Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez Frias has died, and true to form, the vultures are circling. The establishment press and so-called “human rights” organizations are dusting off all the old slanders and lies in new articles and reports. In this alternative version of history, Chávez was an incorrigible, populist autocrat, whose sunny-sounding vision of uplifting the poor was nothing but a façade covering a corrupt, decaying dictatorship offering only the opposite of its promises.
While a few pundits have the decency to obliquely mention a few of the achievements of the Chávez government, others have absolutely no shame. Human Rights Watch, for instance, self-appointed defender of all that is right and good, has truly outdone itself—publishing a denunciation of Chávez that, paying no attention to context, ignores all signals that point to social progress and speeds right past good taste.
In fact, despite the name, HRW has written a report that will be warmly welcomed in the camp of the serial violators of human dignity banded together in the Venezuelan opposition movement as well as in Western imperialist capitals.
What are ‘human rights’ anyway?
HRW opens the piece by saying in part:
“Hugo Chávez’s presidency (1999-2013) was characterized by … open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.”
This is, perhaps, the most laughable of all their claims. Starting from 1999, there has been a 37.6 percent decline in the poverty rate in Venezuela. If we start that measurement in 2004 after the consolidation of the Chavista movement in government, there has been a 49.7 percent reduction. Extreme poverty saw an even deeper reduction, 70 percent since 2004.
Such a massive reduction of poverty gives rise to a number of striking statistics. Just since 2011, 350,000 houses have been built, with a target of 380,000 in 2013, all part of a plan to provide an affordable and dignified home to all 3.7 million people in need of a home. In nine years, 1.5 million Venezuelans have received free eye surgery. In the same nine years, 1.75 million were taught to read.
Chávez’s impact on his nation can so easily be gauged that even the Washington Post admitted that the “poor masses”—that is, the majority of Venezuelans—mourned for Chávez. Hardly the response one would expect at the death of a hardened “autocrat.” Further, if access to decent housing, food and health care are not human rights, then what are they? Chávez based his entire term in office on providing rights like these. Viewed in this way, he might well have been considered the greatest guarantor of human rights in the entire hemisphere.
‘Attacking judicial independence’—the context
HRW also accuses Chávez of “attacking judicial independence.” Once again, this is a criticism devoid of context. Since the beginning of his presidency, the right-wing opposition has done everything possible to impede the progress of the Bolivarian process, despite that Chávez again, and again, and yet again had his leadership reaffirmed at the ballot box.
In April 2002, the opposition coalition, an assortment of the super-rich and others whose privilege was curtailed by Chávez, launched a coup. A cabal of military officers, the police, and almost every television and radio station lined up against Chávez, who was detained by the coup plotters. Mass protest caused the coup to fail and Chávez was returned to power. This incident highlights the fact that prior to most of Chávez’s most radical reforms, the opposition was more than willing to use extralegal methods to preserve their special privileges.
Further, between November 2001 and December 2002, there were four significant lockouts by business owners attempting to weaken the Chávez government, including the oil lockout at the end of 2002 that caused almost $20 billion in lost revenue for the government.
The lockouts came on top of efforts by many of the big food production companies to create shortages through hoarding—which they are again doing in the run-up to the April 14 presidential election. Year after year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of tons of goods, like sugar, milk, flour, coffee and other staples, were found in warehouses being held off the market deliberately, filtering into black market distribution networks that undermined government attempts to improve access to food. Despite these efforts at sabotage, the government programs, including discount stores and increased acreage under cultivation, have led to increased consumption, even in the face of shortages.
The Venezuelan rich have also shown a keen penchant for using their capital not to invest in their own country but to live large in Miami. Even pro-capitalist Business Week admits this phenomenon is all about hiding money from the government, not “bad economics,” in Venezuela itself.
So considering just this brief list of destabilization efforts (which have taken place with the active encouragement of the U.S. government and media), it seems clear that Chávez faced unbelievable headwinds in exercising his own elected mandate. In 17 elections, Chávez and the Bolivarian process have had their direction ratified. In the most recent presidential election, Chávez was victorious with a clear majority. There is no leader anywhere else in the world over the past decade to more clearly receive the support of the vast majority of people in their country.
With this context established, one can see that HRW’s objections to Chávez’s efforts are so much chaff easily separated from the wheat. HRW is particularly indignant that Chávez increased the size of the Supreme Court and that the new appointees were supportive of the revolutionary process.
The expansion of the Supreme Court must be seen in the context of both continued electoral success in conjunction with repeated attempts to derail the Bolivarian process. It is clear that Chávez had a broad mandate from the masses of people not only to create social programs but to transform society. Transformations upset the entire established order, and as history shows, those who lose their privileged position will fight desperately to regain it.
The Bolivarian process is about more than legality. It is a process of determining what sort of society Venezuela is to become, a process taking place on all levels, and whose broad support required any true representative of the people to pursue every avenue possible to secure the future. Thus the expansion of the Supreme Court was not some sort of “power grab” for the sake of more power, but a tactic in the broader struggle with the forces of the right who were determined to use both legal and illegal avenues to stop the Bolivarian process.
HRW would rather Chávez to have “respected” the “rule of law” than feed or house people. They could care less about whether or not the people of Venezuela live decently, and preach instead only about their legally defined “human rights”—as defined and vetted by world elites.
HRW and others made quite a bit of noise about the case of one judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni. Afiuni spent one year in jail, was allegedly tortured, and remains under house arrest. Again, context is important here. In the face of the glee with which the opposition pursued every method possible to overthrow Chávez, if the only real form of “repression” of the judiciary is the arrest of one judge, Chávez by all measures is remarkably non-repressive. Carlos Andres Perez, a former president of Venezuela, in just a few days in 1989 killed 3,000 people who were protesting against IMF austerity policies he imposed.
Further context in which actions occur should affect how we view them. Abraham Lincoln several times abrogated the constitutional rights of Confederate sympathizers in the North; at one point, habeas corpus was suspended in several states. However, almost no one (other than Confederate sympathizers) views that as any real stain on his legacy, given the context of the war to end slavery.
Suppression of press freedom
HRW takes Chávez to task for allegedly suppressing press freedoms, acting as if the media had simply been an innocent bystander as the Bolivarian process was unfolding. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the media openly played a key role in the attempted coup by deliberately spreading misinformation. RCTV, one of the companies most often mentioned as a victim of government “authoritarianism,” is headed up by a man who once worked with the CIA during the “dirty wars” of the 1980s.
In addition, it is absurd to suggest that Chávez purged the media of any criticism. Venezuelan state media had only a 5.4 percent audience share as of 2010, compared to 37 percent in France. Almost every major newspaper in Venezuela is hostile to Chávez as are an array of channels available via cable and satellite.
Hugo Chávez, presente!
Hugo Chávez was not an authoritarian; he was a revolutionary. He stood not on legal formality, but on revolutionary principle. This is why Human Rights Watch and others must slander him. Hugo Chávez was a living example that it is possible to take on the powerful and rally the hopes of millions across the globe to end oppression and exploitation. While Human Rights Watch will never admit it, Hugo Chávez was the greatest humanitarian of the last decade.