The New York Times
September 19, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez’s government expelled two employees of Human Rights Watch late Thursday night after chafing at their documentation of widespread political discrimination, intimidation of union members and a subservient judiciary.
Armed men in uniforms apprehended José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean citizen who is the Americas director for the New York-based group, and Daniel Wilkinson, an American who is deputy director for the Americas, and placed them on a flight to São Paulo, Brazil, where they arrived on Friday morning.
“About 20 men, some of them in military uniform, intercepted us when we arrived at our hotel after returning from dinner Thursday night,” Mr. Vivanco said in a telephone interview from São Paulo. He said he struggled briefly with the security officials when he tried to send a message on his BlackBerry to The New York Times about the expulsion.
The officials then disabled the BlackBerries of the two men and prevented them from contacting anyone in Venezuela, including diplomats from the embassies of Chile or the United States. “They informed us of our apprehension and told us they had entered our rooms and had packed our belongings,” Mr. Vivanco said.
The expulsion, broadcast partly on state television here, comes at a time of increasingly erratic actions by Mr. Chávez. In the last week, he expelled the American ambassador, rounded up military officers and accused them of plotting to kill him and clashed with the Vatican over its granting of political asylum to a political opponent.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Mr. Vivanco violated the law by entering the country on a tourist visa to do human rights work. The ministry also said that Human Rights Watch, which is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, was acting in concert with the United States government in a campaign of aggression against Venezuela.
“Accusing us of being part of a conspiracy is a distraction tactic used to attack the messenger,” Mr. Vivanco said. “We have never had this experience anywhere in this hemisphere.”
The expulsion of the two men came after they released a long report here on Thursday documenting rights violations in Venezuela. They pointed to Mr. Chávez’s dismantling of judicial independence and his use of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him from office as a pretext for consolidating power by weakening rights protections.
The report also discussed the government’s intimidation of local human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations, documenting the use of state television to carry out attacks on advocates doing work that criticized Mr. Chávez’s creation of a military reserve under his command.
“Our expulsion reveals yet again the degree of intolerance of this government,” said Mr. Vivanco.
Report Accuses Chávez of Abusing Rights
As it settles into its 10th year, President Hugo Chávez’s government has consolidated power by eliminating the independence of the judiciary, punishing critical news organizations and engaging in wide-ranging acts of political discrimination against opponents, a human rights group said in a report released on Thursday in Caracas.
The report, by Human Rights Watch, which is widely known in Latin America for condemning human rights abuses in Colombia, a top Latin American ally of the United States and an ideological rival of Venezuela, was made public at a delicate time for Mr. Chávez, who expelled the American ambassador last week in an angry speech laced with expletives.
Before the release of the report, Mr. Chávez was already facing a backlash from his opponents in Venezuela after supporting a blacklist to prevent opposition candidates from running for office in regional elections this year and using his decree powers last month to enact 26 laws further concentrating authority in his hands.
The detailed report by Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York, described political discrimination as a defining feature of Mr. Chávez’s presidency, a policy at times carried out with explicit endorsements from the president. Purges of opposition personnel in the national oil company and state agencies have been particularly thorough in recent years.
José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch who released the report in Caracas, the capital, acknowledged that Venezuela was a relatively open society in which public debate still flourished. But he said that Mr. Chávez, through his repeated demonization of opponents as “putschists,” had instilled what he described as an “environment of fear.”
“Democracy needs the existence of institutions that are not cowed, which are capable of exercising their constitutional mandate,” Mr. Vivanco said.
He cited the Supreme Court as an institution that had been reconfigured by legislation drafted in 2004 by the National Assembly and signed by Mr. Chávez that allowed the president to purge the court of his opponents and pack it with subservient justices. Since then, the report said, the court had upheld Mr. Chávez’s positions and had not protected basic rights in cases involving organized labor and the media.
Mr. Vivanco also singled out the court’s upholding of a measure that disqualifies candidates from running for public office because of legal claims against them. Leopoldo López, the mayor of Chacao, a municipality in Caracas, had challenged this measure in a recent public campaign only to have his position rejected by the court.
“The disqualification of candidates is a yet another example of political discrimination supported by the court,” Mr. Vivanco said. “One cannot hope for an independent point of view.”
Mr. Chávez’s government proclaims that it is advancing toward socialism partly through the nationalization of foreign-owned companies. But the report said public authorities had sought to remake Venezuela’s labor movement with methods that violated basic organizing freedoms.
The government has done this by using state agencies to interfere with unions and by retaliating against workers for legitimate strike activity, the report said. In addition, the government has intimidated unions through the creation of cooperatives expected to be loyal to Mr. Chávez.
In one example, the report said Caracas street cleaners had been forced to dissolve their union and fragment their members into small cooperatives.
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting