CitizenGo is an ultraconservative Spanish foundation and advocacy group that with the help of an online platform launches petitions worldwide to further its cause. It was founded in Madrid, Spain, in 2013 by HazteOir,12 a similar Spanish-language platform existing since 2001, dedicated to fight an imputed "gender ideology."
According to CitizenGo, the organization has "team members located in fifteen cities on three continents," facilitating users signing petitions in 50 countries,3 while its website is available in around a dozen languages.4 Petitions filed with the platform are for a large part opposing same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, with a clear anti-feminist and anti-LGBTIQ bias.
But CitizenGo's activities are not limited to petitions. The organization is actively involved in local campaigns directed against reproductive rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality, particularly in Africa. Fore example, in Kenia CitizenGo was criticized for starting a vendetta against the reproductive health NGO Marie Stopes, leading to a temporary ban of the organization, and preventing it from providing abortion services.5 Furthermore, the organization was rallying against a civil rights campaign in Kenia focused on decriminalizing homosexuality.6
CitizenGo is at the heart of a vast network of ultra-Catholic, anti-abortion, and anti-LGBTIQ NGO's and advocacy groups, and intricately linked to the far-right Spanish Vox party. The organization is also in contact with various European far-right parties, among them Alternative for Germany, Italy's Lega, and the Hungarian Fidesz party.7
Internationally, it links to US Republican training cadres such as the Leadership Institute, among whose alumni's is US vice president Mike Pence,8 as well as the ultra-Catholic and ultra-conservative World Congress of Families, an annual gathering of the most notorious anti-abortion activists worldwide. Furthermore, there are tangible links to an ultra-Catholic Mexican secret society called El Yunque, heavily represented in Mexico's right-wing National Action Party (PAN).
CitizenGo's influence also reaches into the European parliament, where it has opposed the introduction of the "Estrela report," which requires member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools and ensure access to safe abortions, among other things.9
CitizenGo has also taken part in events by a networking initiative for anti-choice groups lobbying the UN, the Group of Friends of the Family, which emerged in 2015.10 CitizenGo is named among the presenters of the Group's annual event titled "Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World."11
Entities taking part in the "Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World" event organized by the Group of the Friends of the Family, including the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), and Family Watch International (FWI), Concerned Women for America (CWA), Civil Society for the Family including Family Research Council, Human Life International, HazteOir.org, CitizenGo, and Derecho a Vivir.
The CitizenGo Foundation is financially supported by online donations made by its members, which journalist J. Lester Feder estimated at tens of thousands of euros per month.9 According to an undercover inquiry by openDemocracy, it is likely that the organization serves as vehicle used by the Spanish far-right Vox party to circumvent donation limits.7
Ignacio Arsuaga is founder and president of both HazteOir and CitizenGo.12 He founded HazteOir in February 2001 as an online petition platform focusing on ultra-Catholic and conservative campaigns, mostly around the topics family and education.13 The subtitle of HazteOir's web presence "Victims of the gender ideology" (Victimas de la ideología de género) exemplifies the organization's outlook.
In May 2012, HazteOir organized the VI. edition of the World Congress of Families (WCF) in Madrid. During the following VII. WCF congress in Sydney Ignacio Arsuaga was awarded as "Man of the year in defense of the natural family."14 In May 2013, HazteOir was declared an organization of public interest by Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz (Partido Popular),15 which gave it tax and economic benefits, as well as free legal aid.16
In August/September 2013 the organization launched its own foundation, CitizenGo, in Madrid, to expand its scope of action beyond Spanish-speaking countries, a move that was considered a "rebranding."1729 Whereas HazteOir was only a national campaign, CitizenGo was from the outset foreseen to operate internationally, "as an ultra-conservative version of the progressive campaign platforms Avaaz.org and MoveOn.org."7 HazteOir is now embedded into the web presence of CitizenGo,18 but in February 2019 lost its charity status after the Spanish government had ruled the organization would “denigrate or devalue” people of the LGBTIQ community.19
Links to El Yunque
CitizenGo as well as HazteOir have been linked to El Yunque ("The Anvil"), a Mexican secret society of regional origin.1220 Those links had been confirmed in May 2014 by the Court of First Instance 48 (Juzgado de Primera Instancia 48) of Madrid. Judge Lopez Castrillo said at the time that "the relationship of members of HazteOír with El Yunque ... is a proven and acknowledged fact."21 According to El País21:
The verdict came after the church, alarmed by the influence that El Yunque had gained, ordered a private report on the organization's role in Spain. The document warned of its growing influence, and the establishment of 'recruitment networks to win young people and adolescents for the organization' in diverse places, such as the Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago) or religious schools. During the trial, according to witnesses quoted by the newspaper elconfidencial.com, the identities of the El Yunque leaders in Spain were revealed. Among them, Eduardo Hertzfelder, president of the Instituto de Política Familiar ("Family Policy Institute") or Luis Losada, deputy director of the newspaper La Gaceta, of the Intereconomía Group.
