Human Rights Botch: Vivanco & Venezuela

José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch today launched a media-attention-seeking attack on the Venezuelan government for a new law providing a process for impeachment of Supreme Court justices in that country. He held a press conference in Caracas, barking highly charged words in a report titled Venezuela: Judicial Independence Under Siege.

Vivanco and Human Rights Watch are now on record opposing a U.S.-modeled impeachment process for Supreme Court justices in Venezuela. The timing - two months before the August 15 referendum in that country - is obviously a partisan attempt to meddle in electoral politics.

Perhaps Vivanco and his bureaucrats should have done a little bit of research on the United States Constitution and American History before demonstrating such ignorance about democratic principles.

Before this essay is done, we will hear from Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - whose stated principles on the appointment and impeachment of Supreme Court justices HRW has now gone against with this maneuver - on this question. But first let's consult a more recent U.S. president who spoke on this issue… Gerald R. Ford… Four years before becoming president of the United States, Republican Congressman Gerald Ford spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives, calling for the impeachment, under the provisions allowed by the U.S. Constitution, of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Ford said:

What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.

- Source: Congressional Record #11,913 (1970), 116th Congress

The title of the Human Rights Watch report creates an impression that, prior to the presidency of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela had "judicial independence." That is a knowingly false statement, because in the text of the report, Vivanco and HRW admit that it never has had it. Their cruel joke against human rights is revealed by the inflammatory, knowingly false, language they use against a new judicial reform law in Venezuela.

The HRW report claims:

The new law, which President Chávez signed last month, expands the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members. It empowers Chávez’s governing coalition to use its slim majority in the legislature to obtain an overwhelming majority of seats on the Supreme Court. The law also gives the governing coalition the power to nullify existing judges’ appointments to the bench.

Fact Check: The Venezuelan judicial impeachment process is virtually identical to that in the United States (a process about which the beltway-based Vivanco has been wholly silent for the entirety of his career). No authentic democracy can survive without the checks and balances that allow removal of court justices by Congress.

The United States constitution also provides for use of a "slim majority" to appoint Supreme Court Justices. (Remember the U.S. Senate battle over the nomination of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas? Only fifty-percent plus one vote was required to install him: the same exact process that the hypocrite Vivanco attacks in Venezuela.).

With less than two months to go before the historic August 15th referendum (to recall or ratify the term of President Hugo Chavez: the voters will decide), Vivanco and Human Rights Watch's partisan political agenda stands naked. Instead of praising Venezuela for being the only country on earth that allows citizens to recall their president, and that has recently shown its commitment to that process, Vivanco is throwing tomatoes at a process that, although it exists in many other countries including the United States, he and his organization have remained totally silent about in other lands.

Impeachment of Supreme Court Justices is a vital right for any authentic democracy. As recently as this young century, the National Lawyers Guild seriously considered a campaign to impeach the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who appointed George W. Bush as president, ratifying a stolen election.

As the quote from former President Ford, above, reveals, the right to impeach U.S. Supreme Court justices for any "offense" that " of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history." That is how a system of checks and balances works. Vivanco has thus harmed Human Rights Watch's credibility around the world with this latest grandstanding maneuver.

National Lawyers Guild vice president Nathan Newman wrote of this process in the United States:

In fact, over the course of American history, the House of Representatives has impeached fifteen individuals, including two Presidents, twelve judges, a senator, and a cabinet member. The Senate has convicted seven of the fifteen… Most were impeached for acts of personal impropriety but a number of others have been impeached strictly for their official conduct. The early history of the Republic saw a number of politically-charged judicial impeachments.

Newman noted:

It is relatively clear that the framers of the Constitution saw impeachment as an important political check on the judicial branch. Notably, judges were to serve during "good behavior" subject to impeachment. During the Constitutional Convention, George Mason ignited the debate about what should constitute an impeachable offense under the Constitution. At first, the only proposed impeachable offenses were treason and bribery, but Mason believed that "attempts to subvert the Constitution may not be Treason" but should be recognized as an impeachable offense. Mason proposed that "maladministration" be added to the list of offenses but, after some debate, Mason replaced it with the phrase "other high Crimes and misdemeanors." The delegates then passed that recommendation eight to three without further debate.

Newman also notes that William Taft, the only man to serve as both Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and President of the United States, said:

Under the authoritative construction by the highest court of impeachment, the Senate of the United States, a high misdemeanor for which a judge may be removed is misconduct involving bad faith or wantoness [sic] or recklessness in his judicial actions, or in the use of his official influence for ulterior purposes. By the liberal interpretation of the term "high misdemeanor" which the Senate has given there is now no difficulty in securing the removal of a judge for any reason that shows him unfit.

Read the U.S. Constitution, Jose:

Article I, Section 2

Clause 5: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.

Article I, Section 3

Clause 6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Clause 7: Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

In plain English, that means that the U.S. House of Representatives may vote to "impeach" (that is to say, to hold a kind of trial seeking removal of any federal official, including Supreme Court justices). The "trial" is held in the Senate. The Vice President presides over the impeachment of any Supreme Court justice. The votes of two thirds of the senators present are required to remove the justice.

In fact, the great democrat Thomas Jefferson and his supporters utilized this Constitutional process to impeach Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase in 1804. Jefferson lost the vote in the Senate. And that is how the process works.

The same is true for Venezuela. The new provisions for impeachment of Supreme Court justices are in the letter and spirit of Jeffersonian democracy.

The other complaint by Vivanco and Human Rights Watch is that they oppose the effort by President Hugo Chavez and the Congress to expand the number of Supreme Court Justices from 20 to 32.

Rising in rebuttal, courtesy of audio archives, I call my first witness: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States, who valiantly tried to expand the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices. This testimony is from the transcript of Roosevelt's Fireside Chat radio program, on March 9, 1937. Roosevelt had proposed the retirement of Supreme Court judges at the age of 70, and if any judge chose not to retire at 70, an additional member would be added to the Court. For that, Roosevelt was accused of "packing" the Court:

What is my proposal? It is simply this: whenever a judge or justice of any federal court has reached the age of seventy and does not avail himself of the opportunity to retire on a pension, a new member shall be appointed by the president then in office, with the approval, as required by the Constitution, of the Senate of the United States…

That plan has two chief purposes. By bringing into the judicial system a steady and continuing stream of new and younger blood, I hope, first, to make the administration of all federal justice, from the bottom to the top, speedier and, therefore, less costly; secondly, to bring to the decision of social and economic problems younger men who have had personal experience and contact with modern facts and circumstances under which average men have to live and work. This plan will save our national Constitution from hardening of the judicial arteries.

The number of judges to be appointed would depend wholly on the decision of present judges now over seventy, or those who would subsequently reach the age of seventy…

Those opposing this plan have sought to arouse prejudice and fear by crying that I am seeking to "pack" the Supreme Court and that a baneful precedent will be established…

Is it a dangerous precedent for the Congress to change the number of the justices? The Congress has always had, and will have, that power. The number of justices has been changed several times before, in the administrations of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - both of them signers of the Declaration of Independence - in the administrations of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.

It should be embarrassing enough to Human Rights Watch directors, members, and donors, that Vivanco now places the organization in direct historic opposition to human rights heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's worse that he reveals complete ignorance on the true provisions of Venezuela's judicial reform.

A simple Google News search would have unearthed Greg Wilpert's recent painstaking explanation, in clear English, of what the reform does and does not do:

Supreme Court Law: Constitutional Dictatorship or Stronger Rule of Law?

As if the confrontations over the recall referendum and the paramilitary presence were not enough, pro-Chavez legislators have recently passed a highly controversial new Supreme Court law. Venezuela's 1999 constitution requires such a new law and also specifies that the entire judicial system is subordinated, not just procedurally, but also administratively to the Supreme Court. Most of the law's 29 articles are relatively uncontroversial. However, three provisions in the new law have raised the opposition's ire.

First, the new law increases the number of Supreme Court judges from 20 to 32. The opposition says that such an increase is unwarranted and that it would allow Chavez and his supporters to pack the court all over again, now that only half of the current judges appear to be sympathetic to the government. Government supporters, however, argue that the current number of judges is insufficient for the case load of the court and that the current number of judges corresponds to the old Supreme Court of the 1961 constitution which had only three chambers, while the new one has six.

Second, the new Supreme Court law allows judges to be named with s simple majority, should three previous efforts to name judges with the constitutionally required two-thirds majority fail. Here the opposition argues that this subverts the previous two-thirds majority requirement that the earlier Supreme Court law had set, allowing the legislature to name judges with a simple majority. Pro-Chavez legislators point out, though, that given the current impasse in the nearly evenly divided legislature, an escape hatch for naming judges must be found.

