The Russo-Venezuelan Human Rights Playbook


José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, has published an opinion article in today’s Washington Post criticizing the human rights abuses of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  Although I am certainly influenced by the fact that I represent political prisoners in both Russia and Venezuela, I can’t help but read Vivanco’s piece and see some strong comparative parallels between the processes, trends, and methodologies used by both Vladimir Putin and his Latin American counterpart with respect to managing their human rights and democratic shortcomings. 

The growing convergence of the Russia-Venezuela relationship is one that should be obvious just from the newspaper headlines.  No sooner had Chávez made his relatively small nation of 26 million citizens the #1 buyer of Russian arms worldwide (according to a SIPRI report, there was a 900% increase in arms purchases by Caracas in 2004-2008), does Sec. of State Hillary Clinton start talking about the urgent need to counter the rise of Iranian, Chinese, and especially Russian (because only Moscow has talked about establishing military bases) influence in Latin America.  Before all of this, we had Gazprom and Rosneft being gifted with Orinoco development licenses by PDVSA (many of them stripped away from previous owners), followed shortly by a naval exercise media circus.  Venezuela was also proud to become the host of Latin America’s only Kalashnikov factory … though sometimes a few hundred thousand of these arms go to FARC missing.

In her comments yesterday, Secretary Clinton appeared to be taking care not to fall into the “spheres of influence” narrative so favored by the Russians, who one would assume have probably tabled an offer to pull out of Venezuela and cut off the flow of arms in exchange for completely abandoning Georgia (however many recall how this gambit didn’t really work out).  Clinton openly recognized that we live in a “multi-polar world,” and one in which Latin America is nobody’s back yard.  Instead, the Secretary is tasked with the difficult job of figuring out to mitigate risk and regional instability in the Western hemisphere while still defending the rights of all sovereign states to seek whichever relationships they choose – hopefully by convincing regional leaders of the costs and benefits of the relationships they choose.

Secretary Clinton talked about exploring “new approaches” to effectively handle the incursion ofRussian guns, Chinese money, and Iranian Hiz’bullah cells into LatinAmerica, and a good place to start would be with a careful consideration of Vivanco’s characterization of the Chavista methodology – one that I would argue is very much in operation in Russia as well (in fact, one high ranking diplomat commented to me this week that with Russia and Venezuela “sometimes it’s hard to tell who is copying who“).

Vivanco writes that the Chávez government has “neutralized the judiciary as anindependent branch of government” and that the regulatory authorities and anti-corruption apparatus has been turned into a weapon against its opponents.  There’s a good argument that the Russians were the first ones to really pull a coup over the courts, with the best example being the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on preposterous charges – propagated by the truly corrupt individuals who stole hundreds of millions from Yukos shareholders.  However, in Russia the courts aren’t limited to being just a weapon against the opposition, but also an instrument of theft – just ask Royal Dutch Shell of BP how fair they think the regulatory authorities have been and how these problems seem to disappear as soon as you sell to the state.

Like Putin, Vivanco writes that Chávez uses some tried and true methods to “deflect criticism of his authoritarian policies” – namely by the constant and unending portrayal of his opponents as allied with the United States in some sort of complex coup attempt or assassination conspiracy (even Evo Morales is starting to get in on this one).  As David Satter explained in one of the recent video interviews we’ve posted to his blog, Russia also has frequently sought its role as “a beseiged fortress,” with a message for citizens that a clampdown on their rights is necessary measure for their own security.

Vivanco relates the experience of PROVEA, a respected NGO, who was accused by Chávez of being “liars” who were “paid in dollars.”  This is directly resonant of Putin’s denunciation of the opposition as “scavenging jackals” who take the money of foreign governments.  Apparently to disagree with the all-powerful government in either of these countries is 100% synonymous with betrayal and treachery at the knees of the enemy.

When Vivanco published HRW’s excellent report on Venezuela last year, which included details on the horrendous use of “blacklists” by the Chávez to discriminate against anyone who signed a referendum against him, he was forcibly detained by security services and ejected from the country.  Venezuela did not exactly copy Russia in this case – at least in Moscow they were smart enough to deny the visa beforehand to HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth.  The main reason for the denial of visa was HRW publishing on Russia’s democracy charade – specifically attacking Vladislav Surkov’s rhetorical games to put adjectives and window dressing around an authoritarian system.

Vivanco concludes his article with the following comment on President Barack Obama’s decision to greet Chávez with a smile and handshake:  “Obama’s symbolic gestures were essential to setting the stage for suchmeaningful engagement. If his administration follows through as itshould, the next time Chávez tries to label all human rights criticismas a U.S. conspiracy, few people in the region will take him seriously.

Is that we are also waiting for with “reset button” diplomacy?

The comparisons could go on and on, from attacks on the media,aggressive use of propaganda, doublespeak, oil nationalizations, gascartels, and much, much more.  However the most important lessons todistill from the Russo-Venezuelan convergence will relate to howeffective Washington can conceptualize and call upon both countries’supposed interest in engagement within a “multilateral system” – one inwhich the rules apply to everybody.  I would venture to speculate thatthe word “multilateral” has a completely different meaning in the hallsof power of Caracas and Moscow than it does elsewhere, and the time isrunning out for these leaders to continue perpetuating our disbelief.