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 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.


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

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

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, 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

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, 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.


Beautifully written. A lot of Americans labeled him a dictator then i ask him what his political views are what he has done for the economy, health care, unemployment, and equal rights for women.. AND THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE ANSWERS. I hate ignorance of the media. Unfortunately almost all the major media is owned by right wing administration.


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 the head of HRW’s Latin American Division

December 18, 2008

The following letter has been sent to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch, carrying the signatures of over 100 U.S. and foreign Latin American scholars. The letter raises serious concerns over that organization’s recently issued highly critical report on the human rights situation in Venezuela and the conduct of its president, Hugo Chavez. It is now being distributed by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs to its mailing list at the request of a number of signatories of that document. COHA’s staff is taking this step (with considerable reluctance) because it feels that it is obliged for any organization committed to social justice and democratic values, to speak out regarding the dispute now raging over HRW’s recent and very controversial report on Hugo Chavez’s human rights performance.

Any reservation COHA may have had over taking issue with a sister organization was voided by the egregiously inappropriate behavior exhibited by HRW. Most specifically it was the issuance of this report and the needlessly venomous tone resorted to by HRW’s head for Latin America, Jose Miguel Vivanco. In his charges, HRW’s lead researcher and writer of the report used intemperate language and patently disingenuous tactics to field a series of anti-Chavez allegations that are excessive and inappropriate. It is not a matter that President Chavez and the Venezuelan government are above reproach—far from it. The problem is the presence of a mean-spirited tone and a lack of balance and fair play that characterizes Vivanco’s reportage and his tendentious interpretation of the alleged misdeeds of the Chavez revolution are demonstrably bereft of scale and accuracy.

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:

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

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. 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.


1. Rodolfo Acuña, Professor, Chicano/a Studies, California State University, Northridge

2. Federico Álvarez, Professor Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

3. Tim Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy, University of Sydney, Australia

4. Miguel Angel Herrera, Historia, Universidad de Costa Rica

5. Robert Austin, Ph.D, Honorary Fellow, School of Historical Studies, University of Melbourne

6. Márgara Averbach, Professor of Literatura, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

7. William Aviles, Associate Professor, Political Science University of Nebraska, Kearney

8. Mario Ayala, Programa de Historia Oral, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires

9. David Barkin, Profesor de Economía, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco

10. .Carlos Beas, Activista Movimiento Indígena, Oaxaca-MEXICO

11.. Alejandro Alvarez Béjar, Professor Economics Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México

12. Donald W, Bray, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Los Angeles

13. Marjorie Woodford Bray, Professor, Latin American Studies, California State University, Los Angeles

14. Charles Bergquist, Professor of History, University of Washington

15. Atilio A. Boron Director del PLED, Programa Latinoamericano de Educación a Distancia en Ciencias Sociales, Buenos Aires, Argentina

16. Chesa Boudin, Yale Law School

17. Clara Mantini Briggs, Associate Researcher, Demography, University of California, Berkeley

18. Charles Briggs, Professor Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

19. Julia Buxton, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for International Cooperation and Security, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford University

20. Maria Emilia Caballero, Comitè ´68 Pro Libertades Democràticas en Mèxico

21. Marisol de la Cadena, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UC-Davis, CA

22. José Calderon, Professor Sociology and Chicano/a Studies, Pitzer College

23. Hernán Camarero, Professor, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

24. Cristina Castello, Poeta y Periodista, Buenos Aires, Argentina

25. Ana Esther Ceceña, Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, UNAM
Observatorio Latinoamericano de Geopolítica

26. Eleonora Quijada Cervoni, School of Language Studies, The Australian National University

27. Julie A. Charlip, Professor, Department of History, Whitman College

28. Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, California State University Long Beach

29. Christopher Clement, Visiting Professor Politics, Pomona College

30. Ron Chilcote, Professor Economics, University of California Riverside

31. Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

32. Antonia Darder, Professor Educational Policy and Latino Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

33. Michael Derham, University of Northumbria, School of Arts and Social Sciences

34. Mônica Dias Martins, Professor Political Science, State University of Ceara, Brazil

35. Héctor Díaz-Polanco, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en
Antropología (CIESAS)

36.Luis Duno, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies, Rice University, Houston, TX

