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Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela: An echo of US propaganda

Statement by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network

September 30, 2008 -- As a broad network of organisations and individuals that has closely studied the significant changes in Venezuelan society since 1998 – including organising eight study tours to Venezuela involving more than 150 Australians from diverse backgrounds -- we are obliged to respond to the biases, distortions and lies contained in the Human Rights Watch report A Decade Under Chavez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela, released in September 2008.

The key theme of the report -- that “Ten years ago, Chavez promoted a new constitution that could have significantly improved human rights in Venezuela. But rather than advancing rights protections, his government has since moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda” -- bears no relation to the reality in Venezuela today.

Here are some facts:

Political freedom

The report’s claim that “Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency” is patently untrue.

All political parties in Venezuela, the majority of which are in opposition, operate without any constraints placed upon them. They organise public meetings and demonstrations, speak regularly in the media, stand candidates in all elections, hold party events, publish books and pamphlets, and disseminate (anti-government) propaganda in the streets and through the media – all without any government sanctions.

There are no political prisoners of any kind in Venezuela. On the contrary, despite the opposition’s persistent efforts to use violent and unconstitutional means to overthrow the government, the Chavez leadership has responded with tolerance. In 2007, for example, Chavez pardoned opponents who backed the failed 2002 coup against his democratically elected government, saying, "We want there to be a strong ideological and political debate - but in peace”.

The media

The HRW report claims that Chavez “has significantly shifted the balance of the mass media in the government’s favour by stacking the deck against critical opposition outlets”. In fact, the great majority of Venezuela’s media is privately-owned and supports the political opposition.

There are no major pro?government newspapers in Venezuela, and the new government-funded television and radio outlets, such as TVes and TeleSur, have a much smaller reach than the privately owned outlets.

Despite the fact that, ever since Chavez was elected in 1998, the opposition media have talked openly about violently overthrowing the government, they have never been censored or shut down. The broadcast licence of private channel RCTV was  not renewed this year due to persistent legal violations, including inciting political violence (see http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?q=node/271). However, the channel easily switched to cable.

The judiciary

Contrary to the HRW report’s claim that the Chavez government has an “open disregard for the principle of separation of powers -- specifically an independent judiciary”, the independence of the judiciary has been significantly strengthened since 1999. While there are still weaknesses in this area due to the continuing presence of judges appointed by the pre-Chavez regime, the revolutionary government has begun to confront and eradicate the corruption with which the old legal system was previously riddled.

Trade union rights

HRW’s allegation that the government “has sought to remake the country’s labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association” is false.

All six national trade union federations in Venezuela function unhindered by any anti-trade union laws or intervention by the government. The Chavez government has actively promoted the self-organisation of workers and the formation of democratic trade unions, and collective action by workers in their own interests. Unlike in Australia and most Western nations, trade union membership is increasing in Venezuela, rising from 11% before Chavez came to office to at least 20% today.

In some important struggles by workers for their rights, such as at Sidor, the fourth-largest steel plant in Latin America, the government has directly intervened against multinational employers in support of the employees -- in the case of Sidor, by nationalising the plant and meeting all of the employees’ demands.

Civil society

The HRW report accuses the Chavez government of an “aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organisations”. This is almost as far from the truth as it is possible to be.

For the first time ever, the rights of many previously marginalised sectors of the population have been enshrined in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. More importantly, through the establishment of hundreds of social missions, 200,000 cooperatives, tens of thousands of communal councils (which democratise local government and give people the  funding to make decisions for themselves), as well as specific women’s, Indigenous, lesbian and gay organisations, and many others, the government has actively empowered millions of formerly excluded people to actively participate in local, regional and national decision-making.

Health clinics, educational centres, subsidised food markets and other initiatives rely on local volunteers and are accountable to these communities.

This is all part of implementing the principles of participatory democracy that underpin the Bolivarian revolution and have been enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, which was itself the product of the most extensive consultation with the Venezuelan population ever.

Democracy

All democratic institutions have been markedly strengthened in Venezuela since 1998. This is exemplified by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, the fairness and efficiency of which has been repeatedly verified by international bodies observing elections in the country.

Venezuela has held more internationally recognised democratic elections than virtually any other country in the world since 1998, and Chavez personally has faced and won seven elections. However, the National Electoral Council and the Chavez government also have not hesitated to immediately accept and uphold electoral results unfavourable to the government, such as the defeat of the 2007 constitutional referendum (see http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?q=node/1715).

