CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has eroded democracy by stacking the courts and dampening freedom of expression during his nearly 10 years in power, a rights group said on Thursday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch praised Chavez for a 1999 constitution that enshrines basic rights but said the leftist leader and fierce critic of the U.S. government had failed to implement its laws.
The report was published a week after Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador in a tit-for-tat diplomatic fight that also saw Venezuela recall its top diplomat from Washington and prompted the U.S. government to sanction senior Venezuelan officials it accuses of helping drug smugglers.
It prompted an angry reaction from Chavez allies, who view human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations with suspicion and often accuse them of trying to undermine the president.
Human Rights Watch said the biggest single attack on Venezuelan democracy in recent history was a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez, but it criticized the president for using the putsch to justify discrimination against his opponents.
“Unfortunately the Chavez government has exploited it ever since to justify policies that have degraded the country’s democracy,” said the group’s Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco.
He also called for Venezuela to review the naming of 12 additional magistrates to a 20-member Supreme Court, stacking the tribunal in favor of the government.
Government supporters dismissed the report and accused Vivanco of being on the U.S. government payroll.
“This imbecile comes to this country, the splendor of democracy, and speaks of the violation of human rights,” said Saul Ortega, a senior pro-Chavez lawmaker.
Human Rights Watch recognized that Venezuela enjoys a vibrant public debate between pro- and anti-government media but said the government was encouraging self-censorship.
A 2007 decision not to renew the license of a television station that appeared to support the coup, along with a series of tough penalties for speech and broadcasting offenses have had a chilling effect on free speech, the report said.
It also criticized the firing and blacklisting of political opponents from state agencies and from the national oil company.
Millions of people who signed a petition for a recall referendum in 2004 were put on a list that critics say has been used to block them from jobs.
Thousands of oil workers were fired after a shutdown of Venezuela’s oil industry in 2002 and 2003 crippled the economy.
Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Xavier Briand