37. Steve Ellner, Professor Political Science, University of Oriente, Venezuela

38. Arturo Escobar, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC

39. Raul Fernandez, Professor, School of Social Science, University of California Irvine

40. Sujatha Fernandes, Queens College, City University of New York

41. Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Editor,

42. Gabrielle Foreman, Visiting Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies, Bowdoin College

43. Cindy Forster, Associate Professor History, Scripps College

44. Félix Hernàndez Gamundi, Comitè ´68 Pro Libertades Democràticas en Mèxico

45. Raúl Alvarez Garìn, Comitè ´68 Pro Libertades Democràticas en Mèxico

46. José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez, General Brigadier y Doctor en Administración Pública

47. Marco A. Gandásegui, (h) Professor, University of Panama

48. Lesley Gill, Professor and Chair of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

49. Magdalena Gómez, Columnist, La Jornada

50. Gilbert Gonzalez, Professor School of Social Science, University of California, Irvine

51. Armando Gonzalez-Caban, Latin American Perspective

52. Jeffrey Gould, Professor of History, Indiana University.

53. Greg Grandin, Professor of History, Director of Graduate Studies, New York University

54. Angel Guerra, Journalist, La Jornada

55. Maria Guerra, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

56. Peter Hallward, Professor of Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, UK

57. Daniel Hellinger, Professor Political Science, Webster University

58. Ramona Hernandez, Director, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute & Professor of Sociology, The City College of New York

59. Derrick Hindery, Assistant Professor of International Studies and Geography, University of Oregon

60. Forrest Hylton, Ph.D. Candidate, History, NYU

61. Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History and American Studies

62. Misha Kokotovic, Associate Professor Department of Literature, UC San Diego

63. Maria Lagos, Associate Professor Emerita, Dept. of Anthropology, Lehman College, CUNY.

64. Sidney Lemelle, Professor of History, Pomona College

65. Deborah Levenson, Professor of History, Boston College

66. Nayar López Castellanos, Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de Mexico

67. Gilberto López y Rivas, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Centro Regional Morelos

68. Florencia E. Mallon, Julieta Kirkwood Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI

69. Luis Martin-Cabrera, Assistant Professor, UCSD

70. Jorge Mariscal, Professor, Literature, University of California, San Diego

71. Peter McLaren, Professor, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

72. Frida Modak, Chilean Journalist

73. Daniel Molina, Comitè ´68 Pro Libertades Democràticas en Mèxico

74. José Mollet, Profesor Asistente y escritor, Director del Centro de Investigaciones Socioculturales, Instituto de Cultura del Estado Falcón, Venezuela

75. Carlos Montemayor, Writer

76. Maricarmen Montes, Nuestra América

77. Josefina Morales, Investigadora UNAM, México

78. Luis Hernández Navarro, Journalist

79. Fabio Gabriel Nigra, Assistant Professor of History, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

80. Enrique Ochoa, Professor, Latin American Studies, California State University, Los Angeles

81. Elizabeth Oglesby, Department of Geography, University of Arizona

82. Jocelyn Olcott, Department of History, Duke University Press

83. Mercedes Olivera, Centro de Estudios Superiores de México y Centroamérica, Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas.

84. Mark Overmyer –Velazquez, Associate Professor of History, University of Connecticut

85. José Herrera Peña Centro de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo.

86. Rebeca Peralta, Nuestra América

87. Salvador E. Morales Pérez, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo

88. Hector Perla, Assistant Professor Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

89. John Pilger, journalist and documentary film maker

90. Deborah Poole, Professor, Anthropology, Johns Hopkins

91. Carlos Walter Porto Gonçalves Professor do Programa de Pós-graduação em Geografia da
Universidade Federal Fluminense

92. Pablo A. Pozzi, Professor of History, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

93. Vijay Prashad, Professor, International Studies, Trinity College

94. Gerardo Renique, City College, City University of New York

95. William Robinson, Professor Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

96. Victor Rodriguez, Professor, Chicano Latino Studies, California State University, Long Beach

97. René Patricio Cardoso Ruiz, Director en Estudios Latinoamericanos, Investigador Nacional I del SIN, Facultad de Humanidades, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México

98. Jan Rus, Latin American Perspectives

99. Emir Sader, Secretario Ejecutivo de CLACSO, Sociólogo, Argentina

100. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of History, Pomona College

