On January 31, 13 Venezuelan students of the opposition student group United Active Youth of Venezuela (JAVU) launched a hunger strike against the government of President Hugo Chávez, demanding the release of 27 “political prisoners.” The students called on the Organization of American States to investigate human rights abuses in Venezuela, and the hunger strike caught significant international attention. About half of the prisoners were former police officers convicted for either participating in or commanding the shooting deaths that took place during the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez and had already served several years’ time in prison. Although the government did not give in to the hunger strikers’ demands, the students decided to lift the strike after 23 days after the OAS assured them it would investigate the human rights situation in Venezuela and after the Venezuelan minister of the interior and justice committed to improve the living conditions of some of the prisoners.
This was the latest in an odd role-reversal that has taken place in Venezuela, whereby the center to right side of the political spectrum—now out of power for nearly 13 years—has adopted the human rights discourse and protest strategies of the left, deploying them against the left, which is now in power.
During the four decades before Chávez’s election in 1998, while what is today considered to be the Venezuelan right was in power, most observers of Latin America were generally unaware of the left’s resistance to human rights abuses at the time. This is because Venezuela was hailed as a “model democracy” and as an “exception” to the authoritarianism of Latin American governments of the 1960s and 1970s.1 However, in reality, Venezuelan leftists were relentlessly persecuted during this time. According to estimates, some 2,000 leftists were disappeared, killed, or massacred in the period from 1958 to 1988.2 State repression culminated with the so-called Caracazo of February 17, 1989, when state security forces, responding to protests and riots against a structural adjustment program mandated by the International Monetary Fund, killed between 400 (the official number) and 3,000 Venezuelans.3 In short, human rights violations ranging from censorship to violent state repression to torture to disappearances were common in Venezuela during the era before Chávez was elected.
Although Venezuelan human rights abuses did not receive much attention in the world press during the pre-Chávez era—far more attention was paid to the a similar-size massacre three months later in China’s Tiananmen Square—the Chávez government’s human rights record has received a tremendous amount of attention. For example, Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s preeminent human rights organizations, published a 230-page general report on Venezuela in 2008, something it has not done in this length for any other country in Latin America.4 The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) processed about 10 times as many human rights complaints from Venezuela between 1998 and 2010, compared with the pre-Chávez period between 1967 and 1998.5
How did this reversal take place? Has Venezuela under Chávez simply adopted the old repressive measures that previous Venezuelan governments used, thereby turning former persecutors into today’s persecuted? Or is the human rights issue being abused in Venezuela, so as to allow the right to score political points against a leftist government?
In the first few years of the Chávez government, from 1999 to 2002, the opposition tended to focus on questioning the legitimacy of Chávez and the new constitution he helped establish, rather than human rights. Despite the fact that the new constitution enshrined many new rights for Venezuelans, such as the rights to employment, housing, and health care (and, among other things, raised human rights treaties to the level of constitutional law), the opposition argued that the new constitution was passed unconstitutionally because the old 1962 constitution did not provide a mechanism for adopting a new one. Then the opposition called into question Chávez’s reelection in 2000, since it was based on the 1999 constitution. The fact that Venezuelans supported the new constitution and the procedure for approving it in four referenda with overwhelming majorities (by 70% to 75%) did not matter much to the opposition.
The questioning of the 1999 constitution thus laid the groundwork for justifying the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. The opposition justified the coup attempt on the argument that Chávez had violated citizens’ rights to protest when snipers supposedly under his direction shot 18 demonstrators (six from the opposition, six from the pro-Chávez side, and six uninvolved passersby). They asserted that the coup was further justified because during the chaos Chávez activated Plan Ávila, a military contingency plan to occupy and protect all public buildings and spaces from assault during a national emergency. The plan first gained notoriety in the aftermath of the Caracazo, since it was activated then and led to the deaths of so many Venezuelans.
The coup attempt and the opposition’s implicit human rights arguments justifying it were the opposition’s first sustained effort to mobilize both national and international public opinion against Chávez. Given that the international media picked up these arguments all too willingly—mostly in the characterization of Chávez as a would-be dictator—the opposition came to realize that it finally had an issue that would give it traction in the international arena against Chávez.6
After the coup failed, opposition elements in the national oil company, PDVSA, orchestrated a shutdown of that all-important source of state revenue from early December 2002 until early February 2003. The managers, workers, and administrative employees of PDVSA walked out with the express intent of pushing the Venezuelan state into bankruptcy and forcing Chávez to resign. But Chávez did not resign, and the government eventually restarted the oil industry with the help of blue-collar workers, retirees, military engineers, and foreign advisers (many from Iran and other OPEC countries). GDP, however, dropped by a massive 28% in the first quarter of 2003, relative to the first quarter of 2002.
