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Last week, Venezuela decided, after a vote of its General Assembly and the approval of the executive, to add 12 new justices to its 20-member Supreme Court. Human Rights Watch denounced the move as a “severe blow to judicial independence.”

That is a gross exaggeration. Imagine, if you can, that a group of military officers in the United States overthrew our president, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and abolished the Constitution. Now imagine that democracy is restored, but the Supreme Court rules that the officers who kidnapped the president and overthrew the government cannot be tried for any crime. That is what happened in Venezuela.

Legally packing the court

Our Congress would certainly use its constitutional powers to impeach that Supreme Court. So it should not be surprising that Venezuela’s General Assembly, where pro-government parties hold a slight majority, would do the same thing by legally ’’packing’’ the court with new judges. I favor an independent judiciary. But Venezuela — like much of Latin America — has never had such a thing, and to pretend that it did and is now losing it is misleading. Such exaggerations have created an astoundingly false impression of Venezuela among Americans. Most Americans think that the country is a quasi-dictatorship ’’ruled’’ by the ’’authoritarian’’ Hugo Chávez. In fact Chávez has considerably less power than our own president. Freedom of speech, the press, assembly and other political freedoms prevail. In fact, these compare favorably to the United States, where journalists are being thrown in jail for refusing to reveal their sources, and broadcast stations are fined for violating decency standards. Venezuela’s mass media are possibly the most virulently (and often dishonestly) anti-government media in the world. Most of the media are explicitly part of the opposition and supported the April 2002 coup.

There is no censorship

Yet in six years of the Chávez presidency, the press has not been censored. Despite the outcry about the recently passed Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which included some valid criticisms, it is doubtful that any censorship will occur under the present administration.

No reputable human-rights organization would claim that Venezuela under Chávez is less democratic than under previous governments or compares unfavorably in terms of human rights or democratic freedoms to the rest of Latin America. On the positive side, even Chávez’s opponents concede that millions of poor Venezuelans now have access to healthcare, education, literacy programs, land titles and credit for the first time as a result of the government’s social programs.

Sadly, the biggest threats to Venezuela’s democracy still come from Washington, which has funded and allied itself with the anti-democratic leaders of Venezuela’s opposition, including supporters of the failed coup. This funding and support has been acknowledged by the U.S. State Department. The National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by our Congress, too, has funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups. And recently released documents from the CIA show that the Bush administration had detailed advanced knowledge of the coup but lied about what happened. The White House tried to convince the press and other countries that it was not a coup at all but rather a legitimate seizure of power by ’’pro-democracy’’ forces.

Intent on regime change

After failing to overthrow the government by means of a military coup and an economically devastating oil strike, the opposition turned to a recall referendum in August. It lost overwhelmingly. Although the results were certified by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, most opposition leaders — still controlling most of the Venezuelan media — have refused to accept the results. And Washington seems intent on regime change, currently imposing several types of economic sanctions on Venezuela, despite the fact that it is a democracy and poses no security threat to anyone.

So expect to hear a lot of criticism of Venezuela in the next few years — much of it exaggerated, dishonest and false.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.