Chomsky: Good Intentions, but Wrong on Facts in Case of Judge Afiuni

Academic life in the United States can be very agreeable. The life of a professional scholar normally implies good pay, not overly strenuous hours and job security. Do your job, don’t make too many waves and enjoy the ride into a solid upper- middle class retirement. Perhaps it’s the fear of threatening this comfortable existence that has kept so many intellectuals over the years in the US from taking up causes of social justice or from openly participating in progressive social movements that speak truth to power.

A glaring exception to this trend, of course, has been the MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. Throughout his career, Chomsky has worked indefatigably to defend the interests of the marginalized and downtrodden, voicing his acerbic criticism of a Machiavellian US foreign policy while standing up to corporate media’s renditions of international affairs. With respect to Venezuela, the linguist has been an outspoken defender of the government of Hugo Chavez as it continues to stave off US intervention in the form of coup attempts, economic sabotage, and destabilizing psychological campaigns.

Such defense has been a welcomed break from the international coverage of Venezuelan affairs which has rested on a cynical defamation of Chavez and censorship of practically every positive development made in the country since the ex-military officer was first elected president in 1998. It was indeed surprising, then, to see that a recent article in Venezuela’s largest conservative newspaper El Nacional report that the country’s right-wing student movement has been using the figure of Noam Chomsky to further their allegations of a clamp down on human rights in the South American nation by the Chavez government.

The question revolves around the case of ex-judge Maria Afiuni, arrested by Venezuelan authorities in 2009 for illegally authorizing the release of a wealthy banker from custody during his trial on charges of corruption and financial malfeasance. Chomsky, through the petition of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, wrote a letter to the Venezuelan government in which he asks for amnesty for Afiuni who is currently under house arrest and being treated for cancer.

“Afiuni has suffered enough”, Chomsky wrote, “I am convinced that she must be set free”, he stated. The question of the judge’s guilt was never addressed, the professor affirmed in an interview. His request for amnesty was, rather, made solely “on humanitarian grounds” based on the conditions of her imprisonment.

As could be predicted, international and domestic media outlets were quick to jump on the news, claiming that the famous US dissident had broken ranks with his old friend Hugo Chavez. The Guardian, most notably, used the Afiuni case to claim that the linguist referred to Chavez’s rule as “an assault on democracy”.

In a subsequent interview, Chomsky lashed out at the Guardian’s coverage, criticizing the treatment of his comments as “deceptive”. Knowing Chomsky’s record, it would be hard to believe that his amnesty missive was not written without the truest of intentions and that his request for freedom for the ex-judge was based on the information provided for him by the Carr Center at Harvard. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Carr Center’s Latin American Initiative is coordinated by a known anti-Chavez Venezuelan, Leonardo Vivas, who was the key player behind the push to get Chomsky’s support for Afiuni.


As such, the issue raises some important questions about what cases actually make it to international audiences and how the treatment of human rights has been constructed both inside and outside Venezuela. What many living outside the Caribbean country fail to understand is that the so-called “human rights agenda” here – which has captured the gaze of so many internationally – has been sculpted and massaged by conservative upper and middle class opposition members for years.

The economically privileged sectors of the population, who make up the bulk of the nation’s opposition, have utilized their allies in the international media and NGOs as well as Washington bureaucrats and politicians to construct a discourse based on “human rights” with the explicit intent of discrediting the Chavez presidency.

Torrents of accusations thus rain down regarding violations of freedom of speech, the proliferation of political prisoners and the crackdown on dissidence in the country. The Afiuni case is no exception to this onslaught as members of the opposition portray the judge as a “political prisoner” although it is widely known that she had never been an outspoken critic of the Chavez government.

Of course, all of these accusations and the manner in which they are presented to the public have been skillfully tailored to appeal to the sensibilities of liberals internationally. International audiences are provided glimpses of “hunger strikes” outside the offices of the Organization of American States in Caracas and read about “peaceful student protests” at the University of the Andes in Merida as part of the media spectacle. But what is not immediately visible is the class background of these protestors or the violent confrontations initiated by armed student groups looking to provoke a reaction from authorities in order to justify their allegations of “repression”.

This is the true face of the Venezuelan opposition. But despite these very real occurrences, there is yet another issue that highlights even more strikingly the bias and disingenuousness of the human rights agenda in the OPEC member state.


Since 2001, when the Venezuelan government passed its agrarian reform law, more than 250 landless farmers have been assassinated by mercenaries contracted by wealthy landowners in order to prevent the implementation of the country’s land redistribution program. And worse yet, of these more than 250 political murders, not a single landowner has been convicted in any court of law for the crimes.

Although the political murder of landless farmers and the impunity that surrounds their cases is the most pressing human rights question currently facing Venezuela, the issue is all but ignored both inside and outside the country. The question must be asked then, where is the Carr Center and the army of NGOs who over the years have been so quick to attack the Venezuelan government for violations of human rights? Where is the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post? Where are the students clamoring for justice?

Could it be that since these farmers are poor Chavez supporters, they don’t fit into the pattern of victims as defined by those who hail for the same social class as the landowners contracting these murders? Here the question of Judge Afiuni’s guilt becomes relevant. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the real problem with the Venezuelan justice system is exactly the impunity that reins in its bureaucracy laden and clientistic courts. Afiuni belongs to this class of technocrats, lawyers and judges who for decades have impeded the efficient delivery of justice and who since 2001 have helped ensure that more than 250 families have not had closure with respect to the politically motivated murder of a loved one.

The fact that this judge was arrested on charges of corruption by facilitating the escape of a wealthy financier and thereby contributing to this culture of impunity should not so quickly be dismissed. As with just about everything concerning events in Venezuela, caution needs to be exercised and sources need to be checked. If the lack of credible information about what’s happening here on the ground can arrive at such a level that someone like Noam Chomsky ends up being paraded, albeit erroneously, by a right-wing student movement, things have gotten quite out of hand.


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