Academics Respond to Human Rights Watch Director's Defense of Venezuela Report

Tinker-Salas, Wilpert, and Grandin respond to Human Rights Watch Executive Director Roth, stating that his response to the Open Letter stonewalls and ignores important criticisms about HRW's report on Venezuela.

By Miguel Tinker-Salas, Gregory Wilpert, Greg Grandin
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January 12, 2009

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Board of Directors

Human Rights Watch

Dear Mr. Roth and the Human Rights Watch Board:

We want to thank Mr. Roth for his December 29 letter in
response to our
December 16 letter
, signed by more than 100 scholars who specialize in
Latin America, criticizing your report, "A Decade
Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human
Rights in Venezuela

We note that Mr. Roth did not answer a number of the
criticisms contained in our original letter, all of which demonstrate serious
prejudice and exaggeration in the HRW report on Venezuela. We encourage
everyone to read all three letters - (our letter to the HRW
Board, Kenneth Roth's response,
and this letter) with references to the original
- and decide whether the criticisms are valid and whether they
were answered in Mr. Roth's response.

We will address the substantive points raised by your
response below, in order of importance.

(1) Mr. Roth writes:
"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. . .

"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."

Our response:

First, let's clarify what is at stake here. Imagine that a
human rights organization issued a report claiming that the Bush Administration
has discriminated against political opponents among people who applied for
Medicaid, food stamps, and other federal government entitlement programs. Now
imagine that the only evidence they provided for this claim consisted of one
allegation by the nephew of someone who applied for Medicare benefits, and
possibly two other similar allegations. No one would take such a report
seriously. But that is exactly what Mr. Roth is defending with regard to HRW's
report on Venezuela.

We could not find the other two cases of alleged
discrimination that Mr. Roth refers to above. However it should be clear to
anyone who knows arithmetic that the difference between one and three
allegations of discrimination in a set of programs that has served millions of
people is not significant.

As for the 2005 report by the Inter-American Commission of
Human Rights cited by Mr. Roth, it contains no documented cases, nor does it
refer to any documented cases, of even alleged discrimination in the
provision of government services.[1]

Thus, the HRW report neither
provides nor cites any significant evidence for its sweeping generalization
that "Citizens who exercised their right to call for the referendum-- invoking
one of the new participatory mechanisms championed by Chávez during the
drafting of the 1999 Constitution-- were threatened with retaliation and
blacklisted from some government jobs and services." (p. 10,
italics added).

As we noted in our original
letter, "This is outrageous and completely indefensible."

If there were no other errors in
the entire HRW report, this one enormously important unsubstantiated allegation
would justify everything that we said with regard to the report not meeting "minimal
standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility."

It is clear from his response
that Mr. Roth has not taken this matter seriously. We therefore renew our
appeal to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch to intervene and correct
this report.

(2) Mr. Roth takes issue with our claim that
José Miguel Vivanco, the HRW report's lead author, demonstrated a political
motive when he told the press, "We did the report because we wanted to
demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone..."

Roth accuses us of having "taken
our words out of context (including the quotation you attribute to Mr. Vivanco)
and distorted their meanings . . ." He states that "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."

This is not true, as can be seen
by simply reading the interview. Mr. Vivanco states in the interview "...pues el presidente
Chávez presenta a Venezuela como un modelo que puede ser adoptado por la región.
Hay todo un esfuerzo propagandístico para promover el modelo de Venezuela y hay
algunos países que lo están tomando en serio."[2] It is clear that Mr. Vivanco is referring
to Venezuela as a political model; otherwise the sentence makes no sense (why
would Chávez present "human rights practices" as a model?).

Mr. Vivanco's above statement is
also inaccurate; while Chávez has put himself forward as a leader with respect
to such international objectives as his goal of a more "multi-polar world," he
has repeatedly rejected the idea that Venezuela itself should serve as a model
for other countries, insisting that each country must find its own path. This
has helped him to claim as allies countries as diverse as Brazil, Honduras, Chile
and Ecuador.

The full interview contains
further evidence of prejudice. Mr. Vivanco paints an overwhelmingly negative
and exaggerated picture of Venezuelan democracy, even more than in the report.
It is also one that does not conform to the opinion of Venezuelans themselves.
In opinion polls conducted by the respected Chilean pollster Latinobarómetro,
Venezuela has consistently ranked among the highest in Latin America in terms
of citizen satisfaction with the state of their democracy and government.[3]
We reference these polls not to rebut specific findings in the report, but to
question HRW's unrelenting portrayal of Venezuela as a country in which
democracy has steadily diminished.

