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Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Human Rights Watch’s Report on Venezuela


President Chavez managed to hand Human Rights Watch a major public relations victory with his recent expulsion of its America’s Director José Miguel Vivanco and its Deputy Director Daniel Wilkinson. With the expulsion, which Chavez ordered because Vivanco and Wilkinson are foreigners and did not have a visa that allowed them to engage in political or professional activity in Venezuela, Venezuela seemed to prove Human Rights Watch’s point, that the Chavez government does not tolerate dissent. Whether the expulsion was justified is a distraction from the larger issue, though, which is whether the report, “A Decade Under Chávez,”[i] which Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented in Venezuela on September 18, is justified.
 
Another distraction, this time put forward by defenders of the Chavez government, is whether HRW is an agent of the U.S. government and of imperialism. Apparently false arguments about Vivanco’s past are brought up, among other things.[ii] This, however, also serves to distract from a serious and accurate analysis of whether what HRW writes about Venezuela is valid and worth paying attention to.
 
Writing an analysis of the HRW report is a challenge, though, because it is tempting to respond to each and every point, which would make the response almost as long as the 236-page report itself. I will thus try to refrain from responding to each and every accusation and will discuss only the most important ones.
 
In short, the report raises a few problems with regard to the protection of political rights in Venezuela, but the few places where it is on target are almost completely drowned in a sea of de-contextualization, trumped-up accusations, and a clear and obvious bias in favor of the opposition and against the government. I will examine each of HRW’s criticisms in the same order as the report itself, which deals with political discrimination, the judicial system, mass media, labor unions, and civil society organizations.
 
The Report in Context – Meta-Criticism
 
Before we begin the analysis of the report itself, though, it makes sense to take a brief look at some of the over-arching problems with the report.
 
First, the report gives the impression of being about human rights violations in general in Venezuela (the subtitle is: “Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela”), but actually narrowly focuses on some political rights (not even all political rights, leaving out electoral rights, for example), to the complete exclusion of social and economic rights. The report itself justifies this narrow focus by saying that the report “does not address all the pressing human rights issues facing [Venezuela] today, many of which pre-date the Chávez presidency. Rather, it focuses on the impact that the Chávez government’s policies have had on institutions that play key roles in ensuring that human rights are respected: the courts, the media, organized labor, and civil society.”[iii] Not only does this statement imply that there are far more human rights violations in Venezuela than the ones cited in this report, but it also implies that the violations it does discuss are the most important ones to focus on because they “ensure that human rights are respected.”
 
Such a one-sided focus completely leaves out any consideration of the well-established human rights norm that human rights are “indivisible.” That is, all of the human rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—whether political, economic, or social—are equally important.[iv] In other words, had HRW taken economic and social rights also into consideration, it would have to conclude that the progress made in these areas has been tremendous during the Chavez presidency. Also, if one were to take economic rights seriously, it would be almost silly to claim that attention to courts, media, labor unions, and civil society are more important, since people who do not have their basic economic rights guaranteed, and are thus too busy finding food and shelter, are generally incapable of taking advantage of these institutions. HRW’s emphasis on political rights thus reflects its bias towards the better off, who are already able to enjoy their economic and social rights without restriction.
 
Second, throughout the report HRW fails to present incidents or policies in their proper context, which makes it more difficult to understand how and why certain things happen in Venezuela. As a result, by excluding this context, readers interpret the issues that the report discusses through the lens of their own prejudices or the false media impressions of Venezuela, such as the widespread images of Chavez the “caudillo” or “dictator” of Venezuela.
 
Third, as almost all critics of the report have noted, the report was launched for maximum effectiveness (with an embargoed press release) just two month before Venezuela’s November 23rd regional elections. This is the third time that HRW releases a major report shortly before an electoral contest (the first being in June 2004, just before the presidential recall referendum and the second in late 2007, just before the constitutional reform referendum).[v] Vivanco should thus not be surprised if HRW is suspected of timing its reports to influence Venezuelan electoral contests.
 
