On September 18, we released a report in Caracas that shows how President Hugo Chávez has undermined human rights guarantees in Venezuela. That night, we returned to our hotel and found around twenty Venezuelan security agents, some armed and in military uniform, awaiting us outside our rooms. They were accompanied by a man who announced—with no apparent sense of irony—that he was a government “human rights” official and that we were being expelled from the country.
With government cameramen filming over his shoulder, the official did his best to act as if he were merely upholding the law. When we said we needed to gather our belongings, he calmly told us not to worry, his men had already entered our rooms and “packed” our bags.
But when we tried to use our cell phones to get word to our families, our colleagues, and the press, the veneer of protocol quickly gave way. Security agents surrounded us, pried the phones from our hands, and removed and pocketed the batteries. When we then insisted on contacting our embassies, they shoved us into a service elevator, took us to the basement, and forced us into the back seat of an SUV with tinted windows. When we asked where we were headed, they told us only that we were going to the airport.
Three security agents sat behind us, at least two with weapons drawn. One used a cell phone to receive and relay orders as we raced through the streets of Caracas and out onto a highway. At one point an order came to turn on the SUV’s radio so we could listen as the state news agency announced our expulsion. The announcers told their captive audience—which also included every other Venezuelan listening to the radio, since all stations are required to broadcast such messages—that our organization was funded by the US government and that we were part of a campaign of aggression against Venezuela.
Human Rights Watch does not and has never accepted funding from the US or any government, directly or indirectly. But we are accustomed to such false accusations, especially coming from authoritarian governments. Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denounced us as CIA stooges, right-wing partisans, and, more commonly, “mercenaries of the empire.” (By contrast, in neighboring Colombia, officials have repeatedly sought to discredit us with labels like Communist, guerrilla sympathizer, and even terrorist.) Once, after releasing another report in Caracas, one of us was publicly and falsely accused by Chávez’s vice-president of having collaborated with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This time, a close Chávez ally in the legislature suggested on national TV that the two of us had been sharing a single hotel room where we were indulging our “weaknesses.”
The official reason we were given for our expulsion was that we had violated the constitution by criticizing the government while on tourist visas. It was a curious allegation since our immigration cards included a “business” box, which we had dutifully checked off …