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It was a Friday in early July when Venezuelan authorities reportedly barged into the Caracas apartment of Ana Maria Abreu, a doctor who had been working in the presidential palace under Chávez since 2000. She was accused of leaking political or military state secrets, although little more is known. According to her attorney, Dr. Abreu, whose brother-in-law is an antigovernment activist, was arrested without a proper order, and for two days was kept from calling relatives or lawyers. Nearly a month later, she was still being detained in the headquarters of the country’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service while her case worked its way toward a Venezuelan court. Abreu is gradually gaining recognition as the state’s latest political prisoner—denied due process and stripped of her basic human rights.

In a country where the government has been denounced for attacking journalists and protesters critical of the socialist government led by President Hugo Chávez, Abreu’s arrest follows a series of acts the international advocacy organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently deemed “precarious.” On July 17, HRW released a 133-page report claiming the Chávez administration abused its power to intimidate political critics and challengers. In its second scathing review of the country since 2008, HRW’s director of the Americas division, José Miguel Vivanco said in a statement, “President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with its political agenda.”

In many ways, Chávez is a walking paradox. On one hand, he’s revered as a stalwart champion of the underdog struggle for indigenous rights. On the other hand, Chávez’s political game borders on an unhealthy dictatorship—one involving a series of alleged human rights violations and a growing track record for kowtowing to multinational greed. Now, the socialist leader is flexing his sovereign might in stepping away from an international court system seen as one of the world’s last remaining venues fighting government corruption. The move, panned by critics yet lauded by Latin American leaders, positioned the president for his third consecutive term, which he got by being reelected in early October.

On July 24, Chávez announced that Venezuela would be quitting its involvement in the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights—the regional judicial system that has long-served, among other roles, as a defender of indigenous issues. In Venezuela, where First Peoples make up roughly two percent of the country’s estimated 29 million people, the commission has in recent years targeted violent land disputes ignited by reckless mining ventures. In 2010, the commission filed a report outlining key recommendations for promoting the practice of free, prior and informed consent—one of the core doctrines of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that enables the participation of villagers concerned about protecting their tribal lands.

But, Chávez is leading a campaign to discredit the commission, along with its sister body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Together, these autonomous judicial actors make up the human rights protection system of the Organization of American States (OAS)—seen by many as a vital force in upholding basic rights and freedoms in the Americas. Since 1959, when the commission began monitoring government-led human rights violations, leaders like Chávez have grown irritated by the international judicial system—a network some Latin American leaders have labeled as a tool of U.S. imperialism.

Screen Shot 2012 11 07 at 10.09.21 PM 615x395 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Turning His Back on the Indigenous Peoples He Once Championed

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, left; Chávez and his new vice-president, Nicolas Máduro; Dr. Abreu, political prisoner (AP)

Chávez’s decision to leave the commission and court has fueled widespread criticism from foreign policymakers, including remarks from the U.N., calling the developments in Venezuela “devastating” for democracy. Detractors also say it comes when human rights protection in the country may be needed most. Current concerns include the country’s burgeoning dependency on an erratic petroleum industry, enmeshed in a political state arrested by militarization. As Venezuela’s democratic institutions continue to teeter, Chávez is largely being called out for abusing his position of power. Many believe the international courts may be the only venue to keep a ruling president like Chávez in check.

Defending ‘Dignity’

Chávez’s decision to pull out of the Inter-American judicial system came on the heels of the ruling supporting the release of Raúl Díaz Peña, a Venezuelan convicted of bombing the Spanish Embassy and Colombian consulate in Caracas, Venezuela in 2003. On June 20, the Inter-American court ruled in favor of Díaz Peña who had long denied those charges and accused Venezuelan authorities of violating his rights, namely, inhuman prison treatment. Sentenced to more than nine years, he escaped from work release in 2010 and fled to the United States. He has been in Miami seeking asylum ever since. While the recent court ruling does not exonerate Díaz Peña, it acknowledged Venezuela authorities denied him adequate care. As part of the decision, the state has been ordered to pay the 38-year-old political prisoner $70,000 in restitution.

Shortly after receiving news of the verdict, Chávez publicly condemned the court for “supporting terrorism.” During a military ceremony in late July, he said, “Venezuela is withdrawing from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights out of dignity and we accuse them before the world of being unfit to call themselves a human rights group.” Since those remarks, a document formalizing Chávez’s decision was purportedly sent to OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, stating that Venezuela will no longer be a party to the court’s activities. Meanwhile, some Venezuelan policymakers are questioning the constitutionality of the withdrawal.

