Human Rights Watch in Venezuela
Human Rights Watch, a US-based group claiming to be a non-governmental organization, but which is in fact funded by government-linked quasi-private foundations and a Congressional funded political propaganda organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, has issued a report “A Decade Under Chavez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela” (9/21/2008 hrw.org). The publication of the “Report” directed by Jose Miguel Vivanco and sub-director Daniel Walkinson led to their expulsion from Venezuela for repeated political-partisan intervention in the internal affairs of the country.
A close reading of the “Report” reveals an astonishing number of blatant falsifications and outright fabrications, glaring deletions of essential facts, deliberate omissions of key contextual and comparative considerations and especially a cover-up of systematic long-term, large-scale security threats to Venezuelan democracy posed by Washington.
We will proceed by providing some key background facts about HRW and Vivanco in order to highlight their role and relations to US imperial power. We will then comment on their methods, data collection and exposition. We will analyze each of HRW charges and finally proceed to evaluate their truth and propaganda value.
Background on Vivanco and HRW
Jose Miguel Vivanco served as a diplomatic functionary under the bloody Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet between 1986-1989, serving no less as the butcher’s rabid apologist before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. His behavior was particularly egregious during the regime’s brutal repression of a mass popular uprising in the squatter settlements of Santiago in 1986-1987. With the return of electoral politics (democracy) in Chile, Vivanco took off to Washington where he set up his own NGO, the Center for Justice and International Law, disguising his right-wing affinities and passing himself off as a ‘human rights’ advocate. In 1994 he was recruited by former US federal prosecutor, Kenneth Roth, to head up the ‘Americas Division’ of Human Rights Watch. HRW demonstrated a real capacity to provide a ‘human rights’ gloss to President Clinton’s policy of ‘humanitarian imperialism’. Roth promoted and supported Clinton’s two-month bombing, destruction and dismemberment of Yugoslavia. HRW covered up the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo by the notorious Albanian terrorists and gangsters of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the unprecedented brutal transfer of over 200,000 ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia. HRW backed Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq leading to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children. Nowhere did the word ‘genocide’ ever appear in reference to the US Administrations massive destruction of Iraq causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.
HRW supported the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan where Kenneth Roth advised the US generals on how to secure the colonial occupation by avoiding massive civilian deaths. In words and deeds, HRW has played an insidious role as backer and adviser of US imperial intervention, providing the humanitarian ideological cover while issuing harmless and inconsequential reports criticizing ‘ineffective’ excesses, which ‘undermine’ imperial dominance.
HRW most notorious intervention was its claim that Israel’s murderous destruction of the Palestinian city of Jenin was ‘not genocidal’ and thus provided the key argument for the US and Israeli blocking of a UN humanitarian mission and investigative report. As in all of its ‘research’ their report was deeply colored by selective interviews and observations which understated the brutality and killings of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli state – even while the fanatics who run the major pro-Israel organizations accused HRW of bias for even mentioning a single murdered Palestinian.
HRW currently makes a big play of its widespread interviews of a broad cross section of Venezuelan political and civic society government and opposition groups, as well as its consultation of most available documents. Yet the Report on Venezuela does not reflect anything of the sort. There is no careful, straightforward presentation of the government’s elaboration and justification for its actions, no academic critiques of the anti-democratic actions of anti-Chavez mass media; no discussion of the numerous journalists’ accounts which expose systematic US intervention. The Report simply records and reproduces uncritically the claims, arguments and charges of the principle publicists of the opposition while dismissing out of hand any documented counter-claims. In other words, Vivanco and company act as lawyers for the opposition rather than as serious and objective investigators pursuing a balanced and convincing evaluation of the status of democracy in Venezuela.
The political propaganda intent of Vivanco-HRW is evident in the timing of their ‘investigations’ and the publication of their propaganda screeds. Each and every previous HRW hostile ‘report’ has been publicized just prior to major conflicts threatening Venezuelan democratic institutions. In February 2002, barely two months before the US backed military coup against Chavez, HRW joined the chorus of coup planners in condemning the Chavez regimes for undermining the ‘separation of powers’ and calling for the intervention of the Organization of American States. After the coup was defeated through the actions of millions of Venezuelan citizens and loyalists military officers, HRW moved quickly to cover its tracks by denouncing the coup – but subsequently defended the media moguls, trade union bureaucrats and business elites who promoted the coup from prosecution, claiming the coup promoters were merely exercising their ‘human rights’. HRW provides a novel meaning to ‘human rights’ when it includes the right to violently overthrow a democratic government by a military coup d’etat.