The number of registered voters has increased from 11,013,020 in 1998 to 16,109,664 in 2007 (a 60% increase), with greater than average increases among previously marginalised groups such as Indigenous people and women. In 2006, Venezuelans serving in the military were given the right to vote for the first time.

Human rights ignored

The political bias that riddles the HRW report is most sharply evident in its failure to even mention the many major improvements to the human rights enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans that have been made by the Chavez government. These include: the reduction of poverty by 34%; the eradication of illiteracy (confirmed by the United Nations); the expansion of education from 6 million participants in 1998 to more than 12 million in 2008; access to free health care by the great majority of the population by 2008; the provision of subsidised food, benefiting 12-14 million people in 2008; the reduction in unemployment to historically low levels of around 7% in 2008; the promotion of a far greater role of women in society and the economy; and the dramatic increase in social spending by the government (see http://www.rethinkvenezuela.com).

The HRW’s depiction of Venezuela as being on  the verge of becoming a dictatorship therefore makes a mockery of it’s stated mandate of “protecting the human rights of people around the world....stand(ing) with victims and activists....upholding political freedom (and) bring(ing) offenders to justice". In fact, the Chavez government has expanded democracy and human rights in Venezuela to unprecedented levels.

Echoing US establishment propaganda

For many familiar with the history of US intervention in Latin America, the systematic biases and falsifications in the HRW report come as no surprise given the organisation’s advisors and funding sources. These include: the Ford Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and Time Warner. Some of HRW’s Americas Advisory Board members are closely linked to the notorious right-wing propaganda organisation, the National Endowment of Democracy.

As Edward Herman, David Peterson and George Szamuely conclude in their 2007 review of the role and biases of HRW (see http://www.electricpolitics.com/2007/02/human_rights_watch_in_service.html), HRW has too often served as “a virtual public relations arm of the [US] foreign policy establishment”.

And it is no coincidence that the Venezuela report was released at just this time. Its central claim -- that “Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency” – is perfectly suited to the current campaign, being aggressively promoted through establishment media worldwide, to discredit and isolate Venezuela’s revolutionary leadership in the lead-up to the country’s November 23 elections for governors and mayors.

The US establishment is desperate to regain control of Venezuela’s vast oil resources and halt the growing movement, led by Venezuela and Cuba, towards greater Latin American integration on the basis of independence from imperialist domination. To that end, it has repeatedly attempted to remove Venezuela’s democratically elected president and end the Bolivarian revolution -- and it has repeatedly failed: in April 2002, when a popular uprising ended a US-backed coup against Chavez;  in 2002-03, when the workers overcame a management lockout in the oil industry that almost crippled the economy; in August 2004, when Chavez won a 59% majority in a national “recall referendum” demanded by the right-wing opposition; and the boycott of the 2005 parliamentary election by opposition parties to try to de-legitimise the government. Most recently, in September 2008, the government uncovered a detailed plan to assassinate Chavez and carry out a military coup (see http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?q=node/5864).

At the same time, US and other Western corporations have used foreign courts to try to rob Venezuela of its resources (e.g.: ExxonMobil’s injunctions to freeze billions of dollars in assets of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, this year. See http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?q=node/2397), and the Western corporate media maintain a constant vilification campaign against Chavez, labelling him a “dictator”, a “drug-runner” and a supporter of “terrorism”.

Despite its failure so far to even put a dent in the massive popular support for Chavez and the revolution in Venezuela, the US establishment continues to funnel millions of dollars to Venezuelan opposition groups to try to destabilise the government. The publicly acknowledged component of this funding is channelled through so-called “non-government organisations” in Venezuela (such as SUMATE, whose leader, Corina Machado, endorsed the unsuccessful 2002 coup against Chavez) from bastions of the US Right including USAID, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, the Centre for International Private Enterprise and, of course, the National Endowment for Democracy.

The astonishingly blatant distortions and lies in the HRW report on Venezuela can only be understood in that context: The report is simply an echo of the US establishment’s anti-Chavez propaganda that is aimed at undermining a government that is breaking free of imperialism’s control and showing a lead to all other exploited peoples around the world.

The Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network unequivocally rejects the HRW’s falsifications and affirms our commitment to tell the inspiring truth about the Venezuelan people’s struggles for sovereignty, social justice and socialism of the 21st century.

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