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Unanswered Phone Calls in Venezuela


Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published a 230 page report on Venezuela entitled "“A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela.

 

In a press release about the report, HRW’s Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco stated that "rather than advancing rights protections" the Chavez government has "moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda."

 

One of the report’s findings is so explosive that it deserves to be quoted at length:

 

“Government officials routinely deny or fail to respond to requests for information by journalists. According to an investigation by Últimas Noticias, a generally progovernment newspaper, journalists have encountered obstacles in obtaining information from the police on crime statistics, judges and court officials, hospitals, state enterprises such as PDVSA, the comptroller general’s office, and various ministries…

 

According to a log publicized by the newspaper El Mundo, only 37.5 percent of the officials responded to requests for official information made by its investigative reporters in 2007. The average wait for a reply was 38 days, almost twice the legal maximum. For example, a reporter approached the Ministry of Planning and Development to get information about the salaries of public employees. It took seven months, three letters, and a change of vice-minister before a reply was received. “ [1]

 

My heart goes out to those journalists who have not received replies – or have had to endure waits of up to seven months before receiving one. Apologists for Chavez may point out that HRW was not talking about inquiries into horrific atrocities like the ones carried out by the US backed government in Colombia, and that nothing like that is mentioned in the report, but such people don’t understand the agony of being ignored. I know because I have been writing and telephoning HRW for years and have never received a reply. I have a zero percent success rate – much worse than El Mundo’s – so I can feel their pain. [2]

 

HRW also found that “Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defense of Chávez”. It said that the Chavez government has greatly expanded funding for community broadcasters and that a “…large majority of community radio stations are supportive of the Chávez government. However, they are not politically homogeneous, and by no means uncritical”. None of that, of course, should distract us from the suffering of those journalists waiting for replies about government salaries.

 

Now that HRW has blown the lid off the grave human rights abuse of unanswered questions, perhaps they can finally respond to these questions:

 

1) When a coup deposed Chavez for 2 days in 2002, why did HRW’s public statements fail to do obvious things like denounce the coup, call on other countries not to recognize the regime, invoke the OAS charter, and (especially since HRW is based in Washington) call for an investigation of US involvement?

 

2) Very similarly, when a coup deposed Haiti’s democratically elected government in 2004, why didn’t HRW condemn the coup, call on other countries not to recognize the regime, invoke the OAS charter, and call for an investigation of the US role? Many of these things were done by the community of Caribbean nations (CARICOM). A third of the UN General Assembly called for an investigation into the overthrow of Aristide. Why didn’t HRW back them up?

 

3) Since 2004, why has HRW written about 20 times more about Venezuela than about Haiti despite the fact that the coup in Haiti created a human rights catastrophe in which thousands of political murders were perpetrated and the jails filled with political prisoners? Haiti’s judiciary remains stacked with holdovers from the coup installed regime. The lingering impact of the coup is revealed by a recent ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in favor of Yvon Neptune. Haiti has ignored the IACHR order that it dismiss the case against Neptune and pay damages for his illegal two year imprisonment. [3] HRW has not publicly urged the Haitian government to obey the ruling, nor has it applied any public pressure on the government to investigate the disappearance of Lovinsky Pierre Antoine, a leading human rights activist.[4]

 

4) Why did HRW never write a word in support of Father Gerard Jean-Juste, Haiti’s most prominent political prisoner after the coup? Even after Amnesty International named him a “prisoner of conscience” and participated in an international campaign to have him released to receive treatment for cancer, HRW said absolutely nothing. Instead HRW has repeatedly objected to law suits brought against Venezuelan “civil society” leaders like Maria Corina Machado, who has never been jailed despite signing the infamous Carmon decree which briefly abolished Venezuelan democracy.[5]

 

5) Why hasn’t HRW called for a full disclosure of US funding of the opposition in Bolivia given the murders recently perpetrated in Pando by anti-government groups? HRW has called on the OAS to investigate the Colombian government’s allegations that the Chavez assists the FARC. In contrast, HRW has not urged the US government to cooperate with the Freedom of Information Act requests made by Jeremy Bigwood regarding US activity Bolivia.[6]

 

HRW has routinely ignored critics who have shown that it has increasingly become a tool of US imperialism. Ed Herman, David Peterson and George Szamuely wrote an very extensive and damning assessment of HRW’s role as a "campaigner for the NATO Wars in the Balkans". Michael Barker has produced detailed criticism. Jonathan Cook, Norman Finkelstein and Sara Founders have highlighted flagrant imperial bias in HRW statements involving Israel. HRW did repy to one article by Joanthan Cook but only after distorting what he had written. Cook pointed out in response

 

"If this is how one of the directors of HRW distorts my arguments and evidence when I carefully set out my case in black and white on the page, one has to wonder how faithfully she and her organisation sift the evidence in the far trickier cases relating to human rights, where things are rarely so black and white."