Following the military coup in 2002 and the bosses’ lockout of 2003, HRW published a report condemning efforts to impose constitutional constraints on the mass media’s direct involvement in promoting violent actions by opposition groups or terrorists. President Chavez’ “Law for Social Responsibility in Radio and Television” provided greater constitutional guarantee for freedom of speech than most Western European capitalist democracies and was far less restrictive than the measures approved and implemented in Bush’s US Patriot Act, which HRW has never challenged, let alone mounted any campaign against.
Just prior to the political referenda in 2004 and 2007, HRW issued further propaganda broadsides which were almost identical in wording to the opposition (in fact HRW ‘Reports’ were widely published and circulated by all the leading opposition mass media). HRW defended the ‘right’ of the US National Endowment for Democracy to pour millions of dollars to fund opposition ‘NGO’s’, such as SUMATE, accusing the Chavez government of undermining ‘civil society’ organizations. Needless to say, similar activity in the US by an NGO on behalf of any foreign government (with the unique exception of Israel) would require the NGO to register as a foreign agent under very strict US Federal laws; failure to do so would lead to federal prosecution and a jail term of up to 5 years. Apparently, HRW’s self-promoted ‘credibility’ as an international ‘humanitarian’ organization protects it from being invidiously compared to an agent of imperialist propaganda.
HRW: Five Dimensional Propaganda
The HRW Report on Venezuela focuses on five areas of politics and society to make its case that democracy in Venezuela is being undermined by the Presidency of Hugo Chavez: political discrimination, the courts, the media, organized labor and civil society.
– The Report charges that the government has fired and blacklisted political opponents from some state agencies and from the national oil company.
– Citizen access to social programs is denied based on their political opinions.
– There is discrimination against media outlets, labor unions and civil society in response to legitimate criticism or political activity.
Between December 2002 and 2003, following the failure of the military coup of the previous April, the major business organizations, senior executives of the state oil company and sectors of the trade union bureaucracy organized a political lockout shutting down the oil industry, paralyzing production through sabotage of its computer-run operations and distribution outlets in a publicly stated effort to deny government revenues (80% of which come from oil exports) and overthrow the democratically elected government. After 3 months and over $20 billion dollars in lost revenues and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to machinery, with the aid of the majority of production workers and technicians, the bosses ‘lockout’ was defeated. Those officials and employees engaged in the political lockout and destruction of equipment and computers were fired. The government followed normal procedures backed by the majority of oil workers, who opposed the lockout, and dismissed the executives and their supporters in order to defend the national patrimony and social and investment programs from the self-declared enemies of an elected government. No sane, competent, constitutional lawyer, international human rights lawyer, UN commissioner or the International Court official considered the action of the Venezuelan government in this matter to constitute ‘political discrimination’. Even the US State Department, at that time, did not object to the firing of their allies engaged in economic sabotage. HRW, on the other hand, is more Pope than the Pope.
Nothing captures the ludicrous extremism of the HRW than its charge that citizens are denied access to social programs. Every international organization involved in assessing and developing large social programs, including UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, have praised the extent and quality of the coverage of the social programs instituted by the Chavez government covering 60% of the population and almost 100% of the poor. Since approximately between 20-30% of the poor still vote for the opposition, it is clear that needy citizens critical of the government have equal access to social programs, including food subsidies, free health care and education. This social safety net is more inclusive than ever before in the history of Venezuela. In fact some of the poor suburbs of Caracas, like Catia, which voted down the 2007 referendum, are major recipients of large-scale, long-term social assistance programs.
Only scoundrels or the ill informed could be convinced of the HRW charge of discrimination against mass media outlets, labor unions and civil society groups. The opposition controls 95% of the newspapers, a majority of the television and radio outlets and frequencies, with the widest national circulation. The government has ‘broken’ the ruling class monopoly on information by funding two major TV stations and a growing number of community based radio stations.
