Human Rights Watch's Response to Academics' Criticism

Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, responds to and dismisses the open letter signed by over 100 Latin America experts and academics, which criticized a recent HRW report on Venezuela.

By Kenneth Roth - Human Rights Watch
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December 29, 2008

Miguel Tinker Salas
Professor of History
Pomona College

Gregory Wilpert,
Adjunct Professor of Political Science
Brooklyn College

Greg Grandin
Professor of History, Director of Graduate Studies
New York University

Dear Mr. Tinker Salas, Mr. Wilpert, and Mr. Grandin:

I am writing in response to your letter concerning our recent
report, “A Decade Under Chavez: Political Intolerance and Lost
Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela
.” Since your
names appear on the press release that accompanied the letter, I am
assuming that you were involved in drafting the document and asking
others to sign it. I hope that you will share our response with the
other authors and signatories.

Your letter contains dramatic allegations regarding the content of
the report and the motives of those who wrote it. You claim that the
report “does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship,
impartiality, accuracy, or credibility.” You claim that it relies
excessively on opposition sources, that it makes sweeping allegations
without factual support, and that it ignores and even endorses unlawful
efforts to undermine the government. You also claim that the report was
“politically motivated,” and you offer as proof a newspaper quotation
of our Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco.

Human Rights Watch takes criticism of this nature very seriously.
Our ability to effectively promote human rights around the globe
depends in large measure on the credibility of our reporting. We have
therefore reviewed your letter with great care, examining each of your
claims to determine whether the problems you identify are real and
warrant further attention.

After a careful review, we have found that the allegations in your
letter do not stand up to scrutiny. The issues covered in our report
have been thoroughly researched and the substantive findings are based
on a wide range of diverse and credible sources. In seeking to prove
otherwise, you have misrepresented both the substance and the source
material of the report. You have criticized us for making arguments
that we have not made. You have taken our words out of context
(including the quotation you attribute to Mr. Vivanco) and distorted
their meanings in order to make your points.

The human rights problems we have documented in Venezuela are very
real and deserve serious attention. By disseminating unfounded
allegations regarding our report, your letter provides little more than
an unhelpful distraction, which, as I will discuss further below, can
only serve to undermine legitimate efforts to promote human rights in

Unreliable Sources?

One of your main allegations is that our report suffers from an
“overwhelming reliance” on “opposition sources.” Specifically you claim
that the report “depends heavily” on three newspapers aligned with the
opposition (El Universal, El Nacional, and Tal Cual) and one nongovernmental organization (Súmate). This allegation has no merit.

One simple way to gauge what sources we relied on is to examine the
footnotes. The report contains 754 of them. Of these, only 88 cite
material drawn from one of those three newspapers, and only 50 do so
without providing another corroborating source. Only 10 footnotes cite
material published or reproduced by Súmate. In other words, only 6.6
percent of the material cited in the report comes exclusively from
these newspapers, and 1.3 percent from Súmate. That is a total of 8
percent of our citations, which hardly suggests an “overwhelming

What you omit from your letter is any consideration of the other 92
percent of the citations found in our report. These citations refer to
information from a wide array of publications, as well as actors of all
political persuasions, including government officials, state entities,
international rights monitoring bodies (such as the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization),
judges, prosecutors, jurists, pro-government and independent
journalists, community radio broadcasters, scholars, and trade
unionists, among others.

Of course, proportions of footnotes tell only part of the story. The
more important part is the fact that our authors did a painstaking and
rigorous job investigating all the issues in the report, seeking out
multiple and diverse sources, corroborating the information wherever
possible, and providing extensive citations so that readers would be
able to evaluate the strength of each piece of evidence in the document.

Human Rights Watch understands full well the importance of being
judicious when marshalling source material, especially when it involves
sources that could very well be biased. This is particularly true when
we work in a political environment as polarized as Venezuela’s.
However, we also know, based on our years of covering Venezuela, that
there are instances in which the opposition sources you mention—just
like government and pro-government sources—can reasonably be relied
upon to provide relevant facts. (Clearly you yourselves agree with this
last point, given that you base one of your letter’s principal
allegations on a single quotation attributed to El Universal.)