101. Rosaura Sanchez, Professor, Literature, University of California, San Diego

102. John Saxe-Fernández, Essayist, México

103. Alejandro M. Schneider, Assistant Professor of History, Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina

104. Enrique Semo, Professor of Economics, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

105. T.M. Scruggs, Associate Professor, Ethnomusicology

106. Jose Steinsleger, Mexican Writer and Journalist

107. Beatriz Stolowicz, Universidad Autónoma Xochimilco

108. Oliver Stone, Filmmaker

109. Sinclair Thomson, Professor History, New York University

110. Steven Topik, Professor, History, University of California, Irvine

111. Jorge Turner, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

112. Carolina Verduzco, Comitè ´68 Pro Libertades Democràticas en Mèxico

113. William H. Watkins, Professor, College of Education, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago

114. Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

115. Dr Stephen Wilkinson Assistant Director International Institute for the Study of Cuba London Metropolitan University

116. Gregory Wilpert, Ph.D, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College

117. John Womack, Professor, History, Harvard

118. Nahirana Zambrano, Professor of American Studies, University of the Andes, Venezuela


“Venezuela no es modelo para nadie,” September 21, 2008, El Universal. Since El Universal is not necessarily a reliable source (see below), we confirmed that this quote from Mr. Vivanco was accurate.
“Venezuela no es modelo para nadie,” September 21, 2008, El Universal. Since El Universal is not necessarily a reliable source (see below), we confirmed that this quote from Mr. Vivanco was accurate.
Petkoff describes the opposition “strategy that overtly sought a military takeover” from 1999-2003, and also writes about the opposition’s use of its control over the oil industry to topple the government. “A Watershed Moment in Venezuela.” Inter-American Dialogue Working Paper (July 2008)
The United States has several laws that would have prevented such a strike from even having been carried out, and allowed for firing the participants and even jailing of its organizers.
In addition to these opposition newspapers, the section on political discrimination cites extensively other opposition newspapers (El Nacional, Tal Cual) and the opposition group Súmate.
A few more examples: On August 4, 2004, El Universal ran a story on their front page that a recent poll showed the Yes vote against Chávez was winning and that there was “evidence that indicates the exit of Hugo Chávez as president.” The poll turned out to be non-existent. Another opposition newspaper cited by HRW, El Nacional, has also fabricated stories in attempts to discredit the government. On January 12, 2003, El Nacional reported that an oil worker had been burned to death in an accident at El Palito oil refinery. On the day that the article ran, the reportedly “dead” worker appeared on television in good health. The HRW report also frequently cites the opposition group Súmate; Súmate maintained, on the basis of faked exit polls (for which it helped gather data), that the 2004 recall referendum was actually stolen by a fantastic electronic fraud. See “Polling and the Ballot in Venezuela . The opposition media in general promoted this bizarre conspiracy theory. (Chávez won the referendum, which was certified by international observers including the OAS and the Carter Center, by a margin of 58-41 percent).
“Two long-established daily newspapers—El Universal and El Nacional—were persistent critics”(p.69)
A recent example is when the Editor of the Newspaper El Nuevo Pais, Rafael Poleo, stated on Globovisión’s talk show, Alo Ciudadano, that “Hugo is going to end up like Mussolini, hung with his head towards the floor.” See
For a more detailed but still not exhaustive account of the HRW report’s exaggerations, errors, and omissions, see Gregory Wilpert, “Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Human Rights Watch’s Report on Venezuela” October 17, 2008.

This analysis was prepared by COHA
December 18th, 2008


Academics Respond to Human Rights Watch Director's Defense of Venezuela Report

January 12, 2009

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Board of Directors

Human Rights Watch

Dear Mr. Roth and the Human Rights Watch Board:

We want to thank Mr. Roth for his December 29 letter in response to our December 16 letter, signed by more than 100 scholars who specialize in Latin America, criticizing your report, "A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela."

We note that Mr. Roth did not answer a number of the criticisms contained in our original letter, all of which demonstrate serious prejudice and exaggeration in the HRW report on Venezuela. We encourage everyone to read all three letters - (our letter to the HRW Board, Kenneth Roth's response, and this letter) with references to the original report- and decide whether the criticisms are valid and whether they were answered in Mr. Roth's response.

We will address the substantive points raised by your response below, in order of importance.

(1) Mr. Roth writes: "Another one of your main accusations is that our report makes sweeping allegations that are not backed up by supporting facts or in some cases even logical arguments. . .

