In remarks delivered to the Freedom Online Coalition Conference via teleconference yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “In Venezuela, the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly. And this has included blocking access to selected websites and limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country.”
The Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua fired back today saying, “The Bolivarian government rejects [Kerry’s] statements…Violent groups encouraged by the government of the United States burned a communications center. So, we reject this baseless and misguided statement…”
There have been reports in the past that Venezuela has exercised censorship over the internet, but in general, the portrayal of Venezuela’s hostility toward freedom of speech is overblown.
Nevertheless, let’s examine the hypocrisy of Secretary Kerry’s assertions – first, the claim that “the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests.” As I’ve noted before, not all of the anti-government protesters in Venezuela are peaceful – and some have said outright that they are not.
During the Occupy protests of 2011 in the United States, reports of police brutality against peaceful protesters were routine. In one particularly egregious instance, a police officer at the University of California Davis pepper-sprayed a group of non-violent protesters while being filmed by an onlooker. A few weeks later, an 84-year-old woman was among those pepper-sprayed during a march in Seattle. Occupy activist Cecily McMillan elbowed a New York City police officer who violently grabbed her breast at a demonstration in March 2012. She was then beaten severely, suffered a seizure and was initially refused medical treatment by the police. McMillan currently faces up to seven years in prison for “assaulting” the officer.
This is not to say that police abuse is acceptable. Obviously, it’s not. But as journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote of the Occupy protests:
I saw police routinely shove protesters and beat them with batons. I saw activists slammed against police cars…I saw, and was caught up in, mass arrests in which those around me were handcuffed and then thrown violently onto the sidewalk. The police often blasted pepper spray into faces from inches away, temporarily blinding the victims. This violence, carried out against nonviolent protesters, came amid draconian city ordinances that effectively outlawed protest and banned demonstrators from public spaces…The message the state delivered is clear: Do not dissent.
The point is, this is not a problem to which the United States is immune – and, for what it’s worth, the Venezuelan government is investigating officers involved in abuses of demonstrators.
Now, how about “limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country”?
Under a plan devised during the administration of George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security apparently has the capability to do exactly that. The agency is currently fighting a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to divulge the details, but according to an executive order issued in July 2012, DHS can shut down communications networks during national emergencies.
Also, it’s not as though American officials have never shut down communications networks in the event of protests. In 2011, the San Francisco public transit agency known as BART shut down the subway system’s wireless network, presumably to thwart protests against the killing of a homeless man by police.
Whatever you make of Secretary Kerry’s claims about the Venezuelan government’s “terror campaign against its own citizens“, it is undeniably hypocritical for US officials to lambast a foreign government for “us[ing] security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit[ing] freedoms of expression and assembly,” when their own government has engaged in similar behavior so recently.