Speaking before reporters in Mexico on July 27, Insulza said Chávez’s announcement to leave “is not good for anyone.” The Secretary-General added that if Venezuela separates from the court, it would be the only country in Latin America outside the international judicial jurisdiction.

But Chávez’s disdain for the Costa Rica–based organization has been echoed by other states in the region. Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have described the court as a “pawn of Washington,” and said the commission’s ties to the OAS, based in Washington, D.C., undermine Latin American governments. With this regional support, few have shown any influence by outside detractors to challenge Chávez’s decision. And its difficult to speculate the opinions of members of his political opposition, who so far, have remained muzzled in a campaign season dominated by the incumbent.

The Motherland at Stake?

Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, says the rejection of the international court system could be seen as strategic planning for the Venezuelan president, accused by his centrist opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, of monopolizing state TV and radio broadcasts to stymie the Capriles campaign. “It sort of distances Venezuela from international oversight on the electoral process,” Sabatini said. “And any questions, say, concerning the level playing field of the voting process; any questions about the denial of basic rights of political candidates and free media are now somewhat unheard, ” he added.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) recently mandated new rules in June that would make it difficult for absentee voters to cast their ballots in this year’s election. The CNE decided against opening a Miami voting center for the October 7 election, forcing as many as 23,000 Venezuelan voters who live in the southeastern U.S. to travel more than 700 miles to the nearest precinct in New Orleans. Those who may made the trek are said to be mostly supporters who favor the opposition. With the presumed absence of the international courts, a voter seeking legal redress would have one fewer venue to address their human rights complaints.

Recently, Chávez announced he has entered full remission as he attempts to show no signs of his bout with cancer slowing him down. Meanwhile, he has been seen giving the same kind of populist speeches that have energized his supporters in the past. At a weekend rally in late July, Chávez declared to his red-shirted followers, “This is not any election campaign. The motherland is at stake; independence is at stake.”

Describing Chávez’s decision to cut ties with the human rights organization as “knee-jerk nationalism,” Sabatini says it’s this kind of rhetoric that has motivated Chávez loyalists over the past 13 years, and might make withdrawal palatable to his United Socialist Party base. “The issue of national sovereignty is more important often than having any sort of meddling of international oversight,” Sabatini said. “On one hand, [Chávez] does represent legitimate decades of frustration and a system that was skewed. On the other hand, doing that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not breaking any rules.”

The Indigenous Factor

Indeed, Chávez’s dual personalities surfaced in the presidential race, and as he continues to flex his sovereign muscle towards the international courts, Chávez continues to advance an agenda meant to empower Venezuela’s most underrepresented voters. On August 7, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Nicia Maldonado announced the return of 65 land titles to an undisclosed group of indigenous communities.

The president is expected to make headlines when he formally offers the land titles to villagers in an anniversary celebration in honor of Mission Guaicaipuro, a social program he launched in 2004 aimed at protecting the rights of indigenous communities in Venezuela.

Chávez, who self-identifies as being of mixed indigenous descent, has been widely celebrated for his stance on indigenous affairs. Upon taking office in 1999, he introduced a new constitution—ironically, one that sought to secure a wider range of human rights. Mimicking Colombia’s efforts to include indigenous representation in government, Chávez secured three seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly and made his country the first in the region to reserve state and municipal indigenous appointments in key regions throughout the country.

Yet, in the two terms he has sat at the government helm, Chávez has been constantly scrutinized by US policy makers for notions of endangering lives and for spreading a “Bolivarian” socialist revolution throughout Venezuela. Indeed, both states accuse the other of harboring terrorists—the most recent example seen in a report released by the U.S. State Department on July 31. In the summer of 2011, the longtime Chávez supporter and renowned scholar, Noam Chomsky, also came out to publicly criticize the president upon learning about the questionable jailing of a Venezuelan judge.

Now that Chávez has been reelected, his competing roles in leadership will only continue to puzzle the international community and those who may support him. On Sunday, August 5, Chávez was seen campaigning with celebrity Sean Penn. Speaking before an audience, the president regarded the Oscar-winning actor as a “dear friend,” and sent along these perplexing words: “From here we send greetings to the people of the United States, a sister nation,” according to a post on the Venezuelan Embassy website. “We are all Americans,” he continued. “North, Central and South Americans. Long live the Americas!”