It was only much later—in March 2003, after the government regained control of the oil industry and PDVSA fired everyone who had participated in the shutdown—that the opposition began to characterize the shutdown not as an act of civil disobedience but as a legitimate strike. The government, the opposition asserted, was violating PDVSA employees’ rights to organize and to strike. Never mind that no strike vote had ever taken place, that none of the three main PDVSA unions endorsed the walk-out, that work-related demands were not made public during the shutdown, or that the explicit goal was political: the president’s resignation. Yet six and a half years later, when Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its major report on Venezuela, the plight of the fired PDVSA employees figured prominently in the report, along with the argument that the “strike” was legitimate and that the firings were therefore illegitimate.7
HRW based its argument on a ruling by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which found that “it is not certain, as the Government claims, that this movement had nothing to do with professional and trade union issues or with the protest against the Government’s economic and social policy (even though the principal demand was the departure of the President of the Republic . . .).”8 This paper-thin justification was used by both HRW and the opposition as the principal proof that the Venezuelan government had violated workers’ right to organize and to strike.
Eventually, opposition leaders found that the strategy of provoking the government to react in such a way that the reaction could be framed as a human rights violation proved to be very effective in tarnishing the Chávez government’s international image. To this end, in March 2004, the Venezuelan opposition launched around-the-clock street blockades known as guarimbas. The strategy was designed by Roberto Alonso, an extreme right-wing Cuban-Venezuelan (and brother of the actress María Conchita Alonso, who has become a key right-wing human rights advocate on Fox News), who explained that the objective of the guarimbas was to “create anarchic chaos on a national level with the help of all citizens and in all of the principal cities of Venezuela, with the goal of forcing the Castro-communist regime of Venezuela to activate ‘Plan Ávila.’ ”9
The guarimba of February–March 2004, in which many neighborhoods (ironically mostly the ones with opposition supporters) and freeways were blocked for almost two weeks, culminated in the discovery of 120 Colombian paramilitary soldiers hiding out on Alonso’s ranch near Caracas and conspiring to assassinate Chávez. The plot ultimately failed: The paramilitaries were arrested before they could carry out their plan, and Chávez did not activate Plan Ávila. However, the street and highway blockades provoked pitched street battles with the police that involved Molotov cocktails and firearms, resulted in hundreds of arrests, and led to several deaths of opposition demonstrators. The opposition effectively used these incidents as further proof that the government violates citizens’ right to demonstrate and their freedom to dissent.10
After the guarimba actions of 2004 and the presidential recall referendum on August 15 of that year, the opposition adopted a less confrontational strategy but continued to challenge the government in international forums on human rights issues. One of the main issues, particularly after the passage of the Law on Social Responsibility in Television and Radio in late 2004, became freedom of expression. Until then the government regularly complained that the broadcast media were irresponsibly acting against the public interest and that unlike most first world countries, Venezuela had no laws to ensure media responsibility, to protect minors from sex and violence in the media, to limit concentration of media ownership, and to ensure that Venezuelan culture was promoted in the mass media as a matter of cultural policy.
Even though Venezuelan conservatives had always campaigned for media regulation before Chávez came to power, mostly in order to limit the media’s raciness, the opposition launched a massive campaign to portray the law as an attempt to stifle freedom of speech. International freedom-of-speech groups, including the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) and Reporters Without Borders, as well as HRW, joined the fray. Following its 2005 annual meeting, the IAPA called the Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television a “gag law” that “makes the private radio and television system part of the state, which controls its schedules, programs and content.”
Six years after the law’s passage, however, freedom of speech is alive and well in Venezuela. One can get a good feel for this by examining the extent to which the opposition TV station Globovisión and dozens of radio stations (not to mention the countless opposition newspapers, which do not fall under the media law’s purview) attack Chávez and his government on a daily basis. Teodoro Petkoff, a former planning minister under the previous president Rafael Caldera who runs the opposition paper Tal Cual and who has a weekly TV program, consistently refers to Chávez as Chacumbele, for example—a reference to a Cuban folk story about a person who is killed because of his own stupidity. Meanwhile, Marta Colomina, the talk show host of a prime-time morning radio program, regularly lambasts Chávez and his ministers. This is not to say that the law has not had any consequences–it has led to more warning labels about a program’s content, less sexual and violent programming, and more Venezuelan and independent production. Its impact, however, has been minimal to nonexistent on the opposition’s freedom of speech.
