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Opinion and Analysis: International | Law and Justice | Media Watch

IACHR Rehashes Debunked Claims about Venezuela

In December of 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) put out a 300-page report entitled “Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.”[1] The report depicts human rights conditions in Venezuela as having deteriorated significantly since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. The “executive summary” alone runs on for ten pages claiming there has been:

  • “…a troubling trend of punishments, intimidation, and attacks on individuals in reprisal for expressing their dissent with official policy.”

  • “…a trend toward the use of criminal charges to punish people exercising their right to demonstrate or protest against government policies.”  

  • “…a trend of opening unfounded judicial investigations or criminal proceedings against human rights defenders in order to intimidate them.”

In fairness, the IACHR did not say that all human rights trends are negative. The executive summary stated, “The IACHR also congratulates Venezuela on being one of the countries that has made most progress toward attaining the Millennium Development Goals. It has also brought about a major reduction in the disparity between the groups at the extremes of income distribution, to the point that the country now reports the  lowest Gini coefficient in Latin America, according to the Economic Commission  for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). 

In addition, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Venezuela moved from having a medium level of human development in 2008 to joining the group of countries with a high level of human development in 2009.”

It is this very progress - made by rejecting neoliberalism and subservience to the United States – that has provoked a relentless campaign to discredit the Chavez government. In 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report that was very similar to the IACHR’s in both content and length. The Americas director of  HRW, Jose Miguel Vivanco, stated openly that its report was written to show that  Venezuela “is no model for anyone.”[2]

The IACHR takes a broader view of human rights than HRW, and was therefore obliged to acknowledge some of the achievements of the Chavez government. However, as with HRW, the IACHR’s political bias was dramatically exposed during a coup that briefly ousted Chavez on April 11 of 2002. Venezuela has refused to allow the IACHR to visit until it apologizes for its response to the coup and takes some steps to put its own house in order.

The IACHR report insists that its reaction to the “the attempted coup d'état was immediate and decisive” and claims that it “warned that these acts constituted an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter.” The evidence it offers is a press release of April 13, 2002. In it, the IACHR said that a decree issued by the short lived Carmona dictatorship “COULD [my emphasis] constitute an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter [of the OAS].”

The Carmona decree in question shredded the popularly ratified Venezuelan constitution. It also dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and other institutions. Putting aside the draconian nature of the decree, Pedro Carmona did not have the legitimacy to decree anything at all. For the IACHR to  express any level of doubt that his actions violated the Democratic Charter was appalling.

The press release described the coup as the “removal or resignation” of Chavez even though nineteen Latin American governments had already denounced the coup at a summit in Costa Rica. Willful blindness is the only plausible  reason the IACHR – hardly casual observers of Latin America - could have missed what was happening. Even before April 11, 2002, public statements by Chavez  opponents made it clear that a coup attempt was imminent.[3]

Many of these points were made by the Venezuelan government in a written reply to a draft version of the IACHR report. The report quoted from Venezuela’s  reply regarding various issues, but not the points made about IACHR’s reaction  to the coup.[4]  

It is tempting to simply disregard the IACHR report based on its feeble defense of its performance during the coup. However, it would be unwise to do so. There is no such thing as an unbiased source about political matters. As with corporate news reports, the IACHR report is often revealing about Venezuela in ways that are unintended.

Among the gravest human rights abuses the IACHR report discusses are assassinations of peasants (campesinos) and union leaders. The report obscures the fact that these crimes strongly implicate sectors of the Venezuelan opposition.

