Thursday, December 18, 2008
Taking Human Rights Watch to Task on the Question of Venezuela’s Purported Abuse of Human Rights: Over 100 U.S. and Foreign Scholars Take Issue with t
December 18, 2008
The failings of Vivanco’s scholarship are strongly contested by the scholars’ letter and the research compiled by a brilliant student of contemporary Venezuela, Dr. Gregory Wilpert. His study, Smoke and Mirrors, can be found by clicking on this link: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3882#report
Vivanco demonstrates an inability to distinguish President Chavez’s bark from his bite; and it is a distortion to characterize the Venezuelan leader as a prime human rights violator, a charge which already has attracted a good deal of notoriety. In other words, Vivanco continuously confuses Chavez’ often shamelessly antic style for his otherwise solid, if brassy, democratic credentials. Of course, COHA’s pages will be opened for debate on these issues.
In continuing their discussion concerning the Vivanco’s HRW initiative regarding Chavez, the prevailing sentiment among many Latin Americanists, including those on COHA’s staff, is that some of Chavez’s critics, like the New York Times editorial board and Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post editorial page, have resorted to an unacceptable use of meretricious pseudo-evidence and naked anti-Chavez spleen to buttress their lashing out against the Venezuelan leader. According to the attached material, they also have resorted to the use of specious arguments and undeniable overkill, rather than a measured assessment and unassailable evidence, to make their case.
Some of Vivanco’s critics have come to believe that rather than making a fair-minded evaluation of Chavez’ undeniable shortcomings, Vivanco mainly has created a straw man and then proceeded to thunderously trash Chavez as a human rights violator, a thesis that the evidence he cites, will not admit. The matter is not so much Vivanco’s professional shortcomings as it is that it would be a shame if Human Rights Watch is permitted to become a replica of Freedom House, when throughout the Cold War the New York-based organization became a warehouse for duplicitous double standards, selective indignation and self-administered histrionics intent on establishing that, almost by definition, right-wing human rights derelictions are less condemnable than those of the left.
Larry Birns (COHA Director) and the COHA Staff Venezuela Scholars Letter
For Immediate Release: December 16, 2008
Contact: Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, 909-607-2920 Dr. Gregory Wilpert, 646-541-7212 Professor Greg Grandin, 347-804-6851 More Than 100 Latin America Experts Question Human Rights Watch’s Venezuela Report
Experts Highlight Exaggerations and Inaccuracies in “Politically Motivated” Study
NEW YORK, NY - In an open letter to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch, over 100 experts on Latin America criticized the organization’s recent report on Venezuela, A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela, saying that it “does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility.” The signers include leading academic specialists from universities in the United States, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and a number of state universities, and academic institutions in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, México, the U.K., Venezuela and other countries. The letter cites Jose Miguel Vivanco, lead author of the report, saying “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…” , as evidence of its political agenda. The letter also criticizes the report for making unsubstantiated allegations, and that some of the sources that Human Rights Watch relied on in the report are not credible.
“By publishing such a grossly flawed report, and acknowledging a political motivation in doing so, Mr. Vivanco has undermined the credibility of an important human rights organization,” the letter states.
The letter notes that numerous sources cited in the report – including opposition newspapers El Universal and El Nacional, opposition group Súmate, and a mentally unstable opposition blogger – have been known to fabricate information, making it “difficult for most readers to know which parts of the report are true and which aren’t.” The letter also argues that the Human Rights Watch report makes sweeping allegations based on scant evidence. For example, its allegation of discrimination in government services is based on just one person whose nephew claimed she was denied medicine from a government program.
The full text of the letter follows:
December 15, 2008
Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA
To the Board of Directors,
We write to call your attention to a report published by Human Rights Watch that does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility. The document, A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela, appears to be a politically motivated essay rather than a human rights report. Indeed, the lead author of the report, Jose Miguel Vivanco, stated as much when he told the press just a few days after its publication, “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…”
Clearly Mr. Vivanco is entitled to his views about Venezuela, but such statements run counter to the mission of Human Rights Watch and indeed any organization dedicated to the defense of human rights. By publishing such a grossly flawed report, and acknowledging a political motivation in doing so, Mr. Vivanco has undermined the credibility of an important human rights organization.
We do not make these charges lightly and we hope you will understand the seriousness of such grave errors in judgment. As scholars who specialize in Latin America, we rely on what are supposed to be independent, non-partisan organizations such as Human Rights Watch for factual information about human right abuses committed by governments and sometimes non-governmental actors. So do many other constituencies, including the press, government officials, and the public. It is a great loss to civil society when we can no longer trust a source such as Human Rights Watch to conduct an impartial investigation and draw conclusions based on verifiable facts.
The report makes sweeping allegations that are not backed up by supporting facts or in some cases even logical arguments. For example, the report’s most important and prominent allegation is that “discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency.” (p. 1) Yet the report does not show, or even attempt to show, that political discrimination either increased under the current government (as compared to past governments), or is more of a problem in Venezuela than in any other country in the world.
What is the evidence offered for such a broad generalization?
