“Corruption in Venezuela kills.”
With that simple sentence, Mercedes de Freitas drives home the importance of her work in a country that is falling apart in a thousand different ways. As the head of Transparency International’s Venezuela chapter since its founding in 2004, the 58-year-old has exposed corruption in the military, the judiciary, at state-run oil company PDVSA and elsewhere – while defying a dictatorship determined to silence her.
Transparencia Venezuela’s work, and De Freitas herself, are banned from appearing on state media, so De Freitas has taken her message to international bodies like the United Nations Security Council and the Organization of American States, where she has explained how corruption in Venezuela has had a social impact at home as well as consequences in other countries.
In recognition of her years of anti-corruption work under extremely difficult circumstances, AS/COA’s Anti-Corruption Working Group is honoring De Freitas with its first annual Anti-Corruption Leadership Award.
“Over the years, the complexity and the difficulty in carrying out my work have deepened,” De Freitas told AQ. “Corruption is more sophisticated, flexible, and widespread every day.”
Transparencia has used technology to find creative ways to bypass President Nicolás Maduro’s de facto ban on independent reporting – and reach Venezuelans directly. The organization has designed digital initiatives that include the e-learning platform Campus Transparencia, a public information database called Vendata and a corruption reporting app called Dilo Aquí (“Tell it here”), which facilitate access to government data and offer users a way to report acts of corruption. De Freitas and her team are currently building a digital fact-checking platform and developing a training program to identify fake news.
It is De Freitas’ hope that for now, Transparencia’s extensive collection of reports and data documenting corruption will be used in international courts and by other organizations. De Freitas said that Transparencia will have a wealth of data that can be put into action to help prosecute the corrupt in Venezuelan courts once an independent justice system returns to the country.
Today in Venezuela, members of civil society operate in an environment where the government jails and tortures its political opponents. De Freitas said she and her colleagues have received threats from the Venezuelan state for several years. The organization follows daily security protocols and seeks to protect its online presence with permanent cybersecurity monitoring.
As the impact of corruption on Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has become clearer, Transparencia’s strategies have also changed, said De Freitas. The organization has increasingly pointed out those responsible for corruption, naming figures like Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno.
In 2015, Transparencia began tracking corruption within the country’s highest court with the research series Suprema Injusticia (“Supreme Injustice”), which analyzes court decisions that have broken Venezuelan law and profiles the judges that passed each sentence. In other projects, Transparencia investigates the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht’s trail of corruption in Venezuela, graft within state-owned enterprises and the effects of corruption on human rights violations.
De Freitas’ evolution into a corruption fighter grew out of her work in the 1990s with Venezuelan civil society organizations such as Venezuela Competitiva and Mirador Democrático, where she promoted political rights and free elections as chavismo was emerging and consolidating power. She carried out her first project with Transparency International in 1998, monitoring spending on television ads during the presidential campaign in which Hugo Chávez was elected. In 2003, De Freitas decided to “create an organization with the fight against corruption as its central goal,” leading to the founding of Transparencia Venezuela.
Since its beginnings, Transparencia has confronted the gradual dismantling of Venezuelan democracy. As Maduro converted the regime into a full-fledged dictatorship, the constraints – and risks – to De Freitas and her team grew even more acute. De Freitas said chavista leaders have accused the organization of being “imperialist” and “enemies of the state.” According to her, a former chavista head of the comptroller committee in the legislature ordered two investigations into Transparencia, alleging that the organization’s funds were used to “conspire against the government.”
All eyes are on Venezuela as the power struggle between Maduro supporters and the opposition continues. When asked about the role that Transparencia might play in an eventual transition to democracy, De Freitas told AQ that she and her team are ready. “We are already preparing our proposals for building an institutional anti-corruption and anti-impunity system.”
Sweigart is a policy consultant at AQ