Your letter highlights a single footnote that you would consider to
be unacceptable under any circumstances. That footnote cites an online
article posted by an opposition blogger who is vehemently anti-Chávez
and has published offensive commentary in the past. What you do not
mention, however, is that this citation is for an assertion that is
entirely uncontroversial and in no way critical of the government. The
footnote backs the sentence: “The designers of the Maisanta program
justified the program as an effort to democratize access to
information.” What you may not have realized is that the citation does
not refer to anything written by the blogger, but rather to a photo
image reproduced in his article that shows the actual text of the
Maisanta software (in which its designers present their justification
for their program). To claim, as you do, that this footnote is evidence
of a “deep political prejudice” is simply far-fetched.

Unsubstantiated Findings?

Another one of your main accusations is that our report “makes
sweeping allegations that are not backed up by supporting facts or in
some cases even logical arguments.” Yet this sweeping allegation is
itself unsubstantiated.

The primary example you use to attempt to back this accusation is
our conclusion that discrimination on political grounds has been a
defining feature of the Chávez presidency. To make your point, you
isolate a single case of a woman purportedly denied medicines on
political grounds, and claim falsely that it is the “only alleged
instance of discrimination in government services cited in the entire
230-page report.” We actually provide three such cases that we
documented ourselves, while also referencing a 2005 report by the
Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that concluded, on the basis
of hundreds of cases of alleged discrimination, that a “new
discriminatory pattern” in the awarding of “work and public services”
had emerged in Venezuela.

Moreover, our report presents the examples involving public services
as just one facet of a much broader pattern of political
discrimination. Chapter 2 of the report, which introduces the theme of
political discrimination, provides a detailed analysis of six
illustrative cases, and the subsequent chapters on the media, organized
labor and civil society document a wide range of additional cases that
have affected tens of thousands of union members, many journalists, and
some of the country’s leading human rights advocates, among others.

In addition to ignoring the scope of the discrimination cases
analyzed in the report, you also ignore the multiple public statements
by government officials that further substantiate our findings. These
include various instances in which top officials—including President
Chávez—openly endorse political discrimination against government
opponents. To take one example, the report describes how shortly before
the 2006 presidential election, the energy minister and president of
the state oil company, Rafael Ramírez, told employees that anyone who
did not support Chávez should leave their jobs. “We removed 19,500
enemies of the country from this business and we are ready to go on
doing it,” Ramírez warned. Rather than refute this discriminatory
threat, Chávez endorsed it on national TV, urging Ramírez to “repeat it
one hundred times a day” and calling upon all oil workers and military
personnel to “go away to Miami” if they were not “with the revolution.”

Your letter also complains that “the report does not show, or even
attempt to show, that political discrimination either increased under
the current government (as compared to past governments), or is more of
a problem in Venezuela than in any other country in the world.” This is
true: we don’t. In fact, the report clearly states that discrimination
was a major problem in Venezuela under previous governments, citing a
1993 Human Rights Watch (then Americas Watch) report in which we also
highlighted the problem. We credit the Chávez government for
“uproot[ing] the established system of political discrimination” that
it inherited in 1999. The problem is that, after 2002, the government
replaced the old forms of discrimination with new ones of its own. It
is not our view—and certainly not the view of international human
rights law—that a government should be immune from criticism for a
human rights problem just because a similar problem existed under
previous governments, or exists presently in other countries.

The reason we conclude that political discrimination is one
“defining feature” of the Chávez government is because it occurs in a
wide range of areas, affects large numbers of people, and has been
openly endorsed by top officials, including the president himself.

Endorsing the Political Opposition?

Your letter repeatedly suggests that our report endorses the
interests and tactics of the opposition, including the illegal and
undemocratic efforts by some of its members to oust President Chávez.
These allegations are based on blatant misrepresentations of what the
report actually says. Here are some examples (in italics) from your

* “The report implies that public employees, in this case
oil workers should have the right to strike for the overthrow of an
elected government; we do not support that view.”

The report says nothing of the kind. On the contrary, it clearly
states that the internationally-protected right of workers to strike
does not extend to strikes that have purely political aims (such as
ousting an elected president). However, in the case in question (in
which some 18,000 PDVSA employees were summarily fired and then
blacklisted after a 3-month oil stoppage), the International Labor
Organization (ILO) determined that the strike, while motivated in large
part by political aims, had also encompassed a set of demands about the
government’s economic policies. As such, it fell within the scope of
legitimate strike activity which is protected under international law.

The report also clearly states that the government was justified in
taking steps to limit the damage of the strike and to hold individual
strikers accountable for their direct involvement in criminal acts such
as sabotage and conspiracy—provided that those steps were consistent
with international labor rights protections and due process guarantees.