Campesinos have been murdered by killers hired by landowners who oppose the Chavez administration’s land reform initiatives. Landowners have acted with impunity thanks to the help of local police and judges. In February, Chavez  announced the formation of a peasant militia to bolster the capacity of campesinos for self defense. Similarly, many of the assassinated union leaders the IACHR names were members of the UNT – a pro-Chavez labor union.[5]

Other abuses that the report mentions are excessive use of force by police, and deplorable prison conditions. The IACHR report addresses Venezuela’s national government under Chavez as if it were solely responsible for these abuses and could easily eradicate them - ignoring that the opposition has control of various local and state governments. The opposition-run Caracas police were openly allied those who orchestrated the 2002 coup and brutally repressed Chavez supporters. The opposition has also infiltrated institutions where the Chavez government has nominal control. During the coup, sectors of the military were in open conflict. In 2006, four years after efforts to purge the  military of coup supporters, Carlos Ortega, a coup conspirator and former head of an anti-Chavez labor federation (the CTV), escaped from a military prison.[6]

A serious human rights report would have made numerous “recommendations” to the Venezuelan opposition – at the very least those who are in power at various levels of government. By not doing so, the IACHR contradicts itself by essentially rebuking the Chavez administration for not having absolute power (i.e. for not eradicating all abuses by its enemies) and at the same time accusing it of trampling on independent branches of government – in particular  the judiciary.[7]

In numerous passages, the IACHR criticizes Chavez and his ministers for making harsh statements about opponents – especially for accusing them of plotting another coup and of doing the work of US imperialism. Given Venezuela’s  recent history, the rhetoric that the IACHR deplores is far from unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, the IACHR asks Chavez government officials to engage in self-censorship and explains its reasoning as follows:

“….when public functionaries exercise their freedom of expression…they are subject to certain restrictions such as having to verify in a reasonable manner, although not necessarily exhaustively, the truth of the facts on which their opinions are based, and this verification should be performed subject to a higher standard than that used by private parties, given the high level of  credibility the authorities enjoy and with a view to keeping citizens from receiving a distorted version of the facts.”

Venezuela, perhaps more than any other country, demonstrates the absurdity of the double standard the IACHR endorses. To accept it, one must ignore, among other things, the pivotal role that Venezuela's private media played in the  coup. The IACHR concedes that the private media “lost objectivity” during the 2002 coup, but it does not express concern about the illegitimate power that is still wielded by media barons. The IACHR speculates that statements by  government officials may have incited violence against journalists. It expresses no concern that the private media may have incited attacks on Chavez supporters. For example, it made no mention of the assassination of Danilo Anderson who was appointed by Chavez to prosecute those involved with the 2002 coup. Anderson was widely slandered in the private media before he was murdered.[8]

Moreover, the IACHR only advocates self censorship for the Venezuelan government – and only the national government under Chavez. The IACHR report does not make any appeal to government officials in Bogota and Washington to desist from making unsubstantiated allegations against the Chavez government.[9]

The IACHR alleges that there has been a “gradual deterioration and restriction on the exercise of [the right to freedom of expression]” since 2000. As part of the evidence for this conclusion, it cites opposition sources (as usual) who claim that “… between February 1999 and  July 2009,  the Venezuelan  communications media transmitted a total of 1,923 blanket presidential broadcasts, equivalent to 1,252 hours and 41 minutes, or in other words 52 days of uninterrupted  broadcasting of presidential  messages.”

The presidential messages were obviously not "uninterrupted" over 52 days. Moreover, 52 days in 10 years amounts to 1.4% of the private  media’s programming hours, and 8.5% if one assumes 4 peak hours per day when most TV is watched. Considering the private media’s key role in the coup and in the oil industry shutdown of December 2002 - February 2003, these interruptions (taking opposition figures at face value) do not seem at all excessive.

The IACHR ominously added that the numbers it cited on presidential broadcasts “…do not include the transmission of the program Aló Presidente, the ten minutes daily for governmental messages imposed by the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, or the official publicity that is  typical in television or radio.”

