Venezuela: Human Rights Watch delegation expelled

From Human Rights Watch, Sept. 19:

Sao Paulo – The Venezuelan government’s expulsion of two Human Rights Watch staff underscores the Chávez administration’s increasing intolerance of dissenting views, Human Rights Watch said today. The government expelled JosĂ© Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, and Americas deputy director Daniel Wilkinson on September 18, 2008, hours after they held a news conference in Caracas to present a report that describes how the government of President Hugo Chávez has weakened democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in Venezuela.

The 230-page report, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela,” examines the impact of the Chávez presidency on the courts, the media, organized labor, and civil society. The report documents how the extraordinary opportunity to shore up the rule of law, and strengthen the protection of human rights presented by the enactment of a new constitution in 1999, has since been largely squandered. Among other things, the report found that the government had undermined freedom of expression, expanding penalties for speech offenses, and intimidating critics.

“Chávez’s expulsion of Human Rights Watch’s team is further evidence of Venezuela’s descent into intolerance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Chávez may have kicked out the messenger, but he has only re-enforced the message – civil liberties in Venezuela are under attack.”

Vivanco and Wilkinson were intercepted on the night of September 18 at their hotel in Caracas and handed a letter accusing them of anti-state activities. Their cell phones were confiscated and their requests to be allowed to contact their embassies were denied. They were put into cars, taken to the airport and put on a plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they landed this morning.

Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization and does not accept any government funds, directly or indirectly.

See our last post on Venezuela.

  1. HRW: rights suffer under Chávez
    The press release on the report, from Human Rights Watch, Sept. 18:

    Caracas – In its efforts to counter political opposition and consolidate power, the government of President Hugo Chávez has weakened democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

    The 230-page report, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela,” examines the impact of the Chávez presidency on institutions that are essential for ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law: the courts, the media, organized labor, and civil society.

    “Ten years ago, Chávez promoted a new constitution that could have significantly improved human rights in Venezuela,” said JosĂ© Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But rather than advancing rights protections, his government has since moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda.”

    Chávez was first elected in 1998, promising to overhaul Venezuela’s largely discredited political system. The enactment of a new constitution in 1999 offered an extraordinary opportunity for the country to shore up the rule of law and strengthen the protection of human rights. Yet the report finds that this important opportunity has since been largely squandered.

    “The most dramatic blow to Venezuelan democracy in the last 10 years was the 2002 coup against Chávez,” said Vivanco. “Fortunately it lasted only two days. Unfortunately the Chávez government has exploited it ever since to justify policies that have degraded the country’s democracy.”

    In the absence of credible judicial oversight, the Chávez government has systematically pursued often discriminatory policies that have undercut journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and civil society’s ability to promote human rights in Venezuela.

    Political discrimination
    Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency.

    The Chávez government has engaged in wide-ranging acts of discrimination against political opponents and critics. At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination. More generally, he has encouraged the discriminatory actions of subordinates by routinely denouncing his critics as anti-democratic conspirators – regardless of whether they had any connection to the 2002 coup.

    The courts
    Another defining feature of the Chávez presidency has been its open disregard for the principle of separation of powers – and, specifically, the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights in a democratic society. After the 2002 coup, the most damaging blow to the rule of law in Venezuela was the political takeover of the Supreme Court by Chávez and his supporters in 2004, which effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Since the 2004 takeover, the court has repeatedly failed to fulfill its role as a check on arbitrary state action and safeguard of fundamental rights.

    The media
    The Chávez government has undermined freedom of expression through a variety of measures aimed at reshaping media control and content. Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defense of Chávez. However, by expanding and toughening the penalties for speech and broadcasting offenses, Chávez and his legislative supporters have strengthened the state’s capacity to limit free speech, and created powerful incentives for critics to engage in self-censorship. It has also abused the state’s control of broadcasting frequencies to intimidate and discriminate against stations with overtly critical programming.

    Organized labor
    The Chávez government has sought to remake the country’s labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association. It has fired workers who exercise their right to strike, denied workers their right to bargain collectively and discriminated against workers because of their political beliefs. Through its systematic violation of workers’ right to organize, the Chávez government has undercut established unions and favored new, parallel unions that support its political agenda.

    Civil society
    The Chávez government has pursued an aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organizations. During the Chávez presidency, rights advocates have faced prosecutorial harassment, unsubstantiated allegations aimed at discrediting their work, and efforts to exclude them from international forums and restrict their access to international funding.

    The report provides detailed recommendations to the Venezuelan government to reverse the damage done by its policies and to strengthen the country’s human rights protections. These include seeking to restore the credibility of the Supreme Court through a ratification process for all justices who were appointed after the 2004 court-packing law and establishing a new autonomous agency to administer broadcasting frequencies.

    “Chávez has actively sought to project himself as a champion of democracy, not only in Venezuela, but throughout the region,” the report observes. However, “Venezuela will not achieve real and sustained progress toward strengthening its democracy – nor serve as a useful model for other countries in the region – so long as its government continues to flout the human rights principles enshrined in its own constitution.”

