As Americans, we operate from a position of privileged naivete, a kind of concrete operational thinking: we believe things are what they are called especially when it comes to public life. If someone reads us a bill called “No Child Left Behind”, we go ahead and assume it will help children. If an act named the “Help America Vote Act” passes, we expect that our elections just got better. The Heritage Foundation is surely an organization that has something to do with colonial hardiness and a can-do spirit. There is nothing more sad than we are when we learn, against all reason, that NCLB is a hijacking of our schools by privateers or that HAVA makes our elections vastly more vulnerable or that The Heritage Foundation is a right wing propaganda mill that is every day finding better ways to funnel our tax money into corporate wallets with a nakedness that Lady Godiva could only aspire to.
So, when we read in the American press that two officials from Human Rights Watch have been booted out of Venezuela, our first thought will not be, “what did they do”. It won’t be. We expect people who work for Human Rights Watch to, well, watch human rights. They have a web site and everything, just like Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. And maybe that kind of optimism, that positive expectation, has its value in these difficult days. But it’s misplaced if one is trying to understand what is going on in Venezuela, in Latin America and in our relationships with both as the Bush administration is shaping them. Or, misshaping them.
Human Rights Watch is not a merely group of concerned citizens monitoring human rights any more than the Heritage Foundation is a think tank that seeks to preserve traditional American values, despite their website’s claim. Their board and donors come from the bedrock of the US political power establishment. So, there’s that.
And then, there’s the matter of our intelligence services hanging out in NGOs. (I suppose, our overseas operatives can’t all work at the local embassy.) A friend of mine from El Salvador reminds me that during the war, a planeful of “humanitarian workers” was shot down and apparently, somehow it was full of US government operatives instead. It was shot down close to the capital and Rolando believes it was the government, not the guerillas, that shot it down. The government had had enough of the “Peace Corps” meddling with their affairs, allies or not. The few survivors of the crash were executed on the spot, it was later determined. Guerillas didn’t operate that close to San Salvador during the war, so this was a terrible case of a US client state sending back a message to Washington.
More recently, as Amy Goodman has reported, arriving Peace Corps volunteers and young visiting scholars were solicited to spy for our government when they went to be briefed at our embassy in Bolivia. They were there for a welcome to the country and instead, they were told to spy on Venezuelans and on Cubans. It must be very upsetting to believe you are in Bolivia to work on hunger or to write a study on literacy and then to have your own Ambassador direct you to violate the trust of the very people you look forward to working with. These kids hadn’t even unpacked before they were enlisted to violate international law.
Regardless, they were caught up in the Bush administration machinations that last week resulted in our ambassadors to Bolivia and to Venezuela being asked to leave. There is evidence that the Bush government has been backing the white separatists in Bolivia, the same ones that went on a genocidal rampage recently. The latest coup plot discovered in Venezuela, at the same moment as the uprising in Bolivia, came with a taped discussion of American support.
In short, the Bush government has accelerated its attempts to destabilize democracy both in Bolivia and in Venezuela in the last two weeks and, they got caught. It was into this already turbulent, even deadly, landscape that Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch decided to release his 10 year review of Venezuela five months early.
There is nothing in this new report that is new, let alone so urgent that it justified an early release by five months. Vivanco repeats past criticism of the Chavez government regarding the judiciary, the media and labor unions and his critique doesn’t bear inspection. These are old chestnuts. Vivanco’s blustering about the judiciary has been debunked; it’s exactly how FDR rehabilitated a stacked Supreme Court. Vivanco’s support for the Uribe government, which leads the world in murdering labor organizers, disqualifies him from commenting ever again on the state of Venezuela’s official relations with labor unions. His championing of RCTV, who tried to get Chavez killed during the 2002 coup they hosted in their studio, has been rebutted by F.A.I.R. and condemned by leading intellectuals around the world.
It’s an easy matter to determine that Mr. Vivanco has a pattern of sticking his oar into Venezuelan internal affairs at politically sensitive times. All you have to do is look for a vote any time during his tenure in that country and his name comes up in the press. Wilkinson, his deputy, is less overtly partisan. His work combines the color of a travelogue with the mannerisms of an academic writer. But, his core positions on Venezuela seem to be identical to Vivanco’s if his February 2008 article in The Nation is any indication. The same discredited complaints are trotted out with nothing new to recommend them and they are awash in a romanticized pessimism that would astonish community organizers in Caracas.
Vivanco’s pattern of disruptions are, of course, nowhere in the two spammed articles that reported his expulsion from Venezuela over the weekend. But, the American press seems to trust the Bush government and its adjuncts with all things Venezuelan and has once again simply passed on and proliferated the official story. I wish my betters in the press corpse would wake up and smell the disinformation. Last November, they printed the story that the Venezuelan referendum would not have election monitors. They knew because the State Department said so. That turned out to be embarrassingly wrong: the NAACP and National Lawyers’ Guild were on the job by invitation.. More recently, they forwarded the story that one or more captured FARC laptops – that survived US-guided direct bombing hits as miraculously as a hijacker’s passport – contained damning emails from Chavez proving he was funding the guerillas. Greg Palast made short work of that rumor but the bureaus never turned a hair. They were on to reporting without any self-consciousness at all that Venezuela and Bolivia were not doing their part in the War on Drugs. Their sources were Bush administration “officials” who apparently forget at their convenience that the world’s largest suppliers of drugs, Colombia and Afghanistan, are both American client states.
So on Friday, the talking point was: Chavez has expelled two human rights workers. That these two men have been more active in critiquing Chavez politically than in observing the steadily improving state of human rights in Venezuela never caused the smallest ripple in the coverage. These HRW representatives have repeatedly timed their critiques to coincide with Bush administration attacks on the Chavez government at sensitive moments. Nobody in the media seems to be noticing that they have done exactly what they have been accused of by the Chavez government, of meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs, although anyone with a search engine and an hour to search has access to that information. The coverage hasn’t once ruffled the cover.
It’s saddening to find that Human Rights Watch is not exempt from the long history of US government "tampering by NGO". Human Rights Watch has allowed Mr. Vivanco to so misconstrue and overstep his mission in Venezuela that the organization itself has lost credibility and a great deal of good will. The decisions HRW makes going forward will determine if that organization is ever able to recover the good name it has so casually sacrificed in service of an openly political agenda and in the last chaotic, destructive days of the Bush disaster.
There is, though, a sort of wonderful image floating around the internet -- a direct result of the last few weeks of the war on democracy in Latin America, as John Pilger calls it. It is a long rather than tall photograph of twelve Latin American leaders flanking Evo Morales, showing their support for him during this last violent attack on his goverment by the Bush Government and the interests Bush fronts. Mr. Chavez is off to the left, waving but not asking for focus. President Morales is in the center, smiling quietly. I've never seen such a strong show of solidarity among democratic Latin American leaders in my lifetime. When you look at this photograph, you can't help but think of that Obama campaign slogan: Not this time.
Maybe the good people at Human Rights Watch should take a look.