Venezuela proves intolerant to criticism

During his weekly television and radio address a year ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez warned that foreigners who criticize him or his administration while visiting the country would be expelled. Chávez ordered officials to scrutinize statements by foreign public figures and deport any outspoken critics. While analysts thought this declaration was yet another instance of the president’s charged rhetoric, the expulsion of two Human Rights Watch (HRW) activists from the country on Thursday proved them wrong. 

Hours after HRW’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco and his deputy, Daniel Wilkinson, slammed Venezuela’s human rights record during the presentation of their report  “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela,” the government ordered their immediate deportation. In a public statement, the Ministry of Foreign Relations said the human rights activists had violated the country’s constitution and laws by attacking democratic institutions, and illegally interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs.”

When Vivanco and Wilkinson arrived at their hotel after the press conference, Venezuelan officials informed them that they must immediately leave the country. Officials said that they had not only violated the constitution but also immigration laws as they entered the country on tourists’ visas. Vivanco later said that they didn’t enter Venezuela on tourists visas, said press reports. 

A veteran foreign correspondent told CPJ he was alarmed. Phil Gunson, who works for The Economist and The Miami Herald from Caracas, said that if the government only allows uncritical opinions, “we could be in trouble.” Though Gunson acknowledged that Venezuela has not so far taken any action against foreign correspondents, the expulsion of human rights activists for their criticism sets an alarming precedent.

 The deportation of HRW’s activists is yet another example of the Venezuelan government’s increasing intolerance to dissent. Chávez’s decision in 2007 not to renew the broadcast concession of Venezuela’s oldest private television station RCTV–the government’s harshest critic–provides the starkest example of the government’s lack of tolerance to different views and opinions.