Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 58. Chavez saw himself as a socialist revolutionary and undertook economic reforms aimed at (according to him) improving the lives of Venezuela’s poor.
However, like his friends Castro and Ahmadinejad, Chavez was deeply authoritarian. During his more than 14 years as Venezuela’s president, Chavez ruled through decree, intimidated political opponents and attempted to silence his critics.
Here are some highlights (or, rather, lowlights) of Chavez’s human rights record:
Independence of the Judiciary
According to Freedom House, in Venezuela “the separation of powers is virtually nonexistent.” In particular, the independence of the judiciary eroded under Chavez, to the point where courts rarely ruled against the government. Judges who did issue rulings contrary to the regime could be fired, or even arrested.
In 2009, Venezuelan police arrested Judge María Lourdes Alfiuni on “corruption” and other charges for ordering the conditional release of a prisoner. This move was criticized by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Department of State. Noam Chomsky, a longtime supporter of Chavez’s, called the arrest an “assault on democracy.”
“[T]he lack of independence and autonomy of the judiciary with respect to the political branches constitutes one of the weakest points of democracy in Venezuela, a situation that seriously hinders the free exercise of human rights in Venezuela. In the Commission’s judgment, it is this lack of independence that has allowed the use of the State’s punitive power in Venezuela to criminalize human rights defenders, judicialize peaceful social protest, and persecute political dissidents through the criminal system.”
Freedom of Speech
Chavez’s government targeted numerous critics for arrest, often justifying the arrests with bogus or trumped-up charges.
In the case of Globovision owner Guillermo Zuloaga, he was arrested for “spreading false information” and “offending the president” for condemning Chavez’s assaults on free speech.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that Zuloaga’s arrest “evidences the lack of independence of the judiciary and the utilization of the criminal justice system to punish criticism, producing an intimidating effect that extends to all of society.”
In the same week that Zuloaga was arrested, opposition politician Oswaldo Álvarez Paz was arrested, also on charges of “spreading false information”, for calling Venezuela a “haven” for drug traffickers.
Amnesty International spokesperson Guadalupe Marengo summarized the above cases thusly:
“Charges brought for political reasons against critics are being used to silence dissent and prevent others from speaking out.”
Freedom of the Press
The press in Venezuela has been categorized as “Not Free” by Freedom House, while Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 117th out of 179 countries for press freedom in its 2013 report.
According to Freedom House:
“While freedoms of speech and the press are constitutionally guaranteed, the legal environment is characterized by standing threats of arbitrary detention, charges, fines, and sentences, as well as license manipulation and other administrative harassment aimed at opposition media, primarily broadcast stations and daily newspapers.”
In 2010 the Venezuelan government issued a gag order to prevent the El Nacional newspaper from publishing statistics on street crime. Yet another newspaper was ordered to stop publication after publishing a satirical article about high-ranking female officials.
The 2010 revision of the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media expanded the government’s broadcast control powers to the Internet and included numerous vaguely worded restrictions on speech.
According to Freedom House, the law banned any messages that “‘incite or promote hatred,’ ‘foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order,’ ‘disrespect authorities,’ ‘encourage assassination,’ or ‘constitute war propaganda,'” as well as messages that “‘promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order’ or ‘are contrary to the security of the nation.'”
In 2006, Chavez announced that he was revoking the broadcast license of the Radio Caracas Television network (RCTV), which had featured regular criticism of Chavez and had encouraged the protestors who briefly ousted him from power in 2002.
Additionally, since Chavez took office in 1999, all Venezuelan television networks have been required to broadcast live government messages, a policy that, according to Freedom House, “is indicative of the government’s unremitting effort to exert control over the Venezuelan media sector.”
Venezuela is also lacking in the area of democratic freedoms. According to Freedom House, “While the act of voting is relatively free and the count has become fairer since 2006, the political playing field favors government-backed candidates.”
Although regular elections were held during Chavez’s presidency, the government made sure that any candidate who stood a chance of beating him was barred from participating.
Chavez’s government transformed numerous private companies into state-owned enterprises, including telephone companies, utilities, the nation’s largest producer of steel, as well as much of the nation’s cement industry. And according to Freedom House, “the government continues to threaten to nationalize businesses deemed to lack commitment to revolutionary goals.”
Chavez’s economic policy also included strict price controls on food, which caused shortages and hoarding, as well as tax increases on products like alcohol and cigarettes.
The Heritage Foundation ranked Venezuela 174th out of 177 countries for economic freedom in its 2012 report. The World Bank ranked Venezuela 180th out of 185 countries on its 2013 Ease of Doing Business Index, indicating a very unfriendly regulatory environment.
For liberals who liked Chavez’s social programs but disliked his “strongman” tactics, he truly does leave a mixed legacy. However, for libertarians his legacy is typical of modern heads of state:
Chavez expanded the power of the state over the individual and–by any objective measure–left the nation less free than it was when he took office.
In that respect, Chavez was bad…but he was no worse than (for example) Franklin D. Roosevelt–in fact, FDR may have even been worse than Chavez. (Both FDR and Chavez undertook massive economic reforms, and both were elected president four times.)
And Chavez was certainly nowhere near as oppressive as his hero Fidel Castro.
So despite being (to put it bluntly) a colossal dick, Hugo Chavez was not the worst foreign head of state to govern in the last decade–he was just louder and more visible than your average third-world tyrant. (And let’s not forget the oil.)