“In most cases, it was not possible to prove political discrimination—with rare exceptions, citizens were given no grounds at all for the actions taken—yet many were told informally that they were losing their jobs, contracts, or services for having signed the referendum petition [to recall President Chávez]. For example, in one case reported to Human Rights Watch, a 98-year-old woman was denied medicines that she had long received from a state development agency because, as her family was told by the program secretary, she had signed the referendum petition.” (p.21) (Italics added).
Taking services first, the above paragraph refers to an allegation that one Venezuelan citizen was denied medicines for political reasons. Amazingly, this is the only alleged instance of discrimination in government services cited in the entire 230-page report. In other words, the Barrio Adentro program has provided health services to millions of poor Venezuelans each year since 2003, and the authors found one allegation (as reported to the authors in a phone conversation with the nephew of the alleged victim) of discrimination involving one person. On this basis the authors make the sweeping generalization that “Citizens who exercised their right to call for the referendum—invoking one of the new participatory mechanisms championed by Chávez during the drafting of the 1999 Constitution—were threatened with retaliation and blacklisted from some government jobs and services.” (p. 10, italics added).
This is outrageous and completely indefensible. We do not expect a report of this nature to adhere to rigorous academic standards, but there have to be some standards.
With regard to employment, there is no doubt that there were cases where individual government officials discriminated on the grounds of employees’ political beliefs. (There were also cases of discrimination and firing of pro-government employees in the private sector, which the report mentions in a parenthesis (p.10) and does not investigate). However, the report does not show that there was any organized or systematic effort to purge the government of anti-government employees. Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with the government of Venezuela knows, after nearly ten years since the election of President Hugo Chávez, the civil service is still loaded with employees who are against the government.
The report does not demonstrate whether the firings that occurred, in both the public and private sector, were simply the result of individual actions in a highly polarized society in which the opposition spent at least four years (according to opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff) trying to dislodge the government though a military overthrow. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that many government officials would, in such a climate, be apprehensive about employing people who are against the government. The report does not consider this possible cause of observed discrimination. Of course this would not justify such discrimination, but neither would it support the sweeping allegations of this report, which attempts to argue that the government is using its control over employment in the public sector in order to repress political opposition.
Indeed, the report’s most serious allegation of discrimination in employment concerns a case where discrimination was not based on political partisanship, but in regards to unlawful subversion that no government would, nor should tolerate: “In the aftermath of the oil strike, PDVSA purged its ranks of thousands of workers who participated in the strike.” (p.29). But as anyone who was in Venezuela at the time can attest, this was quite openly a strike to topple the government, which the opposition had succeeded in doing less than eight months earlier. The oil strike devastated the economy – which lost 24 percent of GDP in the resulting recession — and came close to achieving its goal a second time.
The report implies that public employees, in this case oil workers should have the right to strike for the overthrow of an elected government; we do not support that view. It is especially dubious when that group of employees makes up less than one percent of the labor force, and is using its control over a strategic resource – oil revenues made up nearly half of government revenues and 80 percent of export earnings — to cripple the economy and thereby reverse the result of democratic elections. The view that such a strike is “a legitimate strike” is not, to our knowledge, held by any democratic government in the world.
But most importantly with regard to the credibility of the HRW report, it is profoundly misleading for the authors to argue that “political discrimination is a defining feature” of a government that is not willing to risk the continuing employment of people who have carried out such a strike.
The report’s overwhelming reliance for factual material on opposition sources of dubious reliability also undermines its credibility and makes it difficult for most readers to know which parts of the report are true and which aren’t. The most cited source with regard to political discrimination is the newspaper El Universal. This is not only a stridently opposition newspaper, it has also, for the years during which it is cited, repeatedly fabricated news stories. For example, in a typical fabrication of the type deployed to libel government officials, El Universal reported that then Interior Minister Jesse Chacón had purchased a painting for $140,000. This turned out to be completely false. There are many examples of fabrications in El Universal, as well as other opposition sources cited by the report.
We find it troubling that a report on Human Rights depends heavily on unreliable sources. Would a report on human rights in the United States be taken seriously if it relied so heavily on Fox News, or even worse The National Enquirer? Indeed, this report ventures even further into the zone of unreliable sources and cites a mentally unstable opposition blogger as a source. (p. 20, footnote 30). This is a person who indulges not only in routine fabrications and advocates the violent overthrow of the government, but also has publicly fantasized about killing his political enemies and dumping the bodies from helicopters into the slums, and torturing others by “pour[ing] melted silver into their eyes.”
A disturbing thing about the report’s reliance on these sources is that it indicates a lack of familiarity with the subject matter, or perhaps worse, a deep political prejudice that allows the authors to see most of these sources as unproblematic. Indeed, there is only one passing indication that the newspapers El Universal and El Nacional, are opposition newspapers, and it is a reference to the past , which the reader might therefore reasonably judge to be irrelevant. On the other hand, the report refers to the newspaper Últimas Noticias as “largely sympathetic to Chávez and his government” and “a generally pro-government tabloid.” (p.70, p.89) This is a newspaper that prints articles that are harshly critical of the government on a daily basis, and according to polling data in Venezuela is seen as vastly more independent than any other major newspapers. The authors’ view of the Venezuelan media seems to mirror the view of the right-wing Venezuelan opposition, or the U.S. Right’s view of the “liberal media” in the United States.