In 230 pages, A Decade Under Chávez occasionally acknowledges some
important advances in social rights, political participation, and
democratization of public debate that has taken place in Venezuela over the
last decade. But the thrust of its narrative, reinforced by Mr.
Vivanco's interview and Mr. Roth's response to our original letter, present a
one-sided account, describing Venezuela as a country where, in Mr. Vivanco's
words, the democratic deficit hasn't diminished but on the contrary has deepened
in recent years

Another rhetorical strategy deployed by Mr. Vivanco in the interview that
reinforces an impression of political bias is his equation of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Vivanco
says that when it comes to public debate "Uribe mantiene un grado de
descalificación y agresión similar al de Chávez."[5]

According to HRW's own
reporting, Colombia is the most repressive country in the hemisphere.
Over 40 trade unionists were killed in 2008, and over 460 have been murdered
since Uribe took office in 2002.[6]
Just last month, Colombian soldiers killed the husband of an indigenous rights
leader, and an Afro-Colombian rights leader was murdered in October.

With what credible standard can
Mr. Vivanco compare the state of the public debate in Venezuela and Colombia?
There is not even an opposition media in Colombia remotely comparable to that
which prevails in Venezuela, and journalists who are denounced by President
Uribe have had to flee the country after being threatened by death squads.[7]

As we noted in our original
letter, Mr. Vivanco's statement with regard to HRW's motivation for the report
is a clear expression of political animus and should be retracted. There is no excuse
for it, and it diminishes HRW's credibility.

Mr. Roth also writes that "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. . . Venezuela is clearly among the most
influential countries in Latin America today."

We find this explanation
implausible. Venezuela's government is the number one enemy of the U.S. State
Department in this hemisphere, and practically the world. Its president is
constantly demonized by not only the U.S. government and foreign policy
establishment but also the major media. We find it difficult to believe that
Mr. Vivanco's political statements or the intense focus of HRW on Venezuela
(see below) are motivated by a concern that Venezuela might influence some
leftists or that its errors or weaknesses in the area of human rights, which
are no worse than those of other countries in the hemisphere, are something to

Since Mr. Roth has raised the
question of how HRW allocates its scarce resources we would like to ask why it
did so remarkably little when, in March 2004, the democratically elected
government of Haiti was overthrown in a coup, its officials jailed and its
supporters murdered by the thousands.[8]
The coup was supported and indeed instigated by agencies of the U.S.
which by bringing about a cut-off of all international aid to the
constitutional government of Haiti, guaranteed that it would be overthrown.[10]
In addition to the atrocities committed by the coup government, it would seem
that Washington's denial of the Haitian people's right to freely elect their
government, and the hardships to which the Haitian people were subjected to by
the U.S.-led funding cut-off are major human rights violations.

Yet Human Rights Watch -
unlike, for example, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights[11],
has not even considered how Washington's actions, such as through the aid
cut-off, might have resulted in considerable harm to people in Haiti (or also
contribute to the destabilization and overthrow of Haiti's elected government).
None of these violations or atrocities - by far the worst in the
hemisphere outside of Colombia -- prompted HRW to produce even one report
comparable to the reports it has produced attacking the government of Venezuela
since Chávez's took office. The atrocities in Haiti did not prompt Human Rights
Watch to hold major press conferences, publish op-eds in the Washington Post,
or undertake any of the other high profile media or lobbying campaigns that it
has taken against the government of Venezuela. This was true even while
prominent members and supporters of Haiti's constitutional government were
being held in jail as political prisoners.

We are well aware that HRW is independent of the U.S.
government and has been critical of Washington and allied human rights
violators such as the government of Colombia. But it would be naïve to assume
that its research agenda and actions are completely insulated from any
political influence.

(3) Mr. Roth also contests our criticism of the report's biggest and
most important allegation of discrimination in employment - that of the
PDVSA workers fired for the 2002-2003 oil strike. As we said in our letter,

"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. It is
especially dubious when that group of employees makes up less than one percent
of the labor force, and is using its control over a strategic resource -- oil
revenues made up nearly half of government revenues and 80 percent of export
earnings -- to cripple the economy and thereby reverse the result of democratic
elections. The view that such a strike is ‘a legitimate strike' is not, to our
knowledge, held by any democratic government in the world."

But most importantly with regard
to the credibility of the HRW report, it is profoundly misleading for the
authors to argue that "political discrimination is a defining
feature" of a government that is not willing to risk the continuing
employment of people who have carried out such a strike.

