CARACAS, Venezuela — “You must know what you did,” Eva Belloso’s boss told her when she was fired without notice this month after 24 years with Venezuela’s tax and customs service.
Belloso, who was coordinator of legal services at Seniat (as the agency is known) in Zulia state, said she told her boss she had no idea, “unless it has something to do with my signature for the recall referendum.”
“That must be it,” her boss said, according to her account.
The same thing happened that week to Juvenal Rosales, a nine-year Seniat employee in Caracas — with one difference: Rosales got an oblique heads-up.
A manager had approached him in a hallway a few days earlier and said, “You signed, right? Well, things are a bit difficult for you now,” Rosales recalled.
In all, nearly 90 Seniat employees nationwide were let go in the recent wave of firings either without explanation or for unsubstantiated reasons, according to a list maintained by the ex-employees. What they have in common is that they endorsed a petition for a referendum on ousting President Nicolás Maduro, whose term is not up until 2019.
Under Venezuelan law, tenured civil servants cannot be dismissed without just cause, as determined by a court or a disciplinary procedure. Eleonora Dappo, a 20-year Seniat employee who was fired, noted that civil servants are also specifically protected if they have a child 2 years old or younger. Dappo has a 12-month-old daughter.
Revenue service workers weren’t the only ones affected, according to lawyer Manuel Virguez, although they make up the largest group. Virguez, who works for a nongovernmental organization in Lara state that represents many of the hundreds of fired workers, said his clients include five teachers from a school in Lara who have just one thing in common: Their names are on the National Electoral Council’s public list of petition signatories.
“These people haven’t received a cent for more than a month,” he said.
Seniat officials did not respond to requests for comment on the firings. In May, the influential ruling party lawmaker Diosdado Cabello said that government agency heads who signed the recall petition “should not remain in office” but that “non-hierarchical” employees would be exempt.
Venezuela’s opposition in April launched the push to oust Maduro, amid a social and economic crisis triggered by government mismanagement and falling oil prices. Citizens lined up to sign a petition for a recall referendum that could end 17 years of the "Bolivarian" revolution. Last month, they had to line up again to have their signatures verified.
Tens of thousands of signatures have been recorded, but the complex recall process is taking even more time than expected because of bureaucratic impediments put in place by the government.
The apparent political harassment represented by the recent civil service dismissals isn’t new in Venezuela. In 2003-2004, the publicizing of a similar list of signatories to a petition to recall President Hugo Chávez also resulted in widespread layoffs and workplace discrimination.
According to Virguez, though, times have changed. “We live in a different context,” the lawyer said. “Today there’s a chance people could recover their jobs, since the government doesn’t have citizens’ support anymore.” A recent Datanalisis poll showed that Maduro’s popularity has dropped from 40 percent to 23 percent since January.
Despite the privations of dismissal, including the loss of retirement benefits, some fired Seniat employees say they would sign the petition again.
“There’s no place for regrets here,” Belloso said, adding that she was proud of her decision and had made it for her children’s future. “I’d rather be unemployed with a clean conscience than be an accomplice in the horrible situation that the country is going through.”