Disgraceful yet illuminating reactions to the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez: IACHR, CPJ and RSF

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)

The IACHR claimed in 2009 report on Venezuela that its reaction to the “the attempted coup d’état [of 2002] was immediate and decisive” and that it “warned that these acts constituted an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter.” The evidence it offered is a press release of April 13, 2002. The passage from the press release that it cited was the following:

…the Commission is closely monitoring the unfolding of events arising from the removal or resignation of President Hugo Chávez Frías. The Commission deplores the dismissal, by a decree issued by the government that took office on April 12, of the highest officers of the judiciary and of independent officials within the executive branch, and the suspension of the mandate of the members of the legislature. These developments, in the IACHR’s opinion, could constitute an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter. The IACHR urges Venezuela to promptly restore the rule of law and the democratic system of government by guaranteeing full observance of human rights and basic freedoms.

The IACHR “deplored” the Carmona Decree but the press release did not warn that “these acts constituted an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter.” The press release actually said more ambiguously that “These developments, in the IACHR’s opinion, could [our emphasis] constitute an interruption of the constitutional order as defined in the Democratic Charter.”

More importantly, like Human Rights Watch, the IACHR played dumb by referring to the “removal or resignation” of Chavez. When the elected president disappears, military men simply tell you he resigned, and an unelected businessman says he is now in charge, at that point a credible human rights group doesn’t pretend that a legal “resignation” might have happened. It should already know “an interruption of the constitutional order” has taken place. And it should demand the restoration of the democratically elected president. The IACHR clearly did not do that.

The IACHR report also made no mention of the behavior of Santiago Canton, who was its executive secretary at the time.  For years he has been excoriated by Chavistas for a letter he addressed on April 13 to a “minister” appointed by Carmona.[1] The letter requested information about the whereabouts of “Mr. Chavez” [not “President Chavez”] because the IACHR had been asked, by an NGO, to request “protective measures” for Chavez. The letter referred to the minister as “your excellency” and to his “illustrious government”. But the most disturbing aspect of Canton’s letter was that he was asking for information about Chavez (i.e. wasting time while Chavez was clearly endangered) rather than simply demanding protective measures for Chavez.[2]

The response of both Human Rights Watch and the IACHR to the 2002 coup in Venezuela calls to mind a boast Hillary Clinton made regarding the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted Manuel Zelaya: ““We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”[3]

It appears that IACHR and Human Rights Watch were both similarly keen to treat the restoration of Chavez as moot, and get the coup legalized and sanitized “as soon as possible”.

The Committee to Protect Press Barons

Echoing the US government, on April 12 of 2002 the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) regurgitated exactly what was said by the private media in Venezuela:  that a “resignation” had taken place after the Chavez government had repressed peaceful protesters and attempted to censor “critical coverage”.

Amazingly, in 2016, fourteen years later, the CPJ was still being dishonest about what had happened. Going beyond even Phil Gunson’s apologetic (discussed here) the CPJ  said that “critics accused” private broadcasters of “tacitly” backing the coup. Gunson at least conceded that the private media behaved “disgracefully” during the most crucial days of the coup.

The private media’s key role in the coup was downgraded by CPJ to an “accusation” of mere “tacit” support. The CPJ did not even report the so called “accusation” honestly.

In the same statement in 2016, CPJ also spread an outrageous lie that “most news media are either controlled by President Nicolás Maduro’s administration or rarely criticize it”.[4]

Reporters without Scruples

The day before the coup, Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a statement that said

There is no justification at all for interrupting TV and radio broadcasts about 30 times in the space of two days, despite the government’s legal right to oblige its voice to be heard in exceptional circumstances….at no time during this period did the state-controlled TV station give a voice to the opposition…

So the day before the private media’s successful campaign to overthrow a democracy, RSF’s message to the elected government was basically “Stop interrupting them!” At the time, Venezuela’s state media had less than a 5% audience share on TV, but to RSF even that ineffective challenge to Venezuela’s media barons was unacceptable and more “voice” for the opposition was demanded.[5]

In 2006, two years after a US perpetrated coup brought a brutal dictatorship to Haiti that, directly and through proxies, killed thousands of people, RSF applauded it as a step forward for press freedom:

Changes of ruler are sometimes good for press freedom, as in the case of Haiti, which has risen from 125th to 87th place in two years after the flight into exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in early 2004. Several murders of journalists remain unpunished but violence against the media has abated.


[1] The text of the letter is at the end of this article. Footnote 5 of a 2003 report by the IACHR acknowledges that it did not request protective measures for Chavez, only information about his whereabouts.

[2] US human rights attorney Briam Concannon explains “Precautionary Measures are issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against an OAS member state in order to protect people or groups at risk of imminent, irreparable harm.”

[3]Quote from Hillary Clinton cited by Weisbrot.

[4] See Chapter 2  for Henri Falcon’s access to media during his election campaign

[5] A 2010 study by CEPR found that Venezuelan state TV had a 5.4% audience share in 2010.

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