"The primary example you use to attempt to back this accusation is our conclusion that discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency. To make your point, you isolate a single case of a woman purportedly denied medicines on political grounds, and claim falsely that it is the only alleged instance of discrimination in government services cited in the entire 230-page report. We actually provide three such cases that we documented ourselves, while also referencing a 2005 report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that concluded, on the basis of hundreds of cases of alleged discrimination, that a new discriminatory pattern in the awarding of work and public services had emerged in Venezuela."

Our response:

First, let's clarify what is at stake here. Imagine that a human rights organization issued a report claiming that the Bush Administration has discriminated against political opponents among people who applied for Medicaid, food stamps, and other federal government entitlement programs. Now imagine that the only evidence they provided for this claim consisted of one allegation by the nephew of someone who applied for Medicare benefits, and possibly two other similar allegations. No one would take such a report seriously. But that is exactly what Mr. Roth is defending with regard to HRW's report on Venezuela.

We could not find the other two cases of alleged discrimination that Mr. Roth refers to above. However it should be clear to anyone who knows arithmetic that the difference between one and three allegations of discrimination in a set of programs that has served millions of people is not significant.

As for the 2005 report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights cited by Mr. Roth, it contains no documented cases, nor does it refer to any documented cases, of even alleged discrimination in the provision of government services.[1]

Thus, the HRW report neither provides nor cites any significant evidence for its 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).

As we noted in our original letter, "This is outrageous and completely indefensible."

If there were no other errors in the entire HRW report, this one enormously important unsubstantiated allegation would justify everything that we said with regard to the report not meeting "minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility."

It is clear from his response that Mr. Roth has not taken this matter seriously. We therefore renew our appeal to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch to intervene and correct this report.

(2) Mr. Roth takes issue with our claim that José Miguel Vivanco, the HRW report's lead author, demonstrated a political motive when he told the press, "We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone..."

Roth accuses us of having "taken our words out of context (including the quotation you attribute to Mr. Vivanco) and distorted their meanings . . ." He states that "the only way one can sustain this claim is by ignoring the rest of that interview and, most importantly, the argument laid out in our report. Both make perfectly clear that, when we speak of Venezuela as a model, we are referring to the human rights practices analyzed in our report."

This is not true, as can be seen by simply reading the interview. Mr. Vivanco states in the interview "...pues el presidente Chávez presenta a Venezuela como un modelo que puede ser adoptado por la región. Hay todo un esfuerzo propagandístico para promover el modelo de Venezuela y hay algunos países que lo están tomando en serio."[2] It is clear that Mr. Vivanco is referring to Venezuela as a political model; otherwise the sentence makes no sense (why would Chávez present "human rights practices" as a model?).

Mr. Vivanco's above statement is also inaccurate; while Chávez has put himself forward as a leader with respect to such international objectives as his goal of a more "multi-polar world," he has repeatedly rejected the idea that Venezuela itself should serve as a model for other countries, insisting that each country must find its own path. This has helped him to claim as allies countries as diverse as Brazil, Honduras, Chile and Ecuador.

The full interview contains further evidence of prejudice. Mr. Vivanco paints an overwhelmingly negative and exaggerated picture of Venezuelan democracy, even more than in the report. It is also one that does not conform to the opinion of Venezuelans themselves. In opinion polls conducted by the respected Chilean pollster Latinobarómetro, Venezuela has consistently ranked among the highest in Latin America in terms of citizen satisfaction with the state of their democracy and government.[3] We reference these polls not to rebut specific findings in the report, but to question HRW's unrelenting portrayal of Venezuela as a country in which democracy has steadily diminished.

In 230 pages, A Decade Under Chávez occasionally acknowledges some important advances in social rights, political participation, and democratization of public debate that has taken place in Venezuela over the last decade. But the thrust of its narrative, reinforced by Mr. Vivanco's interview and Mr. Roth's response to our original letter, present a one-sided account, describing Venezuela as a country where, in Mr. Vivanco's words, the democratic deficit hasn't diminished but on the contrary has deepened in recent years.[4]

Another rhetorical strategy deployed by Mr. Vivanco in the interview that reinforces an impression of political bias is his equation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Vivanco says that when it comes to public debate "Uribe mantiene un grado de descalificación y agresión similar al de Chávez."[5]

According to HRW's own reporting, Colombia is the most repressive country in the hemisphere. Over 40 trade unionists were killed in 2008, and over 460 have been murdered since Uribe took office in 2002.[6] Just last month, Colombian soldiers killed the husband of an indigenous rights leader, and an Afro-Colombian rights leader was murdered in October.

