Human Rights Watch and elections in Venezuela

Although Venezuela under President Chavez is by no means perfect, it bears no relation to the country depicted in HRW’s 2008 Report.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released (Sept 18 2008) a highly controversial report (“Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chavez”), which has been characterised by the Venezuelan government biased and inaccurate.

This Report comes in the wake of an intensification of attacks on Venezuela by various branches of the US administration. They include:

  • the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet –decommissioned in 1952, reportedly made up of 25 warships, deployed around South America and about which, several Latin American countries, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, amongst them, have expressed deep concerns;
  • John Walters, the US drug Czar has accused Venezuela of inaction in war on drugs; 
  • the US State Department recently discussed the possibility of adding Venezuela to the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. 
  • the allegation that the Venezuelan government was behind the suitcase stuffed with US$800,000 brought into Argentina by Venezuelan-American citizen, Antonini Wilson, but, which, in reality, was denounced by Chavez and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, as a dirty operation, about which nothing has been conclusively demonstrated, but which has become the focus of intense media attention.[2]
  • sanctions by the US Treasury of several Venezuelan officials over unproven allegations that they aided the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia.

Most recently, following the expulsion of the US Ambassador from Bolivia over his relations with right wing extremists, Venezuela expelled its US Ambassador in solidarity and the US responded by expelling the Venezuelan Ambassador from the US.

At the same time, on 10 September, a plot led by high level retired and serving military officers was exposed to assassinate President Chavez and carry out a military coup.

This is the context, of acute tensions between Venezuela and the US, when on 18 September HRW published its Report.

HRW’s 2008 Report’s key theme is: “Ten years ago, Chávez promoted a new constitution that could have significantly improved human rights in Venezuela. But rather than advancing rights protections, his government has since moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda”. The 230-page Report makes the charge that ‘Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency.’

Although Venezuela under President Chavez is by no means perfect, it bears no relation to the country depicted in HRW’s 2008 Report. The key allegation that discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency looks absurd when it is understood that the civil service remains largely full of supporters of the old regime, some of whom have allegedly engaged in criminal actions, such as the destruction of key operational facilities of the national oil company PDVSA, during the oil lock-out that brought the country’s economy to near collapse.

The lockout took place almost immediately after the short-lived overthrow of President Chavez in a military coup in April 2002 backed by the military high command, the main private media, the national employers’ organisation and the old discredited trade union federation the CTV. The coup was followed by a campaign to oust Chavez through a recall referendum in 2004. When that failed the opposition boycotted the 2005 parliamentary election in order to try to question the legitimacy of the government. Throughout these tense events opposition politicians and private media talked openly of violently overthrowing the government and adopted an intensely confrontational attitude.

Revelations of the recent coup plot and plans to assassinate President Chavez, just before regional and local elections in November, are in line with the stance taken by the opposition at crucial moments.

Contrary to HRW’s allegations that the Venezuelan government practices ‘political discrimination’ against the opposition, the government’s attitude to the opposition’s persistent efforts to use violent and unconstitutional means to overthrow it, has been one of tolerance and magnanimity. Last year, President Chavez pardoned political opponents who backed the failed 2002 coup against his democratically-elected government. He explained “It’s a matter of turning the page,” Chávez said. "We want there to be a strong ideological and political debate — but in peace.” In this spirit, the government has often welcomed input from the opposition, for example, inviting the leaders of student protests to address the National Assembly.[3] Not a common occurrence anywhere else in the world.

All political parties in Venezuela operate without any constraints whatsoever. The majority of these parties are in the opposition, their difficulty is that they do not enjoy the high levels of support of the fewer pro-government political parties. Opposition parties in Venezuela can and do organise public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, street marches, their spokespersons speak regularly on TV and radio – and they never moderate their language, their criticism, or their opposition to the government. They stand candidates for elections, hold national party events, issue proclamations, statements, hold press conferences, publish books, pamphlets, disseminate anti-government propaganda – in the streets and through the media without any governmental sanctions whatsoever.

