Venezuela: Truth suffers in Human Rights Watch report

On September 18, Human Rights Watch released a report titled "Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chavez". The report contains biases and inaccuracies, and wrongly purports that human rights guarantees are lacking or not properly enforced in Venezuela.

In addition, while criticising Venezuela's human rights in the political context, it fails to mention the many significant advances made by the government on other essential human rights, such as access to education, health care, nutritious food, clean water and housing. The following fact sheet was produced by the Washington DC-based Venezuela Information Office.

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Myth: "Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency."

Fact: Human Rights Watch deems the 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez's elected government "the most dramatic setback" for human rights in Venezuela in the last decade, but criticises Chavez's own public condemnations of the unconstitutional overthrow as examples of "political discrimination" against the opposition. On the contrary, President Chavez last year pardoned political opponents who backed a failed 2002 coup against his democratically elected government. "It's a matter of turning the page", Chavez said. "We want there to be a strong ideological and political debate — but in peace." In this spirit, the government has often welcomed input from the opposition, for example, inviting the leaders of student protests to address the National Assembly.

Myth: The Chavez administration has an "open disregard for the principle of separation of powers — specifically an independent judiciary".

Fact: Human Rights Watch wrote in an earlier report that "When President Chavez became president in 1999, he inherited a judiciary that had been plagued for years by influence-peddling, political interference, and, above all, corruption ... In terms of public credibility, the system was bankrupt." Under Chavez, though, Human Rights Watch admitted that access to justice in Venezuela was improved by the expansion of the court system. Also, the World Bank found that "the [judicial] reform effort has made significant progress — the STJ [Supreme Court] is more modern and efficient". Testament to the strength of democratic institutions in Venezuela is the ability of the National Electoral Council to uphold decisions unfavourable to the executive, such as the "No" victory in the December 2007 referendum on constitutional reforms.

Myth: "[Chavez] has significantly shifted the balance of the mass media in the government's favour ... by stacking the deck against critical opposition outlets."

Fact: As was true at the time of the 2002 coup against Chavez, Venezuela's media is dominated by opposition voices. The "anti-government" media mentioned by Human Rights Watch still maintains the largest share of the nation's public airwaves, and their frequently extreme criticisms of the government have included calling for the overthrow of elected leaders (as in 2002). There are no major pro-government newspapers in Venezuela. The new government-funded television and radio outlets, such as TVes, Venezuela's first public broadcaster, and TeleSur — a regional network with support from multiple countries — have a much smaller reach than the private outlets. Furthermore, the government has never censored or "shut down" opposition media. The private channel RCTV faced a non-renewal of its broadcast license due to persistent legal violations including inciting political violence, but the station easily made the switch to cable.

Myth: The Chavez government "has sought to remake the country's labour movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association".

Fact: The Chavez government has actively promoted the formation of labour unions and bargaining by organised labour, but has not co-opted this sector. The National Workers Union (UNT) was founded in April 2003 by workers supportive of government policies. In 2008, the government responded to an ongoing labour dispute between steel workers and the foreign-owned firm Sidor by intervening to negotiate a settlement, and when this was found to be impossible, the government reasserted state control over the Sidor plant in response to worker demands. The steel workers themselves were also allowed to purchase a share of the business themselves and thereby assert more control over the company.

Myth: The Chavez government has pursued an "aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organisations".

Fact:The Chavez administration has encouraged local leaders to create community councils that let localities identify and address their own problems — from garbage collection to school construction. The concept comes from the belief that local groups know what is lacking and know what they want for their communities. Community councils democratise local government and give people the funding and capacity to make decisions for themselves. Also subject to local decision-making are many of the social missions that are designed to help reduce poverty in the most marginalised areas of the country. Health clinics, educational centers, subsidised food markets and other initiatives rely on local volunteers and are accountable to these communities.

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In conclusion, the Human Rights Watch report "Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chavez" provides an incomplete and biased account of Venezuela's human rights record during the last decade.

It overstates the issue of political discrimination, accusing the Chavez government of targeting opponents, when in fact it has pardoned supporters of the coup and promoted open dialogue. The report is also wrong on the separation of powers and the media. The branches of government provide strong checks and balances, and institutions have improved since Chavez was first elected. No censorship of the media occurs and the opposition still dominates the airwaves. In terms of civil society, labour organisations and community groups enjoy more support from this administration than ever before.

Venezuela has a strong record on human rights. Many of the important guarantees set out in the 1999 constitution (Chavez was first elected in 1998) have indeed been enforced, particularly those relating to the fundamental needs of citizens, such as food, shelter, health care, access to education, employment, social security and the right to participation in cultural life.

Human Rights Watch details none of the impressive progress made in these areas. For example, the UN Development Programme has found that Venezuela has already achieved some of the Millennium Development Goals and is on track to complete the others by 2015. Notably, there has been a 54% drop in the number of households living in extreme poverty since 1998, and its overall poverty has fallen by 34%. Facts such as these provide a much more complete picture of the human rights situation in Venezuela.

[Visit http://www.rethinkvenezuela.com for full sources for this fact sheet.]

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