HRW’s Latest Report on Venezuela Needs to be Taken With a Grain of Salt

A clear eyed investigation into Venezuela's latest security crackdown is desperately needed, but not by Human Rights Watch.


Human Right Watch’s (HRW) latest report on Venezuela has shock value galore, but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

HRW has claimed its latest report documents “widespread allegations of abuse” of civilians at the hands of Venezuelan security forces. The alleged abuses centre around the government’s highly controversial crackdown on organised crime, the somewhat awkwardly named “Operation to Liberate and Protect the People” (OLP).

Since its launch in mid 2015, the OLP has seen thousands of police and soldiers deployed to hotspots of violence and paramilitary activity. While supporters have said the initiative has succeeded in curbing paramilitary activity and made communities safer, critics have claimed the OLP has given security forces a free hand to commit human rights abuses with impunity.

Between these competing narratives, it’s not easy to nail down the truth. With the country now facing a deep economic and political crisis, opinions have been polarised like never before. It’s even harder for outsiders to get a grasp on what’s really going on: Venezuela’s media landscape has long been divided along political lines, and the country’s social media scene is notoriously hyperbolic.

Rather than cutting through the hype, when it comes to Venezuela, HRW has a long history of adding to the confusion.

One well known example of HRW’s Venezuela blunderings was their landmark 2008 report, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela.”

The document garnered massive media attention with bold claims such as allegations of widespread discrimination in the provision of government services. But behind the sweeping claims, the report was only able to dig up one case of possible discrimination. When HRW was questioned on this by a group of Latin America experts, they responded by arguing there are actually two more cases hidden in the report. It might seem odd that a human rights group would make broad claims based on what their own research showed were isolated incidents, but luckily the report’s lead author has cleared up at least some of the confusion. The lead author, José Miguel Vivanco, has explained in an interview that the 2008 report was published “because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…”

There’s nothing wrong with having a political opinion, but clearly HRW has a history of confusing human rights promotion with promotion of its own political views. If someone like Vivanco wants to express his opinions, then he should try writing an op-ed (like this one), rather than going through the trouble of dressing up opinions as well-researched facts. All too often, HRW gets its facts plain wrong.

Personally, my favourite example of this can be found in a February 2014 report titled, “Venezuela: Violence Against Protesters, Journalists”. In the report, HRW painted a disturbing picture of largely peaceful anti-government protesters facing a wave of state repression. Yet the document included a photograph of anti-government protesters standing on what HRW described as a “tank in San Cristobal”. The “tank” was covered in graffiti, and surrounded by garbage. Of course, the “tank” was actually a local war monument that had been vandalised by the demonstrators. Without knowing it, HRW had accidentally included evidence that perhaps those peaceful demonstrators weren’t all that peaceful. Put simply, it can be pretty hard to take this stuff too seriously.

This is a shame, because the latest report contains some potentially useful information. Published jointly with the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA, the report includes a series of interviews and original research that could add to the body of public knowledge about the impacts of the OLP.

Just because this information comes from an organisation with a revolving door with the US government, doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. Venezuelanalysis.com is already preparing a deeper investigation into some of the claims made by the HRW report to hopefully to separate some of the wheat from the chaff.

Personally, I strongly disapprove with many aspects of how the OLP was carried out, and would like to see more broad, honest investigations into the initiative, including serious scrutiny of the human rights impact. Unfortunately, HRW’s history of shonky research in Venezuela should disqualify it from this task. In Venezuela, the organisation is too far gone to be considered credible, and everything it publishes about this particular country needs to be taken with a grain of salt.