With what credible standard can Mr. Vivanco compare the state of the public debate in Venezuela and Colombia? There is not even an opposition media in Colombia remotely comparable to that which prevails in Venezuela, and journalists who are denounced by President Uribe have had to flee the country after being threatened by death squads.[7]

As we noted in our original letter, Mr. Vivanco's statement with regard to HRW's motivation for the report is a clear expression of political animus and should be retracted. There is no excuse for it, and it diminishes HRW's credibility.

Mr. Roth also writes that "given our limited resources, and given our overarching goal of strengthening human rights norms at a global level, we often focus special attention on countries that we believe are more likely to be viewed as role models by others. . . Venezuela is clearly among the most influential countries in Latin America today."

We find this explanation implausible. Venezuela's government is the number one enemy of the U.S. State Department in this hemisphere, and practically the world. Its president is constantly demonized by not only the U.S. government and foreign policy establishment but also the major media. We find it difficult to believe that Mr. Vivanco's political statements or the intense focus of HRW on Venezuela (see below) are motivated by a concern that Venezuela might influence some leftists or that its errors or weaknesses in the area of human rights, which are no worse than those of other countries in the hemisphere, are something to emulate.

Since Mr. Roth has raised the question of how HRW allocates its scarce resources we would like to ask why it did so remarkably little when, in March 2004, the democratically elected government of Haiti was overthrown in a coup, its officials jailed and its supporters murdered by the thousands.[8] The coup was supported and indeed instigated by agencies of the U.S. government,[9] which by bringing about a cut-off of all international aid to the constitutional government of Haiti, guaranteed that it would be overthrown.[10] In addition to the atrocities committed by the coup government, it would seem that Washington's denial of the Haitian people's right to freely elect their government, and the hardships to which the Haitian people were subjected to by the U.S.-led funding cut-off are major human rights violations.

Yet Human Rights Watch - unlike, for example, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights[11], has not even considered how Washington's actions, such as through the aid cut-off, might have resulted in considerable harm to people in Haiti (or also contribute to the destabilization and overthrow of Haiti's elected government). None of these violations or atrocities - by far the worst in the hemisphere outside of Colombia -- prompted HRW to produce even one report comparable to the reports it has produced attacking the government of Venezuela since Chávez's took office. The atrocities in Haiti did not prompt Human Rights Watch to hold major press conferences, publish op-eds in the Washington Post, or undertake any of the other high profile media or lobbying campaigns that it has taken against the government of Venezuela. This was true even while prominent members and supporters of Haiti's constitutional government were being held in jail as political prisoners.

We are well aware that HRW is independent of the U.S. government and has been critical of Washington and allied human rights violators such as the government of Colombia. But it would be naïve to assume that its research agenda and actions are completely insulated from any political influence.

(3) Mr. Roth also contests our criticism of the report's biggest and most important allegation of discrimination in employment - that of the PDVSA workers fired for the 2002-2003 oil strike. As we said in our letter,

"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.

Mr. Roth counters by following the HRW report in citing the ILO determination that the strike was a "legitimate strike." As independent scholars and researchers, we do not accept "proof by authority." Neither should HRW. It is up to HRW to show why this strike, which was overtly aimed at toppling the government, was a "legitimate strike." HRW has failed to do so. The fact that the striking managers and workers at PDVSA had other goals besides toppling the government does not make this strike legitimate.

Of course Mr. Roth's argument that there should have been more due process in the decision-making with regard to dismissals is a valid point. Like most developing countries, Venezuela suffers from weaknesses in due process and the rule of law in general. However this is a separate issue and does not convert workers who crippled the economy in an attempt to overthrow the government into innocent victims of political discrimination.

Mr. Roth writes: "One of your main allegations is that our report suffers from an overwhelming reliance on opposition sources. Specifically you claim that the report depends heavily on three newspapers aligned with the opposition (El Universal, El Nacional, and Tal Cual) and one nongovernmental organization (Súmate). This allegation has no merit.

"One simple way to gauge what sources we relied on is to examine the footnotes. The report contains 754 of them. Of these, only 88 cite material drawn from one of those three newspapers, and only 50 do so without providing another corroborating source. Only 10 footnotes cite material published or reproduced by Súmate. In other words, only 6.6 percent of the material cited in the report comes exclusively from these newspapers, and 1.3 percent from Súmate. That is a total of 8 percent of our citations, which hardly suggests an overwhelming reliance."