There are more trade union members and greater trade union participation in enterprises, internal debates and free elections than ever before under previous regimes. Rival lists and intense competition for office between pro and anti-government lists are common in the trade unions confederation (UNT). The entire HRW ‘Report’ is based on complaints from the authoritarian CTV(Confederation of Venezuelan Workers/Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela) bureaucrats who have lost most of their supporters and are discredited because of their role in supporting the bloody April 2002 coup. They are universally disdained; militant workers have not forgotten their corruption and gangster tactics when they collaborated with previous rightwing regimes and employers.
2. The Courts
HWR claims that President Chavez has “effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government”. The claim that the judiciary was ‘independent’ is a new argument for HRW – because a decade earlier when Chavez’ 1999 constitution was approved by referendum, HRW decried the ‘venality, corruption and bias of the entire judicial system’. After years of releasing the leaders of the 2002 coup, postponing rulings and undermining positive legislation by elected legislative bodies and after revelations of high and lower court bribe taking, the Government finally implemented a series of democratically approved reforms, expanding and renewing the judicial system. The fact that the new court appointees do not follow the past practices of the opposition-appointed judges has evoked hysterical cries by HRW that the new reformed courts ‘threaten fundamental rights’. The most bizarre claim by HRM is that the Supreme Court did not ‘counter’ a 2007 constitutional reform package. In fact the Supreme Court approved the placing of constitutional reforms to a popular referendum in which the Chavez government was narrowly defeated. The Venezuelan Supreme Court subsequently respected the popular verdict – unlike US Supreme Court, which overturned the popular vote in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, a constitutional crime against the popular will, which Kenneth Roth, Vivanco and the rest of HRW have yet to condemn.
3. The Media
Every outside media specialist has been highly critical of the advocacy of violent action (leading up to the coup) and gross falsifications and libelous ‘reports’ (including racist epithets against Hugo Chavez) propagated by the ruling class-dominated mass media. A single opposition television network just had one of its many outlets suspended for openly backing the opposition military seizure of power, an action that any Western capitalist democracy would have taken in the wake of a violent uprising. HRW did not, has not and will not condemn the arrest of dozens of US and international journalists, some brutally beaten, covering the Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions. Nothing even remotely resembling the extraordinary powers of ‘preventive detention’ of journalists by the US Homeland Security/local and state police forces exists in Venezuela. The wanton destruction of journalists’ cameras and tape recorders by the police at the US Republican Party Convention would be un-imaginable in Venezuela today. In contrast the only offense prosecuted in Venezuela against the media is the act of supporting and advocating violence aimed at overthrowing democratic institutions. Like all countries, Venezuela has laws dealing with libel and slander; these are far weaker than any comparable statutes in the countries upholding the tradition of the Magna Carta. HRW blatantly falsifies reality by claiming state control of the print media: All one needs to do is peruse any newsstand in Venezuela to see a multiplicity of lurid anti-government headlines, or tune into the radio or television stations and view news accounts that compete for the worst anti-Chavez propaganda found in the US Fox News or CNN.
4. Organized Labor
HRW claims that the Venezuelan government has violated ‘basic principles of freedom of association’ because it requires state oversight and certification of union elections and that by denying the right to bargain collectively to non-certified unions, it undermines workers’ rights to freely join the union of their choosing and to strike. Practically every government in the West has rules and regulations regarding oversight and certification of union elections, none more onerous than the US starting with the Taft-Hartley Act of the 1940’s and the ‘Right to Work’ Laws current in many states, which have reduced the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector to less than 3%. In contrast, during the Chavez Presidency, the number of unionized workers has more than doubled, in large part because new labor legislation and labor officials have reduced employer prerogatives to arbitrarily fire unionized workers. The only union officials who have been ‘decertified’ are those who were involved in the violent coup of April 2002 and the employers lockout intended to overthrow the government, suspend the constitution and undermine the very existence of free unions. Former Pinochet official Jose Miguel Vivanco delicately overlooks the gangsterism, thuggery and fraudulent election procedures, which ran rampant under the previous rightwing Venezuelan labor confederation, CTV. It was precisely to democratize voting procedures and to break the stranglehold of the old-guard trade union bosses that the government monitors oversaw union elections, many of which had multi-tendency candidates, unfettered debates and free voting for the first time.
