Venezuela: dangerous territory
Hugo Chavez’s administration has once again come under fire for its record on freedom of expression and its treatment of journalists. But as the government refuses to acknowledge its shortcomings, is it also reneging on its commitment to international treaties on human rights, asks Daniel Duquenal
03 Mar 10

Hugo Chavez’s administration has once again come under fire for its record on freedom of expression and its treatment of journalists. But as the government refuses to acknowledge its shortcomings, is it also reneging on its commitment to international treaties on human rights, asks Daniel Duquenal

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released its long overdue report on Venezuela on 24 February. The findings of the report have generated widespread interest, not least because Hugo Chavez’s administration failed to respond adequately to the previous report issued by the commission in 2003.

Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela highlights the conditions under which journalists in Venezuela work: constraints on freedom of expression and the right to protest, and the fact that they operate in a culture of impunity, means their ability to play their part in shaping a free society is severely hampered. The report links most of these abuses to the absence of an independent judiciary and accuses the government of “political intolerance”.

The report provides an extensive tableau of the different ways in which civil rights are curtailed under Venezuelan law, and outlines the government’s failures – with regard to electoral procedures, the treatment of NGOs and the lack of reliable information on state activities, among other issues. Perpetrators of violence against women, trade union members and farmers continue to go unpunished for the most part and citizens cannot be assured of a level of safety normally enjoyed in civilised societies.

The IACHR was established as part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) to monitor the human rights situation in the Americas and to support the 1978 American Convention on Human Rights, which most countries subscribed to by 1997, including Venezuela. The Chavez administration has quickly become the bad boy of the continent and the country currently has the most cases pending in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

During the drafting and research into the report, the commission was refused permission to visit Venezuela on several occasions, as it had been numerous times since 2003. According to the IACHR, the administration was given the opportunity to tell its side of the story more than once. Instead, the IACHR was forced to rely on cases already present at court, those submitted to the commission, and official statements released by the government. Information gleaned from these sources alone was damning enough. One shudders at the thought of the report’s impact had the IACHR been allowed to do its job and investigate conditions properly.

How did Hugo Chavez and his government respond to the report? Chavez was first to speak to the press, dismissing the report out of hand and insulting the secretary of the IACHR, Santiago Canton, referring to him as “pure excrement”. Chavez held a press conference for foreign journalists on 25 February, but it’s worth remembering Chavez does not host press conferences for the Venezuelan media, supporting the conclusions of the report and illustrating his hostility towards much of the press in the country.

The semi-official website Aporrea also reported that Canton is a member of the “ultra right”, and is a CIA agent tasked with attacking the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia. In another article, German Saltron, the Venezuelan representative at the IACHR, claimed that the study is part of an “international media campaign to tarnish the Chavez administration” that began in 1999.

One public figure to attack the report was the Ombudsman of Venezuela (Defensora del Pueblo), Gabriela Ramirez, put political pressure on dissenting countries and claimed that Canton is a bureaucrat serving the US. She “reminds us” that the US is one of the main financiers of the commission, but this begs the question of why Venezuela does not take steps to address these issues itself. Ramirez also suggested that the IACHR’s response to the failed 2002 military coup disqualifies it as an impartial observer. She conveniently forgets that the coup lasted only 47 hours, not enough time for the IACHR to deliver a substantial report on the event.

Those attempting to protect Hugo Chavez’s government from the fallout have not addressed a single point made in the report. Instead, they have simply dismissed it completely, suggesting that officials have only partially read the report, missing the parts where the state is commended on its efforts to improve education and healthcare.

And yet the regime contradicts itself. It was reported on ANTV, owned by Chavez’s Telasur, that the IACHR was due to visit Honduras on 1 March, in response to reported human rights violations committed by President Roberto Micheletti’s administration. Are we to believe from this that the IACHR is good for some purposes and not for others? It’s an irony apparently lost on the regime and those who manage its propaganda.

The Venezuelan government’s only strategy to control such a damaging report is to shoot the messenger and announce that it is considering leaving the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR and other associated institutions. But if it leaves the OAS and refuses to recognise the IACHR, the government will be implicitly admitting that the report is true. Moreover, this would require a modification of the Venezuelan constitution, which recognises international treaties on human rights.

If it is true that the IACHR report and court decisions cannot be enforced and that Venezuela has been ignoring many of the provisions of recent rulings, the report will have an increasingly negative effect on the country’s image. Not taking action and threatening to leave can only make things worse for Venezuela as it will affect its ability to make deals with democratic countries in the future. Will Chavez assume the risk of officially fulfilling the conditions of a rogue state and place Venezuela at the margin of international agreements that he subscribed and supported earlier in his tenure? The government’s recent moves towards even more radical positions suggests the future of human rights, including free expression, in Venezuela is bleak.