Chavez opponents left jobless, blacklisted

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez

KAI RYSSDAL: The House Judiciary Committee sent Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a little note today. Part of it was in Latin, though. The word "subpoena" was right at the top of the page. Congress is looking for more information about the firing of those eight U.S. attorneys as the controversy moves into the political arena.

There is a somewhat similar controversy going on in Venezuela. The politics of the two presidents involved, Chavez and Bush, couldn't be more different. But critics in Caracas say there it's blatant political discrimination happening against some government workers there, and on a much wider scale. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.


DAN GRECH: Rocio San Miguel worked as an attorney for 13 years with the Venezuelan government. In December 2003, she signed a petition to recall President Hugo Chavez, who she felt was abusing his power.

The names of those who signed were leaked to a Chavez loyalist, Congressman Luis Tascon, and posted on his website.

[SOUND: Chavez on TV]

Chavez even promoted the site live on national TV.

PRESIDENT CHAVEZ:Doble v doble v doble v punto luis tascon punto com. [www.luistascon.com] Metense alli.

One month after she signed, San Miguel was summoned into her boss's office.

ROCIO SAN MIGUEL [voice of translator]: He told me that, unfortunately, he had to fire me. He said, "How could it have occurred to you to sign against the guy who pays you?"

San Miguel experienced a cascade of emotions.

SAN MIGUEL: Indignation. Impotence. Anguish. I knew right away that something terrible was happening to me. And I began to collect evidence.

San Miguel was one of three people in her office who signed the petition against Chavez. All three were fired.

The Venezuelan constitution forbids discriminating against employees for their political beliefs. Nonetheless, according to the Organization of American States, the Chavez administration has shown a growing "tendency to intimidate, harass, and stigmatize" the opposition.

The public employees union in Venezuela documented 780 cases of political discrimination, including 200 firings.

Wesleyan University's Francisco Rodriguez says this amounts to economic blackmail.

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: OK, so you want to become an opponent of Chavez? That's going to have a high cost. You're not going to have a job.

Political patronage has always been part of the landscape here in Venezuela.But Riordan Roett with Johns Hopkins University says Chavez has turned ideological discrimination into a science.

RIORDAN ROETT: It really has become a monstrous mechanism for placing fear in the hearts of many Venezuelans.

Three and a half million people signed a petition against Chavez in 2003.

ROETT: These people have now been identified as enemies of the state. Many people have lost their job, others cannot be hired. It's also generated outward migration. People have begun to leave, and in relatively large numbers.

Roett says the government is accused of using the list to screen applicants for social programs, scholarships, even credit from state banks.

ROETT: And so it really has become a blacklist, almost in the way you had lists in totalitarian Europe in the 1930s.

The difference is this list takes advantage of 21st century technology. A simple computer program, searchable by name or ID number, contains the political preferences of 14 million Venezuelans. It's called the Maisanta program, after Chavez's great grandfather.

Venezuelan Communications Minister William Lara as well as Ambassador to the U.S Bernardo Alvarez declined requests for comment.

[SOUND: Chavez speaking]

Under international pressure, Chavez called for the list to be buried two years ago, saying it had outlived its usefulness.

The problem is, no one can be sure the list is truly buried. To this day, street vendors in Caracas sell the Maisanta program for about five bucks.

Regardless of whether the blacklist is actually being used, many people still think it is. That seed of doubt has infected the entire society.

FRANCISCO MORENO: That's the subtle part. That's the dangerous part. That's the sad part.

Filmmaker Francisco Moreno made a documentary called "The List: A Society Under Suspicion."

MORENO: I could never know if I'm being denied the right to work, or being denied a contract with the government, or being denied a film grant, because those guys know that I signed. It's McCarthy all over again.

After she got fired, Rocio San Miguel has not been able to find work as an attorney. She's taken her evidence to the Venezuelan courts, but they're packed with Chavez supporters. She's now waiting on an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In Caracas, I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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