Aló Presidente is broadcast on state TV. A footnote to HRW’s 2008 report on Venezuela stated that one cable broadcaster alone (RCTV) has a much larger audience than all the government channels combined.[10]

In short, unelected billionaires (like Gustavo Cisneros who owns Venevision, an opposition television station) continue to have vast control over public debate in Venezuela. The dire threat this poses to democracy and human rights was clearly shown during the coup as the private media did all it could to keep the Carmona dictatorship in power; yet the IACHR never hints that this is a problem.[11]

The IACHR objects to penalties aimed at limiting the capacity of the private media to lead another coup. Some of its objections are reasonable, but it made no recommendations on how to democratize the Venezuelan media, nor did it applaud any of the positive measures that have been taken (such as the development of community media). It basically suggests setting the clock back to 2000 when media barons could more easily dominate public debate.[12]

The IACHR also claims that the right to strike has been criminalized in Venezuela. In reality, Venezuela has demonstrated remarkable tolerance for this right compared to Canada – a country that would never be singled out by the IACHR in a 300-page report. In October of 2005, teachers in British Columbia (BC) had a two week strike declared illegal by the courts. Union leaders faced  the possibility of jail terms. The BC Supreme Court froze the union’s assets, levied a $500 million fine against the union, banned strike pay and even the use  of union offices to support the strike.[13]

In contrast, the  management led shutdown of Venezuela’s oil industry went on for three  months. It included major acts of sabotage. Venezuela’s GDP contracted by 27% in the first four months of 2003 as $13.3 billion in oil revenue was lost. Unlike the Canadian teachers strike, the oil industry shutdown in Venezuela was aimed at bringing down the government. In Canada, a labor group like the CTV, which backed a military coup as well as massive economic sabotage,  would have been outlawed immediately. In Venezuela, the CTV continues to operate and to aggressively oppose the Chavez government.[14]

In one  passage, the IACHR invokes the “history of the Hemisphere” to explain its concerns about Venezuela. The words leap off the page because the IACHR completely disregards the history of the US undermining democracy in Latin America. The IACHR report expresses no concern about US funding for groups that backed the 2002 coup – except to worry that the Chavez government may be infringing on the “freedom of association” of those groups.

The IACHR has published some criticism of US clients such as Colombia and Honduras (after the coup of June 2009). However, no one should be unaware of its pro-imperial bias. As long as the Venezuelan government is perceived as a threat by the US government, we should expect to see more voluminous reports that rehash thoroughly debunked claims.    

Notes

[1] The IACHR report is available here: http://www.cidh.oas.org/countryrep/Venezuela2009eng/VE09.TOC.eng.htm

[2] The HRW report was thoroughly debunked by Gregory Wilpert. See his debate with HRW here: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3882. The bulk of the IACHR report recycles the same criticism made by HRW. Those who seek a very detailed rebuttal of the IACHR should refer to Wilpert’s debate with HRW.

[3] “Latin Americans criticize Chavez ouster, violence in Venezuela,” Marianela Jimenez; Associated Press; April 12, 2002.

[4] Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs. State Agent for Human Rights. Observations on the Draft Report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.

[5] On campesino murders and formation of peasant militia see: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5150. On assassination of UNT unionists see: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/4011.    

[6] On Ortega’s escape from prison see: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/1888

[7] For a detailed rebuttal of the IACHR’s criticism of judicial independence in Venezuela see note 1.

[8] About Danilo Anderson see: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/799

See also: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/812.

[9] See “Colombia's Magic Laptops,” http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3927

[10] See note 1.

[11] See the documentary “The Revolution will not be Televised” for a powerful, first hand account of the censorship imposed by the private media in an effort to prop up Carmona’s regime: http://venezuelanalysis.com/video/2611

[12] Venezuela to Transfer Private Media Concessions to Community Media: http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/4683

[13] British Columbia Teachers’ Strike, E. Wayne Ross, http://www.zcommunications.org/british-columbia-teachers-strike-by-e-wayne-ross.

[14] Bart Jones provides very detailed and superbly written account of the oil industry shutdown in his book, “Hugo: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution,” p.372-387.