 

Cook did not hear from HRW again.[7]

 

In a press release of 2006, HRW stooped to denying Palestinians the right to non-violent self defence. The outcry against the absurdity of it was so overwhelming that HRW published a retraction. [8] Much more typically, as in the case of Kevin Pina’s open letter to Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW has simply stayed silent.[9]

 

With the exception of Jonathan Cook, nowhere on HRW’s website does one find any mention of the critics cited above. However, one can easily find a lengthy reply to Michael Spagat whose attempt to depict HRW as soft on the Colombian FARC rebels was comically inept.[10]

 

Now I admit I’ve exaggerated the sympathy I feel for Venezuelan journalists sitting by their phones or refreshing their inboxes awaiting replies from the Chavez government. A certain callousness sets in when one recalls what the US and its allies have achieved in Haiti – and hope to achieve in Venezuela. And though I disagree with HRW being expelled from Venezuela I find it difficult to see why it should bother anyone more than unanswered phone calls to reporters (which I also disagree with). HRW has, at the very least, a close relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a barely disguised branch of the US government devoted to undermining democracy. [11] Needless to say, if the Venezuelan government had funded groups who had briefly overthrown the US government, and then sabotaged the US economy, a Caracas based group would not be attending press conferences in Washington criticizing the US government. Venezuela would be lucky to exist as a country at all.

 

I’ve long ago ceased to expect much from Human RIghts Watch. I put questions to them, and urge others to do so, knowing that replies from them are unlikely – and unnecessary. The important thing is to spread awareness of the role they have increasingly come to play as a group that marshals support among liberals for very nasty imperial projects. No one should be fooled, at this point, by the fact that it publishes some criticism of the US and its clients.

 

Joe Emersberger can be reached at [email protected]

 

NOTES

 

[1]See page 107 of report available at http://hrw.org/reports/2008/venezuela0908/

 

[2] Many letters to HRW (and Amnesty International) are archived on the Medialens website http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=842&sid=ffba5225b31cbaafa2ca8d1d62ccea74

 

[3] See "Haiti and Human Rights Watch" http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/4131 for comparison of quatity and quality of what HRW has written about Haiti and Venezuela. The disparity in quantity is now much worse than stated in the article above which is from 2006

 

About Neptune case see http://www.haitianalysis.com/2008/7/23/four-years-of-political-persecution-for-yvon-neptune-and-counting

 

[4] Kevin Pina "Fears of a Cover up Grow in the Case of Missing Human Rights Activist in Haiti" http://haitiaction.net/News/HIP/8_20_8/8_20_8.html

 

[5] Jonah Gindin "Democracy vs Bush-o-cracy in Venezuela" http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1160

 

[6] U.S. Ties to Bolivian Opposition ‘Shrouded in Secrecy’ http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18869

 

[7] Ed Herman, David Peterson, George Szamuely; "Human Rights Watch: In Service to the War Party" http://www.electricpolitics.com/2007/02/human_rights_watch_in_service.html

 

Michael Barker "Hijacking Human Rights" http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/14804

 

Sara Flounders, ‘Massacre in Jenin, Human Rights Watch and the Stage-Management of Imperialism’, CovertAction Quarterly, Fall 2002. http://cosmos.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0003220.html

 

Jonathan Cook, ‘The Israel Lobby Works its Magic, Again: How Human Rights Watch Lost its Way in Lebanon’, Counterpunch, September 7, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/cook09072006.html

 

Sarah Leah Whitson;(Middle East and North Africa director)"Hezbollah’s Rockets and Civilian Casualties: A Response to Jonathan Cook" http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/09/22/lebano14262_txt.htm

 

Jonathan Cook, ‘Human Rights Watch: Still Missing the Point: Should We Deny Lebanon the Right to Defend Itself?’, Counterpunch, September 25, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/cook09252006.html

 

[8] Jonathan Cook, ‘Palestinians are Being Denied the Right of Non-Violent Resistance?: Would HRW Have Attacked Martin Luther King, Too?’, Counterpunch, November 30, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/cook11302006.html

 

Norman G. Finkelstein, ‘Human Rights Watch Must Retract its Shameful Press Release: Rush to Judgment’, Counterpunch, November 29, 2006; HRW, ‘Human Rights Watch Statement on our November 22 Press Release’, Human Rights Watch, December 16, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/finkelstein11292006.html

 

HRW "Human Rights Watch Statement on our November 22 Press Release" (i.e. the retraction) http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/11/22/isrlpa14652.htm

 

[9] Kevin Pina Open Letter to Human Rights Watch http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6254

 

[10] HRW Response to CERAC Charges about our Colombia Work Human Rights Watch responds to the serious yet groundless charges made about our work in Colombia by University of London Professor Michael Spagat http://hrw.org/doc/?t=americas&document_limit=140,20

 

[11]According to NED "China’s Olympic promises were also the topic of a June 19 event cosponsored by NED and Human Rights Watch highlighting the publication of China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympic Human Rights Challenge, edited by Minky Worden." http://www.ned.org/publications/newsletters/080508.html 

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