Washington’s Undeclared War Against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez

In its ongoing crusade to impugn the government of Chávez, the Bush administration, during both the Powell and Rice eras, has blacklisted Venezuela. Out of all the State Department's negative ratings, the one awarded to Venezuela regarding human trafficking has generated perhaps the most moral outrage among independent scholars.

In evaluating the standards used to assess the performance of ideological foes in such areas as human rights observance, narcotics, terrorism, respect for religious freedom, and human trafficking, the State Department’s certifications (compiled annually as mandated by U.S. Congress) are little better than fabrications to meet the political requirements of Secretary of State Rice. Depending upon whether the Secretary of State wants to complain about an ideological adversary or praise a loyal ally, the architects of the reports are prepared to spotlight phantom offenses or ignore arrant abuses. Venezuela, which received a Tier 3 (serious offender) rank on Washington’s human trafficking list, could have faired no better at the hands of the Bush administration’s operations.

The State Department’s human trafficking methodology is to rank countries on a three tier system. Tier 3 is comprised of countries that are the most egregious participants in trafficking and are thus subject to heavy sanctions. Tier 2 includes countries complicit in trafficking, but which, from the State Department’s perspective, are making significant efforts to counter the problem; finally, Tier 1 is comprised of countries not significantly engaged in the industry. The problem with this methodology is that a country’s ranking appears to be based far less on well-defined evidentiary standards than on Washington’s readiness to launch a rant against the likes of Chávez.

In its ongoing crusade to impugn the government of Chávez, the Bush administration, during both the Powell and Rice eras, has blacklisted Venezuela. These findings have become famously known in Washington as contrived, spurious, and worthless exercises. Out of all these negative ratings, the one awarded to Venezuela regarding human trafficking has generated perhaps the most moral outrage among independent scholars and may represent one of the more gross cases of faulty research developed by the State Department.

Human Trafficking: Definition and State Department Report
Human trafficking is one of the world’s most reprehensible crimes. Defined in 2000 by the UN as “the recruitment, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion,” human trafficking frequently encompasses sexual exploitation or forced labor. Until recently, governments and NGO’s did not systematically track information on human trafficking, and only rough anecdotal estimates have been available from the past.

In 2000, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a measure designed to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and provide yearly benchmarks on a given country’s effort to minimize human trafficking. The annual assessments mandated by the act were based on information coming from a variety of sources, including U.S. embassies, foreign government officials, NGOs and international organizations. Based on a threshold of 100 or more victims, State Department officials endeavor to determine whether a given country serves as a source, transit point, or destination for trafficking victims. State Department officials, monitoring human trafficking under Director John Miller, offered up their own rather discretionary interpretations of the already highly fluid standards and loose evidentiary arguments to validate the given country. Needless to say, the evaluation of Venezuela – given that Hugo Chávez has been one of the Bush administration’s chosen anti-Christs – was preordained. Critical to the integrity of the process is that judgments now being made must not be politically driven. On this score, the State Department has woefully failed.

In many instances, impartial analysis in today’s State Department has fallen by the wayside. There is simply no way that the human trafficking document, in its reference to the Chávez administration, is delivering anything more than desultory gibberish aimed more at pleasing special interests in Coral Gables, where large numbers of wealthy Venezuelans have second homes, rather than to draft a truly professional evaluation of Caracas’ performance.

A Biased Gavel
In 2005, the United States once again ranked Cuba as Tier 3. The judgment represented Cuba’s third year on the list, and it hardly took any effort at all for the U.S. to deliver its verdict. The initial decision to include the island in the most negative category came about without any new evidence being presented that Havana had committed any offenses since the last reporting period. In fact, Cuba was not even mentioned in either the 2001 or 2002 report, and its reappearance had more to do with the zealotry of the Representative Ros-Lehtinen-led hard-right Miami delegation in the House, than respectable scholarship. The island’s abrupt reappearance on Washington’s rogue list casts severe doubt upon the document’s integrity. Like other annual certifications, the Human Trafficking Report is now subject to ideology, and its chronic lack of objectivity appears to confirm the politicized manipulation and the routine use of selective data.