* “Yet this report cites the denial of RCTV’s broadcast
license renewal as a simple, and indeed its primary, example of the
Venezuelan government’s alleged attack on free speech. It does not seem
to matter to the authors that the station had participated in a
military coup and other attempts to topple the government and would not
receive a broadcast license in any democratic country.”

The report does not disregard the serious allegations that RCTV
participated actively in the 2002 coup. On the contrary, it highlights
those allegations and clearly states that the government is fully
justified in seeking accountability for those individuals who
participated in the coup, or any other illegal efforts to topple a
democratically elected president. However, we also maintain that the
government, when seeking to promote accountability, must respect basic
due process guarantees. This is a core principle that undergirds the
rule of law in every democracy, including Venezuela’s.

Nor does the report present the RCTV case as a “simple” example. On
the contrary, it devotes substantial space (12 pages) to analyzing the
intricacies of the case. The Venezuelan government was under no
obligation to renew RCTV’s concession. The problem in this case was
that President Chávez himself justified the non-renewal as a response
to alleged criminal activity, without giving RCTV an opportunity to
defend itself against the charges (a due process violation). Moreover,
as the report demonstrates, it was clear that the real reason the
government was denying a renewal to RCTV—while simultaneously granting
one to another station that was allegedly just as implicated in the
coup—was because of RCTV’s anti-government programming (an act of
political discrimination).

* “Yet the government is reproached for ‘having
significantly shifted the balance of the media in the government’s
favor’ by creating pro-government TV stations since the 2002 coup. Do
the authors consider this type of media monopoly to be more protective
of human rights than a media that is still dominated by the opposition
but also presents some other sources of information?”

The report in no way indicates a preference for media monopolies. On
the contrary, it commends the Chávez government for actively
contributing to “a dramatic increase in the number of licensed
community radio and television outlets in recent years, which has given
new opportunities for public expression to residents of many poor
communities in Venezuela.”

Nor does the report reproach the government for increasing the
number of pro-government media outlets. It simply sets out what has
happened as part of the factual description of the current media
environment. What it objects to is how the government has violated
international norms on freedom of expression by expanding the scope and
severity of “incitement,” “insult,” and criminal defamation laws,
created powerful incentives for critics to engage in self-censorship,
and abused its control of broadcasting frequencies to threaten and
punish stations with overtly critical programming.

We do believe that governments should encourage greater pluralism in
the media. What we don’t accept is the argument that they must
disregard international free speech norms in order to do so.

Political Bias?

The main allegation of your letter is that our report was
“politically motivated.” You offer as your primary evidence a partial
quotation extracted from a full-page interview published by El Universal
in which Mr. Vivanco says: “We did the report because we wanted to
demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…” You
claim that this quote shows Mr. Vivanco acknowledged that our report
was “politically motivated.”

But the only way one can sustain this claim is by ignoring the rest
of that interview and, most importantly, the argument laid out in our
report. Both make perfectly clear that, when we speak of Venezuela as a
“model,” we are referring to the human rights practices analyzed in our
report. Our concern is not with what parties or politicians win
elections, but rather that problematic rights practices will be
replicated elsewhere.

Human Rights Watch works on more than 70 countries and routinely
criticizes governments of all political persuasions. Yet, given our
limited resources, and given our overarching goal of strengthening
human rights norms at a global level, we often focus special attention
on countries that we believe are more likely to be viewed as role
models by others. That is why, for instance, when I wrote the main
essay of our 2006 World Report on torture, I focused special attention
on the United States. As I put it then, this was “not because it is the
worst violator but because it is the most influential.”

Venezuela is clearly among the most influential countries in Latin
America today. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that
President Chávez has used his personal charisma and vast oil resources
to establish himself as a leading figure in regional politics. Another
is that his government has embraced the banner of “participatory”
democracy, an idea which has attracted the attention and, in some
cases, the admiration of people in countries throughout the region. As
a result, President Chávez’s approach to democratic rule has come to be
regarded as a model by many.

Human Rights Watch believes, as we state in the report, that
promoting more inclusive forms of democracy in Venezuela and throughout
the region is a “vital and ambitious aim.” Yet we also believe that
this aim cannot be achieved so long as the independence of key
democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, the media, organized
labor, and civil society, are compromised.

