ONE OF THE BEST measures of freedom in any country is the existence, independence and effectiveness of human rights groups. They are something of a bellwether: In autocratic states, their appearance can be an early sign that a political liberalization, or democratic revolution, is on the way. That's why the recent sprouting of human rights groups in places such as Egypt and Jordan is encouraging. Conversely, the intimidation or elimination of such organizations is a sure sign that political rights are being constricted; that is what has happened in Russia, for example. Now, according to testimony presented this month before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Venezuela's human rights community is under siege. Its troubles ought to send a message to anyone who still wonders whether President Hugo Chavez intends to preserve the democratic system that brought him to power.
Unlike most of its neighbors, Venezuela maintained a real if imperfect democracy for 40 years before Mr. Chavez's election, and so its human rights community is well-developed. The seven organizations that testified before the commission, an arm of the Organization of American States, have been active for many years. It's not new for them to be at odds with Venezuela's government. What is new, under Mr. Chavez's regime, is the targeting of the groups themselves. Not only are their reports on such problems as government manipulation of the Venezuelan judiciary, police brutality and intimidation of the press dismissed or ignored; they themselves are labeled traitors and coup plotters for having spoken out.
One conspicuous victim of this phenomenon is Carlos Ayala, who testified before the commission about the growing threat to journalists and press freedom. One of the most respected human rights lawyers in Latin America, Mr. Ayala is a former president of the Inter-American Commission as well as the Andean Commission of Jurists. When dissident military leaders tried to stage a coup against Mr. Chavez in April 2002, Mr. Ayala not only denounced the plot, which eventually failed, but intervened with police to free a militant pro-Chavez legislator. Yet, last April, after he brought human rights cases against the Chavez government, prosecutors announced that they had opened a criminal investigation against Mr. Ayala for allegedly supporting the coup. Charges are still pending.
Such attacks are widespread. Government representatives and supportive media, including an "information office" in Washington that has spent millions in an attempt to influence U.S. opinion, routinely refer to human rights groups leaders and other civil society activists as coup plotters. The Venezuelan government has meanwhile rejected the judgments of the Inter-American Commission as a violation of its sovereignty. The commission has already issued a couple of critical reports of Mr. Chavez's human rights record; its members could only have been sobered by what they heard from the veteran Venezuelan activists. The question is whether the OAS leadership, and the governments that stand behind it, will have the courage to recognize Mr. Chavez's campaign against human rights monitors for what it is -- and for what it portends.