Finally, this is one of the longest (other than its annual reports) special reports that HRW has done on any one topic or country.[vi] Vivanco says that the reason for this is that, “Everyone in the world has an opinion about Venezuela. There are very many and very strong opinions, but it is difficult to find concrete facts. We wanted to make the most faithful picture of what is happening here so that the world would know it.”[vii] In other words, it would seem that the seriousness of human rights violations in Venezuela is not the real motivation for this book-length report, but rather it is the controversy surrounding Venezuela that motivated HRW to conduct this two-year investigation.
 
For a human rights group to make such a massive investment into a project (just how much did it cost and who paid for it?) not because of the seriousness of human rights violations, but because of the lack of consensus seems odd. This circumstance adds credence to one blogger’s sarcastic remark (BoRev.net) that apparently Human Rights Watch believes that it’s original mission has been accomplished, of rooting out torture, forced disappearances, and political imprisonments and that now it can afford the luxury of focusing on weak judiciaries and political discrimination in the hiring processes for civil service jobs.
 
We have yet to see a comparably long report on human rights violations in Colombia, Mexico, or the U.S. war on terror. More than that, there seems to be a political motivation for the report, based on Vivanco’s statement, “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…”[viii] Certainly, if the Venezuelan government were a systematic violator of human rights, no one would say that such practices should be a model. Rather, the model that Chavez and his supporters defend (and Chavez himself has always said that every country should find its own path) are the policies that go against free market capitalism and in favor of redistribution of wealth and of political power.
 
These meta-criticisms of the report aside, it is nonetheless worthwhile to examine the issues it raises with respect to Venezuela’s human rights situation. One just needs to keep in mind that in practically all of the areas it does not examine there have been tremendous advances, whether, for example, in education, in reducing poverty, or in including the previously excluded (such as women and indigenous and afro-Venezuelan populations). One specific measure of this progress is the fact that Venezuela is one of the few countries in Latin America to be on track for reaching the Millennium Development Goals.[ix]
 
Political Discrimination – Decontextualizing Problems
 
All of five sections of the HRW report exhibit three consistent problems that fundamentally distort the final result. First, they each display a lack of contextualization of the problems they discuss. Second, they represent what some have called trumped-up accusations in that they accuse the government of definite wrongdoing in areas where the facts of the matter are not that clear or where relatively minor problems are turned into major issues. Third, and closely related to the second, each section brings up issues where the interpretation of events relies almost exclusively on that of the opposition. Finally, because there is so much overlap in the issues the report discusses, there is a tremendous amount of repetition, thus giving the impression that there are far more human rights problems than is actually the case.
 
Beginning with the section on political discrimination, this section is perhaps the most decontextualized. The main issue that HRW raises here is the use of the so-called “Tascón list,” which National Assembly member Luis Tascón created when he posted the names of the signers of the petition for a presidential recall referendum on his personal website. The stated purpose of the list was to give individuals who did not sign the petition, but who were placed on the list against their will, an opportunity to have their name removed from it. The list, however, ended up being used by government officials to screen job applicants, to make sure they weren’t hiring opposition sympathizers.
 
The HRW report does make a token effort to provide historical context by pointing out that in the pre-Chavez era, governments regularly discriminated against political opponents in the hiring process for the public administration.[x]Also, it does state Tascón’s intention for publicly posting the list (although it expresses doubt that this was the real reason, saying this was the “ostensible” reason). However, the report completely skips over the extent to which opposition supporters in the public administration were involved in sabotage. Such information might be difficult to come by, but if one were to speak to any departmental director in the public administration, they could tell many stories of such occurrences. Certainly, ideally a minister or vice-minister or departmental director ought to fire those engaged in sabotage, following the formal procedures for such a case. This, however, is almost impossible because of restrictive labor laws in the public sector and because it can be extremely difficult to prove an on-the-job slow-down.
 