  2. Venezuela Information Office refutes HRW
    From the Venezuela Information Office via VenezeulAnalysis, Sept. 19:

    The Truth Suffers in Human Rights Watch Report on Venezuela
    On September 18, 2008 Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chávez.” The report contains biases and inaccuracies, and wrongly purports that human rights guarantees are lacking or not properly enforced in Venezuela. In addition, while criticizing Venezuela’s human rights in the political context, it fails to mention the many significant advancements made by the government on other essential human rights, such as access to education, healthcare, nutritious food, clean water, and housing.

    MYTH: “Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency.”

    FACT: Human Rights Watch deems the 2002 coup against the elected government “the most dramatic setback” for human rights in Venezuela in the last decade, but criticizes President Chavez’s own public condemnations of the unconstitutional overthrow as examples of “political discrimination” against the opposition. On the contrary, President Chávez last year pardoned political opponents who backed a failed 2002 coup against his democratically elected government. “It’s a matter of turning the page,” Chávez said. “We want there to be a strong ideological and political debate — but in peace.” In this spirit, the government has often welcomed input from the opposition, for example, inviting the leaders of student protests to address the National Assembly.

    MYTH: The Chávez administration has an “open disregard for the principle of separation of powers – specifically an independent judiciary.”

    FACT: Human Rights Watch wrote in an earlier report that “When President Chávez became president in 1999, he inherited a judiciary that had been plagued for years by influence-peddling, political interference, and, above all, corruption…In terms of public credibility, the system was bankrupt.” Under Chávez though, Human Rights Watch admitted that access to justice in Venezuela was improved by the expansion of the court system. Also, the World Bank found that “the [judicial] reform effort has made significant progress – the STJ [Supreme Court] is more modern and efficient.” Testament to the strength of democratic institutions in Venezuela is the ability of the National Electoral Council to uphold decisions unfavorable to lawmakers, such as the “no” victory in the December 2007 referendum on constitutional reforms.

    MYTH: “[Chávez] has significantly shifted the balance of the mass media in the government’s favor… by stacking the deck against critical opposition outlets.”

    FACT: As was true at the time of the 2002 coup against Chávez, Venezuela’s media is dominated by opposition voices. The “anti-government” media mentioned by Human Rights Watch still maintains the largest share of the nation’s public airwaves, and their frequently extreme criticisms of the government have included calling for the overthrow of elected leaders (as in 2002). There are no major pro-government newspapers in Venezuela. The new government-funded television and radio outlets, such as TVes – Venezuela’s first public broadcaster – and TeleSur – a regional network with support from multiple countries – have a much smaller reach than the private outlets. Furthermore, the government has never censored or “shut down” opposition media. The private channel RCTV faced a non-renewal of its broadcast license due to persistent legal violations including inciting political violence, but the station easily made the switch to cable.

    MYTH: The Chávez government “has sought to remake the country’s labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association.”

    FACT: The Chavez government has actively promoted the formation of labor unions and bargaining by organized labor, but has not co-opted this sector. The National Workers’ Union (UNT) was founded in April 2003 by workers supportive of government policies. In 2008, the government responded to an ongoing labor dispute between steel workers and the foreign-owned firm Sidor by intervening to negotiate a settlement, and when this was found to be impossible, the government reasserted state control over the Sidor plant in response to worker demands. The steel workers themselves were also allowed to purchase a share of the business themselves and thereby assert more control over the company.

    MYTH: The Chávez government has pursued an “aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organizations.”

    FACT: The Chávez administration has encouraged local leaders to create community councils that let localities identify and address their own problems – from garbage collection to school construction. The concept comes from the belief that local groups know what is lacking and know what they want for their communities. Community councils democratize local government and give people the funding and capacity to make decisions for themselves. Also subject to local decision-making are many of the social missions that are designed to help reduce poverty in the most marginalized areas of the country. Health clinics, educational centers, subsidized food markets and other initiatives rely on local volunteers and are accountable to these communities.


    The Human Rights Watch report “Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chávez,” provides an incomplete and biased account of Venezuela’s human rights record during the last decade.

    It overstates the issue of political discrimination, accusing the Chávez government of targeting opponents, when in fact it has pardoned supporters of the coup and promoted open dialogue. The report is also wrong on the separation of powers and the media. The branches of government provide strong checks and balances, and institutions have improved since Chávez was first elected. No censorship of the media occurs, and the opposition still dominates the airwaves. In terms of civil society, labor organizations and community groups enjoy more support from this administration than ever before.

    Venezuela has a strong record on human rights. Many of the important guarantees set out in the 1999 Constitution have indeed been enforced, particularly those relating to the fundamental needs of citizens, such as food, shelter, healthcare, access to education, employment, social security, and the right to participation in cultural life.

    Human Rights Watch details none of the impressive progress made in these areas. For example, the UN Development Programme has found that Venezuela has already achieved some of the Millennium Development Goals, and is on track to complete the others by 2015. Notably, the country has seen a 54% drop in the number of households living in extreme poverty since 1998, and its overall poverty has fallen by 34%. Facts such as these provide a much more complete picture of the human rights situation in Venezuela.

    See original for footnotes.