Besides, naming judges by simple majority is not all that unusual in the international context. U.S. Supreme Court judges, for example, do not need more than a simple majority.

Third, the new law allows the legislature to suspend judges who are accused of wrong-doing, until a trial is held. Also, should a judge be found to have lied about fulfilling the pre-requisites for being named a judge, that judge's naming may be reversed with a simple majority vote of the legislature. Here the opposition argues that this provision makes reduces the independence of judges because the legislature could threaten them with removal. This would certainly be the case if judges are named who do not fulfill all of the requirements set by the constitution or those who commit a crime.

However, this type of suspension or removal is not all that easy in that it depends upon the cooperation from another independent branch of the state, the attorney general's office. In other words, it hinges upon just how independent the judicial and the "moral"[3] branches are from each other. Structurally, according to the constitution, these branches are completely independent from each other, in that no other branch, such as the executive, can remove them at will.

Given the opposition's suspicion of any action that will give the government an advantage, especially in the Supreme Court, which is one of the last state bastions (besides the National Assembly) where the opposition still has an important share of power, it should not come as a surprise that they would do just about anything to stop the law. As a matter of fact, on several occasions the opposition organized exhausting 24-hour filibusters in their efforts to stop the law from passing.

It is difficult to identify to what extent the opposition's resistance to the Supreme Court law is born of a real fear of Venezuela becoming a "constitutional dictatorship" and to what extent it comes from protecting their "turf."

José Vivanco is either ignorant of United States law and the true provisions of Venezuela law, or he is being dishonest enough to "play along" with this latest smear campaign against Venezuela and its Bolivarian Constitution and democratically-elected government.

Vivanco and Human Rights Watch - a bureaucrat and an organization that both went AWOL during the April 2002 coup d'etat in Venezuela: HRW, with a cowardice that shall live in infamy, was completely silent on the abuses committed, crossing its fingers, hoping the coup would succeed, until the coup was over - would do better to invest their attention on real human rights abuses in this hemisphere: the tortures in Guantanamo Bay, for example, where the screams of the victims occur today and tonight, but cannot be heard through Jose Vivanco's partisan earplugs.

Instead, Vivanco is in Venezuela today, attacking that country in knowingly false and inflammatory terms for doing nothing more or less than what the host government of Human Rights Watch has wisely done in its own land for more than two centuries. If HRW were doing its job according to its stated mission, it would be supporting the new provisions in Venezuela, and instead using its multi-million dollar budget to call for the use of such time-honored impeachment provisions in the United States to remove the justices that imposed a Court-Appointed torturer to that country's highest office.

Heard or not, the screams continue today from Guantanamo, from Colombia, from the cell of Pacho Cortes in Bolivia, and not to mention from Iraq and so many other torture chambers throughout the world. How low does José Vivanco's cowardice go to further muzzle the sound of those screams by wasting his organization's time and money to create a media show across the Caribbean that only distracts from the real human rights crises in our hemisphere?

If anyone should be impeached from a job of arbitor or judge of anything in our América, it is José Miguel Vivanco.


Impeach Vivanco? An Online Poll

I recently learned that anyone, including visiting non-members, could vote on polls over at the Daily Kos site, where I've also posted this essay and included a poll:

Should HRW Impeach Jose Vivanco?


To vote, click:

Response from (and to) an HRW Intern

From Washington DC, Martin Austermuhle writes the following letter defending Human Rights Watch and it's report today - critiqued above - purporting to be about the judicial system in Venezuela.

I will publish the complete text of Martin's letter below, with my responses to his points as he raises them. In other words, I will interrupt the text to correct and comment upon the (often inadequate) "facts" he is working with, but rest assured that his entire text appears without censorship.

Martin Austermuhle - - writes:

Mr. Giordano:

In the spirit of your work, I will engage in a little confessional so you understand where I am coming from, what my interests are, and why I have chosen to disagree with a gifted journalist like yourself. I was born in Switzerland, but lived in Latin America for 17 years prior to my coming to the United States for higher education. I split time between Colombia, Mexico, and most recently, Venezuela. I completed my undergraduate degree in international politics at Penn State University, and recently received a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. I interned for six months at The Nation (if that’s any indication of my political leanings), and have also recently interned at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Human Rights Watch.

Al Giordano replies:

In other words, you've been all over the map. You have written to me and I therefore presume you want my advice. Maybe I am in a position to give you some, to tell you that there is a way out of the hell you are constructing around yourself. I, too, attended Georgetown University, where the assumption that developed world interests have an absolute right to meddle in the sovereign affairs of others is drummed into the heads of the students day after day after day after day, and, suffice to say, one needs to spend at least as much time "unlearning" the presuppositions and attitudes taught to Hoyas as normal to even hope to be able to breathe the live-giving oxygen of truth again. I got out before it was too late for me.

I'm not attacking you. In fact, I thank you for disclosing your background. You are fortunate to have a privileged background, attending some of the "best" schools in the USA and receiving internships from so many powerful institutions. With that privilege, though, comes responsibility to look beyond the over-socialization that those institutions consider their job to infuse in you and others.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, is a governmental organization that deceptively poses as an autonomous non-governmental organization. It is, in fact, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Organization of American States and, to the contrary of being on the side of human rights, it has more been an attack dog against human rights, and on behalf of United States interests throughout Latin America.

There may have once been a time when the contradiction of working for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and for an NGO like, say, Human Rights Watch was more evident than today: The Commission hasn't moved closer to an NGO position, but too many NGOs have moved closer to the Commission's position: to wrap geo-political imperatives in the goo-goo language of "human rights," harming the authentic movements for human rights in the process.

That you can list this roll-call of conflicting organizations with conflicting agendas on your resume without a shred of irony suggests that you still have to go through deprogramming from what you were taught at Georgetown: the Colonialist Imperative has always, since the time of "white man's burden," wrapped itself in "liberal" language to carry out its brutal atrocities.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Yes, Human Rights Watch. My internship coincided with the time that the report in question was written, and I do not deny that I offered research and advice at every opportunity.

Al comments:

It would be nice if HRW had you and others who worked on that report sign your names to it, so you could share in the credit or blame for the substance of the report, and learn more about personal responsibility for your actions and words. That's a big problem with reports like this one: there is no accountability, and thus incentive to be sloppy and partial in the research and conclusions, hiding behind the anonymous committee. That, too, is part of the bureaucratic imperative.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

I follow Venezuela closely, travel there at least once a year both personally and professionally, and do not associate with either the opposition or the government. I have long been sympathetic to Hugo Chávez’s political plan—many of the changes he has proposed are long overdue—but do not believe that the fact that he was popularly elected twice and re-legitimated in various referenda means he can ignore constitutional principles of the separation and independence of governmental powers. Think what you want to think of me, Mr. Giordano, but I am hardly a Venezuelan golpista writing from his hacienda deep in a gated community outside Caracas.

Al replies:

Your hacienda is named academia: believe me, the ivy walls of the Jesuit fortress at Georgetown simply guard a different kind of plantation, where you were both slave and harvest. Your over-socialization at the hands of those coco-washers is made evident by the statement about "constitutional principles of the separation and independence of governmental powers."

I notice that you do not speak at all to the central premise of my critique: that in virtually every instance, the very things that HRW critiques in Venezuela are found within the Constitution and laws of the United States and other "democracies." So you are holding Venezuela to a double standard: and you are not even Venezuelan.

There is not "one" way to construct a democracy. The ways are as diverse as the lands and cultures constructing it from below. You simply can't credibly apply, say, a U.S. or European-style system (imperfect that they are) to, say, an indigenous community in the Amazon or Chiapas, or to other industrialized cultures such as Venezuela, Brazil, or Mexico. Your thinking is very fundamentalist to insist that everyone must do it the exact same way. And it is hypocritical to insist upon it when there is no perfect model of democracy yet formed by any nation. You are, in a way, insisting that other lands adopt a failed and imperfect model. (It's just like the drug war, as we like to say around here: a single model imposed on all causes nothing but problems and human misery, and is anti-democracy in its genetic coding and nature.)

Furthermore, you (and Human Rights Watch) are insisting on actions from Venezuela that you have never insisted upon from any other land. The Constitutional models in every democracy are different. In Europe they have parliaments instead of Congresses, prime ministers instead of presidents, distinct ways of separating powers of branches of governments, and different ways of reaching for the same goal of democracy. That unity through difference is accepted, generally, from other predominantly white nations: it is the nations of people who appear physically different upon which limousine liberals from groups like Human Rights Watch unfairly insist on impositions that they do not impose on predominantly white nations… or nations that are closely allied with a neoliberal economic model.