The great majority of private newspapers and television stations in the country support the Opposition and they face no restrictions other than the normal ones that exist in any democratic country, such as those governing libel and defamation. No Venezuelan newspaper has ever been subjected to any censorship by the Chavez administration.

There are no political prisoners of any kind in Venezuela.

With regard to the Judiciary, contrary to the HRW Report’s contention, under Chavez the independence and probity of the judiciary has been significantly strengthened by dealing with the corruption with which it was previously riddled. HRW’s own 2004 report recognized this: “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.”[4] Under Chavez are being stamped out in the judiciary, thereby improving its efficiency.

At the same time, all democratic institutions have been strengthened in Venezuela, exemplified by the internationally verified efficiency and scrupulous fairness of the National Electoral Council, which has had no hesitation in upholding electoral results unfavourable to the government such as the defeat of the 2007 constitutional referendum – a result accepted immediately by President Chavez and his government.

HRW’s assertion that the Venezuelan media balance is shifting in favour of Chavez is misleading. In fact, the Opposition media enjoy unrestricted freedom but they are increasingly seen as grossly biased and as having lost the political argument. The reality remains that, the private media, which largely supports the Opposition, control the largest share of the airwaves, and there are no major pro-government national daily newspapers.

HRW’s allegation that the government “has sought to remake the country’s labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association,” also bears no relation to reality. There are 6 national trade union federations in Venezuela (CTV, CUTV, UNT, CODESA, CGT, and CST), all of which function with total freedom and without the kind of draconian anti-trade union legislation which disfigures the US and many of its allies. Industrial relations are evolving positively. Furthermore, the level of trade union membership is rising – before  Chavez came to office in 1999, 11% of workers were in unions, the figure now is estimated to be over 20%. Thus, HRW’s allegation that the government violates basic principles of union association is not borne out by the facts.

The HRW 2008 Report charge that the Chávez government has an “aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organizations” is equally false. With varying degrees of success, the government has been empowering millions of hitherto excluded people through an array of social organizations, such as – tens of thousands of – communal councils, which aim to democratize local government. There are also 200,000 cooperatives, women’s organizations, indigenous organizations, Afro-descendants organizations, organizations of gays and lesbians, and so forth. The numbers of these organizations have mushroomed because their rights have, for the first time ever, been either enshrined in the 1999 constitution or are being actively promoted and the government has been keen to assist them.  

Additionally, as part of the implementation of the principles of participatory democracy enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, the government has made successful efforts to enfranchise ever larger layers of the traditionally excluded.

In terms of the traditional electoral process, the number of registered voters has increased phenomenonally. When Chavez was first elected President in 1998 the number of registered voters was 11,013,020. This has increased to 16,109,664 (a staggering 60% increase) by the time of the 2007 Constitutional Referendum.[5]

At the same time, Venezuela has held more internationally recognized democratic elections than virtually any other country in the world in the decade Chavez has been in office.

To argue, as does the HRW, that this situation corresponds in any way to stifling civil society is to deny reality.

The government, however, has had serious concerns about illegal activity by a relatively small number of NGO-type of bodies funded by the US which engage in campaigns to subvert the constitutional order. The US funded SUMATE ‘NGO’, for example, centralized the collection of signatures to unseat Chavez in 2004, and its leader, Corina Machado, endorsed the 2002 coup. The publicly acknowledged funding of such so-called NGOs comes from US sources like the infamous National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity and the Centre for International Private Enterprise. The government of Venezuela, charges that these organisations are channels for the covert funding of opposition groups to seek to undermine democratic institutions and the elected government. This charge is amply confirmed by international experience. One example illustrates this. On hearing of the ousting of Chavez in April 2002, International Republican Institute (IRI) President, George A. Folsom, issued the following statement:

“Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country. Venezuelans were provoked into action as a result of systematic repression by the Government of Hugo Chavez. Several hundred thousand people filled the streets of Caracas to demand the resignation of Lt. Col. Chavez.”[6]