In other words, while the use of such lists is to be condemned (and HRW admits that Chavez and Tascón have condemned it) and prohibited, it is at least understandable why many government officials have used it nonetheless. If a department director faces the choice between having an apolitical hiring process, but an unmanageable department because some opposition supporters are subtly sabotaging, versus illegally politicizing the hiring process and thereby having a better functioning department, most managers will opt for the latter option.
 
In addition to this de-contextualization of the circumstances in which the Tascón list (and later the Maisanta program) was applied, HRW fails to show how systematic their application actually is in Venezuela. While they list a few cases,[xi] these pale in comparison to the total number of employees in the public administration.[xii]
 
The most prominent case to which HRW refers, though, is without any merit whatsoever, which is the case of the state owned oil company PDVSA. Here HRW cites two incidents, the oil industry shutdown of December 2002, where 19,000 PDVSA employees (about half the workforce) were fired for their participation in the shutdown, and an incident in which PDVSA president Rafael Ramirez told a gathering of PDVSA managers in November 2006 that he would not tolerate any opposition supporters in the management.
 
By calling the two-month oil industry shutdown, which started in December 2002, “legitimate strike activity,” HRW shows quite clearly that its sympathies lie with the opposition. For everyone who was present in Venezuela during that extremely stressful period and who saw the daily “strike reports,” it was more than clear that the one and only demand of the strikers was Chavez’s resignation. They clearly hoped that Chavez would resign if they could bring Venezuela’s oil dependent economy to its knees. Indeed, the strike cost the country anywhere between $10 and $20 billion, drove unemployment to an unheard of high of 22%, and caused the economy to shrink by 29%.
 
The only reason HRW refers to this oil industry shutdown[xiii] as a legitimate strike is because it relies on a ruling of the ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee, which claimed to have found that the PDVSA “strike” also involved labor-related demands. Apparently opposition labor leaders managed to convince the ILO committee of this. However, even if there were some labor-related demands (they were not even stated in the ILO decision), they were not known by most Venezuelans, not one of PDVSA’s three main labor unions supported the “strike” (even though the leadership was otherwise sympathetic to the opposition) and the only message anyone ever got during the “strike” was that it was to force Chavez’s resignation.[xiv]
 
With the fig leaf of the ILO’s hopelessly misguided ruling, HRW can now claim that the Chavez government engaged in illegal political discrimination and firing against PDVSA employees. It bolsters its case with another fig leaf, which is PDVSA President Ramirez’s 2006 demand that all PDVSA managers should be supporters of the Chavez government. However, HRW claims that this demand was made of all PDVSA employees, when in fact it was made only to the managers.[xv] By failing to make this crucial distinction HRW can again claim that political discrimination is a government policy. It should not come as a surprise that a company president demands that all of his managers are government supporters when the company is still recovering from a debilitating political strike. By interpreting Venezuelan events from the perspective of the more right-wing elements in Venezuelan politics, HRW clearly demonstrates that its sympathies lie with the particularly anti-democratic and ruthlessly anti-Chávez sectors of the Venezuelan opposition.
 
HRW then goes on to list several concrete cases where PDVSA workers were fired apparently due to their political beliefs. While such actions, if true, are definitely wrong, these few instances again do not prove that PDVSA is engaged in systematic political discrimination. For every politically motivated firing, PDVSA employees can point to an opposition supporter working at the company.[xvi] As HRW correctly points out, the official position against political discrimination was reaffirmed in a July 2007 memo (p.33).
 
Judicial Independence – A Contradictory Analysis
 
The analysis of the next area that HRW examines, Venezuela’s judicial system, is riddled with contradictions, which undermine the overall claim that Venezuela’s judiciary is not independent of the executive. The main critique here is that by passing a new Supreme Court law in 2004 the Chavez government managed to “pack and purge” the court and with that to politicize all the courts, since these are subordinated to the Supreme Court. However, not only does HRW again give no credence to the official reasons for which the “court-packing law” (as they call the law in the language of the opposition) was passed, throughout the report HRW cites cases where the supposedly executive-dependent court system made decisions against the Chavez government or its supporters.
 
