Coup At Amnesty International: Venezuelan Human Rights, Canadian Film Festivals and Censorship

- by Macdonald Stainsby

I used to canvass for Amnesty International. They are one of several progressive but not openly radical NGO's I have worked for, and I've learned a great deal about talking to strangers about political issues from this experience. I've had some serious misgivings about working with the organization--I was not interested in Amnesty's penchant for being 'extra tough' on those very countries that the United States or other imperialist countries have lined up through their militarist or colonialist sights--nonetheless, I preferred to spend my wage earning days talking about Guantanamo Bay, even if I put unrealistic stress on that issue compared to AI in general. I also spoke to people about the real life example of a man I met who was a former dissident from Iran-- he told me of his story of getting out of Iran, only to arrive in Pakistan and somehow then, making it to Canada. Once he arrived, he was told that he didn't qualify as a political refugee and was to be deported back to Iran directly, as Pakistan didn't want him either. AI apparently took up his case and shortly thereafter he was recognized as a legitimate human rights political refugee case; he says Amnesty saved his life-and this story became the 'personal touch' I used to help bring in enough donations and memberships to safely keep my job.

I also used to quietly enjoy it when people saw me with an AI clipboard and busted my chops over it, with biting questions. Such as the time when a First Nations woman on a motorized wheelchair asked me "What good would that do for Leonard Peltier?", or when I've heard comments about how Amnesty International had once upon a time pushed the very same incubator-babies-on-the-floor story that the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador told in order to help unleash a bombing on Iraq in 1991. Combined with the post war sanctions, infrastructure destruction, and of course the initial 300 000 killed in the 91 aerial war, AI's supposed gaffe helped in its small but not insignificant way to touch off what would eventually end the lives of up-to 2 million Iraqis prematurely. All of this before George W Bush's military invaded and occupied the country last year in violation of International Law and human rights (that Amnesty has publicly yet quietly opposed). Those of us who questioned them about their use of the incubator story have never heard more than regret, no apology or sufficient explanation has ever been given. One thing I learned as a canvasser for this group is how many genuinely well-meaning people trust what Amnesty has to say-- their repeating of the American sponsored lies on the eve of the war in 1991 is a definitively big deal. They do indeed sway people with their pronouncements.

Further, AI uncritically swallows the US State Department story on what is happening on the island of Cuba with what AI calls 'dissidents'. It is one thing for a group that has a general line on the death penalty to express that principled line when it comes to Cuba, even many supporters of the Castro government have expressed discomfort or condemnation of the use of the death penalty on the island. It is another matter entirely to ignore the collected data on which groups and individuals have been trying to form a fifth column on behalf of (and in connivance with) the great, merciless military superpower to the North. In fact, this is not simply missing information-- but without discussing the terrorists that organize the bombings of planes, hotels, destruction of food crops, tobacco and sugar harvests and even the poisoning of school children's milk-- to ignore those groups that exist in Miami is not oversight nor objectivity but to take sides with the US in their war against the besieged Cuban revolutionary government. Amnesty now also wants people to 'demand' that Cuba release recently convicted agents of that same superpower, calling them 'dissidents'. Meanwhile, on the great scandal of the Cuban Five, the anti-terrorist Cubans who were recently imprisoned in the US for being too close to the Miami terrorist cells, Amnesty is silent.

Standing on the street corner with my Amnesty badge and pen in hand, people would raise Cuba with me often, but few were worried about Castro forcing kids to go to school. Many mentioned the American prison camp for Muslims run at the still occupied US Naval base in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba. Here Amnesty has raised the issue fairly clearly, enough that when I worked in the affluent districts (such as Vancouver BC's West End) people got mad at 'me' for it. Yet, the language employed is still viciously problematic. While with Cuba, the AI campaigns 'demand' this and 'call for pressure' that. With the United States you are asked to 'urge the government', to 'get your senator to strongly suggest' or hope for 'reconsideration' from the President himself as to the 'implications'. So, even here, all one has to do is go to the 2002 Amnesty report on the state of human rights to see the glaring difference in language employed in the two cases of the US and of Cuba. Though a former Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Amnesty does not stand as neutral as they would like us to have it in our collective heads.

While you are looking at these annual reports, please look through Venezuela as well. In their report much of the entire year's entry is taken up by discussion of the failed coup of 2002 April. Amnesty International states that the coup attempt was responsible for the deaths of over 50 people, that the 48 hour dictatorship invoked draconian measures, including the dissolving of the legal parliament, supreme court, establishing martial law and even renaming the republic. These and many other points, including scant allegations made against the Chavez government, all appear in the Amnesty Report. So when "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Inside the Coup in Venezuela" was added to the many films on the bill for the annual Amnesty International Film Festival on human rights, it really wasn't a big deal. The film has been shown on the BBC in England as well as having broadcast at least twice on the CBC here in Canada. It has also won far more awards than any other film on the four day bill. I had already seen this documentary and I would without hesitation call it one of the most important films since the Panama Deception or Manufacturing Consent in exposing the ways that the media can be party to gross human rights violations, even helping orchestrate a coup against a democratically elected government. And here I'll make my bias clear: What a democratically elected government it is.

The rise of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has roughly mirrored my own development as an activist. Though I was first involved politically just before the APEC events in Vancouver back in 1997, I first felt a part of something far larger than myself or this city around the turn of the Millennium when the 'Battle of Seattle' happened and the rising consciousness of the people spread to the First World-- once again, after several years in countries from Korea to Mexico and of course, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

As a movement of newly concerned activists have cropped up in the First World, one of the common themes that unites the movement has been a deep desire for expanding democracy-- from popular participation in the form of non-hierarchal organizations and even to organizing along the lines of 'consensus' models, with no votes and no coercion whatsoever. Like all great movements, there are many wings to this one: some openly call for the abolition of any form of state, eschew voting mechanisms and are denunciatory of referendums-- seen as inherently reformist. Of course, there are always the activists who try to make movements change according to their ideologies rather than the other way around, as well-- many of these are pleading that groups in the First World adopt models that are based on amalgams of the NGO's, Trade Unions and other reform-oriented groups to the exclusion of any with a more thorough critique of the system. These prefer to imagine that the movement here can slowly encompass all sectors of society save for the most doggedly bourgeois of the bourgeois, and then at some magical point this movement will switch over from a sentiment of humanitarianism to one of an entirely new society. This transformation often is very vaguely talked about, too far off for us to comprehend properly. On both ends of this spectrum, little about the realities of the newly emerging movement are learned-- we need to have something to accomplish; not making demands of those who speak in the name of democracy leaves us unable to garner small victories that build momentum-- such as when we defended our inherent democratic right to demonstrate in the streets of Quebec City against the FTAA by tearing down the Wall and calling it a violation of our constitutional rights (an 'inquiry' has now vindicated this position ); To simply call for either complete revolution or to call for only singing songs in empty parking lots is to betray the basic impetus of this movement.

Hugo Chavez first seemed to me as though he was part of this new movement after hearing the Venezuelan delegations' refusal in the Quebec City FTAA negotiations to sign onto the FTAA without having every country hold a referendum on the treaty. If the dialectic means anything, it certainly means exposing hypocrisy in the rumblings of the 'free democracies'; Demonstrators have done this by refusing to be hemmed into small pens, where 'rights' are apportioned inside an area marked as 'safe' and police keep close guard for too much democratic expression. The 'Movement for a Fifth Republic' has done this by the same basic line-- no talks without participation, no trade deals without sovereignty. At the same FTAA negotiations, Venezuela alone would not simply sign a declaration about all states being committed to representative democracy, Venezuela insisted upon the inclusion of the word 'participatory' refusing to sign without it. It is indeed very instructive that the same governments who speak daily about bringing democracy to Iraq, Palestine, Colombia and Afghanistan with aerial bombing campaigns are at the same time unwilling to talk publicly about expanding the democratic participation of their own citizenry. That kind of message has been coming from Venezuela long before the so-called anti-globalization movement (and now the anti-war movement) started to say the very same things. In a sense, then, we owe the Venezuelans for standing up for all of us by standing up for them now. Solidarity is a two-way street, is it not?

While the ideals of democracy and human rights that Amnesty International has ostensibly held up are indeed laudable, they are also quite narrowly defined. Not so for Venezuela. As the film documents, the first actions of the government were to hold a referendum on the re-writing of a constitution. This was then done in direct consultation with the population, well over 70 percent of whom live in abject to desperate poverty, despite the fact that Venezuelans live on top of the world's fourth largest oil reserves and are America's number two supplier. The constitution has since become practically required reading for all involved in expanding and deepening the democratic process. The new constitution makes clear that human rights are also social; human beings are only freely able to express their democratic will when not hungry and able to read. Human health is a prerequisite for a healthy polity. Or, put another way, human rights exist as a part of the larger society and as a social phenomenon, not as an abstract concept for middle class philosophy students to pontificate on. They live and breathe, and are enshrined in the new Venezuela, still emerging, and still misunderstood and ignored.

So two days before the Film Festival began when I received an email that the very Venezuelan lobby that the film exposed as violators of human rights had successfully gotten to AI in order to force them to enact censorship of the film, I was personally taken aback. A campaign to defend this film was a gut level response, for three main reasons:

1) To help promote the viewing of one of the most important films to come along in many years;

2) To help build a better understanding of-- and hopefully solidarity with - the democratic revolutionary process in Venezuela;

3) To expose the hypocrisy of Amnesty International on this question and hopefully get people to reconsider and reexamine the true nature of the organization itself.

Besides, after working as a canvasser and promoting a group I was often at odds with on certain (acute) questions-- such as the nature of what human rights actually are-- I really must admit the role the sheer pleasure of tweaking the nose of AI on such an obvious point. Amnesty, after all, has always promoted itself as being in favor of letter writing, petition signing, emailing and phone-in campaigns-- just like the one we were launching now. The irony was, in a word, delicious, and all the more so for me because I had learned a good chunk of these skills myself from canvassing for the organization I was now working against. If Amnesty believes that grassroots pressure tactics and lobbying maneuvers can effect changes in government policy, surely we would be able to force a film showing of a human rights film at a film festival on human rights - a festival that had already scheduled the film and had no replacement.

