The release this week of Human Rights Watch’s annual world report will make uncomfortable reading for nearly all of Latin America’s governments.
From police repression in Brazil, to expropriation of indigenous lands in Argentina, Latin America is still a region where state oppression is a reality in many peoples lives.
It will not come as too much of a surprise however that, out of all the governments in the region, it is the Venezuelan government that has been subject to HRW’s strongest criticisms. The American NGO cites accumulation of power under the executive and a lack of judicial independence as factors contributing to a serious erosion of human rights and a culture of state impunity running rife in the country.
The report pulls no punches in claiming that “the judiciary has ceased to function as an independent branch of government” with members of the supreme court “openly” rejecting the principle of separation of powers and publicly aligning themselves with the government’s political agenda.
This, observes the report, has led to repeated rulings in favour of the government against political dissidents thus “validating its growing disregard for human rights.”
One notable case highlighted is that of opposition leader Leopoldo López, sentenced to 13 years in prison for “public incitement” to commit crimes (alleged to have taken the form of “subliminal” messages) during protests in Caracas in February 2014.
The manner of López’s trial was condemned at the time by many international observers, including the UN, for failures of due process which prevented the leader’s lawyers from even presenting evidence in his defense.
Worryingly however, it is not just high profile political leaders who are subject to the scrutiny of the authorities. The report highlights just how much the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) has become an ominous presence in the life of any Venezuelan who dares criticize the government publicly. Cases cited include the detention of a doctor for criticizing medicine shortages on television and an engineer who was quoted in a newspaper criticizing government energy policies.
The report also highlights the country’s spiralling economic situation -exacerbated by price and currency controls- which has become so dire that the government is unable to make good on safeguarding basic human rights like access to healthcare for its citizens, allegedly a fundamental pillar of Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’.
According to the report, last March, 44 percent of the nation’s operating rooms were reported as non functional and 94 percent of labs lacked the necessary materials to perform operations.
Instead of rolling back some of its policies however, the government has responded to the economic and political chaos with the mobilization of security forces and further repression.
“Operation Peoples’ Liberation” which saw 80,000 police and army men take to the streets only led to worse abuses like arbitrary detentions, illegal home searches and physical and emotional abuse against citizens. Human Rights Watch also claims that there are several credible reports of extra judicial killings having taken place.
Will Venezuelan government respond positively to the report?
Very unlikely. In the past Venezuela has accused Human Rights Watch of being a mouthpiece of U.S. foreign policy and has sought to highlight the organisation’s hypocrisy for not subjecting the abuses of the U.S. government and it’s allies to similar levels of scrutiny.
Venezuela also robustly continues to defend its human rights record. Responding to criticism from Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri regarding the Leopold López case at December’s Mercosur meeting, foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez declared Venezuela, with its generous social programmes, to be “a model of human rights in the world”.
With an end to economic turmoil nowhere in sight and popular support for the ruling Bolivarian party fading by the day, one suspects the default strategy of labelling human rights concerns a preserve of “imperialist” enemies to be wearing ever more thin.