Human Rights In Venezuela—Who Is Getting the Story Wrong?

In recent years, mainstream media outlets have seized on the State Department's Human Rights report to paint a picture of Venezuela under Orwellian levels of government control, where freedom of the press and the right of association are rarely respected.

Every year when the State Department releases its annual human rights report, the two thirds of Venezuelan citizens who support president Chavez take a deep breath. What State Department-sanctioned storylines will dominate U.S. media coverage and political discourse regarding Venezuela in the year ahead?  They have reason to fear: in recent years, mainstream media outlets have seized on the report to paint a picture of a country under Orwellian levels of government control, where freedom of the press and the right of association are rarely respected.

After all, why should the media pay attention to facts when they can get their information straight from the Bush Administration foreign policy spin machine?  Because, as anyone who has ever looked at a Venezuelan newspaper or witnessed an opposition rally knows, the only thing Orwellian about Venezuela is the consistent double speak utilized to describe the reality in that country. A man democratically-elected three times in elections deemed free and fair by international observers becomes a “quasi-dictator,” and a country with the highest GDP growth in Latin America is “economically unstable.”  In reality, the majority of privately owned media—which still commands the lion’s share of the broadcast audience and print outlets—is virulently anti-Chavez, and never afraid to run news and editorials that criticize the government.  Often it seems their only difficulty is finding a side of the story that reflects the views of the majority of Venezuelans. Opposition leaders continue to gather their troops in the streets of Caracas for flag-draped displays of their politics. True, the numbers of attendees at opposition rallies has plummeted in recent years, but that is largely a result of the disarray in the opposition in general, and certainly not because of any curtailment in their right to free assembly.

So how is it that these negative images have permeated the coverage of Venezuela?  In the past two weeks, gearing up for the release of the 2005 State Department Report, I picked the brains of four journalists who cover Venezuela for mainstream print outlets. Three of the reporters work for U.S. publications, and the fourth covers Venezuela from the United Kingdom. They each brought their own impressions to the discussion, but the following themes were reoccurring.

Venezuela is a Hot Topic

Journalists don’t have any trouble getting the green light to do a Venezuela story these days. As one reporter put it, President Chavez “gives good quote,” and national newspapers are happy to publish two or three Venezuela-themed stories each week.  That’s far more print space than any other Latin American nation receives.  For this reason, readers may get the full run-down on State Department criticism of Venezuela, but they have to do their own research if they want to learn about the state of the media in, say, Peru (where a U.S. journalist was found guilty of “defaming” a narcotics trafficker last year[1]) or Costa Rica (where “insulting the honor” of a politician is punishable up to three years imprisonment, and media laws require that public officials be granted space in private media to defend themselves from negative stories.[2])

Reporter Shuffling

Of course, while Venezuela is a hot topic today, this was not always the case.  In the pre-Chavez days, when the military was called out to violently repress citizen marches, and government agents actually redacted unfavorable editorials before they hit the streets (Google the word “Caracazo” for the most blatant examples), the events rarely made a blip in the U.S. media.  What’s more, as the British journalist explained to me, the structure of U.S. media outlets often does not permit reporters to become steeped in the history and culture of the country they report on.  “International” reporters are just that—they can be based in Caracas for a couple years, but then may be shipped off to Afghanistan or Sierra Leone or Bora Bora.  In other words, are not necessarily very familiar with what happened in Venezuela before the current administration, and this lack of cultural and historic context is reflected in the stories they publish.

The Nature of the State Department Report

Clearly, there’s going to be bias in the Bush Administration State Department and the way they choose to rate Venezuela.  But their human rights reports are pretty hard on U.S. allies as well. Of course, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and government wiretapping of U.S. citizens, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the State Department doesn’t release a report on human rights abuses here at home—but that’s another topic.

No, the biggest methodological glitch in the State Department reports is they generally don’t do their own investigative research. Instead, they rely on a compilation of reports and allegations from local sources.  For this reason, you will find all sorts of vague charges from unidentified sources.  In the case of this year’s Venezuela report, you will find an unsourced reference to an assault from “four men believed to be DIM [Military Intelligence] agents.” Even in the State Department’s wording, it remains unclear if they were indeed government officials or angry citizens. More importantly, there is no mechanism to fact-check the allegation because there is no source provided.  In other words, anyone could have filed a report, and once published in the State Department paper, it becomes an accepted fact. Which brings us to the next topic…

The Nature of the Sources

Ostensibly, the State Department relies on reputable human rights groups to document their annual reports, although as discussed above, the sourcing of individual allegations is not clear in the final product.  But in Venezuela, the line between civil society and the non-democratic—often violent—factions of the opposition has long been blurred.

One of the principal get-out-the-vote leaders for the opposition, a Bush Administration ally named Maria Corina Machado, was present in Miraflores (the Venezuelan version of the White House) in the middle of the unsuccessful 2002 coup d’etat against President Chavez.[3]  Her reasoning? She was invited to have tea with the wife of dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona, apparently without a thought given to the violence going on around her nor how her friend came to reside in the President’s home.  And yet federal charges against Machado and her organization, Sumate, are singled out in the 2005 report as an example of political intimidation

Similarly, a leading critic of the state of Venezuelan prisons, Carlos Ayala, was also present during the coup.  Ayala’s law firm actually drafted what became known as the “Carmona Decree,” a document that infamously dissolved Venezuela’s Supreme Court and National Assembly after president Chavez was detained, paving the way for the coup-installed “President” Carmona to have supreme authority over the country.[4] The reliance of the State Department on sources like Machado and Ayala, who are clearly committed neither to human rights nor democracy, undermines the credibility of the report and does a disservice to the very real endemic problems facing the country, such as conditions within the Venezuelan prison system.

The problem of sources is not just an issue with the State Department report, but also with sources used by the press.  As mentioned above, U.S. reporters based in Venezuela are often relatively new to the country. In addition, they are unlikely to live in the poor sections of town that constitute the bedrock of Chavez’ support. Instead, being paid in dollars (and Euros) means they reside in upper middle class communities and spend their social time in bars, gyms and clubs frequented by wealthy clientle.  This means that they will rely on the most available sources—those who speak fluent English, are part of the middle and upper class communities they live in and/or have been trained in media relations. All too often media quotes come from the most elite families in Venezuela, shutting out the viewpoints of the vast majority of the country.

The Chavez Factor

In press lingo, President Chavez is “media-genic.”  A charismatic and quotable figure, the press likes to focus stories around him.  Unfortunately, some journalists have a hard time separating the president and his administration from stories that don’t actually involve the executive branch.  So when the State Department reports on abuses of power from municipal police authorities, the press tends to report on the problems of Venezuelan police in general, and round out the story with colorful quotes from the president.  The implication is that local problems are attributable to the president.  Domestic journalists would be hard pressed to link a story about police brutality in Los Angeles to the Bush administration, yet in the simplification of Venezuela reporting in the U.S. media, the line becomes muddled.

This problem becomes exacerbated when journalists fail to distinguish between human rights abuses that are a result of the lack of the rule of law, which occur throughout the hemisphere, and abuses that represent political repression, which is much less frequent. Both are important, but to confuse the two adds to the false impression that Venezuela has a politically repressive environment.

The 2005 Report

The truth is, this year’s State Department Human Rights Report is actually quite favorable to Venezuela in most categories. 

Here’s what the Bush Administration had to say about peaceful association: “The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right in practice.”

Press Freedoms? “Print and electronic media were independent.”

Academia?  “There were no government restrictions on the Internet or academic freedom.”

The much-maligned elections processes? “The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right through periodic elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.[5]

These points were mentioned, but not emphasized, in this year’s report.  This is significant because a general clean bill of health becomes overshadowed by a laundry list of regional, situational or otherwise anecdotal and unsourced grievances.

The two major areas where the U.S. really digs in to human rights violations in Venezuela were (irony alert!) detainee abuses and wiretapping without a warrant. As Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical I get, it’s impossible to keep up.”  Yes, the Venezuelan prisons are a brutal mess, and police corruption remains a huge problem throughout the country.  But these systemic problems go back generations.  It’s responsible and fair for the State Department to point them out, but in a context-challenged media environment, the implication that this is somehow unique to the Chavez administration is one even the most fervent opposition member would not make with a straight face.