I attended union meetings and interviewed high level CTV trade unions officials in 1970, 1976 and 1978 and found high levels of open vote buying, government and employer interference and co-optation, collaboration with the CIA-funded American Institute of Free Labor Development and large-scale pilfering of union pension funds, none of which was denounced by HRW. I attended the founding of the new Venezuelan union confederation, Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) in 2003 and a subsequent national congress. I have witness a totally different unionism, a shift from government-run ‘corporate’ business unionism to independent social movement unionism with a decidedly class oriented approach. The UNT is a multi-tendency confederation in which diverse currents compete, with varying degrees of support and opposition to the Chavez Government. There are few impediments to strikes and there is a high degree of independent political action with no inhibition to workers resorting to strikes in order to demand the ouster of pro-employer labor officials.
For example, this year, steel workers in the Argentine-owned firm SIDOR, went on strike several times protesting private sector firings (HRW, of course never discussed private sector violations of workers rights). Because the Venezuelan Labor Minister tended to take the side of the employers, the steelworkers marched into a meeting where Chavez was speaking and demanded the dismissal of his Minister. After conferring with the workers’ leaders, Chavez fired the Labor Minister, expropriated the steel plant and accepted workers demands for trade union co-management. Never in Venezuelan labor history have workers exercised this degree of labor influence in nationalized plants. There is no doubt that there are government officials who would like to ‘integrate’ labor unions closer to the state; the new unionists do spend too much time in internal debates and internecine struggles instead of organizing the informal and temporary worker sectors. But one fact stands out: Unionized and non-unionized Venezuelan workers have experienced greater social welfare payments, rising living standards, greater job protection and greater free choice in union affiliation than any previous period in their history. It is ironic that Vivanco, who never raised a word against Pinochet’s anti-labor policies, an uncritical apologist of the AFL-CIO (the declining and least effective labor confederation in the industrialized West), should launch a full-scale attack on the fastest growing, independent and militant trade union movement in the Western hemisphere. Needless to say, Vivanco avoids any comparative analysis, least of all between Venezuelan and US labor over the spread of union organizing, internal democracy and labor representation in industry, social benefits and influence over government policy. Nor does HRW refer to the positive assessment by independent international labor organizations regarding union and labor advances under the Chavez Presidency.
5. Civil Society and HRW: The Mother of All Perversities
Jose Miguel Vivanco, who kept quiet during his years as a state functionary serving the Chilean dictator Pinochet, while thousands of protestors were beaten, jailed and even tortured and killed and courageous human rights groups were routinely assaulted, shamelessly claims that President Chavez has adopted “an aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organization.”
President Chavez has actively promoted a multitude of independent, democratically elected community councils with over 3 million affiliated members, mostly from the poorest half of the population. He has devolved decision-making power to the councils, bypassing the party-dominated municipal and state officials, unlike previous regimes and US AID programs, which channeled funds through loyal local bosses and clients. Never has Venezuela witnessed more intense sustained organization, mobilization and activity of civil society movements. This cuts across the political spectrum, from pro-Chavez to pro-oligarch neighborhood, civic, working class and upper class groups. Nowhere in the world are US-funded groups, engaged in overt extra-parliamentary and even violent confrontations with elected officials, tolerated to the degree that they enjoy freedom of action as in Venezuela. In the US, foreign-funded organizations (with the exception of Israeli-funded groups) are required to register and refrain from engaging in electoral campaigning, let alone in efforts to destabilize legitimately constitutional government agencies. In contrast, Venezuela asked the minimum of foreign government-funded self-styled NGOs in requiring them to register their source of funding and comply with the rules of their constitution, that is, to stay out of virulent partisan political action. Today, as yesterday, all the ‘civil society’ organizations, including these funded by the US, which routinely attack the Chavez government, can operate freely, publish, assemble and demonstrate unimpeded. Their fundamental complaint, echoed by HRW, is that the Chavez government and its supporters criticize them: According to the new HRW definition of civil society freedom,the opposition has the right to attack the government – but not the other way around; some countries can register foreign-funded organizations – but not Venezuela; and some government can jail terrorists and coup-makers and identify and criticize their accomplices – but not Venezuela. The grotesque double-standard, practiced by Human Rights Watch, reveals their political allegiances: Blind to the vices of the US as it descends into a police state and equally blind to the virtues of a growing participatory democracy in Venezuela.