While some opposition leaders attack the Chávez government for supposedly curtailing speech, others take matters much further and claim that the government simply imprisons dissidents. For example, the far right refers to practically anyone who was imprisoned in the aftermath the 2002 coup attempt—such as the policemen videotaped shooting at the pro-Chávez demonstration or oil industry shutdown leader Carlos Ortega, who caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage to the national economy—as political prisoners. The students who went on hunger strike in January are part of this more radical sector of the opposition.
The hypocrisy of Venezuela’s former ruling class complaining about human rights abuses is particularly pointed in a few emblematic cases, such as that of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, a prominent opposition figure. While Ledezma was governor of the Caracas federal district in the pre-Chávez era (1992–93), he issued a temporary decree that forbade all demonstrations in the city. Now, as mayor of the Caracas metropolitan area (since 2008) and as a possible presidential candidate, he regularly criticizes the Chávez government for human rights abuses. A similar case exists with National Assembly deputy Pedro Pablo Alcántara, another opposition leader, who was in charge of newspaper censorship during the Carlos Andrés Peréz administration (1989–93).
Perhaps the most ironic case occurred recently, when the IACHR ruled that presidential hopeful Leopoldo López of the opposition party Popular Will should be allowed to run for public office. In 2005 the comptroller general had barred López from running for office for a period of six years (from 2008 until 2014) for engaging in corrupt practices in 1998. His mother, then a PDVSA employee, had signed off on a hefty PDVSA donation to his new political party. López challenged the decision in court several times but lost each tine.
Leaving aside whether the IACHR decision was merited, the irony lies in the fact that López was a highly visible figure during the short-lived 2002 coup. As mayor of a part of Caracas at the time, he ordered a number of illegal raids on the homes of Chávez supporters. López also signed the infamous Carmona Decree, which during the short-lived coup suspended the Constitution and dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.11 He later benefited from a presidential amnesty for all coup participants who had not been responsible for deaths that occurred during those days. In short, someone who was quite clearly a major participant in one of the South American continent’s most egregious violations of democratic principles, the 2002 coup attempt, was rehabilitated by an OAS human rights court, which has never said a word about the coup’s illegality.
Chávez government supporters often portray human rights rulings and accusations against the government as part of an international conspiracy to discredit a leftist government. But no such theory is necessary to make sense of the double standard that critics apply to Venezuela with regard to human rights. Instead, one merely needs to examine the interconnected networks in which the human rights establishment and Venezuelan opposition leaders operate. In February 2010, for example, the IACHR issued a detailed human rights report on Venezuela that was almost exclusively based on interviews with opposition figures, thus representing only their side of the human rights situation in Venezuela.12 The previously mentioned ILO ruling against Venezuela regarding the oil industry shutdown can largely be explained by the fact that for a long time the opposition-oriented Workers Confederation of Venezuela was the country’s main representative to the ILO.
Other organizations that belong to this network include the CATO Institute and the IAPA, both of which have honored important figures from Venezuela’s opposition. CATO, for example, awarded opposition student leader Yon Goicoechea its Milton Friedman Liberty Prize in 2008 for having led student demonstrations against Chávez, and in 2010 the IAPA awarded Guillermo Zuloaga, the president of the opposition TV station Globovisión, its Grand Prize for Press Freedom.
To this we also need to add the Human Rights Foundation, an organization founded in 2005 by the Venezuelan Thor Halvorssen to defend Venezuelan opposition leaders, but which has since branched out to cover many other countries and causes. Its board of advisers includes a wide variety of famous personalities, ranging from former Czech president Vaclav Havel to Peruvian writer Álvaro Vargas Llosa. It is a relatively small group (its website lists Halvorssen, its “president and CEO,” as its only staff person) but appears to have nonetheless garnered some notoriety. Halvorssen has been profiled in The New York Times, and mainstream media outlets regularly invite him to speak or write, mostly against the Chávez government. While he and his organization make a strong effort to sound balanced, Halvorssen endorses one of the main opposition accounts of the 2002 coup (that Chávez resigned and that coup president Pedro Carmona legitimately filled “a vacuum of power”) and in 2005 referred to El Salvador’s FMLN as a “terrorist organization.” Such positions betray his conservative sympathies.13
The constant drumbeat of conservative human rights denunciations against the Chávez government appears to have borne some success with the more mainstream human rights community, particularly HRW. In short, Venezuela’s opposition seems to have succeeded in convincing HRW and others that the opposition’s loss of power in Venezuela ought to be seen as the result of systematic human rights violations, not as the result of limited popular support. This is precisely the kind argument put forward by Venezuela’s old elite, an argument that HRW has uncritically accepted.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the argument that Chávez controls Venezuela’s judiciary, undermining the separation of powers. What critics who make this claim miss, though, is the difference between executive control over the judiciary and having a judiciary that shares the same political orientation as the executive. While the former (control) would indeed be very harmful for the protection of human rights, the latter (similar politics) can be harmful at times, but is quite common in democracies around the world, especially when the executive and legislative branches are controlled by the same political party and then proceed to appoint a sympathetic judiciary (the United States under George W. Bush is a case in point). Political bias in favor of the executive can certainly have a negative impact on human rights, but it is nowhere near as serious as outright control.