There is a fundamental double standard that has grown like a cancer on much of the NGO movement, and markedly on Human Rights Watch. And Narco News has arrived in four short years to apply the chemotherapy of truth whether y'all like it or not. And one of the wonderful things you know, when dealing with us, is that we sign our names to that which we write, so you know just who to write in complaint or criticism. Would that Human Rights Watch have done that on this latest report, as we do, out of a sense of ethics and truth.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Now, onto the substance of my argument.

You recently outlined a series of objections to a recent Human Rights Watch report entitled “Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela.” It outlines certain objections to a law recently passed in Venezuela which would enlarge the size of the country’s Supreme Court by 12 justices, make the suspension and removal of justices much easier, and generally threaten the independence of the judicial branch. But don’t trust me on the details, read it yourself.

Al comments:

I have read it. I find the legal reform in Venezuela to be an amazingly progressive document that is an important part of that term that is so popular to use these days but that nobody seems to understand: "Nation building." I believe that if the land that owns my passport, the United States, adopted the reforms in that document, it would be a better country, too. It is a document, as I point out above, that is in the spirit and tradition of Jefferson and FDR.

We hear a lot about the so-called importance of "nation building," but when a nation attempts to build itself from the ashes of its failed false versions of democracy, as Venezuela does today, the very groups that should be helping to protect that process from outside interference are, like Human Rights Watch, instead acting as attack dogs in exact and perfect harmony with the interests of Wall Street and Washington.

Meanwhile, the pages of Narco News are filled with examples of real threats to human rights and press freedom in Venezuela - threats caused by the Commercial Media and regional opposition governments - that HRW has been wholly silent about since before, during, and after the April 2002 coup d'etat. HRW has been entirely one-sided on Venezuela, and more often wrong in its factual claims than not. HRW raises and spends too much money to be so wrong so often on this important historical process.

I think you underestimate how much credibility Human Rights Watch lost during those dark days in April 2002. At the moment that it was most needed in the past 30 years, Human Rights Watch and the members of its Americas division hid under their desks, while true friends of human rights went into the battle to save those rights. I was one of the people writing to Human Rights Watch at that dark hour pleading for its help. I've gotten more response from dial tones.

HRW has, since, become a joke in most of Latin America: and deservedly so. It ought to clean its own house now before purporting to tell others how to clean theirs. Because at the moment when the world needed Human Rights Watch most, Human Rights Watch shrunk from its stated mission and made itself obsolete as a bureaucracy.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

You seem not to see any problem with the text and purpose of the Ley del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (LOTSJ), but anyone who understands the current situation in Venezuela would be troubled by a law that allows the governing majority to pack and purge the courts at will.

Al replies:

That is a blatant misstatement of fact, Martin. That you don't rebut or even respond to the facts that I (and Greg Wilpert) already reported above indicates that you either did not read them, or simply choose to be dishonest by pretending they don't exist. Instead, you just repeat the "big lie" over and over again. The law does NOT allow the courts to be packed and purged at will.

If you are going to argue that it does, then you have to admit that U.S. law provides for the same, and so do the laws of many other lands upon which you and HRW remain silent. Note: you don't say how the law provides for your claims. You simply make a characterization that you expect us to believe, but without backing up your statement with a single fact. Saying it the first time, if you are ignorant, is a mistake. Saying it a second time, after you have been corrected on the facts by my text above, is knowingly false and willingly dishonest.

I'm tempted to blame Georgetown. You may have left the asylum with your physical body, but your outmoded ways of thinking are still very much hooked up to that borg. But, Martin, I am living proof - the Hoya that got away - that you don't have to end up that way.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

The Human Rights Watch report doesn’t hide the fact that the Venezuelan judiciary has been rotten from the inside for a long time...

Al replies:

Then why is the report titled with the sensationalistic, screeching, headline: "Venezuela: Independent Judiciary Under Siege"?

To be "under siege" doesn't something have to already exist?

You may be a rookie, but Jose Vivanco knows full well that few read the fine print of his endless "reports," and most only hear the name of the title. Thus, the title is obviously authored in a manner intended to deceive. It's not a report. It's propaganda.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

…nor does it try to blame Chávez for the recurring problems of corruption and inefficiency. What it does, though, is bring light to a law, passed by a bare majority of the uni-cameral legislature, that allows the governing majority significant power in shaping the country’s highest court.

Al replies:

You may or may not like a "uni-cameral legislature" or the principle of "majority rule," but both concepts are perfectly within the long accepted parameters of democracy. They exist in many democracies in Europe and across the world that you do not criticize. You may not like that a "governing majority" can have "significant power in shaping the country's highest court." So what? What you like or don't like is not at stake, because you are not a citizen of Venezuela's democracy.

Okay, then: apply your ideology to the city where you live. U.S. Supreme Court justices are ratified by a simple "governing majority." Only one legislative house in the U.S. - the Senate: which, in the process of ratifying Supreme Court nominations is, indeed, a "uni-cameral legislature" - holds that power today, and has always held it. You call that U.S.-style process "bad" in Venezuela and yet you can walk down the street in Washington DC and find the same thing there: Uni-cameral, slim-majority, rule on Supreme Court appointments in the U.S. Senate!

Have you ever heard the expression, Martin: "Candela en la calle, oscura en la casa"?

If a "governing majority" does not have "significant power in shaping a country's highest court," then who will? Under your plan, only non-governing minorities (translation: the elites that already made a mess of this hemisphere) will hold that power. In cases of "nation building" or "nation re-building" like in Venezuela, the majority must act to install, protect, and defend, its interests against longstanding anti-democratic patterns working against it. Your position is fundamentally anti-democracy, and, I repeat, fundamentalist in tone.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

We can argue until we are blue in the face about whether or not the law is as much a threat as Human Rights Watch claims it is. But I firmly believe, knowing the philosophy under which Chávez operates, that his allies in the National Assembly did not pass this law for the sake of judicial independence and efficiency.

Hugo Chávez seems to work on the principle that because he was elected twice with overwhelming majorities, he does not have to obey the formalities of constitutional liberalism.

Al replies:

Your version of "constitutional liberalism" is not the only one in town. Wake up. Your version really sucks in many ways: just look at how the Supreme Court closest to you stole the presidential election of 2000, or its entire history of reactionary judicial activism on behalf of the elites and the "haves," and against the "have nots."

You simply do not, should not, cannot, and must not, be able to claim any right to dictate to other lands how to manage their democracies. And if you are to make suggestions and give advice, which is in your right, in order to be credible you must apply your suggestions equally to all lands, starting with the one where you live. As a journalist, I try to do that, and so do the journalists I work with. Your failure to do that, and Human Rights Watch's failure to do the same, is at the heart of its growing credibility problem South of the Border.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Democracy is more than being elected, it is a system whose checks and balances ensure that just having a majority does not allow you uncontested power.

Al replies:

Bullshit. On this, we can go to war, if you like. Because I have practiced democracy long enough, and defended it long enough, to know where I stand and that I am willing to die for it. I, too, believe in checks and balances. But unlike you, I am not so fundamentalist as to think that there is only "one" way or path to get there.

I believe democracy is a process, not fixed on a piece of paper, but something that only happens when it bubbles up from below, and when the majority does assert itself. We both believe that individual rights are important: the majority should not lynch the minority. But that is not a problem with the Chavez majority the way it is with Uribe, or Toledo, or Fox… or Bush… now, is it? Admit it.

By my standards of democracy, the Bolivarian experiment underway in Venezuela is more authentically democratic than that in any other land in this hemisphere. Other nations, like Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, are making fast progress, too: but Venezuela is far, far, ahead and leading the way. (Indeed, this is why so many in Washington on the left and the right feel it must be stopped: neither "side" wants true democracy to break out in Latin America! Why? Because it would be bad for some people's unfair business advantages.) What is occurring in Venezuela is more authentically democratic because for the first time in decades the pendulum is swinging back to assert what had been robbed: majority rule. With checks and balances, yes, but in the context of majority rule, without which checks and balances are merely dictatorial limits set by the elites against the majority.

I am willing to give my life to defend the right of the majority to reassert itself. That is how strongly I feel. I place my body on the line and live South of the Border, from where I report and raise the volume of the voices of the majorities insisting on democracy. Democracy IS majority rule. The rest are just the details of fine tuning to protect the rights of the individual. However, we may disagree on whether "property rights" or "the right to food, housing, education, and health care" are more important rights. Those details can only be decided, as Jefferson said, at the most local level. They cannot, in any case, be imposed from outside or from above.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Chávez didn’t seem to believe in this principle before, and after a coup attempt and economy-busting national strike, seems to believe in it even less. Chávez has made it his purpose to control all five branches of the Venezuelan government—he currently controls the executive, the legislative, and the citizens branches (please find me someone who will honestly argue that both the Fiscal General and Defensor del Pueblo are independent)...