The 2005 Human Trafficking Report on Cuba illustrates this debauched process. The document relies heavily on hearsay. For example, it notes that “there are no reliable estimates available on the extent of trafficking in the country; however, children in prostitution (are) widely apparent, even to casual observers.” Since U.S. “casual observers” are not permitted by Washington to travel to Cuba, one wonders whether there are members of the U.S.-Cuba interest section in Havana. These are pathetically weak grounds for Cuba’s Tier 3 placement, yet such qualms do not appear to trouble the thoroughly unprofessional State Department personnel working on the project, including, Director John Miller of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and Secretary of State Rice.

The Venezuelan Finding
Venezuela was also ranked Tier 3 in the human trafficking category, yet this classification, if anything, represents an even worse perversion of scholarship. Following the release of its latest report, the State Department was forced to admit that its claim that Caracas had failed to prosecute a single human trafficker may have been wrong, since the Chávez government asserted that it had, in fact, prosecuted 21 individuals. Nevertheless, as a result of the ranking, predicated as it was on a very narrow or nonexistent foundation, the South American nation has suffered sanctions involving the blockage of $250 million in international loans in 2005. While Caracas is cited as having a poor preventative anti-trafficking process in place, the State Department report cannot point to a single stated complaint against Venezuelan authorities.

Furthermore, this heavy-handed U.S. designation flies in the face of quality analyses done by other organizations. For example, according to a study recently issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns, there are, in fact, more reports on human trafficking incidents applying to a major U.S. ally, Colombia, than Washington’s major adversary, Venezuela; yet the former received only a Tier 1 classification from the State Department, while the book was thrown at Caracas. This discrepancy reveals how much sway political factors have in the methodology behind producing the agency’s annual report. Colombia is one of Washington’s closest regional allies; thus the country’s endemic corruption and the tempo of human trafficking are systematically overlooked or downplayed by U.S. officials. Numerous cases of Colombian women being trafficked into Japan’s sex industry have been cited by entities such as the UN, and the attribution process is cited as an area in need of major improvement.

Venezuela, one of Washington’s chief hemispheric antagonists, is subject to harsh sanctions as a result of these bogus allegations. The Bush administration’s use of a heinous crime like human trafficking as merely another weapon in its anti-Chávez crusade, is nothing more than an example of grossly self-indulgent behavior, worsened by the fact that it degrades the usefulness of the reporting process, as well as the administration’s repeated invoking of lofty rhetoric referring to the importance of building an international community to advance the public good. In fact, the question should be asked whether the entire certification process, in all of its manifestations, should be dropped, because it is obvious, that what is now being done in the name of high-minded reform, is simply shameless self-serving pandering to the White House’s reigning ideological biases.

A Distinguished Report?
In the years since the State Department’s annual report was created, it has received abundant criticism from NGOs and other governments. In 2003, Human Rights Watch observed that the report lacked adequate analysis backed by concrete data and noted that the U.S. document did not include facts about tried, prosecuted, and the conviction rate of traffickers in countries with which it has close ties. Another common complaint has been that some countries are placed in tiers that do not correspond with the relative weight of their alleged human trafficking records. For example, many officials believe Japan’s extensive human trafficking activity and weak legislation to combat it should have landed it in a Tier 3 ranking, but clearly that nation is too important an ally and trade partner to allow for such a designation. Such appellations have their foundation in the White House’s irresistible ideological propellant that leads to the hand out of negative classifications for countries such as Cuba and Venezuela — rankings which are based more on politicized prejudice then on facts.

Beyond Ideology
Unfounded allegations by the State Department are perversions which have further sullied its fast vanishing integrity under its present leadership. While Secretary of State Rice has perfected a techno-babble style of public utterance that seems to say far more than actually is the case, the fact is that if the U.S. intends to be a key player in the fight against human trafficking, its research and reports must be impeccable. Using doctored official findings as handy political weapons, as in the case of Venezuela, will only discourage international cooperation on the issue and result in global derision due to the use of tainted documents, which deserve to be considered almost worthless. If Washington is serious about confronting the problem of trafficking, and not just using it as a vehicle for anti-Chávez propaganda, it must do better than simply continue to push a self-serving political agenda on such an important issue.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Gabriel Garcia

June 28, 2006

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