Mr. Roth counters by following the HRW report in citing the
ILO determination that the strike was a "legitimate strike." As independent scholars and
researchers, we do not accept "proof by authority." Neither should HRW. It is
up to HRW to show why this strike, which was overtly aimed at toppling the
government, was a "legitimate strike." HRW has failed to do so. The fact that
the striking managers and workers at PDVSA had other goals besides toppling the
government does not make this strike legitimate.

Of course Mr. Roth's argument that there should have been
more due process in the decision-making with regard to dismissals is a valid
point. Like most developing countries, Venezuela suffers from weaknesses in due
process and the rule of law in general. However this is a separate issue and
does not convert workers who crippled the economy in an attempt to overthrow
the government into innocent victims of political discrimination.

Mr. Roth writes: "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
, 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 reliance."

Our Response:

These numbers are meaningless for assessing the report's reliance
on opposition sources.
There are indeed 794 footnotes, but most of them are
footnotes to constitutions, laws, conventions, and legal, historical, and other
arguments that have no bearing on the question of whether the allegations made
by HRW in the report are true.

If we look at the sources for the chapter on
political discrimination, for example, the ones that actually are related to
the facts or allegations that the report is trying to establish, we find that
out of about 70 sources, 45 of these - or 64 percent-are
opposition. About 35, or half, are from the sources mentioned above: El
, El Nacional, Tal Cual, and Súmate.

It is therefore correct to say that the report relies
heavily on opposition sources, a number of whom are known for fabricating
material and allegations against the Venezuelan government.[12] Furthermore, the report is misleading
with regard to the nature of these sources, not clearly identifying the
opposition sources as such, while referring to one of the most balanced
newspapers in the country as "pro-government." As we pointed out in our
original letter, this is further evidence of the authors' bias and/or lack of
knowledge of Venezuela.

(4) Mr. Roth also takes issue with our criticism of
the HRW report's treatment of the case of RCTV. He writes:

"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

Our Response:

Again, the due process complaint is a valid one; it would be
better if Venezuelan law (which pre-dates Chávez) provided for hearings and
other procedural guarantees with regard to the decision on whether to renew a
broadcast license. But this is a separate question as to whether the denial of
RCTV's license renewal was a violation of free speech, or whether the
Venezuelan government is using its authority over broadcast licenses to
restrict freedom of expression. The HRW report answers both of these questions
in the affirmative,[13] but it does
not provide any convincing evidence that this true.

Roth's argument (and that of the report) is that other TV
stations also played an active role in the coup but had their licenses renewed,
and that therefore the denial of RCTV's license is "an act of political
discrimination" and an attempt to proscribe criticism of the government.

But this does not follow logically. Broadcast TV and radio
stations in Venezuela are free to criticize the government as much as they
want, without fear of losing their broadcast licenses. As in the U.S. and other
democracies, however, they cannot become political actors, and still expect
from the government a license for a monopoly over a public broadcast frequency.
In fact, as we explained in our original letter, the opposition media in
Venezuela has more freedom to be political actors, for example in election
campaigns, than do their counterparts in the United States. By making it appear
as though the Venezuelan government is using its control over broadcast licenses
to restrict the media more than is the case in the United States or other
democracies, HRW engages in a very serious misrepresentation of the reality of
freedom of expression in Venezuela.

example, the HRW report states as though it were a fact:

"In the most notorious case, the government refused to renew
the license of the opposition television station RCTV in May 2007 because of
its obstinate refusal to soften its editorial line."

And again, that the government used "its regulatory power in
a discriminatory and punitive manner against a channel because of its critical
coverage of Chávez and his government."

But in addition to its active participation in the coup,
RCTV distinguished itself by consistently being a political actor in ways that
are not allowed in the United States or other democratic countries, for
broadcast licensees. (In the United States even cable TV outlets are subject to
restrictions with regard to election campaigns, that Venezuelan media are not
bound by.) HRW's statement of "fact" is thus grossly misleading - this is
much different from having "critical coverage of Chávez and his government,"
which is the norm in the Venezuelan media.

The HRW report also misrepresents the state of the
Venezuelan media in other ways. For example, it says:

[Chávez] has since significantly shifted the balance of the mass media in the
government's favor. This shift has been accomplished, not by promoting more
plural media, but by stacking the deck against critical opposition outlets
while advancing state-funded media that represent the views only of Chávez's

This is a serious misrepresentation, which gives the
impression that the state-run media are encroaching on freedom of speech,
rather than acting as a necessary counter-balance to what would otherwise be a
right-wing media monopoly. But buried in the footnotes (footnote 184, p.74;
footnote 181, p.73) we find that the state TV stations referred to above
actually reach a very small audience. If the numbers provided by HRW are
accurate, all three broadcast state TV channels combined have a smaller
audience than that of RCTV's current (cable) audience.

