The human rights branch of the Organization of American States issued a blistering 300-page report Wednesday morning against one of its members, Venezuela, saying that the oil-rich country run by President Hugo Chavez constrains free expression, the rights of Venezuelans to protest and the ability of opposition politicians to function.
The report is expected to draw a sharp response from the firebrand leader, a former army colonel who in 2008 expelled two Human Rights Watch investigators after they released a critical report in Caracas. Chavez has in the past railed against the OAS as beholden to the interests of the United States, a country he calls an empire with diabolical designs on Venezuela.
The OAS report, compiled and written by the body's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reflects growing concern in the region over how Venezuela is governed. It has added weight because the OAS, which is comprised of 34 countries and based in Washington, has at times been viewed by critics as weak-willed when it comes to making tough pronouncements about the internal machinations in member states.
But six members of the Commission on Human Rights -- jurists and rights activists from Antigua, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and the United States -- put together a detailed report that asserts that democracy is in danger in Venezuela. Point by point, the report asserts that state has punished and silenced critics, among them anti-government television stations, demonstrators and opposition politicians who advocate a form of government different from Chavez's, which is allied with Cuba and favors state intervention in the economy.
The report outlines how, after 11 years in power, the president holds tremendous influence over other branches of government. It delves deeply into the executive's influence over the judiciary. Judges who issue decisions the government does not like can be fired, the report says, while hundreds of others are in provisional posts where they can easily be removed.
The commission said that the government has sidelined opposition candidates, disqualifying them from running for office by leveling charges against them. Some adversaries who have been elected to office, like Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, have seen their powers usurped by the use of a parallel government controlled by the president.
"The threats to human rights and democracy are many and very serious, and that's why we published the report," Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a member of the commission who specializes in Venezuela, said by phone from his home in Brazil. "You have aggressions against journalists, you have judges who are dismissed perhaps because they didn't give favorable decisions to the government, the suspension of radio stations."
Chavez did not have an immediate response to the report. But in a phone interview Wednesday morning, Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, said that the commission had become a "confrontational political actor instead of an advocate for defending human rights."
Chaderton said the commission had shown support for a 2002 failed coup against Chavez -- an accusation denied by the commission -- and that its members had dedicated themselves to weakening progressive social movements in Latin America. "They have become a mafia of bureaucrats who want to play a bigger role in the efforts against Venezuela's government," Chaderton said.
Chavez has frequently characterized his adversaries, from the media to university protesters to opposition politicians, as lackeys of the United States who are out to topple him. He has also defended his government as the world's most democratic.
The commission, in compiling the report, did incorporate the responses provided by Venezuelan authorities to written questionnaires. The government says it permits protests and opposition groups to operate, while focusing much of its energy on improving Venezuelans' standard of living.
Pinheiro said that the commission recognized both the government's progress in areas like poverty reduction and the sustained support Chavez still has among the masses. But Pinheiro said that there can be "no trade off" between political and economic progress. He said that the commission's hope is that the Venezuelan government will take the report seriously and find ways to make improvements.
"This is evidence-based -- it's not just rumor or gossip or the bad humor of the commission," Pinheiro said of the report. "This report, instead of isolating Venezuela, is a call for Venezuela to come on board."
Others who closely track Venezuela, though, said Chavez is not open to criticism and is prone to a disproportionate response when criticized. After releasing a highly critical report about Chavez two years ago, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, and a fellow investigator for the group were detained at their Caracas hotel and escorted by armed agents onto a Brazil-bound flight.
"It would be nice to think the Chavez government would pay attention to the report and try to address the very serious problems it documents," Vivanco said. "But until now, Chavez and his officials have responded to all such criticism by attacking its critics, often using conspiracy theories and far-fetched allegations to distract attention from their own human rights practices."
The Chavez government refused to permit the commission to conduct field work in Venezuela as it worked on the report. The commission instead relied on information gleaned from hearings held in Washington, as well as its own investigations into several high-profile cases involving the media and political figures.
"I think the report offers an honest, balanced photograph of the situation today," said Pinheiro.