The "National Organization of the Anvil" or simply El Yunque, was allegedly formed in Puebla, Mexico, in the early 1950s. While initially an anti-communist student outfit, El Yunque's clout grew considerably over the years, and ever since the 1980s is heavily represented in the right-wing National Action Party (PAN).22 Today it is a national political force, whose purpose, according to the reporter Álvaro Delgado, "is to defend the Catholic religion and fight the forces of Satan, whether through violence or murder," as well as establishing the kingdom of God in Mexico under the mandate of the Roman Catholic Church. This should be facilitated through the infiltration of all El Yunque members at the highest levels of political power.2322
Links between CitizenGo and Mexico also concern finances, which an undercover investigation by openDemocracy revealed7:
... Arsuaga told our undercover reporter that Patrick Slim, son of the Mexican oligarch Carlos Slim, gave his group €40,000, which 'for him is just a very small amount,' Arsuaga noted – although it is close to the maximum individual donation to a political party permitted under Spanish law (and four times election campaign limits).
An archived copy of the CitizenGo website from September 2014, provides a good overview, who was involved at the outset of the organizaton24:
The CEO is Álvaro Zulueta. The campaigns team: Luis Losada (Global Editor and Spanish Campaigns Director), Gregory Mertz (English Campaigns Director), Guilherme Ferreira (Portuguese Campaigns Director), Sebastien Rivallant (French Campaigns Manager, Matteo Cattaneo (Italian Campaign Manager), Magdalena Korzekwa (Polish Campaigns Manager), and Jakob Herburger (German Campaigns Manager). The information and technology team: Aurora Llavona (Chief Technology Officer).
As of 2019, the CEO of CitizenGo was Álvaro Zulueta, while its Board of Trustees was composed of: Ignacio Arsuaga (founder and president), Walter Hintz, Blanca Escobar, Luca Volontè, Brian S. Brown, Gualberto García, Aleksey Komov, Alejandro Bermudez, and Carlos Polo.25 Several of these figures have a long history in far-right circles.
The Russian Aleksey Komov is an associate of the ultra-Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who runs an influential Russian right-wing TV Channel (Tsargard TV) and think tank (Katehon), and "has been targeted by US and European sanctions for allegedly propping up the pro-Russian breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine."7 Komov has been working for the World Congress of Families, to spread the organization's influence in Russia. Komov as well as Arsuaga took part in the 2019 WCF edition in Verona, Italy, which included i.a. Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League (Lega) party, to which Komov has intricate links.26
Luca Volontè, an Italian politician and anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ activist, was the chairman of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) from 2013 to 2019, a "Catholic-fundamentalist think tank"27 associated with Steve Bannon. He is also the CEO of the Novae Terrae Foundation.28
Bank statements from Volonte’s Novae Terrae Foundation in Italy, seen by openDemocracy, show that it paid CitizenGo €12,000 in 2014 – at the same time as the foundation was receiving money from entities later identified as part of a ‘laundromat’ pumping illicit cash into Europe from Azerbaijan and Russia. There is no evidence to suggest that the money paid to CitizenGo came from these illicit sources.7
Volontè was formerly an Italian MP (1996 to 2013) and President of the European People's Party at the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). After in December 2016 a dossier by the European Stability Initiative was published,29 a large-scale investigation into a multi-billion money laundering scheme hit off, in which Luca Volontè was implicated.3031 Investigators said “they have uncovered 2.39 million Euro in payments to Volonté through British and offshore companies. […] The payments, prosecutors allege, were made in exchange for Volontè’s efforts to mute the European body’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record.”32 In January 2021, Criminal Section X of the Court of Milan sentenced Luca Volontè to four years in prison for taking bribes from Azerbaijani politicians.33
In early 2014, Benjamin Harnwell, co-founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, delivered a book to Cardinal Raymond Burke "containing the 9000 letters of thanks to the Holy Father for his support of the cause of life and the March for Life in Washington," published by CitizenGo.