When President Chávez came to office a decade ago, he inherited a
democratic system whose institutions were already deeply compromised.
His first major accomplishment, the ratification of the 1999
Constitution, opened an historic opportunity for the country to
overhaul its political institutions, shore up the rule of law, and
advance the protection of human rights. Our report argues that this
historic opportunity has been largely squandered. Since the failed coup
of 2002 (which was the most dramatic recent setback for Venezuelan
democracy), the Chávez government has effectively eliminated any
meaningful judicial check on the presidency, strengthened the state’s
power to curb press freedoms while abusing its regulatory power to
threaten and punish critical media outlets, systematically violated
workers’ basic right to freedom of association, and actively sought to
discredit the valuable work of local human rights advocates.

So long as the Chávez government continues to flout the human rights
principles enshrined in its own constitution, we believe Venezuela will
not achieve real and sustained progress toward strengthening its
democracy—and will not serve as a useful model for other countries in
the region.

An Unhelpful Distraction

The last time I felt compelled to write you, Mr. Wilpert, was after
your Web site disseminated a defamatory article about my colleague, Mr.
Vivanco. That article claimed that Vivanco had been a functionary and
public apologist of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This was a
particularly noxious smear given that Vivanco is a Chilean lawyer who
has devoted his entire career to promoting human rights in his country
and throughout the region. It was a completely false and easily
refutable allegation. This time you, along with Mr. Tinker Salas, Mr.
Grandin, and others, have sought to disseminate less extreme but
equally spurious allegations regarding Mr. Vivanco and Human Rights

These new allegations echo those that the Chávez government has
itself employed to divert attention from the country’s human rights
problems. As we document in the report, President Chávez and his
supporters routinely seek to deflect criticism by accusing their
critics of harboring ulterior political motives and being complicit in
efforts to topple the government. For example, local rights defenders
who have pressed for reforms in the country’s notoriously inhumane
prisons have repeatedly been denounced by top Chávez officials, who
accuse them of conspiring to “destabilize the country.” When prison
inmates went on hunger strike last March, the then interior and justice
minister publicly suggested that these rights advocates had incited the
strike under orders from Washington. More recently, when the highly
respected Venezuelan nongovernmental organization PROVEA raised the
issue of prison conditions in its annual report (which it released on
December 9), the current interior and justice minister declared on
national TV that they were “liars” who were “paid in dollars” and
should have had shoes thrown at them when they presented their
findings. The health minister meanwhile questioned the timing of
PROVEA’s report, claiming it was intended to undermine the government’s
efforts to reform the constitution to allow Chávez’s indefinite
reelection. (PROVEA has been releasing its annual report on or around
the same date, International Human Rights Day, for more than a decade.)

In our own case, Human Rights Watch has been subject to all sorts of
charges about ulterior political motives in response to our reporting
on Venezuela. In fact, the first time we heard the smear about Mr.
Vivanco’s supposed ties to Pinochet was when the Chávez government
invented it to distract attention from our public criticism of their
court-packing scheme in 2004. The most recent time the Chávez
government employed these tactics against us was last September when
its security agents forcibly detained my colleagues and summarily
expelled them from the country.

At Human Rights Watch we are accustomed to having our reports
provoke angry reactions. We are routinely subject to baseless
allegations regarding our findings, our sources, and our motives. In
Latin America, these attacks come most frequently in response to our
work on Colombia. Just two months ago, for example, Colombian President
Alvaro Uribe publicly accused Mr. Vivanco of being “an accomplice of
the FARC” after he released a report in Bogotá. Typically, the aim of
these attacks is to bully us into retracting our criticisms and
watering down our findings. I firmly believe that the credibility which
Human Rights Watch now enjoys around the globe is due in large measure
to the fact that we have never backed down in the face of such bullying.

I would like to take at face value your own professed concern for
promoting accurate reporting on human rights in Venezuela. But I do not
see how disseminating a grossly inaccurate depiction of our report can
possibly contribute to that goal. Given what’s at stake in Venezuela
today, I think your letter is an unhelpful distraction. If anything,
its unfounded allegations will only contribute to the climate of
political intolerance that currently exists in the country,
undercutting local efforts to promote democratic pluralism and greater
respect for basic human rights.

Again, I hope you will share this response with the other authors of
your letter and, in particular, the people you invited to sign it. I
would also ask that you provide them with a link to our report so they
can acquire a more accurate understanding of its contents.


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

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