Mr. Roth contests our criticisms by pointing to the HRW
report's discussion of the expansion of community media. It is true that the
report's treatment of the community media is fair and balanced, unlike its
treatment of the courts, the major media, and labor - which are laced
with prejudice and exaggeration. It reads like it was written by a different
person than the rest of the report. However, it does not make up for the
distortions in the report's treatment of the major media.

Mr. Roth also engages in an ad hominem attack on one
of our signers, because an article that contained a false charge against José
Miguel Vivanco was posted on a web site that he edits. We do not see the
relevance of this point. The web site,, immediately
corrected the error - which was not of their own writing - as soon
as they were informed of it.

Finally, we are disappointed that Mr. Roth has chosen to
stonewall against valid and serious criticisms, with a smokescreen of rhetoric,
and not even respond to the most obvious points. We would welcome the
opportunity to publicly debate these concerns with Mr. Roth or any other representative
of Human Rights Watch. We therefore once again appeal to the Board of Directors
to intervene and correct this report. We also would be glad to meet with
members of the Board to discuss our concerns further, and we would be glad to
hear your opinions on this matter.


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

[1] This is the paragraph from the 2005
IACR report cited by HRW in its report: 331. The Commission notes that the discriminatory
acts of the State against persons who have an ideology or political opinion
different from whatever administration is in office may take on more subtle
indirect forms which at times may be more effective for deterring criticism or
for exercising coercion that leads to a change of position, at least in public,
resulting in greater apparent alignment with the positions of the governing party.
The Commission finds that dismissing employees and obstructing access to social
benefits, among other measures, to punish those persons who express their voice
of dissent from the administration are violations of human rights and should be
subject to generalized censure, and should be investigated.

[2] In English:
"...because President Chávez presents Venezuela as a model that can be adopted by
the region. There is an entire propaganda effort to promote the Venezuelan
model and there are some countries that are taking the idea seriously." From El Universal, "Venezuela
no es modelo para nadie," September 21, 2008. Accessed January 9,
Since El Universal is not necessarily a reliable source, we confirmed
that this quote from Mr. Vivanco was accurate.

[3] See
The Economist, "Democracy and the downturn," November 13, 2008. Accessed
January 9, 2009.

[4] El Universal, "Venezuela no es modelo para nadie," September 21, 2008.

[5] In English:
"Uribe maintains a degree of condemnation and aggression similar to that of
Chávez." Ibid.

[6] See Juan
Forero, "Unionists' Murders Cloud Prospects for Colombia Trade Pact," The
Washington Post
, April 10, 2007. Accessed January 10, 2009.
Forero notes "400 union members killed since President Álvaro Uribe took office
in 2002." In addition to the 40 killed in 2008, at least 26 were murdered in
2007, as Uribe himself admitted in an interview with The Washington Post
("A conversation with Álvaro Uribe," April 20, 2008).

[7] Mark Fitzgerald,
"El Nuevo Herald reporter flees Colombia after ‘threats' from President," Editor
& Publisher
. October 5, 2007

[8] See, e.g., Thomas Griffin, Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November
11-21, 2004
(Center for the Study of Human Rights, University of
Miami School of Law, 2005), available at

[9] Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg, "Mixed U.S. Signals Helped
Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos," The New York Times, January 29, 2006.

[10] Jeffrey
Sachs , "From His First Day in Office, Bush Was Ousting Aristide," Los
Angeles Times
, March 4, 2004.

See Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ),
Partners In Health (PIH), the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center (RFK Center,
since renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights), and
Zanmi Lasante, Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in
, June 2008: "Although the United States has a
long and well-documented history of this kind of interference in Haiti's
political and economic matters, one of the most egregious examples of
malfeasance by the United States in recent years was its actions to block
potentially lifesaving loans to Haiti by the Inter-American Development Bank
(IDB)," page iii, and "What emerges in this chapter is a high level of
strategic interference by U.S. personnel to stall the disbursement of these
loans indefinitely in order to use them as leverage for political change."
page. 2. Accessed January 10, 2008.

[12] Mr. Roth
criticizes us for calling attention to the report's citation of an opposition
blogger arguing that the material for which he is cited is true. We mentioned
this citation only in passing, mainly to show that authors' unfamiliarity with
sources in Venezuela, or they probably would not have cited someone with no

[13] See Human
Rights Watch, A Decade Under Chávez, pp 34, 60, 67-68, 108, 110-117.