September 18, 2008
CARACAS -- President Hugo Chávez has systematically and deliberately weakened democratic institutions since coming to power almost 10 years ago, according to a new report from New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The 230-page report, based on 18 months of research in Venezuela, concludes that the government has ''largely squandered'' a unique opportunity to make sweeping changes after replacing a discredited and corrupt two-party system and rewriting the constitution in 1999.
After a coup attempt against him in 2002, Chávez, ''selectively abandoned the 1999 constitution,'' José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the rights group, said at a press conference Thursday in Caracas.
Venezuelan officials condemned the report.
''The report is limited in its analysis of the Venezuelan situation, and runs contrary to the findings of other organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme, that have highlighted the extension of universal human rights under Chávez,'' said Olivia Goumbri, Executive Director of the Venezuela Information Office in Washington. ``It reads like the talking points of Venezuela's discredited opposition.''
There was no immediate response from the Venezuelan government, which in the past has accused the nongovernmental organization of pursuing a political campaign against Chávez on instructions from Washington.
The new constitution expanded existing rights, notably by giving international treaties the force of domestic law. But in practice it has frequently been ignored, especially since the attempted coup in 2002 provided a pretext to crack down on the opposition.
Political discrimination, an ''open disregard'' for the principle of separation of powers, and attacks on freedom of expression, the independent labor movement and human rights advocates themselves, are the main charges leveled at the government in the report.
By packing and purging the Supreme Court, for example, it has ``effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government.''
Press freedom has been undermined by several measures, including potential stiff penalties for defamation, incitement to violence and other alleged media crimes.
The government abuses its control of the airwaves to threaten, and -- in the case of the TV channel RCTV last year -- take opposition broadcast media off the air. It also systematically blocks access to official information, the report says.
Despite his claim to be engaged in a ''socialist revolution,'' Chávez has nothing but disdain for autonomous unions, according to the report.
Chávez's government has interfered in union elections, fired workers for their political affiliations and denied collective bargaining rights to those deemed to belong to the opposition, the report says.
Accusations of human rights violations by Venezuela over the last decade have been gradually working their way through the courts.
The closure by Chávez of the highest court dealing with administrative issues -- and the firing of its judges after they have ruled for several times against the government -- recently triggered a landmark verdict from the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San José, Costa Rica.
Finding in favor of the judges, the court called for them to be compensated and given their jobs back.
Another case involved a ruling by the Venezuelan comptroller-general banning certain politicians from standing for election because of corruption allegations.
Such political bans should only result from court sentences relating to actual crimes, Vivanco said.
''This is a fact of the utmost gravity,'' he added, ``which merits a response from the regional community.''