Again, HRW provides some badly needed historical context by briefly describing the judiciary prior to the Chavez presidency, which it calls “bankrupt” due to the rampant corruption in the system. Also, it cites a 1998 UN Development Program survey, which found that only 0.8% of Venezuelans had confidence in the judiciary. Oddly, a brief review of HRW reports on Venezuela during the pre-Chavez era finds not a single report was on the judiciary of the time.
 
Also, HRW fails to make any meaningful comparison between this “bankrupt” pre-Chavez judiciary and the current Chavez-era judiciary. An examination of survey data, though, finds that Venezuelans evaluate their judiciary quite favorably compared to the rest of Latin America. According to Latinobarometro, only 38% of Latin Americans evaluate in their country’s respective judiciary systems as doing “good” or “very good” work, while Venezuelans respond positively 52% of the time.[xvii]
 
Despite this positive evaluation compared to other countries, the HRW report is unrelenting in its criticism of the Chavez-era judiciary. HRW notes that the 2004 Supreme Court law that allowed the addition of 12 new judges (hence the “packing” of the court) was preceded by the court’s momentous decision to exonerate four of the main coup organizers with the claim that there was no coup in April 2002, only a “vacuum of power.” The report, though, dismisses the importance of this decision when it refers to the supposedly far greater danger the new pro-Chavez balance of power represents in the Supreme Court. That is, it ought to be a valid consideration, which is a graver threat to democracy, a Supreme Court that condones a coup attempt (which dissolved the Supreme Court too, among other institutions) or a new court, dominated by Chavez sympathizers. Clearly, HRW endorses the former.
 
HRW does raise one valid point, though, in this discussion, which is the danger that the new Supreme Court Law makes removing sitting judges too easy. That is, while previously an impeachment procedure required a two-thirds majority on the National Assembly to vote for such an impeachment, the new law effectively lowers this requirement to a simple 50% majority in special circumstances. This could undermine the court’s independence sometime in the future when a party has a simple majority, but no two-thirds majority in the National Assembly (AN) (currently Chavez supporters control almost 90% the seats in the AN).
 
However, HRW manages to bury this important point in more decontextualization when it argues that the so-called packing of the Supreme Court led to some sort of “altered” composition of the entire judiciary because the new majority on the court used its power to presumably pack all of the other courts (p.49). What HRW fails to mention is that with the ten to ten vote split between opposition and Chavez supporters on the Supreme Court, the court was completely paralyzed in its effort to reform the judiciary.
 
The judicial reform process had begun in 2000 and was interrupted in late 2001 when Luis Miquilena, Chavez’s minister of the interior and justice, who had helped appoint most of the judges, switched over to the opposition. Many of the judges he had appointed also switched sides, which is why ten voted against the indictment of four of the coup organizers. It was only once the court’s deadlock was removed that the judicial reform process could proceed.
 
The HRW report is actually hypocritical when it complains that the new court proceeded to appoint new permanent judges, replacing a large number of temporary judges. In its 2004 report on the new Supreme Court law HRW specifically criticized the judiciary for not making more progress on the court reform.[xviii] Then, with this new report, it criticizes the judiciary for proceeding with the reform, a crucial step of which was the replacement of temporary judges.
 
HRW then cites a few cases where the Supreme Court failed to rule against the Chavez administration, such as its failure to rule on whether the 2004 Supreme Court law is constitutional, whether the Constitutional Reform Proposal of 2007 was constitutional, whether the rights of the TV station RCTV were infringed when it didn’t have its broadcast license renewed, and whether the National Electoral Council is required to supervise union elections. Rather than actually ruling in favor of the Chavez government, the court has in each case merely failed to definitively rule one way or the other. However, if one considers these rulings together with the different rulings in favor of the opposition, which the HRW report itself cites, these arguments lose their effectiveness.
 