That synergies between the DHI and CitizenGo existed right from the start is not only indicated by Volontè's early position on CitizenGo's board of trustees. As early as 2014, CitizenGo delivered a gift to Cardinal Raymond Burke, the DHI's former advisory board president and at the time prefect of the Vatican's highest court, the Apostolic Signatura: a book containing 9000 letters of thanks to Pope Francis "for his support of the cause of life and the March for Life in Washington."34 The Washington Post calls Burke the “rebel prince” of the catholic church, who is “undermining Francis’s reformist, compassionate papacy, and gospel teaching […] using his position […] to legitimise extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy, Stephen K. Bannon-style.”35
That the Dignitatis Humanae Institute and CitizenGo have been part of the same ecosystem is also indicated by a banner displayed on the DHI website.
Brian S. Brown, another CitizenGo board member, is a well-known US anti-LGBTIQ activist and president of the International Organization for the Family,36 organizing the annual World Congress of Families. He also serves as president of the National Organization for Marriage.37 According to openDemocracy7:
Arsuaga told our reporter that he met Brown at a WCF meeting in Madrid in 2012 and that CitizenGo gets advice 'every couple of months or so' from a 'senior expert' in fundraising and technology who is 'paid by Brian Brown.' This expert is Darian Rafie, Brown’s partner at an American organisation called ActRight, which describes itself online as a 'clearinghouse for conservative action.'
In a previous version of CitizenGo's website the banner of the website included the slogan “member of the ActRight family,” which is still included in the banner on the DHI website.38
According to openDemocracy "ActRight paid for a CitizenGo staff member in 2013, a claim that Rafie did not deny in emailed comments."7:
ActRight’s Rafie is an experienced political consultant in the US who has played key roles in a number of companies that have worked for the Republican National Committee and the Republican party in Ohio and Michigan; received payments from a Super PAC supporting Texas Republican Ted Cruz (as did ActRight in 2015); and worked with the Tea Party group Think Freely Media.
Speaking to our undercover reporter, Rafie said he 'did a lot of fundraising politically with Trump,' through political action committees (PACs) but also “directly with the campaign… [and] directly with the party,' and that he expects one of his companies to be working 'in the majority of states' in the 2020 election campaigns.
Rafie made some damning and scary revelations about the use of collected mobile phone data, for example during political rallies, which would be used to directly get in contact with the participants:7
'There is a lot of stuff to be done with mobile phones and geo-fencing areas,' Rafie told our reporter. He explained: 'Say there’s a rally somewhere, one of these big Trump campaign rallies. What we’ll do is we’ll draw a Polygon around that event and then we’ll register all the phones that were there.'
'Then we follow those phones home, then we know who they are, and what they do, and now I know what your Netflix unique ID is, and I’ve got your Facebook unique ID, so then I can communicate with you through a whole variety of ways.'
Rafie said 'you can do that in Europe' too, though 'it’s a little more limited… because the privacy laws are better, for the consumer.'
He said: 'It’s actually really scary, when you peek beneath the covers, and realise that this phone that you’re carrying around with you is leaking everywhere all of your information' which can be correlated with personal data 'very quickly.' In the US, he explained, 'all of the data is routinely collated and correlated and available for sale.'