The chairman of the IRI since 1993 has been Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, who has made no bones about his intense antagonism to progressive governments in Latin America, especially, Chavez. His campaign website even featured an online petition calling for support in his quest to “stop the dictators of Latin America.” The petition called for the removal of Chávez “in the name of democracy and freedom throughout our hemisphere.” Although the petition was taken down, it is an indication of his thinking, as leader of this NGO-funder and a possible future president of the US.[7]

In a similar vein, several months after the failed 2002 coup, the US State Dept established an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, with money from USAID and which operates out of the US Embassy with, among other stated objectives: “to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs.”[8] ‘Transition’ has to be seen in the context of the US administration’s doctrine of its right to seek to externally promote ‘regime change’ in countries which it perceives as pursuing policies against the interests of the sections of the US it represents.

The Chavez government has been expanding democracy and social progress to unprecedented levels. And in truth, there is no serious evidence of any systematic effort or policy aimed at attacking human rights, in fact, all evidence points in the opposite direction. Therefore, it is difficult not to conclude that HRW’s 2008 Report, as on previous occasions, does not have the purpose of constructive criticism of shortcomings or possible flaws in the process of social progress and democratization underway in Venezuela – which would be welcome – but that it distorts reality to depict a country on the verge of becoming a nasty dictatorship. The imbalance in the Report is evident in that, for example, it does not even mention the substantial progress that has been made in improving the human rights of the immense majority of the population by such means as:

  • the reduction of poverty (by 34%),
  • the eradication of illiteracy, 
  • the expansion of education from 6 million people participating in education in 1998 to more than 12 million in 2008 
  • the access to free health care increased to the great majority of the population, about 20 million people, by 2008 
  • the provision of subsidized food benefiting 12-14 million people in 2008 
  • the reduction in unemployment to historic low levels of around 7% in 2008, 
  • the promotion of a far greater role of women in society and the economy, 
  • and the dramatic increase in social spending that has taken place in Venezuela since the election of Chavez.

The unbalanced and plain misleading character of HRW’s reports on Venezuela has been consistent and has coincided uncannily with the run-up to important electoral contests such as the forthcoming November elections this year.

It issued a communiqué on Venezuela with similar unsubstantiated themes in June 2004, just two months before the recall referendum against Chavez. In October 2007, it published a statement expressing similar preoccupations just two months before the constitutional referendum. And HRW published its 2008 report on 18 September 2008 just two months away from regional and local authority elections in Venezuela in November 2008. All these reports have echoed US anti-Chavez propaganda: ‘a dictatorship is in the making in Venezuela’.

Back in June, John McCain said in a speech to the Florida Association of Broadcasters: “Hugo Chavez has used the cloak of electoral legitimacy to establish a one party dictatorship in Venezuela.”[9]

The question presents itself: who stands to gain from Human Rights Watch activity in Venezuela – the population of the country or the Washington administration seeking to undermine an elected government seen as breaking free of its traditional economic and political domination?

Dr Francisco Domínguez is head of Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University.

[2] Despite repeated requests by both Argentina and Venezuela, US authorities have refused to extradite Antonini to face questions.

[3] Venezuela Information Office, ‘The Truth Suffers in Human Rights Watch Report on Venezuela’ 

[4] http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/venezuela0604/

[5] Consejo National Electoral, http://www.cne.gov.ve/estadisticas.php 

[6] US Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Inspector General, “A Review of U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela November 2001 – April 2002” Report Number 02-OIG-003, July 2002, p.31, http://oig.state.gov/documents/organization/13682.pdf 

[7] Nikolas Kozloff, “Mr Big Stick in Latin America, Meet John McCain”, http://www.counterpunch.org/kozloff02132008.html

[8] Tom Barry, The New Politics of Political Aid in Venezuela, http://americas.irc-online.org/am/4420 

[9] Senator John McCain Address On Latin America To The Florida Association Of Broadcasters, June 20, 2007, http://www.johnmccain.com/Informing/News/Speeches/BDA9E453-0115-40F5-9275-3EB29BB6F994.htm