Chávez Has Undermined Democracy, Group Says

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 19, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 18 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has stacked the judicial system with supporters, weakened government institutions and demonized the opposition, debilitating democracy in that oil-rich country and violating its constitution, a leading human rights group said Thursday in an extensive report.

Human Rights Watch said that after nearly 10 years in office, Chávez's record was not that of a defender of democracy, as he characterizes himself, but that of a would-be autocrat intent on consolidating power. The New York-based group, which is influential in the U.S. Congress and in many Latin American capitals, began compiling its report nearly two years ago.

José Miguel Vivanco, the group's director for the Americas, said that Chávez has failed to deliver on his promises to shore up the rule of law and strengthen human rights. After his election in 1998, Chávez replaced two discredited political parties and quickly won approval for a new constitution. A failed coup in 2002, which was welcomed by the Bush administration, has been the most damaging blow to the rule of law in the country, the group said.

Since then, Chávez has used the putsch bid to harangue opponents, enact laws restricting the news media and justify discriminatory policies at the state oil company and other institutions, the report said.

"The fundamental element of the strategy was to use the coup as a pretext, as justification, to start dismantling any institution that could challenge his power," Vivanco said by phone from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, shortly after releasing the report.

Chávez did not immediately respond to the report. But a close ally in the National Assembly, Saúl Ortega, called Vivanco "an imbecile" and said Venezuela was a "vigorous democracy." Human Rights Watch's work in Latin America has mainly focused on Colombia.

The group noted that public debate remains lively in Venezuela. But reporters frequently censor their stories, and two major networks that were once critical of Chávez have in recent years softened coverage, for fear of retribution. The government has also fired public employees for supporting the opposition and did not renew the license of an opposition television station in 2007.

Vivanco said that Chávez and other government officials also characterize opponents as lackeys of the Americans and coup plotters, whether they supported the 2002 putsch attempt or not. That has created a poisonous political atmosphere in Venezuela, where issues such as rampant crime and high inflation are given short shrift.

"There was a coup," Vivanco said, "but whether you were associated with the coup or not, the president is very quick to dismiss your issues or complaints."

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