'We follow those phones home. Then we know who they are, and what they do, and now I know what your Netflix unique ID is, and I’ve got your Facebook unique ID, so then I can communicate with you through a whole variety of ways.'
Support of the far-right Vox party
OpenDemocracy embarked on an undercover investigation in Spain, which uncovered intimate links between CitizenGo, HazteOir, and the Spanish far-right Vox party.7 These go well beyond the public endorsement of Vox by CitizenGo's president, Ignacio Arsuaga,39 as well as HazteOir. During this inquiry, Arsuaga admitted to have met with senior party officials to discuss common strategies, and also described how CitizenGo would "indirectly" support Vox. According to OpenDemocracy7:
Our undercover reporter specifically asked Arsuaga how to get around Spanish campaign finance laws rules – donating more to Vox than the legal limit – and about doing so anonymously, which is against the law.
Arsuaga explained that there are no such limits on donations to groups like CitizenGo, and 'if you give privately to a non-profit there is no need to disclose that.' He said CitizenGo would not channel money to Vox itself but 'you could give to any foundation that doesn’t mind to give, to forward the money, to Vox... that would be a good option.'
'This is something we haven’t made public,' Arsuaga continued, 'but, in Spain, we’re going to launch a campaign before the general elections... where we are going to show bad things that have been said' by the leaders of parties that Vox is running against, for example 'In favour of abortion or in favour of LGBT laws' – describing since-released posters and adverts against candidates from other parties.
The Vox official that Arsuaga put our undercover reporter in touch with confirmed that supporting CitizenGo could help the party, 'indirectly,' describing them as independent but that 'we are actually currently totally aligned.' He told our reporter that while there is a limit on the size of individual donations to parties, 'there is not a limit on the number of donors, okay, it can be split among several donors… and they only have to register [their first] name, last name and the origin.'
'There are other ways of making support,' he added, describing 'a lack of regulation in terms of the equivalent of Super PACs in the United States, those institutions or organisations that give airtime or advertising in support of causes or candidates or political parties. I understand that that is outside of the limitations of the actual political parties which is very, very regulated.'
Super PACs don’t officially exist in Europe but he said 'there are movements to create those and I think they are unregulated' and 'Ignacio’s organisation, that’s kind of that.'
This would not have been the first time Vox has been accused of shady monetary flows, and unsavory political alliances. For example, Vox reportedly received donations to the tune of €800,00040 from the extremist Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK)41 for its 2014 European elections campaign. Vox's vice president, Víctor González Coello de Portugal, was condemned for "accounting irregularities" in one of his companies, and had been banned for three years from handling party finances.42
Furthermore, the party has links to the controversial "Francisco Franco Foundation," which glorifies Spain's former dictator.43 It was Arsuaga himself, who referred to links of Vox to Franco's former fascist party Falange: Arsuaga told the openDemocracy undercover reporter "that Vox’s General Secretary Javier Ortega Smith, simultaneously the lawyer leading Vox’s private prosecution of Catalan independence supporters, 'comes, I would say, from the hard right, like Falangists… Franco’s movement – but nobody knows, it’s a kind of private thing.'"7
That there might be a connection between Vox and CitizenGo from the outset is suggested by the fact that both were set up in 2013. Furthermore, Arsuaga has been a friend of Santiago Abascal, leader of the Vox party, for many years.44
Santiago Abascal, leader of the Vox party, and Ignacio Arsuaga in 2014.
European anti-choice agenda
CitizenGo links into a vast network of national and international organizations, and lobby groups, which are commonly subsumed under the term “pro-life” campaigners. They are advocating various arch-reactionary objectives, such as making abortions and contraception illegal, bringing down the “gender ideology”, ostracizing homosexuality, and opposing divorce.
Under the catch phrase of “human dignity” these organizations lead a legal war, aiming especially to make embryos legal entities. Some of these groups, such as ADF International,45 and European Dignity Watch46 are very well connected within the European Parliament, and the European Commission.
