Truth suffers in Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela

By the Venezuela Information Office

On September 18, 2008 Human Rights Watch released a report entitled "Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chávez." The report contains biases and inaccuracies, and wrongly purports that human rights guarantees are lacking or not properly enforced in Venezuela. In addition, while criticising Venezuela's human rights in the political context, it fails to mention the many significant advancements made by the government on other essential human rights, such as access to education, healthcare, nutritious food, clean water and housing.

MYTH: "Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency."  

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

MYTH: The Chávez administration has an "open disregard for the principle of separation of powers - specifically an independent judiciary."

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

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

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

MYTH: The Chávez government "has sought to remake the country's labor movement in ways that violate basic principles of freedom of association."

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

MYTH: The Chávez government has pursued an "aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates and civil society organizations."

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


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

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

Venezuela has a strong record on human rights. Many of the important guarantees set out in the 1999 Constitution have indeed been enforced, particularly those relating to the fundamental needs of citizens, such as food, shelter, healthcare, access to education, employment, social security and the right to participation in cultural life.

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

[i] "Chávez pardons accused coup backers" Ian James, Associated Press, December 31, 2007.

[ii] Human Rights Watch, "Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela," June 2004,

[iii] World Bank, Project Information Document, Report AB510, December 9, 2003,

[iv] Instituto Nacional de Estadística

The full Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela can be found here.

[The Venezuela Information Office is dedicated to informing the American public about contemporary Venezuela, and receives its funding from the government of Venezuela}

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 03/18/2009 - 10:15


March 12, 2009 -- Professor Greg Grandin of New York University has sent in an additional batch of names of 57 Latin American scholars who want to sign on to this letter, sent in response to Human Rights Watch’s rebuttal of the criticism of its largely negative report on Venezuela’s human rights record.

Greg, who happens to be a COHA alumnus, is the author of two recent titles on contemporary Latin American affairs – Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan Books, 2006) and The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 2004) – and along with Professors Miguel Tinker Salas and Greg Wilpert, was one of the authors of the original response to Jose Miguel Vivanco’s report.

The scholars’ exchange with Human Rights Watch can be found in its entirety through the following links:

Vivanco report
Scholars’ original open letter
HRW Director, Kenneth Roth’s rebuttal
Scholars’ reply
Roth’s final response

-COHA Staff