Critics Respond to Human Rights Watch's Defense of Venezuela Report

This is the third installment of an ongoing debate between Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a group of academics over the organization's recent report, "A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela." The academics respond that HRW's defense of its report stonewalls and ignores their original criticisms.

January 13, 2009

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.


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