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Opinion and Analysis: International | Law and Justice | Opposition | Social Movements

Human Rights Watch Perpetuates Bias and Myth Against Venezuela

The US-based NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), released its annual “World Report” last week, using the opportunity to once again take aim at the Venezuelan government for what it considers to be the country’s “precarious human rights situation”.

In what has turned into a yearly recital of negativity and factually impoverished accusations, the NGO has strongly criticized the government for alleged abuses while ignoring any positive advances that the country has made in the area of human rights over the past twelve years.  

This year’s criticisms include two old standards – President Chavez’s “domination of the judiciary” and his alleged “systematic” clamp down on freedom of expression.

In order to make its “judiciary” argument this year, the NGO cites the case of Judge Maria Afiuni, a circuit magistrate who illegally freed a wealthy banker, Eligio Cedeño, imprisoned for stealing some US$27 million from the Venezuelan government through a computer import scam.

Afiuni, arguing that Cedeño had been held longer than mandated for pre-trial detentions, was arrested after she unilaterally freed the corporate executive, personally escorting the banker out of the courtroom onto the parking lot where he promptly sped off on a motorcycle.

Cedeño, like many in his profession, turned up in Miami where he was detained by US authorities for entering the country illegally; however, he was later released after requested political asylum.

NOT POLITICAL

Venezuela’s conservative opposition, Human Rights Watch, and a myriad of anti-Chavez media outlets have been quick to pounce on Afiuni’s arrest as “evidence” of a politically tilted judiciary clamping down on dissidents.  

But the fact remains that neither Cedeño nor Afiuni were outspoken political foes of the Chavez administration.

While it is true that Cedeño had indeed been held beyond the stipulated time for pre-trial detentions, it is also true that Afiuni’s rogue actions were made in violation of all judicial protocols and legal procedures.

In fact, hundreds of trials in Venezuela fall victim to bureaucratic slow downs and judicial delays that prevent the timely delivery of justice in the country.

This deeper, structural problem is one of the greatest challenges confronting the nation’s legal system today.  

SELECTIVE BLINDNESS

But, in their zeal to paint Venezuela as a country rife with persecution, Human Rights Watch’s political spin on the Afiuni case ignores this fundamental problem, opting instead to paint the judiciary as a tool of the Chavez administration.

This is the same judicial system, it is worth reminding readers, which has failed to prosecute wealthy vigilante landowners who, upset with Chavez’s land re-distribution laws, have been actively contracting assassins and paramilitaries to systematically murder small farmers. 

As the murder of poor farmers by wealthy landowners does not serve Human Rights Watch’s anti-Chavez campaign, the NGO chooses to ignore them in its report, focusing, rather, on the plight of Venezuela’s upper classes.

DISTORTING PRESS FREEDOM

In a similar vein, Human Rights Watch also accuses the Venezuelan government of “systematically undermin[ing] journalistic freedom of expression” and uses a single case, that of journalist Francisco Perez, to make its broad condemnation.

Perez, journalist from the newspaper El Carabobeno, was sued under Venezuela’s Media Responsibility Laws by the governor of Valencia, Edgardo Oquendo after Perez had published a series of attacks against the public official, accusing him of corruption and nepotism.

After being unable to substantiate any of his slanderous allegations with evidence in a court of law, Perez was sentenced to 3 years of house arrest and ordered to pay a fine of 20 thousand dollars.

His sentence is currently under appeal.

Beyond the case of Perez, which upholds a Venezuelan law designed to ensure honesty and accuracy in reporting, Human Rights Watch is unable to provide any example of censorship, intimidation or persecution of journalists.

In fact, it even affirms that “Venezuela enjoys vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in criticizing and defending the president”.

Yet, the organization still feels justified in accusing the Chavez administration of “systematically” undercutting freedom of speech.

These type of broad condemnations based on erroneous assumptions and faulty research have become standard fare for Human Rights Watch. 

HRW’S AGENDA AGAINST VENEZUELA

In 2008, the organization released an intensely critical, 236-page report on Venezuela that was subsequently refuted by over a hundred academics and Latin American experts.

Of course, in none of its publications has the organization made mention of the impressive gains that the country has made in terms of human development.

Free and universal health care and education, the elimination of illiteracy, drastic reductions in poverty and malnutrition, and increased political participation are just some of the advances that have been praised by the United Nations.

If Human Rights Watch was truly concerned with human rights, then it would focus as much on these issues as it does on spreading negativity and anti-Chavez propaganda.

But unfortunately, what the organization has become over the years is simply a mouthpiece for Venezuela’s conservative opposition, using progressive rhetoric to defend the interests of wealthy minorities.

Its reports have become so biased and inaccurate that they hardly merit reading, not to mention serious analysis.