The Media – Making a Mountain out of a Molehill
 
In the section on the Chavez government’s relationship with the media, the HRW report exemplifies its success at trumping up charges against the government. It lists a wide variety of prominent cases against prominent journalists, most of which have been resolved in favor of the journalist or were dismissed. Also, it cites supposedly repressive regulation of the broadcast media that falls well within the standard practices of most other Latin American and Western countries. Finally, it claims that the Venezuelan government is restricting pluralism in the media while at the same time contradicting itself when it concedes that more people than ever have access to the media.
 
Unlike the previous sections, where there was at least a token attempt to provide some historical context from the pre-Chavez era, this time there is no such information. If the report had provided such historical background, HRW would have been forced to admit that freedom of speech in Venezuela is in a better situation today than it ever was before Chavez, when there was far less pluralism of opinion in the mass media. Also, for example, under earlier presidents, such as Carlos Andrés Perez (1989-1993), there was an actual censorship board that reviewed newspapers before they were published and forced papers to publish blank space whenever an article was deemed too sensitive for the government.[xix]
 
The report then gives the impression that it is president Chavez’s fault that the media have become so polarized in Venezuela, by falsely claiming that “under Chavez” the state television channel VTV “has been as partisan and biased as its private counterparts” (p. 69). However, VTV has always been an explicitly pro-government TV channel, long before Chavez became president. In other words, the report gives the implicit impression that VTV became politicized only with Chavez, when in actuality it has always been an explicitly pro-government channel. The same goes for the report’s false suggestion that the simultaneous broadcast of government messages on all radio and TV stations is an invention of the Chavez government, when in actuality Venezuelan presidents long before Chavez also made use of this power.[xx]
 
The report further criticizes Chavez’s “demonizing” (p.72) of his opposition with harsh language, completely leaving out that the opposition just as much demonizes Chavez and that Chavez was responding in kind to his critics. HRW then suggests that it was Chavez’s harsh language that was to blame for the incidents of physical aggression against members of the private media, completely leaving out that the incidents the report cites occurred during a time of intense political polarization (2003), in which violence between sympathizers from both sides had been escalating. This is no excuse for such violence, but it is important to understand the context in which these incidents took place.
 
Also, HRW correctly points out that the Chavez government has launched several new state TV stations (for the National Assembly – ANTV, community programming – Vive, continental programming – Telesur, and cultural programming – Tves), as if this represented some sort of threat to free speech. It then goes on to admit (in a footnote, though) (p.73), that despite this proliferation of a diversity of state TV channels, the audience share of these remains far below that of private channels. In the interest of objectivity, it would have behooved HRW to also state that despite the increase of state channels, the vast majority of TV channels in Venezuela are privately controlled.
 
Presumably HRW did not mention the large number of private channels because it believes that such private control has become irrelevant in light of recent legislation to regulate radio and television broadcasters. According to HRW, these have been driven to self-censorship due to the stiffening of penalties for the existing prohibition against disrespecting high government officials (in existence for over 50 years) and the new law for social responsibility in radio and television.[xxi]
 
As evidence for this supposed intimidation HRW cites how two of the major private television stations, Televen and Venevision moderated their editorial line and became less confrontational towards the Chavez government. Instead of interpreting this as an effort to become more responsible and to keep from losing the 60+% of the population that supports Chavez, HRW is convinced that the only reason for this switch are the defamation laws that have always been on the books and have practically never been applied and the social responsibility law that also has so far not resulted in a single closure or even fine. By interpreting these stations’ reactions in this way and in no other, HRW implies that the stations want to be polarizing and irresponsible. More than that, the HRW position implies that it would be better if Televen and Venevision had not changed their editorial lines towards more balance and moderation.
 
Court Cases Against Journalists
 
Of the ten exemplary court cases against journalists that HRW examines, six are for libel or related issues. By raising these as free speech issues HRW implies that charging a journalist with libel is somehow illegitimate, even though HRW also says it is not opposed to libel laws in principle. Only four of the ten cases, though, resulted in a guilty verdict, whereby only one had to pay a fine[xxii] and two received suspended sentences, one had to apologize, and only one had to serve a priso

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