HRW and other critics have not been able to show that Chávez controls the judiciary. Rather, what they consider control is actually a case of shared worldview, given that members of Chávez’s political party have been appointed to the Venezuelan Supreme Court and other judiciaries. This is not to say that Venezuela’s judiciary is not politicized and does not make decisions based on its political preferences instead of purely on the merits of every case. But what judiciary in the world is apolitical? The point, rather, has to be that if Venezuela’s judges wanted to rule against the executive, they could—and they have, on repeated occasions, as can be seen in many cases.14
In the end, it is probably impossible for progressives and conservatives to see eye to eye on what constitutes human rights abuses, regardless of the political orientation of the government in question. However, at the very least, what might help move the perspectives closer together would be a more comparative approach, one that examines Venezuela’s human rights record, past and present, and compares it with the record of other countries in the region. If conservative human rights advocates did this more often in the case of Venezuela, they would have to admit that the Chávez government’s record, while not perfect, is quite good.
Gregory Wilpert is Adjunct Professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso, 2007). He is a member of the NACLA editorial committee.
1. For a discussion of the Venezuelan exceptionalism thesis, see “The Venezuelan Exceptionalism Thesis: Separating Myth from Reality,” Latin American Perspectives 32, no. 2 (2005) and Gregory Wilpert, “Chávez’s Venezuela and 21st Century Socialism,” Research in Political Economy 24 (2007): 3–43.
2. David Rosas and Héctor Lozano, “Democracia practicada por la Cuarta República dejó más de 2 mil desaparecidos,” Correo del Orinoco (Caracas), October 23, 2010.
3. George Cicariello-Maher, “The Fourth World War Started in Venezuela,” Venezuelanalysis.com, March 5, 2007.
4. Human Rights Watch, A Decade Under Chávez (September 18, 2008); for my critique of the report, see Gregory Wilpert, “Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Human Rights Watch’s Report on Venezuela,” Venezuelanalysis.com, October 17, 2008.
5. Rachael Boothroyd, “Inter-American Court’s Ruling on Leopoldo Lopez ‘Means Nothing,’ Says Chávez,” Venezuelanalysis.com, September 19, 2011.
6. See, for example, Rachel Coen, “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move,” Extra!, June 2002, available at fair.org.
7. Human Rights Watch, A Decade Under Chávez, 28–32, 174–82.
8. International Labor Organization, Case 2249, Report 337, para.1478.
9. Roberto Alonso, “Sobre la Guarimba,” venezuelanet.org.
10. HRW, for example, issued two releases during this time, referring to accusations that police forces “beat and abused” detained protestors. See HRW, “Venezuela: Investigate Charges of Abuses Against Protesters,” March 3, 2004; and HRW, “Letter to President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías,” April 4, 2011.
11. For the full text of the decree (in Spanish) and the names of the signatories, see analitica.com/biblioteca/carmona_estanga/decreto1.asp.
12. “Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela,” IACHR, December 30, 2009.
13. Thor Halvorssen, “Hurricane Hugo,” The Weekly Standard, August 8, 2005.
14. Full analysis of the HRW 2008 report on Venezuela, “Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Human Rights Watch’s Report on Venezuela,” Venezuelananlysis.com, October 17, 2008; earlier analysis of HRW’s report on Venezuela’s judiciary, “Has Human Rights Watch Joined Venezuela’s Opposition?” Venezuelanalysis.com, June 18, 2004.
Read the rest of NACLA's September/October 2011 issue: "The Politics of Human Rights."