WASHINGTON, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The human rights wing of the Organization of American States criticized the concentration of power and the curbing of civil liberties in Venezuela under the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez.
In a blistering 319-page report released on Wednesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights pointed to “the absence of an effective separation and independence of the public branches of power in Venezuela.”
It said freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest have been curtailed and “political intolerance” prevails in the South American country, a major supplier of oil to the United States.
The criticism from the 34-nation hemispheric forum based in Washington will be music to the ears of Chavez’s opponents who say he is a dictator-in-the-making who has undermined the independence of the legislature and the judiciary, while closing down opposition media.
“The punitive power of the state is being used to intimidate or punish people on account of their political opinions,” the OAS report found.
“A climate hostile to the free exercise of dissenting political participation” exists in Venezuela, the commission concluded.
The report detected a “pattern of impunity in cases of violence” against demonstrators, women, labor union members, indigenous people, human rights activists and journalists.
Chavez, a former paratrooper and self-declared socialist revolutionary, swept to power in elections 11 years ago and remains popular among Venezuela’s poor, who have benefited from his government.
The OAS report praised Chavez’s government for eradicating illiteracy, reducing poverty and increasing the access of poorer Venezuelans to healthcare.
But it said social and economic advances were no justification for sacrificing fundamental civil rights.
The OAS commission, which does reports on countries when it sees that human rights are being systematically violated, has not been allowed to visit Venezuela since 2002, a commission spokeswoman said.
She said the report was based on hundreds of complaints and interviews with Venezuelans done in Washington.
“The commission believes that conditions do not exist for human rights defenders and journalists to be able to freely carry out their work” in Venezuela, the report said. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)