The call for “human dignity” resonates in other pro-life campaigns, such as “One Of Us - European Federation for Life and Human Dignity," an anti-abortion lobby group, whose members include pro-life associations from almost all European countries.47 One of its most active supporters is CitizenGo's Ignacio Arsuaga,48 who appears also in the member list of One of US. Arsuaga said during an interview for an Arte documentary from 201749:
One of Us was the beginning of a far-reaching lobby, which wants to exert influence in the European Union.
In 2013, One of Us was behind a petition in the European Parliament to cancel the EU’s support for birth control and abortions, especially in development countries. The petition received a record vote of over 1,7 million, and thus was reaching the threshold where the EU Parliament and Commission had to discuss the issue. When the EU denied the demand, in 2014 the initiators of the petition started a pro-life interest group within the European Parliament.
Sophia Kuby, who works for the lobby groups ADF International,50 and European Dignity Watch,46 is an important actor of this interest group. European Dignity Watch issued an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 signed by Kuby, in which the CitizenGo and HazteOir appear amongst the supporting organisations.51
MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, member of the Committee for the Rights of Women, described her contact with the lobby inside the European Parliament:
"I never use the expression “pro-life." These people are anti-choice. I am for life and for free choice. They are permanently using terms such as “dignity” “justice”, “peace, “freedom”, “life”, “family." It sounds great, like peace, happiness, and bliss, but that is not the case. These people take away all options from women. At times they even behave awfully. Extremely anti-democratic, and anti-pluralistic.”52
Neil Datta, Secretary General of the European Parliament Forum, has the following to say:
“They are using human rights for their purposes by interpreting its statutes to their advantage. They are doing this in several areas. They are for example trying to obtain a legal status for embryos, or the right of the father to have a say in case of an abortion. […] One of Us is only the visible side of the anti-choice movement, the politically correct one. But behind it there is a bigger, more militant group, with representatives from 30 to 40 countries.”53
The pro-life EU lobby is apparently very well organised, as internal documents show. Their meetings are strictly confidential. A document entitled Restoring the Natural Order: Agenda for Europe has leaked from their working group, and was outlined by a 2017 Arte documentary.54 “There is written i.a. that the Western civilisation will decline in 10 to 20 years, because of the harmful watering down of the term human rights.”
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- 44. Moritz Oswald, "International Network of Spain’s Vox Party," Belltower News, October 11, 2021, https://www.belltower.news/far-right-iberosphere-international-network-of-spains-vox-party-122475/.
- 45. ADF International, https://adfinternational.org/.
- 46. a. b. European Dignity Watch, http://www.europeandignitywatch.org/.
- 47. “Members,” One of Us, https://oneofus.eu/about-us/members/.
- 48. Alexandra Jousset & Andrea Rawlins-Gaston. “Avortement, les croisés contre-attaquent”. Documentary Movie. Arte France, 2017. Timestamp: 15:23. https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/075221-000-A/avortement-les-croises-contre-attaquent/.
- 49. Jousset and Rawlins-Gaston, “Avortement, les croisés contre-attaquent,” [17:48].
- 50. “Sophia Kuby,” ADF International, https://adfinternational.org/advocacy-team-and-advisory-council/sophia-kuby-bio/.
- 51. Open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, Ordo Iuris, December 2, 2014, www.ordoiuris.pl/sites/default/files/inline-files/Open%20Letter_Juncker_ETD_full_0.pdf.
- 52. Alexandra Jousset & Andrea Rawlins-Gaston, “Avortement, les croisés contre-attaquent,” [16:24].
- 53. Alexandra Jousset & Andrea Rawlins-Gaston, “Avortement, les croisés contre-attaquent,” [20:00] & [20:55].
- 54. There is another, if obscure, reference to that document in an online bibliography provided by a Romanian Pro-Life association: “38. *** - Restoring the natural order. An agenda for Europe (2014)”. https://provitabucuresti.ro/docs/biblio/biblioteca.carte.provita.bucuresti.pdf.