. It has the authority, moreover, to call for all information concerning “internal and external enemy activity coming from all the Venezuelan security and intelligence agencies and other public and private bodies.”
The new mechanism has already been criticised by many stakeholders, including Transparency Venezuela, for being in contravention of constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression, the right to information and the prohibition of censorship. There are also fears that its powers might be abused in ways that would compromise basic human rights.
The Venezuelan Alliance for Freedom of Expression has rejected CESPPA as “a mechanism of censorship” and called for its repeal. Outspoken attorney-at-law Fermín Mármol García has called CESPPA a “militarist model” to control information and suppress the release of any news that might disrupt the government’s plans, including through covert penetration of the media.
CESPPA is a spy agency in other words, but one that is empowered to spy on the country’s own citizens. In this respect, president of the opposition Copei party, Roberto Enríquez, has accused the government of wanting to create a “totalitarian, militarised, police state.”
Outside of Venezuela, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) has weighed in, condemning the new state agency as having the explicit objective of censoring information for reasons of national security or political destabilisation. The chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Uruguayan journalist Claudio Paolillo, has declared, “We have before us a case of unending arrogance in which the government of Venezuela decides what may be reported, criticised or thought, and can control, censor and punish at will; something like being president, legislator and judge all at the same time.”
More alarmingly, Asdrúbal Aguiar, Interior Minister in the Copei administration preceding Hugo Chávez’s assumption of power in 1999, has compared CESPPA with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s infamous DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) and has charged that it “transforms into eunuchs the Ministers of the Interior, Justice and Peace, of Foreign Affairs and of Defence.”
Teodoro Petkoff, the former leftist guerrilla, co-founder of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party and founder-editor of the anti-chavista newspaper, Tal Cual, in agreeing with Dr Aguiar, warns that CESPPA will have more power than the president himself. In his opinion, Mr Maduro could not have been the author of the decree creating the agency, “unless he has decided to commit political suicide,” and its origins are distinctly “Castro-ite.” For Mr Petkoff, it is “obvious” that Mr Maduro was forced to sign the document by the military, who have engineered a “sort of cold coup” in that they now hold real power in the country.
Mr Petkoff points out that Presidential Decree No. 458 allows CESPPA the “unusual power” of deciding what information may or may not be passed to the president in the judgment of the members of the Centre, all of whom are military men. A junta, not answerable to civilian authority, is effectively in charge and it can give direction to strategic ministries and even manipulate the presidency, if Mr Petkoff is reading CESPPA’s foundation articles correctly. If he is right, it is not simply a matter of managing information flows but a more sinister development.
For reasons of ideological affinity, some may be inclined to dismiss these criticisms as reactionary rants and conspiracy theories but, given the recent hostility towards Guyana, our strategists at the Office of the President and Takuba Lodge should be very worried indeed.