An Invitation to Oliver Stone: Come Live With Us in Venezuela

Oliver Stone does not know Venezuela very well. He has spent a few days here, always in the company of President Chavez. He admits he has not spoken with any opposition leaders, nor has he seen first hand the real Venezuela.
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The simple truth is that Oliver Stone does not know Venezuela very well. If he did, he would have spent more time addressing the arguments in my previous column, rather than attacking the messenger in his response.

In his country, Mr. Stone has famously taken issue with the Manichean view toward dissent - "you are either with us or against us." And yet, when it comes to my own country, he is surprisingly untroubled.

He begins by describing me with words like "right wing" and "rich." These are loaded words that the Chavez regime uses to discredit anyone making opposing arguments. And it is a clumsy attempt, as my record is far from "right wing."

Then Mr. Stone makes the incredible assertion that the "assault on human rights in Venezuela has come from...Mr. Lopez and his allies."

President Chavez has spent the past ten years systematically acquiring total control over every aspect of society, including the courts, the legislature, the media, and the oil sector. The idea that anyone not aligned with the ruling government could be responsible for abusing human rights is either a product of Orwellian humor, or of a profound lack of understanding about Venezuela.

But since he raised it, let's address the human rights situation.

To agree with Mr. Stone's position, one would have to disregard the growing mountain of evidence compiled by a list of credible and respected human rights organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the Inter American Press Association.

The serious abuses that have been catalogued by these independent watchdogs include the physical intimidation and arrest of political dissenters, censorship of the media, control of the judiciary, the seizure of private property and manipulation of elections.

Most telling of all has been the pattern of denying access to human rights organizations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has noted that "since [2003]...the Commission has pursued various formalities in order to secure the State's permission to conduct an observation visit. To date, the State has refused to allow the IACHR to visit Venezuela...seriously weakening the protection system created by the Organization's Member States."

In another instance, Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jos茅 Miguel Vivanco was forcibly expelled from the country after his organization issued a highly critical report that highlighted numerous violations.

If there is nothing to hide, and the allegations of abuse are merely the product of the Western media, then why go to such great lengths to exclude independent human rights groups who could verify the claims?

Another argument made by Mr. Stone is that Chavez has been elected and reelected several times. I will grant that when Chavez was first elected in 1998, it was in response to serious problems. There were high hopes at that time that Chavez would improve peoples' lives - especially among the poorest sectors.

But in subsequent elections, the government has stacked the deck. The ruling government has controlled access to the media and other resources that candidates need to deliver their message. They have manipulated the electoral calendar and the voting districts. Placing one's signature on any sort of opposition measure is what is known as a "career-limiting move." Thousands of people learned this the hard way several years ago when they lost their jobs after signing a recall petition.

More importantly, he has selected his opponents by arresting, intimidating or disqualifying hundreds of the most promising opposition candidates. Early next year, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights will hold hearings on the legality of these disqualifications.

International pundits such as Mr. Stone rationalize their silence regarding these human rights abuses by telling themselves it is okay to look the other way, if peoples' lives are improving.

After a long decade in power, that claim is becoming far more tenuous. The growth in misery, the rise in violent crime, the failure to maintain the basic infrastructure that supplies power and clean water, all while spending many billions of dollars to buy favor in other countries, may be the most shameful human rights abuse of all.

But let's remember, Mr. Stone does not know Venezuela very well. He has spent a few days here, always in the company of President Chavez. He admits he has not spoken with any opposition leaders, nor has he seen first hand the real Venezuela, as opposed to the "staged" Venezuela that was presented to him.

I would like to issue a friendly challenge to Mr. Stone. Come live here for several months. Rent an apartment in an ordinary neighborhood. Drive your own car, use taxis or public transportation. Don't use a bodyguard. Don't rely on privileges that the average Venezuelan wouldn't have access to. If it is possible, live as though you have no relationship with President Chavez.

After that, we can have an honest conversation about what is happening in my country, and what we can do to give people the opportunities they deserve.

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