Over a hundred scholars on Latin America have written an open letter to Human Rights Watch criticizing HRW’s recent report on alleged politcial suppression in Venezuela as being politically motivated, inaccurate, and based on biased and unreliable sources.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has posted the letter, with this introduction:
December 18, 2008
The following letter has been sent to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch, carrying the signatures of over 100 U.S. and foreign Latin American scholars. The letter raises serious concerns over that organization’s recently issued highly critical report on the human rights situation in Venezuela and the conduct of its president, Hugo Chavez. It is now being distributed by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs to its mailing list at the request of a number of signatories of that document. COHA’s staff is taking this step (with considerable reluctance) because it feels that it is obliged for any organization committed to social justice and democratic values, to speak out regarding the dispute now raging over HRW’s recent and very controversial report on Hugo Chavez’s human rights performance.
Any reservation COHA may have had over taking issue with a sister organization was voided by the egregiously inappropriate behavior exhibited by HRW. Most specifically it was the issuance of this report and the needlessly venomous tone resorted to by HRW’s head for Latin America, Jose Miguel Vivanco. In his charges, HRW’s lead researcher and writer of the report used intemperate language and patently disingenuous tactics to field a series of anti-Chavez allegations that are excessive and inappropriate. It is not a matter that President Chavez and the Venezuelan government are above reproach—far from it. The problem is the presence of a mean-spirited tone and a lack of balance and fair play that characterizes Vivanco’s reportage and his tendentious interpretation of the alleged misdeeds of the Chavez revolution are demonstrably bereft of scale and accuracy.
The failings of Vivanco’s scholarship are strongly contested by the scholars’ letter and the research compiled by a brilliant student of contemporary Venezuela, Dr. Gregory Wilpert. His study, Smoke and Mirrors, can be found by clicking on this link: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3882#report
Vivanco demonstrates an inability to distinguish President Chavez’s bark from his bite; and it is a distortion to characterize the Venezuelan leader as a prime human rights violator, a charge which already has attracted a good deal of notoriety. In other words, Vivanco continuously confuses Chavez’ often shamelessly antic style for his otherwise solid, if brassy, democratic credentials. Of course, COHA’s pages will be opened for debate on these issues.
In continuing their discussion concerning the Vivanco’s HRW initiative regarding Chavez, the prevailing sentiment among many Latin Americanists, including those on COHA’s staff, is that some of Chavez’s critics, like the New York Times editorial board and Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post editorial page, have resorted to an unacceptable use of meretricious pseudo-evidence and naked anti-Chavez spleen to buttress their lashing out against the Venezuelan leader. According to the attached material, they also have resorted to the use of specious arguments and undeniable overkill, rather than a measured assessment and unassailable evidence, to make their case.
Some of Vivanco’s critics have come to believe that rather than making a fair-minded evaluation of Chavez’ undeniable shortcomings, Vivanco mainly has created a straw man and then proceeded to thunderously trash Chavez as a human rights violator, a thesis that the evidence he cites, will not admit. The matter is not so much Vivanco’s professional shortcomings as it is that it would be a shame if Human Rights Watch is permitted to become a replica of Freedom House, when throughout the Cold War the New York-based organization became a warehouse for duplicitous double standards, selective indignation and self-administered histrionics intent on establishing that, almost by definition, right-wing human rights derelictions are less condemnable than those of the left.
Larry Birns (COHA Director) and the COHA Staff
One hopes that HRW will respond seriously to this thoughtful letter. Meanwhile, fair criticism of democratic abuses in Venezuela by the government, and by the often authoritarian opposition, must continue.
December 22nd, 2008