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Report details violence and lost freedoms in Venezuela

Monday, March 1, 2010; A20

THE ORGANIZATION of American States has failed to respond to the steady deterioration of Latin American democracy during the past few years, even though the defense of democracy is supposed to be one of its primary missions. Now the OAS -- and governments throughout the region -- have been shamed by one of its own branch organizations. Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a searing and authoritative report on the destruction of Venezuela's political institutions and the erosion of freedom under President Hugo Chávez. It's a powerful and sometimes chilling account of what OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and the organization's permanent council have been ignoring.

In meticulous detail, the 300-page report documents how Mr. Chávez's regime has done away with judicial independence, intimidated or eliminated opposition media, stripped elected opposition leaders of their powers, and used bogus criminal charges to silence human rights groups. Much of this has been reported. But the commission, made up of seven jurists and rights activists from Antigua, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the United States, offers a level of detail and a stance of impartiality that ought to discredit those defenders of Mr. Chávez who paint his critics as Yanqui imperialists or coup-plotters.

Particularly shocking is the commission's account of the role that violence and murder have played in Mr. Chávez's concentration of power. The report documents killings of journalists, opposition protesters and farmers; it says that 173 trade union leaders and members were slain between 1997 and 2009 "in the context of trade union violence, with contract killings being the most common method for attacking union leaders." The report says that in 2008 Venezuela's human rights ombudsman recorded 134 complaints of arbitrary killings by security forces, 87 allegations of torture and 33 cases of forced disappearance. It also asserts that radical groups allied with Mr. Chávez "are perpetrating acts of violence with the involvement or acquiescence of state agents."

There has been no accountability for these acts. "Impunity," says the report, "is a common characteristic that equally affects cases of reprisal against dissent, attacks on human rights defenders and on journalists, excessive use of force in response to peaceful protests, abuses of state force, common and organized crime, violence in prisons, violence against women, and other serious human rights violations."

To read the report is to be dismayed anew by the silence of Venezuela's neighbors and of the principal OAS organs. Mr. Insulza, characteristically, responded to the report with an arms-length statement that underlined the commission's autonomy and suggested "dialogue" between it and Mr. Chávez's government "to clear up doubts and differences." Mr. Insulza is running for reelection as secretary general, so far without opposition; the United States supplies 60 percent of his budget. If his reaction to the report is any indication, Congress will be expected to fund OAS tolerance of Mr. Chávez's repression for five more years.

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