Al replies:

Again, you are applying a double standard. In the United States, the executive branch fully controls the "citizens branches" (the prosecutorial and public defender branches of the judicial system, as well as the electoral-administrative system). If it is "good" for the United States, why is it "bad" for Venezuela? And, if it is also bad for the United States, then why are you wasting your time trying to influence a land so far away when you have the same mess to clean up in your own front yard?

In the United States, the executive branch also "controls" the legislative branch in the same exact way that you complain about regarding Venezuela: that is, like it or not, the people have voted for a majority from the same party (the difference being that in the U.S. the people voted for the other party for president, but the executive branch was seized by Court-imposed coup d'etat).

Martin Austermuhle writes:

…and it is not a far stretch to assume he would want to control the electoral and judicial. This seems to be a trend with presidents or leaders that identify themselves as revolutionaries: they assume that since they are doing their country good, they are justified in erasing any trace of organized opposition or institutional checks and balances.

Al replies:

This is entirely part of your own personal fears and biases against people who "identify themselves as revolutionaries." Had you been alive in 1776 and during the deliberations leading up to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, you would have found George Washington to have been even worse. It probably would have made you nervous, too, that he was, like Chavez, a military man! But, Martin, that is how nations are built: with toughness and fighting spirit. And Venezuela, with six years compared to the 228 year head start of the United States, is doing much better at democracy, checks, balances, and all, than the United States today. You are throwing your stones from a glass house.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

The law on its face seems innocent enough, but seen as part of Chávez’s philosophy, it becomes a rather obvious legal mechanism to control the judicial branch. During the debates leading up to the law’s passage, MVR assembly-member Luis Velasquez Alvaray stated in no uncertain terms that “es una reestructuracion a fondo, tipo Pdvsa; es decir, radical, es structural, todo lo que esta constituido sufrira un cambio a partir de los proximos dias.”

Noting that he compared it to Pdvsa, from which 18,000 employees were dismissed during the strike, it seems that the goals of the law are less than innocent.

Al replies:

What you call a "strike" was not a strike. It was a management-imposed lockout in the state-owned oil company, in which the managers and middle-managers who locked their workers out were, after the "non-strike" collapsed, justifiably fired. The same would have happened in any oil company or public agency in the United States. Are you suggesting that Chavez should have let those saboteur executives back in the door after they were caught red-handed locking out workers and endangering the security of the nation's oil reserves and production facilities? If so, you are not being rational. And you don't seem to understand the word "strike." Don't they teach that at Georgetown anymore?

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Couple that with the fact that the Supreme Court and other lower courts had made decisions against Chávez, it becomes obvious that the law is a means to remove justices that serve as one of the last institutional obstacles to Chávez’s plans. I assume you read the whole report—how better to explain why the entire Corte Primera was suspended in October of last year? It had made over a dozen decisions against the government, and its justices have not yet been allowed the chance to appeal their dismissals (which I would hope you would agree is a blatant violation of the right to due process). Knowing this, and recognizing that there is only one chamber in Venezuela’s legislature, it seems clear that Chávez does not mean this law to be a step towards bringing the Venezuelan judiciary closer to that of the United States.

You clearly have something against Mr. Vivanco, which I suppose is your right. But why?

Al replies:

I have never met Mr. Vivanco. I am very familiar with his work. He is clearly a dishonest person serving agendas that have nothing to do with human rights and in a way that discredits all true workers for human rights everywhere. He deserves only contempt, for all the reasons for which I have already written, documenting each claim I made with demonstrable facts. And until HRW fires him, HRW deserves only contempt. And guess what, the contempt for HRW is growing even in liberal circles like my own because of Mr. Vivanco's actions.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

You seem to think that Human Rights Watch somehow gains from criticizing governments for failing to live up to basic human rights standards. It doesn’t.

Al challenges:

Prove your statement with facts, Martin, as I have done my statements...

  • What is the annual budget of Human Rights Watch?
  • What is Mr. Vivanco's annual income rounded out to the nearest $10,000 dollars? (I'll tell you mine: it's $10,000. And all my basic human needs are met, and then some.)
  • What are the annual salaries of the other bureaucrats at Human Rights Watch America's Division?
If you are going to make claims that nobody gains from this sham, then document them. Give us facts, not vacuous claims.

Everyone in the world except for "activism bureaucrats" understands that activism bureaucrats are bureaucrats, too, subject to the same institutional blindness and self-perpetuating behaviors as government or corporate bureaucrats, and too often becoming corrupted in the service of the next paycheck (and in the preservation of the problems they claim to be solving because once the problems are ever solved, they know they will be out of a job). This is a universal truth about activism bureaucrats on the right, on the left, or those that claim, like HRW, to be in the middle. But every other citizen of earth already knows the score!

Martin Austermuhle writes:

The organization has done, in my opinion, a noble job in fighting for human rights wherever violations occur, be it in the Darfur region in the Sudan (we are one of the few organizations that sent people through to gather testimony), in Iraq and in Afghanistan (we have numerous reports on violations of human rights and humanitarian law by Coalition forces), or in the Americas (where HRW has provided some of the most consistent opposition to Uribe’s paramilitary demobilization process, documented the use of child soldiers by all sides in Colombia, or fought to have Pinochet and his allies tried for their crimes in Chile, among other examples).

Al replies:

HRW also laid down and played dead when Clinton pushed through Plan Colombia, agreeing to look the other way if they got a phony, impotent, "human rights clause" in that legislation. HRW laid down and played dead during the 2002 Venezuela coup. HRW laid down and played dead every time a Community Media journalist was imprisoned or beaten in Venezuela or other lands. HRW continues to be mute on the case (including documented tortures) of coca growers in Bolivia. HRW continues to be mute in the case of Pacho Cortes, the Colombian human rights leader imprisoned unjustly, without charges against him, for 15 months now in Bolivia. The list goes on and on… Human Rights Watch takes money from any stupid sucker who thinks he or she is supporting "human rights," and has built a bureaucracy at the expense of the rights it claims to defend. To most Latin Americans, Human Rights Watch has become a cruel and hypocritical joke.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Mr. Vivanco and the other members of the Americas Division gain nothing from the work they do, other than the satisfaction of knowing that they are asking countries to live up to basic human rights standards.

When a human rights organization like Human Rights Watch can be referred to as both a mercenary of imperialism (as Jose Vicente Rangel, Vice-President of Venezuela recently stated of the organization) and Vivanco repeatedly called a “Marxist” by members of Alvaro Uribe’s government in Colombia, it must be doing something right.

Al replies:

That is a ridiculous claim? When Juan Forero of the New York Times (who quoted his brother-in-arms Vivanco again today) gets criticized by all sides it is because he is incompetent at his job as a reporter. It does not in any way indicate impartiality or "doing something right." The same is true for Human Rights Watch. (And, point of fact, Uribe made specific reference to Colombian and local human rights groups, unaffiliated with HRW, when he made that "Marxist" crack. Does anyone at HRW really believe he was talking about HRW? What kind of self-important fools are they: robbing credit now from the local human rights defenders, too? Not that the point is outcome determinative: even if Uribe had called HRW "Marxist" that would not indicate anything about whether HRW was doing the job it claims to be doing or not. Uribe would call his mother a marxist if he thought it was politically expedient.)

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Human Rights Watch, much like Amnesty International and other reputable human rights organizations, works on principle, not politics. It bases its work on certain fundamental and clearly articulated human rights and liberties—those whose violation by any government, regardless of political affiliation, demand response. This was the case in Venezuela; that was the reason the report was written and released.


Martin Austermuhle
Washington, D.C.

Al replies:

Thank you Martin, for your letter. I hope you don't feel I've been too hard on you. When you said you were a Hoya, I figured it was my special duty to set you straight, from one who knows.

You say that Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, and others like them, work "on principle, not politics."

In that case, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. In fact, I have two. Name your price. The price of an internship? You come cheap, man. Too cheap: and I guess, if you are writing to big bad me, on some level you must know it.

Turn back from the bureaucratic and colonialist imperatives, Martin. It's not too late. But someday it might be. If you don't do some fast self-deprogramming now, you will certainly become one of them. You have had just enough privilege and rubbed up against just enough power to fall into that pit. My advice: get up on your feet and run, as fast and far as you can, from Washington DC... and don't go back there until you have lived among real people for enough time that our values - like "majority rule means majority rule" - are understandable to you.

From somewhere in a country called América,


HRW Co-Author Admits Double Standard

"You're right about one thing: nothing much would have been said had this law been passed in, let's say, Costa Rica."

- Martin Austermuhle
Human Rights Watch intern
Co-author of recent Venezuela "report"
Washington DC

Kind readers: Doesn't that say it all?

Another exchange with our favorite Human Rights Watch intern, doing a valient, but futile, job in carrying Jose Vivanco's dirty water...