Our Response:

These numbers are meaningless for assessing the report's reliance on opposition sources. There are indeed 794 footnotes, but most of them are footnotes to constitutions, laws, conventions, and legal, historical, and other arguments that have no bearing on the question of whether the allegations made by HRW in the report are true.

If we look at the sources for the chapter on political discrimination, for example, the ones that actually are related to the facts or allegations that the report is trying to establish, we find that out of about 70 sources, 45 of these - or 64 percent-are opposition. About 35, or half, are from the sources mentioned above: El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, and Súmate.

It is therefore correct to say that the report relies heavily on opposition sources, a number of whom are known for fabricating material and allegations against the Venezuelan government.[12] Furthermore, the report is misleading with regard to the nature of these sources, not clearly identifying the opposition sources as such, while referring to one of the most balanced newspapers in the country as "pro-government." As we pointed out in our original letter, this is further evidence of the authors' bias and/or lack of knowledge of Venezuela.

(4) Mr. Roth also takes issue with our criticism of the HRW report's treatment of the case of RCTV. He writes:

"The Venezuelan government was under no obligation to renew RCTV's concession. The problem in this case was that President Chávez himself justified the non-renewal as a response to alleged criminal activity, without giving RCTV an opportunity to defend itself against the charges (a due process violation). Moreover, as the report demonstrates, it was clear that the real reason the government was denying a renewal to RCTV-- while simultaneously granting one to another station that was allegedly just as implicated in the coup-- was because of RCTV's anti-government programming (an act of political discrimination)."

Our Response:

Again, the due process complaint is a valid one; it would be better if Venezuelan law (which pre-dates Chávez) provided for hearings and other procedural guarantees with regard to the decision on whether to renew a broadcast license. But this is a separate question as to whether the denial of RCTV's license renewal was a violation of free speech, or whether the Venezuelan government is using its authority over broadcast licenses to restrict freedom of expression. The HRW report answers both of these questions in the affirmative,[13] but it does not provide any convincing evidence that this true.

Roth's argument (and that of the report) is that other TV stations also played an active role in the coup but had their licenses renewed, and that therefore the denial of RCTV's license is "an act of political discrimination" and an attempt to proscribe criticism of the government.

But this does not follow logically. Broadcast TV and radio stations in Venezuela are free to criticize the government as much as they want, without fear of losing their broadcast licenses. As in the U.S. and other democracies, however, they cannot become political actors, and still expect from the government a license for a monopoly over a public broadcast frequency. In fact, as we explained in our original letter, the opposition media in Venezuela has more freedom to be political actors, for example in election campaigns, than do their counterparts in the United States. By making it appear as though the Venezuelan government is using its control over broadcast licenses to restrict the media more than is the case in the United States or other democracies, HRW engages in a very serious misrepresentation of the reality of freedom of expression in Venezuela.

For example, the HRW report states as though it were a fact:

"In the most notorious case, the government refused to renew the license of the opposition television station RCTV in May 2007 because of its obstinate refusal to soften its editorial line."

And again, that the government used "its regulatory power in a discriminatory and punitive manner against a channel because of its critical coverage of Chávez and his government."

But in addition to its active participation in the coup, RCTV distinguished itself by consistently being a political actor in ways that are not allowed in the United States or other democratic countries, for broadcast licensees. (In the United States even cable TV outlets are subject to restrictions with regard to election campaigns, that Venezuelan media are not bound by.) HRW's statement of "fact" is thus grossly misleading - this is much different from having "critical coverage of Chávez and his government," which is the norm in the Venezuelan media.

The HRW report also misrepresents the state of the Venezuelan media in other ways. For example, it says:

"...he [Chávez] has since significantly shifted the balance of the mass media in the government's favor. This shift has been accomplished, not by promoting more plural media, but by stacking the deck against critical opposition outlets while advancing state-funded media that represent the views only of Chávez's supporters."

This is a serious misrepresentation, which gives the impression that the state-run media are encroaching on freedom of speech, rather than acting as a necessary counter-balance to what would otherwise be a right-wing media monopoly. But buried in the footnotes (footnote 184, p.74; footnote 181, p.73) we find that the state TV stations referred to above actually reach a very small audience. If the numbers provided by HRW are accurate, all three broadcast state TV channels combined have a smaller audience than that of RCTV's current (cable) audience.

