CARACAS, Venezuela – A leading Human Rights Watch monitor said Friday that his expulsion from Venezuela shows the intolerance of President Hugo Chavez's government to criticism.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the rights group's longtime Americas director, told The Associated Press that Venezuela expelled him "to avoid dealing with the issues, and distract attention by attacking the messenger."
Venezuela said Vivanco, a Chilean, was expelled along with his deputy director Daniel Wilkinson, an American, for "illegally meddling in the internal affairs" of Venezuela while in the country on a tourist visa.
"We aren't going to tolerate any foreigner coming here to try to sully the dignity" of Venezuela, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro declared.
The monitors were forced onto the first flight out only hours after presenting a report concluding that "discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature" of the Chavez presidency.
"What happened is a confirmation of exactly the points that we raised in the report, and it shows the lack of tolerance in the government of President Chavez to criticism of his record on any area," Vivanco told the AP from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he arrived early Friday.
The rights monitors were handed a letter accusing them of "anti-state activities." Then their cell phones were seized and their requests to contact their embassies were denied, the New York-based group said. Then they were shown on state television gathering their belongings and being driven to the airport in a caravan complete with motorcycle escorts and flashing lights.
Chavez had threatened to expel any foreigner who comes to "slander" his government; this was the first time he did so.
Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra on Friday called Human Rights Watch a "front organization" serving U.S. interests. Maduro also accused Vivanco and Wilkinson of acting at the behest of the U.S. government and of receiving U.S. funding.
Human Rights Watch, however, says it accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly.
And Vivanco has criticized governments of all stripes — for example, he is a harsh critic of what he considers a conscious effort by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally, to suppress investigations of links between his political supporters and right-wing death squads.