Exposing A Chávez Charade

President Obama came under fire last month for sharing a smile with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas. Critics say that Obama was wrong to be friendly with a foreign leader renowned for his anti-U.S. antics and authoritarian tendencies. It might be expected, because I am a human rights advocate who has documented Chávez’s authoritarian policies and suffered the consequences at the hands of his security forces, that I would share this criticism. But I think time may show that Obama did the right thing.

Already, Obama’s overture has made it more difficult for Chávez to use his personal feud with the U.S. government to divert attention from his country’s problems. It will also be easier for the Obama administration to pursue a serious multilateral effort to pressure the Venezuelan government to reverse its authoritarian approach.

Venezuela is a complicated country. To its credit, it has competitive elections and independent political parties, media outlets, labor unions and civil society organizations. While Venezuela is plagued by chronic human rights problems such as police killings and deplorable prison conditions, there is no systematic denial of fundamental freedoms, as in Cuba. Nor is there an armed conflict with widespread violence by illegal armed groups, as in Colombia.

Yet the Chávez government has actively undermined democratic institutions that are essential for safeguarding the rule of law. It has strengthened the state’s power to curb media freedoms while abusing its regulatory power to threaten and punish critical media outlets. It has systematically violated workers’ basic right to freedom of association and sought to undermine the work of local human rights advocates.

Perhaps most troubling, the Chávez government has effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. This disregard for judicial independence has only fed fears that a recent wave of corruption charges against prominent Chávez opponents — including the opposition’s most recent presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales — could be a campaign of political persecution orchestrated by the government. While the Venezuelan justice system should be prosecuting corruption, it needs an independent judiciary for such prosecutions to be fair and credible.

To deflect criticism of his authoritarian policies, Chávez has relied heavily on a tactic favored by his friend and mentor Fidel Castro: routinely accusing human rights advocates of conspiring with the United States to topple his government. When, for example, the highly respected Venezuelan nongovernmental organization PROVEA issued its annual report on human rights in December, Chávez’s interior and justice minister declared on national television that the PROVEA workers were “liars” who were “paid in dollars.”

In my own case, after Human Rights Watch released a report in Caracas last fall, a colleague and I were forcibly detained in our hotel by Chávez’s security forces and summarily expelled from the country.

How did they justify this abuse of power? By claiming, falsely, that we had violated our visa requirements and were conspiring with the U.S. State Department to undermine the government.

No one familiar with our work, or that of PROVEA, takes these absurd allegations seriously. Yet such allegations resonate with some audiences in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region, ultimately serving to undermine discussion of the country’s human rights problems.

Indeed, the reason such allegations have any resonance is that the U.S. government does have a long and sordid history of conspiring to topple democratic governments in the region. And when Chávez’s opponents sought to oust him in a coup d’etat in 2002, the Bush administration initially welcomed their effort rather than joining in the near-universal chorus of condemnations from democratic governments in the region. This blunder badly damaged the Bush administration’s credibility in the region on issues of human rights and democracy. It also made it much easier for Chávez to cast debates over his policies as merely part of a political and personal contest between President Bush and himself.

Obama took an important step toward ending this dynamic when he extended his hand to Chávez in front of the cameras. He took an even more important step when he acknowledged the “historic suspicions” of U.S. intervention in the region.

That said, a smile and handshake from Barack Obama won’t solve Venezuela’s human rights issues or U.S. problems with Venezuela. And it would be a mistake to pursue a better relationship with Chávez for its own sake, or out of fear that otherwise he will fall under the sway of countries such as Iran, or because Venezuela has oil — as Hillary Clinton suggested in a recent congressional hearing.

Lowering the drama between the United States and Venezuela is worthwhile because it creates an opportunity to focus the region’s attention on developments in Venezuela. In the coming months, the administration must seize that opportunity by expressing concern about policies of the Chávez government that have undermined the independence of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. The United States should also work with regional allies to establish an appropriate multilateral forum — at the Organization of American States or elsewhere — to engage Venezuela on this issue.

Obama’s symbolic gestures were essential to setting the stage for such meaningful engagement. If his administration follows through as it should, the next time Chávez tries to label all human rights criticism as a U.S. conspiracy, few people in the region will take him seriously.

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch.