The abrupt expulsion of two respected human rights monitors from Venezuela last week is the latest evidence that President Hugo Chavez is determined to muzzle dissenting views. Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, and deputy director Daniel Wilkinson were seized at their hotel and forcibly expelled "as if we were common criminals," Vivanco said later.
The organization had just issued a 230-page report detailing the accelerating loss of political freedom under Chavez during his almost 10 years in office, including actions intended to intimidate the media and undermine freedom of expression. Nothing could have proved the point so aptly as expelling representatives of an organization dedicated to promoting and expanding human rights throughout the hemisphere.
Chavez never misses an opportunity to rail against the United States, but his real enemies are those who dare to take issue with his politics. His antidemocratic agenda has restricted legitimate political activity by his opponents for years, and his arbitrary behavior is getting worse.
As Americas Watch noted, he often denounces critics as "antidemocratic conspirators and coup-mongers." His supine Supreme Court last month upheld a measure that prohibits more than 250 people, mostly Chavez critics, from running for office while the government investigates them for corruption. Foiled by a popular vote that refused to widen his executive authority, Chavez the democrat became Chavez the dictator and issued 26 decrees last month tightening his grip on power.
One such "law" allows him to name regional political leaders funded by the central government who would compete with elected officials in exercising power. This will bedevil Chavez opponents who have been elected to office.
The Americas Watch report tells an alarming story about the way in which Chavez has undermined if not destroyed Venezuela's democratic institutions, from the courts to the news media. Castro-style "insult" laws and toughened penalties for ill-defined "incitement" provisions have been used to intimidate independent news outlets. Meanwhile, state control of broadcasting outlets has expanded.
The Human Rights representatives were expelled, the government said, for "illegally meddling in the internal affairs" of Venezuela. More likely, they were expelled for telling the truth in a country where doing so offends the powerful. In declaring that his government won't put up with criticism of its human rights record, Chavez is unwittingly conceding that his country is on the road to extinguishing these rights.