Human Rights Watch Report on Venezuela Under Fire

By Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Dec 22 (IPS) – A Human Rights Watch report on alleged setbacks in human rights in Venezuela since President Hugo Chávez first took office 10 years ago has been severely questioned by 118 academics from the United States and several other countries.

The report, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela”, presented in September, “does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility,” say the Latin America experts in their open letter to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“By publishing such a grossly flawed report, and acknowledging a political motivation in doing so, (HRW’s Americas director José Miguel) Vivanco has undermined the credibility of an important human rights organisation,” says the letter dated Dec. 16.

The scholars say the “political motivation” was indicated by Vivanco’s statement that “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…”

The signatories include experts from the United States like prominent linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky, anthropologists Clara and Charles Briggs, historians Greg Grandin and Charles Bergquist, and filmmaker Oliver Stone, as well as Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader, Argentine political scientist Mario Ayala and professor of political economy at the University of Sydney Tim Anderson.

According to the open letter, the report by the New York-based HRW “makes sweeping allegations that are not backed up by supporting facts or in some cases even logical arguments. For example, the report’s most important and prominent allegation is that ‘discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency.’

“Yet the report does not show, or even attempt to show, that political discrimination either increased under the current government (as compared to past governments), or is more of a problem in Venezuela than in any other country in the world,” say the authors.

The academics also point to the HRW report’s “overwhelming reliance for factual material on opposition sources,” such as the newspapers El Nacional and El Universal, and the Globovisión TV news station, without clearly identifying them as opposition-aligned.

The open letter says “The major media in Venezuela to this day are practically unmatched in this hemisphere, and indeed most of the world, for their vehement, unfettered, and even vicious, libelous, and violence inciting attacks on the government.”

And quoting the HRW report as stating that “Citizens who exercised their right to call for the (presidential recall) referendum…were threatened with retaliation and blacklisted from some government jobs and services,” the open letter states that only one “alleged instance of discrimination in government services (is) cited in the entire 230-page report.”

That instance involves an allegation reported to the authors of the HRW report in a telephone conversation with the nephew of a 98-year-old woman who was allegedly “denied medicines that she had long received from a state development agency because, as her family was told by the programme secretary, she had signed the referendum petition,” say the academics.

“In other words, the (government) Barrio Adentro programme has provided health services to millions of poor Venezuelans each year since 2003, and the authors found one allegation of discrimination involving one person,” they add.

They also say that “the report’s most serious allegation of discrimination in employment concerns a case where discrimination was not based on political partisanship, but in regards to unlawful subversion that no government would, nor should tolerate: ‘In the aftermath of the (2003) oil strike, PDVSA purged its ranks of thousands of workers who participated in the strike.’

“But as anyone who was in Venezuela at the time can attest, this was quite openly a strike to topple the government, which the opposition had succeeded in doing less than eight months earlier” in a short-lived coup, the authors add. “The oil strike devastated the economy — which lost 24 percent of GDP in the resulting recession — and came close to achieving its goal a second time,” they point out.

The authors also refer to the government’s refusal to renew the broadcasting licence of the RCTV television station, which they say the HRW report cites as “its primary example of the Venezuelan government’s alleged attack on free speech. It does not seem to matter to the authors that the station had participated in a military coup and other attempts to topple the government and would not receive a broadcast licence in any democratic country.”

The letter concludes by asking the HRW to “retract and revise its report so as to produce a credible document”, while asking Vivanco to “retract his remarks as to the political motivation for the report.”

Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson, deputy director of the HRW Americas division, were deported from Venezuela on Sept. 18 just a few hours after presenting their report to the press. At the time, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said the Venezuelan government had “kicked out the messenger.”

HRW “said the same thing that human rights defenders (in Venezuela) have maintained for years,” jurist Héctor Faúndez at the Central University’s Human Rights Centre told IPS. “What it did was conduct a systematic follow-up, and the unprecedented expulsion of its representatives merely gave its report on intolerance more credibility.”

In October, Vivanco and HRW were the targets of harsh criticism from the right-wing government in Colombia, which was accused in a report by the organisation of standing in the way of the justice system’s investigation of far-right paramilitary groups. Nevertheless, the organisation was not expelled from that country, Vivanco said at the time.

Asked by IPS about the open letter on HRW’s Venezuela report, Vivanco responded that he had received it and that he would publish “any substantiated criticism that it may contain as soon as we have had a chance to study it.”

He said, however, that “the accusation that our report is politically motivated is implausible, and anyone familiar with our work on the United States, Colombia, Mexico and many other countries would agree.”

HRW “produces carefully documented reports on countries when we see situations that we consider merit an investigation, independently of the political leanings of governments,” said Vivanco.

In the case of Venezuela, “our report demonstrates how the Chávez administration has promoted policies that undermine democratic institutions like the judiciary and the media, which are crucial to promoting and protecting basic rights.

“The immediate response by the government, when it expelled Human Rights Watch from Venezuela, simply reinforced the accuracy of the report’s conclusions,” he said.

The academics clarify that “Our letter is not meant as a justification for the Venezuelan government’s decision to expel the authors of the HRW report from the country. Human rights are too important to be used as a political football…”

Miguel Tinker Salas, a history professor at the University of Pomona, in California, one of the authors of the open letter, told IPS that “the letter is a response to the HRW report: to its methodology, its sources, and thus its conclusions.

“It is not meant as an exhaustive study on human rights or as a consultation with organisations in Venezuela,” Tinker Salas said, explaining why the letter only focuses on the HRW document and not on reports from local human rights groups in Venezuela.

The publication of the letter three months after the HRW report was released was the result of “a process of consultation and reflection that provided enough time for (the signatories) to read the HRW report and our letter, and reach their own conclusions.”

Tinker Salas said the letter was an initiative of U.S. professors, but that they had received the support of scholars in Latin America, and hoped to collect more signatures.

One group that provided its backing last week was the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a Washington-based think tank that circulated the open letter prefaced with its own criticism of the HRW report.

COHA stated that the report “used intemperate language and patently disingenuous tactics to field a series of anti-Chávez allegations that are excessive and inappropriate. It is not a matter that President Chávez and the Venezuelan government are above reproach — far from it. The problem is the presence of a mean-spirited tone and a lack of balance and fair play that characterises Vivanco’s reportage and his tendentious interpretation of the alleged misdeeds of the Chávez revolution are demonstrably bereft of scale and accuracy.

“Vivanco demonstrates an inability to distinguish President Chávez’s bark from his bite; and it is a distortion to characterise the Venezuelan leader as a prime human rights violator, a charge which already has attracted a good deal of notoriety. In other words, Vivanco continuously confuses Chávez’s often shamelessly antic style for his otherwise solid, if brassy, democratic credentials,” according to COHA. (END/2008)