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Mr. Giordano,

You seem to have become very good at being a critic of everyone but yourself and your authentic journalists. While I agree that both the
Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have their shortcomings, I still believe from having worked with them that they are well-intentioned organizations that do the best they can to protect and promote human rights with extremely limited resources.

Al replies:

That is an excellent use of the term "well-intentioned," Martin, as in "the road to hell is paved by good intentions." Every atrocity on earth - from the tortures in Guantanamo to the coup attempts in Venezuela to the "war on drugs," the list goes on and on - has "well-intentioned" people working in cubicles to process and justify the war crimes. Or, at least they think they are well intentioned. They gaze into the mirror and declare themselves the fairest of them all… they stick in their thumbs and they pull out the plumbs and they say, "what good boy am I!"

In the immortal words of that great American philosophy group, Outkast: "You think you smell just like a rose, but darlin' come a little closer and find that roses smell like poo poo poo…."

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Granted, I may be blind to this "hell" I have been sucked into, but I'd like to think that my education and experiences haven't completely robbed me of the ability to think objectively.

Al comments:

Do you really think you have the ability to "think objectively"? Oh, that is precious. Here's a big fat clue: "objective thinking" is a myth. It does not exist on this earth. That you have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the academic hemlock that convinced you that you can "think objectively" is the first indication that you are deeper in the septic pool than you can admit to yourself. As I often say about journalists, and equally true of academics or activist bureaucrats, "The first sign that somebody is either woefully lacking of self-awareness or is a willing liar is when he claims to be objective." So, which is it, Martin?

If you can't admit you have biases, and that your biases color all your investigations, you're just a clown in somebody else's circus. You may wear a suit and tie instead of clown shoes, but it makes you a clown nonetheless.

The only honest position is to conduct an inventory of your biases and disclose them, as we do here. The insistence that you can "think objectively" prevents you from doing that, and, really, takes you out of the game in terms of being taken credibly by the fast class out here.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

You seem to picture the Americas Division as being much bigger than it is, just as you ignorantly try to describe all its members as "activist bureacrats." The Americas Division has but three researchers, two staff associates, an executive director, a deputy director, and the help of a rotating cast of interns (who I assume must also be blinded to this bureacratic hell we are trapped in). It also has the smallest budget of any division in the entire organization (whose budget hovers around $22 million a year)--hence the small size and even smaller salaries.

Al inquires:

First, to understand the term bureaucrat, you should learn to spell it. You have to put the "u" back in bureaucrat (and the "you" back in bureaucrat) in order to take the honest self-inventory I recommend as part of our Narco News activism bureaucrat recovery program. It's the first step! Put the "you" back in bureaucrat! And the second step is figuring out how to take the bureaucrat out of you.

You claim "small salaries." Again, you offer no evidence. So I'd like to make you a wager. I will bet you $100 dollars that Jose Vivanco's annual salary is more than the entire budget of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism with three-dozen scholarship recipients and an equal number of professors. In fact, I will bet that it is more than the $60,000 budget for the entire Narco News project in the past year, including the J-School. And that is just one guy. If I'm wrong, you get a hundred bucks!

I can believe, by the way, that "intern" salaries are small: the payment is in the gold star on the resume. That's how it works.

But those "gold stars" turn into skeletons in the closet, Martin. Lord knows I have mine (and you say I'm not self-critical!): I already told you that I briefly stained my virgin mind at Georgetown. Heavens, how many times have I confessed that I used to work for John Kerry! You think I'm not self-critical about the social conditioning those experiences caused me? You should do more reading.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

I suppose it is easy to paint all Human Rights Watch employees as non-governmental fatcats living large off of the misery of others if you haven't met them, isn't it now?

Al replies:

Oh, but Martin, I meet human rights workers - authentic and false - all the time, just by living and working in the conflict zones… on their little junket tours through the rebel lands where I have lived! They get off the airplane, check into the hotel, have a few meetings, and then hold press conferences announcing the conclusions they arrived at before they even stepped off the airplane! That's what Vivanco did yesterday, isn't it? And I try, oh how I try, to help them understand the situation. Some human rights observers are very sincere. Some are even effective.

In 1997 and 1998, when I was in Chiapas, Mexico, I saw 400 of my journalistic colleagues and human rights observers expelled by the government. These folks were the real thing: they didn't go to the hotels. They headed deep into the jungle, or high into the altos, to live without electricity, to live without alcohol, to live without drugs, to live on tortillas and beans and nothing more for weeks at a time, to watch, to pay attention, to learn as students and not with the arrogance that they have something to "teach" the natives… to work side by side in indigenous communities and serve instead of be served… they (we) came to listen and to learn… and they (we) learned a lot. For that they (we) were hunted, many expelled… but, I must tell you: not one of these observers I met who did that kind of heavy lifting and intense observation was from Human Rights Watch.

If an HRW flak came to town, it was in "plan de tour de los medios," of attention-seeking media tour. In the world of "human rights" they are the grasshoppers among the worker ants. And they wonder why we - the "worker ants of human rights" - make fun of them!

Martin Austermuhle writes:

As for strings connected, the majority of the money HRW has comes from the donations of individuals.

Al comments:

Yes, I mentioned that in my first response. P.T. Barnum 101: "There is a sucker born every minute." The circus analogy is seamless.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

While foundations also provide money, they do so while knowing that no strings are ever attached to the work that the organization does. If you do not believe me, I invite you to speak directly to Ken Roth, the organization's Executive Director. And please, unless you can provide testimony proving so, please limit your opinions on Human Rights Watch to what you think, not what other ill-defined groups seem to think.

Al comments:

Here is what I think: The world of "human rights philanthropy" does not need strings attached to function as if the strings were attached. There is no string attached that overtly says "your organization must get regularly quoted in the New York Times for our foundation to give you money." But it is one of the long unspoken rules. But to get regularly quoted in the New York Times, especially by ilk like Juan Forero and Larry Rohter, the Latin America mercenaries, er, "correspondents," you have to play ball. You have to serve as the garbage men for their agendas.

HRW - and this is my opinion - is caught in the trap of that "objectivity" game because the market forces of "philanthropy" force it to do so. Since there are so many more governments in this hemisphere that operate according to imposed capitalist principles, HRW bends over backwards to show "objectivity" by whacking two or three non-capitalist governments (mainly Cuba and Venezuela) with much more volume and force and frequency than they deserve. Why? In order to show that HRW is "objective." Do the math. If you have 15 governments on the neoliberal right, and two on the "not signing up for neoliberal duty" left, and HRW tries to dedicate "fifty percent" of its attacks along those ideological lines, then the side with fewer governments gets whacked, "per capita," a lot more frequently. That's not because they have more human rights violations (certainly not in the case of Venezuela, where HRW admitted four years ago that it was the only country in the region where human rights had expanded instead of shrunk: and if HRW were honest it would admit that is true, now joined by Brazil and Argentina, also, today). It is because HRW is simulating a kind of false "even handedness" in choosing which governments it attacks and how often.

This kind of behavior gets HRW its frequent mentions in the New York Times and others like it, and this keeps the money flowing. No stated "strings attached" quid pro quo is needed: the problem is systemic.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

You're right about one thing: nothing much would have been said had this law been passed in, let's say, Costa Rica.

Al jumps up and down cheering:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

You just admitted the big problem: the hypocrisy of double standards that is rampant in how HRW does its work.

Can't you see the sheer hypocrisy and dishonesty that you have bought into? Don't you see, now, why HRW has lost credibility with me and so many other journalists and human rights advocates?

I guess not, because you then attempt justify unfair and unequal treatment from a group claiming to champion principles.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

And yes, many of its provisions are no less democratic than those in the United States or Europe. But here we have to consider political context.

Al comments:

I posit that it is precisely the political context that HRW (and you) are ignoring, or you have it ass-backwards from the context that an authentic human rights advocate would consider.

The political context is this: the history of human rights in Latin America, and the struggle for them, is a history with one big fat dominant context: 500 years of imposed human rights violations, first from Europe, next from the bully superpower to the North, and finally, now, from an even bigger bully - the private sector, protected by its very own police force (previously known as the superpower to the North). To have any hope of human rights, the first step is to cast off the impositions of the most historic abuser of those human rights.

The "political context" of the current history of Venezuela is that at last a nation's people have done this not by bullet, but by ballot. And if HRW or you had any sense of all of historic political context, you would be fighting to support that process, not tear it down. Your next statement gives me an excellent hook by which to try and show you what I mean…

Martin Austermuhle writes:

I noticed you did not respond to the factual claims the report made concerning the dismissal of judges for seemingly political reasons. An entire court, the country's second highest, in fact, was dissolved by order of an Executive Committee of the Judiciary (composed of Supreme Court justices) with little explanation and without having granted its dismissed judges the right to both know what they were being dismissed for and defend themselves.