Mr. Roth contests our criticisms by pointing to the HRW report's discussion of the expansion of community media. It is true that the report's treatment of the community media is fair and balanced, unlike its treatment of the courts, the major media, and labor - which are laced with prejudice and exaggeration. It reads like it was written by a different person than the rest of the report. However, it does not make up for the distortions in the report's treatment of the major media.

Mr. Roth also engages in an ad hominem attack on one of our signers, because an article that contained a false charge against José Miguel Vivanco was posted on a web site that he edits. We do not see the relevance of this point. The web site,, immediately corrected the error - which was not of their own writing - as soon as they were informed of it.

Finally, we are disappointed that Mr. Roth has chosen to stonewall against valid and serious criticisms, with a smokescreen of rhetoric, and not even respond to the most obvious points. We would welcome the opportunity to publicly debate these concerns with Mr. Roth or any other representative of Human Rights Watch. We therefore once again appeal to the Board of Directors to intervene and correct this report. We also would be glad to meet with members of the Board to discuss our concerns further, and we would be glad to hear your opinions on this matter.


Miguel Tinker Salas
Professor of History
Pomona College

Gregory Wilpert
Adjunct Professor of Political Science
Brooklyn College

Greg Grandin
Professor of History, Director of Graduate Studies
New York University

[1] This is the paragraph from the 2005 IACR report cited by HRW in its report: 331. The Commission notes that the discriminatory acts of the State against persons who have an ideology or political opinion different from whatever administration is in office may take on more subtle indirect forms which at times may be more effective for deterring criticism or for exercising coercion that leads to a change of position, at least in public, resulting in greater apparent alignment with the positions of the governing party. The Commission finds that dismissing employees and obstructing access to social benefits, among other measures, to punish those persons who express their voice of dissent from the administration are violations of human rights and should be subject to generalized censure, and should be investigated.

[2] In English: "...because President Chávez presents Venezuela as a model that can be adopted by the region. There is an entire propaganda effort to promote the Venezuelan model and there are some countries that are taking the idea seriously." From El Universal, "Venezuela no es modelo para nadie," September 21, 2008. Accessed January 9, 2009. Since El Universal is not necessarily a reliable source, we confirmed that this quote from Mr. Vivanco was accurate.

[3] See The Economist, "Democracy and the downturn," November 13, 2008. Accessed January 9, 2009.

[4] El Universal, "Venezuela no es modelo para nadie," September 21, 2008.

[5] In English: "Uribe maintains a degree of condemnation and aggression similar to that of Chávez." Ibid.

[6] See Juan Forero, "Unionists' Murders Cloud Prospects for Colombia Trade Pact," The Washington Post, April 10, 2007. Accessed January 10, 2009. Forero notes "400 union members killed since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002." In addition to the 40 killed in 2008, at least 26 were murdered in 2007, as Uribe himself admitted in an interview with The Washington Post ("A conversation with Álvaro Uribe," April 20, 2008).

[7] Mark Fitzgerald, "El Nuevo Herald reporter flees Colombia after ‘threats' from President," Editor & Publisher. October 5, 2007

[8] See, e.g., Thomas Griffin, Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November 11-21, 2004 (Center for the Study of Human Rights, University of Miami School of Law, 2005), available at

[9] Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg, "Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos," The New York Times, January 29, 2006.

[10] Jeffrey Sachs , "From His First Day in Office, Bush Was Ousting Aristide," Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2004.

[11] See Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), Partners In Health (PIH), the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center (RFK Center, since renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights), and Zanmi Lasante, Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti, June 2008: "Although the United States has a long and well-documented history of this kind of interference in Haiti's political and economic matters, one of the most egregious examples of malfeasance by the United States in recent years was its actions to block potentially lifesaving loans to Haiti by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)," page iii, and "What emerges in this chapter is a high level of strategic interference by U.S. personnel to stall the disbursement of these loans indefinitely in order to use them as leverage for political change." page. 2. Accessed January 10, 2008.

[12] Mr. Roth criticizes us for calling attention to the report's citation of an opposition blogger arguing that the material for which he is cited is true. We mentioned this citation only in passing, mainly to show that authors' unfamiliarity with sources in Venezuela, or they probably would not have cited someone with no credibility.

[13] See Human Rights Watch, A Decade Under Chávez, pp 34, 60, 67-68, 108, 110-117.

See also: