Worldview Commentary No. 291 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Venezuela’s Chávez: Expelling Human Rights Watch”

listen now icon news

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is nothing if not a charmer, has succeeded in seducing many of my friends in the democratic left in Europe and the Americas. His formula is simple: denounce the gringos, embrace the poor, add charisma, and stir.

Unfortunately, there is another side to El Presidente, one he prefers not to advertise: his systematic subversion of democratic institutions and violations of human rights.

Any who still view Chávez as a democrat should ponder the events of last week. The director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, held a press conference in Caracas to release a 230-page report detailing Chávez’ assault on democracy. Upon returning to his hotel, this respected Chilean human rights lawyer and his assistant were met by 20 armed men, who hustled them off to the airport for the next flight out of the country.

Their supposed offense: doing human rights work on a tourist visa. The reality: a typical Chávez ploy – veiling repression in a pretense of legalism. The message to all human rights defenders in Venezuela: if we can expel Human Rights Watch, imagine what we can do to you.

The summary expulsion of one of the hemisphere’s leading human rights defenders is symptomatic of a much broader pattern. The Human Rights Watch report finds that discrimination on political grounds is a “defining feature” of the Chávez presidency.

Thus, Chávez fires and blacklists political opponents from state agencies and from the national oil company. He denies citizens access to social programs based on their political opinions. He punishes media outlets, labor unions, and civil society for their legitimate criticism or political activity.

Another “defining feature” of Chavismo, reports Human Rights Watch, is an “open disregard for the principle of separation of powers … and, specifically, the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights.”

The story of how Chávez took over the courts, detailed by Human Rights Watch, is revealing. At the time of the attempted coup against him in 2002, the 20 justices of the Venezuelan Supreme Court were widely viewed to be evenly split between pro- and anti-Chávez sympathizers.

After the coup, a chamber of the court found insufficient evidence to prosecute four generals allegedly involved in the coup. Another chamber found enough valid signatures on a petition to require a referendum to recall Chávez. This prompted then Vice President José Vicente Rangel to denounce the judges who issued this “immoral” ruling as, themselves, “perpetrators of a coup.”

But removing the justices posed a problem: the Constitution required a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly for removal. At the time, Chávez held only a slim majority.

Under cover of law, Chávez found a two-part solution. First, his majority passed a court-packing law to add 12 more justices to the Court – all Chavistas. As one pro-government legislator declared just before the new names were made public, “[I]n the list of potential candidates there is no one who will act against us.”

Second, Chávez passed a new law allowing indefinite suspension of a justice, or annulment of her appointment, by simple majority vote. Criteria for nullification include, for example, that a justice’s “public attitude … undermines the majesty or prestige of the Supreme Court.”

Within weeks, the three justices most criticized by the Chavistas were removed.

With the Supreme Court gutted, the rest of the judiciary was easy pickings. The new Supreme Court removed and replaced some 400 lower court judges. Soon it became commonplace for any judge who dared to rule in favor of the political opposition to find herself removed or recused.

In some egregious cases, even the new Court could not bring itself to rule in favor of the government. In 2005 it ruled that the Attorney General could not sue a major newspaper for an editorial criticizing his office. In 2006 it found a due process violation in a hearing where the person charged was neither heard nor legally represented.

But more typically, concludes Human Rights Watch, the new Supreme Court has failed to uphold human rights “in the most prominent and politically sensitive cases of arbitrary state action by the Chávez government.”

For example, the Court sat for three years on challenges to the new laws allowing removal of justices by simple majority vote, and then dismissed them without reaching the merits. It ducked challenges to Chávez proposals that he be given emergency powers to suspend rights without judicial oversight. It allowed the government to shut down the main opposition TV network on a licensing technicality. It allowed the state to interfere in union elections.

In short, what should be checks on executive power in Venezuela have instead become cheering squads for the government. By taking over the judiciary, Chávez has been left free to manhandle the press, the unions, and human rights defenders.

In denouncing his political opponents, Chávez’ stock line is that they are merely tools of Washington. After last week’s expulsion of Human Rights Watch – which has vociferously criticized human rights violations by Washington – the credibility of that excuse has sunk to a new low.

There is nothing our country can or should do about Chávez. His fate must remain in the hands of the people of Venezuela. But please, let us not celebrate this latest caudillo as a model worthy of emulation anywhere else.

_Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio. _