Al replies:

First, any true human rights advocate would cheer the dismissal of those judges, and the related efforts to clean out the vestiges of an old judicial system that served to daily attack the human rights of the many and give impunity to the few who committed those abuses.

Your statement about the supposed "right to both know what they were being dismissed for and defend themselves" is ludicrous. You are applying a standard that we apply to criminal defendants and dishonestly attaching it to a simple case of being fired on the job. These ex-judges were not charged with any crime. They were not threatened with prison or fines or punishments. They were simply fired - as is an employer's right - for not doing their jobs.

Human Rights Watch should be cheering and supporting the removal of judges who let human rights abusers - especially those who committed a bloody, violent, coup d'etat - off the hook. Those judges continued the impunity of the old system. Again, we come back to the mission of "nation building" or "nation re-building." It is counterproductive to human rights to hold the new system accountable to the fixed rules of the old system, and thus prevent the new, more democratic, more respectful of human rights, system from cleaning house.

Where was Human Rights Watch when the old guard judges let the coup plotters get away? That, amigo, constituted the single biggest crime against human rights committed by any officials in Venezuela over the past six years: and it was a crime committed by members of the judiciary: Of course they had to be fired! And if Human Rights Watch walked its talk it would have led the charge calling for their removal!

Instead, HRW, in its current mealy-mouthed discourse, is working against human rights. Instead of watching human rights, HRW is looking the other way at the clear human rights violations committed by coup plotters who should be brought to justice, and the corrupt, old guard, judges who let them get away with their crime. HRW has thus made a mockery of its longstanding rhetoric about preventing impunity.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

This may seem inconsequential until you analyze the decisions the court had made, a dozen of which directly ruled against the government (the most famous having been that of the court ruling that the government could not use Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods without submitting them to the same tests Venezuelan doctors had to pass to prove their competency).

Al comments:

You're kidding, right? Your statement is filled with developed world assumptions about medicine in poor lands that are laughable. But your assumptions are laughable in the sense of gallows humor, because many people have died because of your stupidity and that of Human Rights Watch in disrespecting the human right of access to health care. Poor people have died of curable diseases from lack of medicines, from malnutrition, and from lack of a health care system in Venezuela for an eternity. Your statement presumes that the "tests… to prove their competency" had any value in the first place! When, the fact is that the old guard governments in Venezuela fixed those "tests" for the oligarch class - any dumb shit "junior" from a wealthy family could get his test fixed! - and the country is filled with dumb shit "junior" doctors far less competent than their Cuban counterparts, and who only serve the classes that can pay them money anyway.

Now, we can both agree that Cuba's vision of human rights is not yours or mine in certain areas like freedom of expression. But in the area of the human right of health care for all, you can't argue with a straight face that Cuba is not far ahead of every country in the hemisphere. If judges from the old guard prevented sick people from receiving the human right of health care from doctors from the most successful, competent, health care system in our América on bogus pretenses based on old "regulations" that only served to ensure the perpetuation of illness and misery, well, those judges attacked human rights. But you can't see it, can you? What happened to your precious "objectivity," Martin?

Martin Austermuhle writes:

The report clearly connects the dots, something an authentic journalist would know much about, and reaches the conclusion that the law's provisions cannot be seen as purely administrative and legal considering the political context and prior history of clashes between the executive and legislative branches.

Al replies:

I have obviously spent more time and labor "connecting the dots" regarding Venezuela than anyone in those beltway cubicles at HRW, and that is evident from your statements (and the perpetual estupideces of Vivanco). What you are saying is that only "purely administrative and legal" motives or provisions are justifiable when it comes to cleaning up a corrupt, calcified, judiciary that has always harmed the human rights of the many. Your statements have the effect of endorsing and perpetuating the old system of abuse of human rights.

The clashes between branches of government are healthy. The fact is that the reforms have occurred much faster in the executive and legislative branches, naturally, because both are subject to the direct democracy of the people.

If Venezuela had New York State's laws (where supreme court justices are directly elected), this problem would already be solved! What seems to offend your unspoken first-world biases is that in a democracy, the majority MUST have control over the judiciary too. You seem to object to that, which makes you, admit it, anti-democracy. And the process underway to clean out the bad water and replenish the fountain of justice in Venezuela is pro human rights, while HRW's position is anti-human rights. Worse, HRW is hung up on a series of technicalities that stray from HRW's stated mission: to promote human rights. HRW has lined up on the side of the abusers of human rights, and against the authentic restorers of human rights, using "technicalities" that you admit you would not use on Costa Rica. Which brings me to your next point…

Martin Austermuhle writes:

I imagine you noticed the comparisons we drew to similar processes of judicial reform in Argentina and Peru--these seemed innocent enough and were often justified with claims of increading judicial accountability and efficiency, but in hindsight we see that they were often the first steps towards judicial branches that served as legal rubber stamps on executive actions (actions I am sure you objected to then, and would object to now in both Menem and Fujimori's cases).

Al replies:

For someone who yammers on about "political context" you sure like to ignore the 900 pound contextual gorilla in these comparisons: the Menem regime in Argentina and the Fujimori regime in Peru were puppet governments of U.S. interests. Menem dollarized the economy, in obedience to Washington and Wall Street dictates, and the 900 pound gorilla to the north - again, the single-largest abuser of human rights in the hemisphere - gave intelligence information to Menem's abusive generals and Fujimori's enforcer Montesinos to help them commit human rights violations. U.S. officials also looked the other way while Menem and Montesinos both laundered their illegally-garnered profits through Citibank and other U.S. institutions. Both men were tyrants. Both committed more human rights abuses in any single week than have been committed by officials under Chavez in six years: torture, assassinations, massacres… c'mon! This stuff is documented even by Human Rights Watch! HRW's accusations against Chavez and Venezuela, even if taken in their worst possible context, don't even begin to reach those levels.

Fujimori and Menem were war criminals. Chavez is not. And the "political context" that you conveniently ignore is a simple and obvious one: those two motherfuckers were puppets of Washington, whereas you can't say the same about Chavez, can you? Two perpetuated the old systematic human rights abuses. One has stood up against them (and done so through a more authentic electoral democracy, too!).

The Venezuelan majority demands that its old guard, corrupt, anti-human rights judicial system be cleaned up. It has a right to demand that, doesn't it? Do the people not have a right to demand that the 2002 coup plotters be brought to justice? Do the people not have a right to demand access to health care through doctors trained in the one country that has excelled at training them? According to you, the answer is "no," and, worse, the answer is "no" based on technicalities that you refuse to apply to others. Have you no shame?

Martin Austermuhle writes:

The report does its best to note that our concerns are based on prior comments made by Chavez on the judiciary, many of which are well documented. When he and his followers claim on multiple occasions that certain "golpista" judges shouldn't be judges, it's not a far cry for us to believe that a judicial reform that would make dismissing those very judges easier would also pose a threat to the independence of the entire judiciary (as the report notes: in Venezuela the Supreme Court controls every other court, in administrative and legal terms, so whoever controls that court control the composition of the entire branch).

Al asks:

Martin: are you denying that those judges - who refused to bring golpistas to justice - are not golpistas?

Answer that question, and then the next one, and I'll be happy to discuss this point further:

If a judge refuses to bring coup members to justice, if he protects those who, in April 2002, committed a Pinochet level crime against humanity, should that person continue to be a judge or not?

I'd like yes or no answers to those questions, please. Color in the gray points as much as you like, but in the end you gotta answer: "yes," or "no."

Seven times in the past seven years the people of Venezuela have answered those questions the same way. Who the fuck are you and Human Rights Watch to try and stand in their way?

Martin Austermuhle writes:

I don't consider myself, nor do I think of HRW and other human rights groups, as imperialists or fundamentalists. Groups such as HRW function according to clearly articulated principles--those of human rights.

Al comments:

That is what fundamentalists always say, be they ayatollahs, Jerry Fallwells, or Roger Noriegas (the latter whose agenda you and HRW are transparently serving with your admitted double standards).

Martin Austermuhle writes:

These are not a secret, and most countries in Latin America have agreed to their provisions (check the signatories to both the Inter-American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights). Yes, civil and political rights are a Western construct, and yes, our using of those as benchmarks against which to judge a government's actions can be construed as "imperialism," but these are well-regarded and widely held principles that exist outside of the confines of the U.S. and Western Europe (an interesting note: have you noticed that everytime this cultural imperialist argument is made, it is made my heads of state whose country's record in human rights is often spotty?).

Al replies:

Do you really believe your own bullshit? First, the record of ALL heads of state on human rights is spotty. But Chavez's is less spotty than Bush, Uribe, Toledo, Lagos, Fox, Gutierrez, and their predecessors, and you know it! And it is not "always" made by heads of state with spotty records: for example, take Lula of Brazil's record (I trust you agree he is a shining light in human rights) and his complaints about the "cultural imperialism" of certain firstworld "environmental" groups regarding the Amazon. Your broad generalizations simply do not add up. You are deep within a kind of collective psychosis among the cubicled bureaucrat class at HRW. It's disgusting, really. And meanwhile, I repeat, you look the other way and grant impunity to the true abusers of human rights in the process, which brings us to your next point…

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Now, on to specific claims you make which I disagree with or would like to clarify:

1) "HRW also laid down and played dead when Clinton pushed through Plan Colombia, agreeing to look the other way if they got a phony, impotent, 'human rights clause' in that legislation."

This boils down to a difference in operating philosophy, I suppose. I don't know what HRW's position on Plan Colombia was when it was first announced, but I do know that they decided to work with when they realized that its passage was a foregone conclusion. This is what we call, in Washington-lingo, being "pragmatic."

Al replies:

Then, all the blood and herbicide that has flowed since then is on HRW and Vivanco's hands, too.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Would it be more helpful for an organization like HRW to not attempt to improve a flawed piece of legislation, if its passage was all but assured? While the human rights conditions are minor, there are at least minor conditions in the legislation calling for Plan Colombia--without our consistent pestering, Plan Colombia could have been passed with no human rights consideration whatsoever. Would that have been any better? This is a pact with the devil, no doubt, but considering what's at stake, would Colombia have been any better off had we stubbornly refused to participate at all in the negotiations over Plan Colombia? I think not, but again, differences in philisophy.

Al answers:

Yes, I can state unequivocally that the verdict is now in: It would have been better for human rights had HRW, Amnesty, and WOLA, openly opposed Plan Colombia and not bargained for a "human rights provision" that has holes big enough to drive 300 bulletholes through: the 300 deaths of Colombian labor organizers, for example, that have come since HRW signed that blood pact. Strategically, tactically, and in every other "pragmatic" way, more blood would have been stopped from flowing if the human rights bureaucrats in Washington had taken a firm position against the entire militaristic project. You guys fucked up. And many good people have been assassinated and massacred since then, and many thousand acres of Amazon rainforest destroyed, in four short years, because of HRW's cowardice and stupidity in being hoodwinked by the Clinton administration.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

2) "HRW laid down and played dead during the 2002 Venezuela coup. HRW laid down and played dead every time a Community Media journalist was imprisoned or beaten in Venezuela or other lands."

Al, you're a smart guy. Research a little. HRW issued a press release on April 12, 2002, entitled "Restore Rule of Law, Protect Rights in Venezuela."

Al interjects:

As if I don't remember it! Here, for our readers, is a link to that shameful document that will live in infamy:

HRW said in that press release:

"We call upon the transitional authorities in Venezuela to restore the country's democratic institutions as soon as possible and to guarantee that the human rights of Venezuelans will not be violated, regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.

Ahem. That is my point exactly. HRW did not take a stand against what it called the "transitional authorities" (a sickeningly anti-democratic euphemism for a dictatorship). To the contrary, the statement recognized them as "authorities," and therefore it served to legitimatize Dictator-for-a-Day Pedro Carmona and his jackbooted brownshirts.

The cowardly statement by HRW continued:

Human Rights Watch urged the Venezuelan authorities to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation immediately to determine who is responsible for the killing and injuring of civilians that occurred during the political protest in Caracas Thursday night, and to hold those responsible accountable.

"Human Rights Watch is concerned for the potential abuse of power by the Venezuelan authorities with respect to the searches they may be conducting," said Vivanco. "We call on the authorities to ensure that any searches or possible detentions of Chávez supporters be conducted in full compliance with the law and with the basic standards of due process."
Again, it legitimizes and recognizes those authorities.

That statement is not a defense! It would win a conviction from any decent jury!

Where was the call by HRW upon the OAS to invoke the Democratic Charter?

(HRW did it yesterday over technicalities: why didn't HRW issue that call during a crisis in which the Democratic Charter was actually intended to be invoked?)

Where was HRW's call upon Washington and other governments not to recognize the new regime?

You can read between the lines and see that Vivanco was happy that Chavez had been deposed! He was ready to "work with" the "transitional authorities" and said nothing toward the only justifiable pro-human rights goal of that terrible moment: the removal of the coup leaders and the restoration of the democratically elected government.

Oh, yes, Martin, I remember that statement well: It revealed Vivanco and HRW as enemies of democracy in our hemisphere, and as supporters of war criminals. It was a disgusting, indefensible, statement, and Vivanco should have been fired as a result. That he is still there, festering the wound, makes me distrust his superiors, too.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Four days later, another press release was issued, this one entitled "Venezuela: Investigate Killings of Demonstrators." In it, HRW did not join the chorus of media and U.S. government representatives in claiming that the deaths during the coup were caused by Chavez and his supporters. These releases, not to mention the non-public activism we do, hardly constitutes "playing dead."

Al corrects:

The second press release was even worse. Here is a link for the benefit of my readers:

Instead of calling for justice for the coup plotters, HRW diverted the issue to the events prior to the coup. In fact, to my knowledge HRW has never called for bringing the coup plotters to justice, nor complained about the impunity offered them by the old guard judges.

My friend and colleague Mario Menendez told me at the hour of that terrible coup: "This is when we find out who is who. At moments of extreme crisis is when people reveal their true characters."

And, boy, was he right about that.

At the moment of crisis, HRW and Vivanco did hide under their desks, and behind those "press releases." They recognized an illegitimate "authority" as legitimate. They failed to call for the removal of that dictatorial regime. They failed to call on other nations and the OAS to refuse to recognize it. They failed to call for invoking the OAS Democratic Charter for the one event it was intended to prevent. And after the dust settled and the people restored their elected president, HRW and Vivanco tried to change the subject from the priority of bringing the coup plotters to justice, with a smokescreen over the demonstrations and shootings before the coup.

To me, HRW and Vivanco showed their true characters at that moment: No longer friends of human rights, but enemies.

And I'll also add that Vivanco revealed himself a hypocrite and a coward in those days of moral crisis. Who was it that said: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis"? Vivanco and HRW remained neutral on the central question of that crisis: to oppose the coup regime's legitimacy, or to shrink from that duty. Vivanco and HRW shrunk from it, and continue to shrink from it, this past week's grandstanding a case in point.

How the hell can HRW call for invoking the OAS Democratic Charter over a technicality today when it refused to do so over a coup d'etat yesterday? HRW lost any claim to moral high ground in those days of crisis.

And the only path to begin to restore that lost credibility is to clean out its own corrupted "judge," Jose Vivanco. (And, no, he does not deserve a hearing on it. Again, we are speaking of a "firing," not a firing squad.)

Martin Austermuhle writes:

As for the community journalists in Venezuela, we did write a letter to Alfredo Pena after CatiaTV was shut down.

Al replies:

If that was done, well, okay: HRW did one thing right among all the things it has done, and continues to do, wrong regarding Venezuela. But I salute you for that one little statement. Was there any follow-up, by the way? Or was that it?

Martin Austermuhle writes:

Any lack on HRW's part of coverage of events you note is not because the organization in conspiring with the powers that be to overlook obvious human rights violations--there is only so much an 8-person division can do to document every violation that occurs in a continent as large as Latin America.

Al replies:

I am not alleging a "conspiracy." I am instead accusing Jose Vivanco of operating from an undisclosed ideological bias. Vivanco, for whatever his ideological reasons, wants the democratically elected government of Venezuela to fall by any means necessary. He has transparently revealed his position time and time again, abusing the luster of "human rights" to tear down what is pro-human rights, and prop up what is anti-human rights. And it is obvious to everyone south of the border. Everyone.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

3) "To most Latin Americans, Human Rights Watch has become a cruel and hypocritical joke."

You can speak for yourself, but please do not try to associate your opinions with larger groups or trends in regional opinion unless you have the evidence to support it.

Al replies:

Ha! I'm a reporter. It's my job to talk with everyone, and especially to listen to everyone. Go to any human rights hotspot in the hemisphere and ask around! Go to Chiapas. Go to Venezuela. Go to Bolivia. And walk with the masses, as I do. Interview the political prisoners, and the families of slain social fighters, as I do. You will find corroboration of my claim from every corner.

You previously said that when you take your annual vacation to Venezuela that you don't associate with either the Chavistas or the opposition. Well, given how polarized the country is, you must not talk to anybody! Maybe you should choose which side you're on. You would at least learn half the story. Right now, you are woefully ignorant of both sides. All you know is Washington's side, where Jose Vivanco and Roger Noriega advocate the exact same position.

Martin Austermuhle writes:

4) "And, point of fact, Uribe made specific reference to Colombian and local human rights groups, unaffiliated with HRW, when he made that 'Marxist' crack."

Again, read and research, amigo. I never said Uribe has said this of HRW--but his former Minister of Interior had a tendency to call Vivanco "el marxista chileno", just like Uribe said that our actions aided terrorism in Colombia. Salvatore Mancuso, one of the AUC chiefs, has also said HRW is a "marxist" organization, while the FARC opines that we represent the American empire. My point in bringing this up is that HRW is regularly criticized by politicians of both left and right for being either "marxists" or "mercenaries of imperialism." A university professor in Venezuela went so far yesterday as to call Vivanco a "vocero de Bush." HRW manages to ruffle feathers both left and right because its work does not heed political affiliation--whether left or right, a human rights violation is a human rights violation.

For being such a bureucratic and contemptuous organization, HRW continues to lead the fight in defending human rights around the world. You made no mention of our work in exposing atrocities in the Sudan, nor our consistent fight against abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. I would also like you to read our recent report on child soldiers in Colombia, and then offer an opinion on our dedication to principle over politics, or our work in fighting for independent journalists to be able to report the truth in Cuba (something I imagine you would sympathize with).

And finally, I listed my history and affiliations not to impress you or ask for help, but to let you understand that I am not simply an American human rights bureaucrat. I do not hold an American passport, and the greater part of my life has been spent south of the border. I do not claim to be a wise man for this, but I also would like to think I know a little more about these issues that any random armchair intellectual would.


Martin Austermuhle
From somewhere deep in empire

Al replies:

That sounds like a lot of self-deluded, self-aggrandizing, bullshit to me. HRW can't point to a single success or victory in Latin America, and certainly not in Venezuela, in this century. The story of Human Rights Watch in the 21st century in Latin America is a story of failure. Why? I repeat: that after the April 2002 coup, and the cowardly, anti-human rights, behavior of Vivanco and company, HRW lost all credibility down here among anyone with credibility. You (meaning HRW) may be convenient to Juan Forero or Gustavo Cisneros or to Roger Noriega. But don't kid yourselves into thinking you are promoting human rights in Venezuela or in the hemisphere.

Finally, I do thank you for responding and for the dialogue. I'm sure it has been and will continue, as it is archived, to be edifying for many who haven't thought about these questions of HRW and its role in Latin America as much as you or I have. That said, you should know that folks are already chuckling far and wide about the cowardly bureaucrat Jose Vivanco again: still hiding under his desk, he has to hide behind an intern now to defend him!

At some point, really, you interns should consider leading the charge to clean up the $22 million-dollar-a-year simulation of "human rights" that you work for. The fight for human rights, Martin, begins at home. What Human Rights Watch needs is a Daniel Ellsberg. C'mon Martin (and anyone else in there reading this)! Get us the internal documents that show the biases and intentions that the sterilized press releases fail to show. And send those documents to Narco News.

If you really love Human Rights Watch, you'll give it that tough love right now.

From somewhere in a country called América,

Al Giordano

Delusions of Grandeur

This is what we call, in Washington-lingo, being "pragmatic."

That was it, for me, in a nutshell. It implies that HRW has something of value to trade; that they are dealing with the US government on something close to equal footing, and that the US government would even notice a HRW 'compromise', and offer something back in exchange for that concession.

The view from Austermuhle's ivory tower must be spectacular indeed.

Stratfor: State Dept works "through" HRW

The State Department/Pentagon mouthpiece newsletter Stratfor (subscription only) is, as I've said before, not always a reliable "intelligence source" as it claims, because its claims always bolster Washington agendas around the world. If the State Department is for somebody or something, Stratfor is for it. If the State Department is against somebody or something, Stratfor stokes the rumor mill to disparage them.

But sometimes, just sometimes, Stratfor is sloppy enough not to hide that fact... and its knowledge about who else is cheerleading for State.

Last night, Stratfor put out an alert about yesterday's Senate "hearing" (only three U.S. Senators showed up) on Venezuela's upcoming referendum. The Narco News Team was there, as you will see in a moment. But here's an interesting excerpt from Stratfor's alert, regarding Human Rights Watch (whose knowingly dishonest director of the Americas Division, Jose Miguel Vivanco, testified at the hearing):

The hearing sent Chavez and his opponents in Venezuela a strong message that the United States, the OAS and other international entities are keeping a close watch on developments in Caracas. The hearing also
showed how the State Department is trying to keep pressure on Chavez through the OAS, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Carter Center and the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch...

Interesting. NGOs (formerly known as "Non-Governmental Organizations") are considered by Stratfor to be vessels for the State Department to "keep the pressure on Chavez." And that's from inside the State Department camp.

Also present at yesterday's hearing was Narco News School of Authentic Journalism professor Jeremy Bigwood.

One of the leading escualido websites,, noted:

Jeremy Bigwood, who revealed that the National Endowment for Democracy had provided funding for opposition groups, ambled in holding a camera. This time, he was wearing his photographer’s hat. Last year, when he interviewed me in Washington, he told me that he was writing an article for UPI. When he took my picture before the hearing, I walked over and introduced myself. He was taken off-guard, because in his hat as a photographer, Mr. Bigwood is a discreet man. This time, he said he was working “independently”. Then he walked over and sat on the floor right in front of the senators. During the hearing, I was bemused by the irony that the man responsible for their discussion on NED funding and the ensuing arrest warrants against Sumate was curled up inches away from their toes.  After the hearing, Bigwood walked up and said that he remembered me, before saying goodbye. This morning, a relative Googled him. It turns out that on October 26, 2001, he was denied press credentials on Capitol Hill because the media outlet he represented was “too editorial”.  When he represents himself, he is even more so. Today his photographs appeared in the government-funded vheadline site. So much for independence.

The incompetent oligarch who wrote that is named Alexandra Beech. She got virtually everything wrong (as usual) except the fact that makes us proud: yes, Bigwood did dig up the documents proving that the Venezuela opposition group SUMATE (which coordinated the referendum drive to oust Chavez) was on the U.S. government payroll, and therefore broke Venezuelan law against electoral groups receiving foreign money (the United States has the same law: If any U.S. referendum group had taken money from a foreign government, the response by the law would be the same).

That Beech thus blames the journalist for the consequences of actions that her escualido friends took to corrupt themselves and make themselves agents of a foreign power, simply indicates Beech's own inherent hostility to a free press.

Additionally, she is sloppy at her own practice of website reporting...

- Beech claims that in 2001 Bigwood was denied press credentials in the U.S. Congress (but neglects to qualify her remarks by informing the reader that Bigwood, after his credentials application on behalf of In These Times had been rejected, was able to attend the very same hearing anyway.

And here's a cute (but typically false) accusation...

- Beech claims that Bigwood's photographs appearing on the Vheadline website make him a Venezuela government tool because, she says, Vheadline gets money from the government.

I can't speak to the truth or falsity of what she claims about Vheadline... Perhaps someone else here could clarify that charge... But I do know that Bigwood wasn't paid anything by Vheadline because he's giving away his photographs of yesterday's hearing for free!

Check it out:

There, Bigwood writes:

Free download for web or email for one week. After that contact:

So Beech, with the lack of logic that characterizes almost everything she pens, takes a case in which a journalist offers his photos for free to anyone without regard to political affiliation (including, I might add, to the escualidos like Beech) and Beech distorts it to imply that it makes the journalist paid indirectly by a government. Is she an idiot? Or is she just sloppy in her deceit? It has to be one or the other.

Great photos too! A veritable rogues gallery including Roger Noriega and Jose Vivanco! Stratfor says the first one's agency works "through" the second one's.

Stratfor's been wrong before, but being another State Department house organ, if anyone knows who the State Department works "through" in Latin America, it's them.

Add comment

Our Policy on Comment Submissions: Co-publishers of Narco News (which includes The Narcosphere and The Field) may post comments without moderation. A ll co-publishers comment under their real name, have contributed resources or volunteer labor to this project, have filled out this application and agreed to some simple guidelines about commenting.

Narco News has recently opened its comments section for submissions to moderated comments (that’s this box, here) by everybody else. More than 95 percent of all submitted comments are typically approved, because they are on-topic, coherent, don’t spread false claims or rumors, don’t gratuitously insult other commenters, and don’t engage in commerce, spam or otherwise hijack the thread. Narco News reserves the right to reject any comment for any reason, so, especially if you choose to comment anonymously, the burden is on you to make your comment interesting and relev ant. That said, as you can see, hundreds of comments are approved each week here. Good luck in your comment submission!

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

User login


Reporters' Notebooks

name) { $notebooks[] = l($row->name, 'blog/' . $row->uid); } } print theme('item_list', $notebooks); ?>

About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.