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Signing is now a crime in Venezuela

By Giuliana Chiappe, El Universal

Signing a recall request implies receiving a dismissal letter, threats, politically-motivated lay-offs, payment freezing and denial of identity. These are some of the most common revenges against the people who exercised their constitutional right to ask for a presidential recall election. As if they were members of the Buendía family - around which Gabriel García Márquez developed his novel A Hundred Years of Solitude - public employees that dared signing the petition for a recall against President Hugo Chávez cannot erase the ash signal on their foreheads. The Constitution says they have the right to and protects them against persecution for their ideas of whichever kind, but that seems to be worthless now.

Although unconstitutional, the reprisals ordered by the threatening voice that sounds through the microphones and the darkness of fear have taken many forms depending on who looks over the signer.

The figures announced by the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) are alarming. Manuel Cova, secretary general of the organization, said that thousands of workers have been fired just for having signed a petition to call a referendum. In some cases, the workers have been harassed; in others, their labor rights have been violated, but most cases are of overt aggressions.

Institutional creativity

For the officials of the revolution, the Constitution is not that constitutional. President Chávez' implicit orders are above it. When Chávez mentions an idea during one of his programs, the top bureaucrats of the regime start a race to find creative ways to demonstrate their unconditional faithfulness, even if this means to override the law and the basic principles of democracy.

When it has come to violating constitutional rights, they have found a variety of ways. Some government-controlled offices have preferred to take precautions rather than to suffer the pains. For instance, in the Mayor's Office of Libertador Municipality (Caracas) and the ministries of Infrastructure and Justice, all the directors of area and heads of department met with their personnel and repeated the threat: If you sign, you are out. In most cases, it worked.

The authorities of the tax collection agency, Seniat, were quite more creative and managed to multiply the number of violated rights by four or five. The warning, made well before the signature collection event, was comprehensive: No official or their relatives protected by the medical insurance policy shall sign.

Those who did not make warnings found a justification for the lay-offs after the pro-government Deputy Luis Tascón illicitly published the confidential data of the signers on his Web page.

The most common excuses when explaining the politically-motivated firings include restructuring of the body and excess personnel, although only government opponents have been found to be in excess.

"In the Direction of Judges, we are terrified because nobody knows when we are going to be fired," said a worker of this institution who accepted to speak under the condition of anonymity. The agency have already fired and sent to court a group of employees from the HHRR Department, the Direction of Regions and some administrative offices, and they say the same will happen to another 15,000 court workers."

This threatened employee said that the authorities first identify the workers that signed the presidential referendum petition and immediately give him or her a dismissal letter saying that the office is being restructured.

"If someone does not accept to go to Venezolana de Televisión, the State's television channel, and testify that he or she did not sign, even if this is not true, the worker gets fired. But even with this threat, they have not found a single worker who accepts the blackmailing. The workers prefer to be laid off rather than to step backwards," the worker said.

This bizarre style of restructuring has reached several agencies. Seventeen managers of the electricity company Enelvén, with an average of 20 years of experience, were the first to be dismissed. In 11 cases - Iván Useche, José Luis Salas, Fabián Cuberos, Sonia Lugo, Gerardo Molina, Armando Vargas, París Parra, José Molero, Orlando Urdaneta, Hirán Parra and Melissabel Urdaneta - the dismissals were unjustified. Another six - Ciro Portillo, Ostilio Olmedillo, Jairo Morales, Felipe Hernández, Rafael Hernández and Antonio Lameda - were forced to request early retirements.

Pequivén is just about to adopt this practice. Until March 18, the jobs of commercial, technical and marketing managers from the plastic producing plants Placa, Propilen and Polinter in El Tablazo, Zulia state, were at stake.

"This is not the time for lay-offs, because the complex has been idle for a long time and inventories are at very poor levels, which puts at risk the supplies of raw materials for the companies that produce packs for the food industry, agriculture, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and even supermarket bags," said a manager of El Tablazo, who has not received her dismissal letter, but has no doubt about receiving it soon.

The private sector has also been tainted by these irregularities.

Contractors and suppliers of state-run organizations are being checked for evidence of signing. For example, when a supplier of the social security institute (IVSS) is found to have signed the presidential recall request, the agency freezes all the payments to that company, as if the country's resources belonged to one person.

No education

The Ministry of Education has become the regime's avenger. They have been unable to fire professional teachers with long careers because they are protected by their contracts, but they are abusing young teachers that have worked as interns for months. These not only have been unable to get their salaries but have been barred form all the schools controlled by Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz.

A young teacher recently graduated from the Catholic University told us her story: "I started to work as a substitute teacher in the Luis Beltrán Prieto Figueroa school in Los Dos Caminos. The school's principal told me clearly: Your nomination (to become a full-time teacher) has been rejected because you signed. And she showed me Luis Tascón's website. She said she was happy with my performance, but she had orders not to hire me. And besides, they are not going to pay me for the two months I worked there."

The same happened to another young educator from a school in Miranda state: "They still owe me 1.5 million bolivars for the three months I worked as a first grade teacher. They were telling me all the time that it was because of a lack of funds, but I soon realized that other teachers always got their salaries. One day they told me the truth: I would not be paid because I signed for the referendum. Then they told me that if I withdrew my signature, I would be able to continue working, but I did not accept that."

No identity

Those who exercised their constitutional right to ask for a recall vote are not only being treated as criminals. Now they have become citizens without identity.

In the identification and immigration agency, Onidex, the list of people who signed against President Chávez is above the right to have an identity. The citizens included in the list will not receive their identity cards or passports. Additionally, the office keeps their identification documents, making sure that they will not vote in case the referendum is held any given day in the future.

Translated by Edgardo Malaver

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