It’s also important to note that the very week that the State Department praised academic freedom in Venezuela, a team of FBI and Los Angeles marshals paid an intimidating visit to a Venezuelan-American professor in California, interrogating him and his students about his political beliefs and association with the Venezuelan government.[6]

Implications of the Report

Clearly, the State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in Venezuela is wildly influential.  As we’ve discussed, it forms the basis for press coverage—and therefore American public and policymakers’ impressions—of the country.  It is also used as a tool for U.S. politicians to advance their own agenda in the region.  In recent weeks, the reports have been an excuse Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to advocate a policy of isolation for Venezuela in the Americas.[7]  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even went so far as to make a ludicrous comparison between President Chavez and Adolf Hitler.[8]

Just this week, the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere will vote on a resolution by Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL), who has taken statements from past reports to condemn “Hugo Chavez’s ever growing anti-democratic actions” and has sought to finance opposition movements in Venezuela.[9]  The resolution is riddled with inaccurate information, much of it gleaned from de-contextualized allegations made in past reports, but also from sloppy press coverage of the documents.

Venezuela, like many Latin American nations and most of the world, has some serious regional governance problems. The prison system remains brutal, and corruption is still an enormous challenge, particularly at the state and municipal levels.  The key is context, both comparing Venezuela with the rest of Latin America, but especially comparing the country today to the Venezuela of 10 years ago.  The human rights situation has vastly improved since the systematic abuses of the 80s and 90s. But nowhere will you find this missing piece of information in the State Department Report.  This is not surprising, given that it is the voice of a political entity under an Administration with specific regional policy goals and opinions.  It’s the job of reporters to put the report in context, not simply pass on the Administration’s party line.  To do anything less represents an abdication of the media’s responsibility to the public.

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

A Note of addendum to excellent critique on media coverage of Venezuela by venezuelanalysis.com correspondent Simone Baribeau:

The inclusion of the cases of Maria Corina Machado and Carlos Ayala in the State department report appear justified. Their actions do undoubtedly make them questionable sources for the report (and for journalists), but the report was discussing the cases against them, rather than quoting their views on human rights in Venezuela.

Corina Machado’s presence at Miraflores during the coup would, in any country, be enough to justify her being put on trial for treason. However, the case brought against her and three co-workers is not due to any involvement she had in the events of April 2002, but rather her acceptance of $31,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, used to support a recall referendum on the Chávez presidency. And through her acceptance of this grant she is not on trial for campaign finance violations (which, in Venezuela, carries no criminal penalty), but rather, under Article 132 of the Venezuelan penal code, which forbids “conspiring to destroy the republican form of government” and the solicitation of “foreign intervention in the internal political affairs of Venezuela.” While she may be guilty of these acts for her involvement in the coup, it is not at all clear that the acceptance of a relatively small grant from the US government merits being charged with, essentially, treason.  

Likewise, the case against Carlos Ayala is not cut and dry. Both he and the firm in question have denied drafting the document, though Allan Brewer-Carías, the head of the firm, admitted to being consulted about the document, along with other lawyers, during the coup. Ayala admitted to having been at Miraflores, but said he left, upset by the decree. If, as the delegation from Venezuela to the OAS said, Ayala is tied to the firm in question, his judgment in linking himself to a law firm that, in the month before the coup put out a statement called, “Chávez has a plan of destruction for the country and is at the margin of democracy” and during the coup called “Transition government is based on the Inter-American Democratic Charter” leaves his credibility as a human rights lawyer in doubt. But, given that his human rights work is potentially an embarrassment to the Venezuelan government where, as is common in the region, human rights abuses by police and in the prisons are widespread, the case against him seems to merit mention in the State Department’s report.

[1] 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Peru. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61738.htm

[2] 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Costa Rica.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61722.htm

[3]  Tucker, Todd, “Bush’s Venezuelagate.” Published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. http://www.americas.org/item_16026

[4] “Dissident Ex-General Faces New Trial,” The Daily Herald, Venezuela. http://www.thedailyjournalonline.com/article.asp?CategoryId=10717&ArticleId=176727

[5] 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices , Venezuela http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61745.htm

[6] “Deputies’ Questions Unsettle University,” Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2006.  http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/california/la-me-prof11mar11,1,7679531.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california

[7] Richter, Paul, “US Policy Now Aims to Isolate Venezuela’s Chavez,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2006.  http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06071/668483.stm

[8] Bachalet, Pablo, “Chavez seen as US Threat,” The Miami Herald, February 11, 2006.  http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/13845328.htm

[9] “Mack Introduces Resolution Condemning Hugo Chavez’s Ever-Growing Anti-Democratic Actions,” Press Release from Congressman Mack, December 20, 2005.  http://mack.house.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressReleases.View&ContentRecord_id=162