The Truth Suffers in Human Rights Watch Report on Venezuela

Human Rights Watch focuses on the issues of political discrimination, the separation of powers, and the media in Venezuela, but misrepresents the realities of all three, taking what are at best isolated incidents and portraying them as common occurrences.

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."[i]
In this spirit, the government has often welcomed input from the opposition,
for example, inviting the leaders of student protests to address the National

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
Also, the World Bank found that "the [judicial] reform effort has made
significant progress – the STJ [Supreme Court] is more modern and efficient."[iii]
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%.[iv]
Facts such as these provide a much more complete picture of the human rights
situation in Venezuela.

[i] "Chávez pardons accused coup backers" Ian James,
Associated Press, December 31, 2007.


[ii] Human Rights Watch, "Rigging the
Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela," June 2004, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/venezuela0604/

[iii] World Bank, Project Information
Document, Report AB510, December 9, 2003, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDS_IBank_Servlet?pcont=details&eid=000104615_20040226144554

[iv] Instituto
Nacional de Estadística http://www.ine.gob.ve/pobreza/LIgrafico2sem.asp


The Venezuela
Information Office
is dedicated to informing the American public about
contemporary Venezuela, and receives its funding from the government of
Venezuela.  Further information is
available from the FARA office of the Department of Justice in Washington,

The full Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela can befound here.