Even as President Hugo Chávez slowly recovers in Cuba from cancer surgery, one of his most prominent sources of intellectual inspiration, the American linguist Noam Chomsky, is asking Mr. Chávez to show compassion for another Venezuelan facing a health battle of her own.
In a public letter to be distributed here on Sunday, Mr.
Chomsky urges Mr. Chávez to free from house arrest María Lourdes Afiuni, a
judge arrested in December 2009 by the president’s secret intelligence police.
At the time of her arrest, Mr. Chávez said on national television that she
would have been put before a firing squad in earlier times.
Judge Afiuni, 48, spent more than a year in a women’s
prison where other prisoners threatened to kill her and tried to force her
In February, she underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy
at a cancer hospital here and was moved to house arrest. She is still
prohibited from speaking to the news media.
Judge Afiuni’s arrest increased concern here over the
intimidation of judges and the nation’s lack of judicial independence.
Mr. Chomsky’s decision to go public with a request for
her release came after months of quiet mediation on the case between
the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, which
asked Mr. Chomsky last year to intervene, and senior government officials.
“We’re just requesting clemency on humanitarian grounds,”
Mr. Chomsky, a prominent left-wing political commentator, said in a telephone
interview. “She was treated quite badly; there’s no real dispute about that.”
While Mr. Chomsky said her living conditions had improved under house arrest,
he cited the “fragility of the charges” against her and called for her release.
Mr. Chávez ordered Judge Afiuni’s arrest after she freed
a businessman jailed on charges of circumventing currency controls. His
pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuela’s legal limits, and the judge
said she was following United Nations guidance.
Mr. Chomsky’s public involvement puts Mr. Chávez in a
difficult situation. Mr. Chávez has lauded Mr. Chomsky’s political writings,
holding up a copy of his “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global
Dominance,” a critique of American foreign policy, in a 2006 appearance at the
State media here publish interviews with Mr. Chomsky on a
range of issues, and Últimas Notícias, a widely circulated newspaper, runs a
column Mr. Chomsky writes. Mr. Chávez met with him here in 2009, and this
year put Mr. Chomsky’s name forward as a possible United States ambassador to
Referring to Mr. Chomsky as “someone whose voice could be
heard in Venezuela,” Leonardo Vivas, coordinator of the Latin American
initiative at the Carr Center, said Mr. Chomsky had been quick to accept the
Regarding the president’s own serious health problems,
which Mr. Chávez disclosed Thursday in a short televised address from Havana,
Mr. Chomsky said he wished him a swift and complete recovery.
Mr. Chomsky’s willingness to press for Judge Afiuni’s
release shows how the president’s aggressive policies toward the judiciary have
stirred unease among some who are generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez’s
socialist-inspired political movement.
As early as 2004, human rights groups expressed concern
over policies here aimed at stripping the Supreme Court of its autonomy and undermining
judicial independence. Mr. Chávez and his followers exert control over every
political institution of importance in Venezuela, including the Supreme Court,
the National Assembly and Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company.
“I hope that a move toward clemency with Judge Afiuni
would be a step towards the importance of maintaining a properly functioning
justice system,” Mr. Chomsky said in the interview. He also pointed out that
Venezuela was not alone in facing a situation in which judges felt a sense of
intimidation in carrying out their duties.
Mr. Chomsky went further in his public letter about Judge
Afiuni, drafted with the help of the Carr Center. “The dramatic erosion of her
health and the cruelty displayed against her, all duly documented, left me
greatly worried about her physical and psychological well-being, as well as
about her personal safety,” he wrote.