Organization of American States report rebukes Venezuela on human rights

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 25, 2010

The human rights branch of the Organization of American States issued a blistering 300-page report Wednesday against Venezuela, saying that the oil-rich country run by President Hugo Chávez constrains free expression, the rights of its citizens to protest and the ability of opposition politicians to function.

The report, compiled and written by the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reflects growing concern in the region over how one of the organization's member states is governed. The document holds legitimacy for human rights investigators and diplomats because it has the imprimatur of the commission, which is run independently from the OAS and largely free of its political machinations.

"This is a professional report, and the commission has been progressively more critical about Chávez over the years," said Michael Shifter, an analyst who tracks Venezuela for the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "There's a growing sense of the greater risks of human rights abuses and authoritarianism in Venezuela."

The commission has in the past issued major reports about serious violations in a number of countries, notably targeting the military junta in 1970s-era Argentina and the quasi-dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori in Peru.

Chávez has railed against the OAS as beholden to the interests of the United States. Venezuela declined to cooperate with the commission, its members said, prompting commissioners -- jurists and rights activists from Antigua, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and the United States -- to hold hearings and seek out Venezuelan activists and politicians to compile information about the suspected abuses.

The report asserts that the state has punished critics, including anti-government television stations, demonstrators and opposition politicians who advocate a form of government different from Chávez's, which is allied with Cuba and favors state intervention in the economy.

The report outlines how, after 11 years in power, Chávez holds tremendous influence over other branches of government, particularly the judiciary. Judges who issue decisions the government does not like can be fired, the report says, and hundreds of others are in provisional posts where they can easily be removed.

The commission said some adversaries of the government who have been elected to office, such as Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, have seen their powers usurped by Chávez.

"The threats to human rights and democracy are many and very serious, and that's why we published the report," Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a member of the commission who specializes in Venezuela, said by phone from his home in Brazil.

Chávez did not have an immediate response to the report. But in a phone interview Wednesday morning, Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, said the commission had become a "confrontational political actor instead of an advocate for defending human rights."

Chaderton said the commission had shown support for a failed 2002 coup against Chávez -- an accusation denied by the commission -- and charged that its members had dedicated themselves to weakening progressive social movements in Latin America. "They have become a mafia of bureaucrats who want to play a bigger role in the efforts against Venezuela's government," Chaderton said.

The commission, in compiling the report, incorporated responses from Venezuelan authorities to written questions. The government says it permits protests and opposition groups, while focusing much of its energy on improving Venezuelans' standard of living.

Pinheiro said the commission recognized the government's progress in areas such as reducing poverty. But Pinheiro said that there can be "no trade-off" between political and economic progress. He said the commission's hope is that the Venezuelan government will make improvements based on the report's recommendations.

"This report, instead of isolating Venezuela, is a call for Venezuela to come on board," Pinheiro said.

Others who track developments in Venezuela, though, said Chávez is prone to a disproportionate response when criticized. After releasing a critical report about Chávez two years ago, José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, and a fellow investigator for the group were detained at their Caracas hotel and escorted by armed agents onto a Brazil-bound flight.

"It would be nice to think the Chávez government would pay attention to the report," Vivanco said. But he noted that the president had "responded to all such criticism by attacking its critics, often using conspiracy theories and far-fetched allegations to distract attention from their own human rights practices."

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