The ‘Report’ contains egregious omissions. It fails to mention that Venezuela, under President Chavez, has experienced twelve internationally supervised and approved elections, including several presidential, congressional and municipal elections, referenda and recall elections. These have been the cleanest elections in Venezuelan history and certainly with more honest vote counting than one would find in the US presidential contests.
The ‘Report’ fails to report on the serious security threats including the recording of phone conversations of active and retired high military officials planning to violently seize power and assassinate President Chavez. Under the extraordinary degree of tolerance in Venezuela, not a single constitutional right has been suspended. In the US, similar terrorist actions and plans would have led to a state of emergency and the probable pre-emptive mass incarceration of thousands of government critics and activists. HRW ignores and downplays security threats to Venezuelan democracy – whether it involves armed incursions from Colombian paramilitary groups allied with the pro-US Venezuelan opposition, the assassination of the chief federal prosecutor Danilo Anderson who was investigating the role of the opposition in the bloody coup of April 2002, the US-backed secessionist movement in the state of Zulia, the collusion of the mass media with violent student mobs in assaulting Chavez supporters on campus or the economic sabotage and panic caused by the private sector’s hoarding of essential food and other commodities in the lead-up to the 2007 referendum.
One of Vivanco’s most glaring omissions is the contrast between Venezuela’s open society approach to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant workers from Colombia and the US authoritarian practice of criminalizing its undocumented laborers. While the US Homeland Security and Immigration police have implemented arbitrary mass arrests, assaults and deportation of working heads of immigrant families – leaving their wives and children vulnerable to destitution, Chavez has awarded over a million undocumented Colombian immigrant workers and family members with residency papers and the opportunity for citizenship.
HRW has yet to protest Washington’s brutal denial of human rights to its Latin American and Asian immigrant workers in recent months. HRW did not issue a single protest when US-backed local oligarch politicians, local government officials and racist gangs in Bolivia went on a rampage and slaughtered three dozen unarmed Indian peasant workers. Vivanco’s squalid selective slandering of Venezuela is only exceeded by his systematic silence when there are abuses involving US collaboraters!
The Human Rights Watch Report on Venezuela is a crude propaganda document that, even in its own terms, lacks the minimum veneer of ‘balance’, which the more sophisticated ‘humanitarian’ imperialists have put out in the past. The omissions are monumental: No mention of President Chavez’ programs which have reduced poverty over the past decade from more than 60% to less than 30%; no recognition of the universal health system which has provided health care to 16 million Venezuelan citizens and residents who were previously denied even minimal access; and no acknowledgment of the subsidized state-run grocery stores which supply the needs of 60% of the population who can now purchase food at 40% of the private retail price.
HRW’s systematic failure to mention the advances experienced by the majority of Venezuelan citizens, while peddling outright lies about civic repression , is characteristic of this mouthpiece of Empire. Its gross distortion about labor rights makes this report a model for any high school or college class on political propaganda.
The widespread coverage and uncritical promotion and citation of the ‘Report’ (and the expulsion of its US-based authors for gross intervention on behalf of the opposition) by all the major newspapers from the New York Times, to Le Monde in France, the London Times, La Stampa in Italy and El Pais in Spain gives substance to the charge that the Report was meant to bolster the US effort to isolate Venezuela rather than pursue legitimate humanitarian goals in Venezuela.
The major purpose of the HRW ‘Report’ was to intervene in the forthcoming November municipal and state elections on the side of the far-right opposition. The ‘Report’ echoes verbatim the unfounded charges and hysterical claims of the candidates supported by the far right and the Bush Administration. HRW always manages to pick the right time to issue their propaganda bromides. Their reports mysteriously coincide with US intervention in electoral processes and destabilization campaigns. In Venezuela today the Report has become one of the most widely promoted propaganda documents of the leading rightist anti-Chavez candidates.
For the partisans of democracy, human rights and self-determination, every effort should be made to expose the insidious role of HRW and its Pinochetista propagandist, Vivanco, for what they are – publicists and promoters of US-backed clients who have given ‘human rights’ a dirty name.
Professor Petras latest book Zionism, Militarism And the Decline of U.S Power (clarity press Atlanta) – August 2008
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