Such profound prejudice, in which events are interpreted overwhelmingly through the lens of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, is apparent throughout the document: for example when the authors describe groups that helped organize and supported the April 2002 coup as “new organizations dedicated to the defense of democracy and the rule of law.” (p. 203).
But the worst thing about the report’s reliance on opposition sources like El Universal, El Nacional, or Súmate, is that these sources have engaged in enough fabrications as to make them unreliable sources for factual material.
In its discussion of the media, the report also paints a grossly exaggerated picture of reality, while presenting some valid criticisms of existing law and practice. It is acknowledged in footnotes buried deep within the text that the opposition still dominates both broadcast and print media (footnote 184, p.74; footnote 181, p.73). Yet the government is reproached for “having significantly shifted the balance of the media in the government’s favor” by creating pro-government TV stations since the 2002 coup, when “Chávez faced an almost entirely hostile private media.” This is an odd position for a human rights organization to take. While it would be nice if the government could create TV stations that had no bias whatsoever, isn’t it better to have some competition in the media – from left-leaning, pro-government stations – than to have a right-wing, anti-democratic, private monopoly? Especially when that right-wing monopoly had, as never before in world history, organized a military coup against a democratically elected government and led a devastating oil strike that nearly toppled the government a second time? Do the authors consider this type of media monopoly to be more protective of human rights than a media that is still dominated by the opposition but also presents some other sources of information?
The report refers repeatedly to the danger of “self-censorship,” but does not provide any examples of this actually happening. This is a major weakness in its argument, since it is not that difficult to find examples of self-censorship in response to government pressure in, for example, the U.S. media.
In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, the Sinclair Broadcast Group of Maryland, owner of the largest chain of television stations in the U.S., planned to show a documentary that accused candidate John Kerry of betraying American prisoners during the Vietnam War. The company ordered its 62 stations to show the film during prime-time hours just two weeks before the election. Nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to the U.S. F.C.C. http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200410/101504.html calling for an investigation into this proposed intervention by Sinclair in the campaign, and some made public statements that Sinclair’s broadcast license could be in jeopardy if it carried through with its plans. As a result of this pressure, Sinclair backed down and did not broadcast the film.
This example is directly relevant to the HRW report on Venezuela, because it shows that, in order to have a broadcast license in the United States and other democratic countries, the licensee is expected to follow certain rules and not to become a major political actor, e.g. by intervening in elections. As Vivanco himself has noted, “lack of renewal of the contract [broadcast license], per se, is not a free speech issue.” Yet this report cites the denial of RCTV’s broadcast license renewal as a simple, and indeed its primary, example of the Venezuelan government’s alleged attack on free speech. It does not seem to matter to the authors that the station had participated in a military coup and other attempts to topple the government and would not receive a broadcast license in any democratic country.
The report even uses innuendo to imply that the government is to blame for attacks on journalists, which have occurred against both opposition and pro-government journalists. The authors state that the opposition TV station Globovisión “has received warning letters from CONATEL because of the political tone of its reporting, it has been frequently refused entry to government press conferences, and its reporters and cameramen have been physically attacked and threatened by Chávez supporters.” (p. 117) The authors provide no evidence that the government in any way condoned or supported such alleged attacks.
The major media in Venezuela to this day are practically unmatched in this hemisphere, and indeed most of the world, for their vehement, unfettered, and even vicious, libelous, and violence inciting attacks on the government . While the HRW report presents a number of valid criticisms of existing law and a few cases of unwarranted intervention by government officials, it serves no legitimate purpose to hide or distort the actual state of Venezuela’s media.
The same can be said for the rest of the report, including its treatment of the judiciary. HRW has an obligation to criticize any laws or practices of the Venezuelan government that it sees as endangering human rights, and we welcome the valid criticisms that it raises in its report. But Mr. Vivanco has gravely undermined the credibility of Human Rights Watch by producing a report that, by his own admission, is politically motivated, as well as grossly exaggerated, based on unreliable sources, and advertises broad and sweeping allegations that are unsupported by the evidence.
We therefore request that HRW retract and revise its report so as to produce a credible document. Mr. Vivanco should also retract his remarks as to the political motivation for the report.
We would be glad to meet with you to discuss this issue further, and would welcome a debate with Mr. Vivanco in any public forum of his choosing, should he be willing to defend his report in public.
We hope you will consider these requests with the seriousness they deserve. Our letter is not meant as a justification for the Venezuelan government’s decision to expel the authors of the HRW report from the country. Human rights are too important to be used as a political football, as has so often been the case when Washington singles out another government as an enemy state. This is why we depend on civil society organizations for independent, non-partisan, non-political reporting and investigation.
In the spirit of sharing our concerns with our Spanish-speaking colleagues, we are having this letter translated to be circulated in Latin America.
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