Grassroots work of the kind that Amnesty speaks in favor of, again, is part of the ongoing form of organizing that is taking place in Venezuela. There are no major changes that take place in the Bolivarian process without first becoming the heart and soul of the people who support and are building the revolution. In the era where the USSR has disappeared and any military solution to resistance to the Empire is at least temporarily shrouded in cynicism, the Movement for a Fifth Republic has a new strategy that is not really understood very well outside of Venezuela. Yet it really isn't all that new, but is instead given all the trappings of a new concept. Bolivarism, an ideology of a united Latin America, independent of imperial foreign powers and with social justice at its root, is not in the slightest at odds with the emerging emphasis on self-determination. Quite the contrary. In North America, one of the concepts being wrestled with is a resolution of the question of indigenous sovereignty here-- and Venezuela has renamed and rededicated what traditionally had been 'Columbus Day' as 'Indigenous Resistance Day'. Clearly we in the Northern section of the movement have a lot to learn. No moves are made in Venezuela without first making certain that the people are fully behind (or in fact ahead of) the changes-- and this dedication to participation makes many 'old school' leftists impatient at the speed of the revolution, yet the speed is still terrifying and far too fast for those who would hold Venezuela in perpetual slavery. All of this emphasis on democracy confounds even some of the most democratically minded would-be revolutionaries. But in this commitment lies the trump card to all opposition to the Bolivarian project.

Handing out flyers, getting people to an alternate screening and doing a petition drive (for the sake of opening conversations, breaking down communication barriers and the like) against AI censorship at a function loaded with AI supporters and members was extremely eye opening. I had yet to realize how people felt about first what Amnesty had done, second the feeling that those who had already had the fortune to see the documentary exhibited when told the film wasn't showing. That is, that it 'wasn't about human rights', was going to 'cause violence in Venezuela' or was 'too political'. It was and remains extremely instructive that the individuals who had seen the documentary were the ones who took the least amount of convincing about the importance and human rights nature of the film. Prior viewers were the most shocked at the arguments made against the film. Derrick O'Keefe , along with myself, was told that the films were not being shown on orders from Ottawa. Strangely enough, in the days right before the film screened, Don Wright (the director of the film festival, and the regional coordinator for AI British Columbia/Yukon) stated on Democracy Now! of Pacifica Radio: "I think I needed to clarify that the decision to include the film and then to not include the film was very much a local decision[...] ". Yet he stated to myself and O'Keefe that he wouldn't reinstate the film "[...] because I don't want to lose my job" and that Amnesty's Canadian Head Office had ordered the film "pulled". The first night he spoke of some concerns about the film but eventually settled on blaming Amnesty Canada and Amnesty International in general. This was a real demonstration of how far one has to go to defend a lie, whereas the truth is easy to remember and stick to, if one can defend it.

Finally, it also clearly demonstrated the need for much greater solidarity work to begin involving people across North America with the Bolivarian Revolution. The more people learned about the democratic processes going on in Caracas, the less they looked comfortable with Amnesty's description of why they would censor this film. It also made clear how we here have not done enough to expose our neighbors to what is happening in the North cone of the Southern half of America.

I called a few comrades and friends who I knew were already convinced of the need to defend the film for many reasons. We set up several call outs, put together a petition for AI patrons to sign against the censorship of the festival. People from the local Venezuela and Cuba solidarity committees showed up, and had already booked space to show the film at the end of the month. There were also people who have been doing human rights work across Latin America coming sporadically to defend the film. We all just wanted to get a chance to talk to people going into the film about these very issues and the contradictions contained within. My favorite quote in the world is Bertholt Brecht's "in the contradiction lies the hope" for a reason, I guess.

Perhaps without surprise, early on it became clear that support for us from the lineups would correspond well with the movie being shown. Those who were there to see films about what happened under Pinochet or in Peru's Yanacocha gold mine would offer larger support than people there for the case surrounding Tibet. After all, hadn't the Dalai Lama stated his support for both the "War on Terror" and the use of violence as a means to 'win a greater peace' ?

Members of the local radio station Co-Op Radio also held Amnesty to the fire over this, and they were perfectly suited to exposing the contradiction. Co-Op Radio has historically been one of the sponsors of the Amnesty Human Rights Film Festival, and like those of us working out front of the theater, they were not interested in calling for a boycott of the film by those who would be in the audience. However, on the Saturday morning "Red Eye" program, Mordecai Briemberg did get a chance to speak on the matter. He read aloud from Don Wright's form email to some of the many emails Wright had received, in particular the quote: "When we [AI] became aware of concerns over the film I withdrew it on the basis that the partisan, political debate that the film was attracting deflected attention from the human rights concerns we wanted to highlight."

Along with the previous issue around Iraq, Palestine was counter-posed as well. It seems that AI has 2 different concepts of political prisoner again: one who is held by the Empire or its powerful allies (Such as Canada, England and Israel) --the category of non-existence-- and two: those who are held by states pursuing a course deemed deviant to the Empire. These names become household ones to AI members who are receiving the monthly newsletter. Cleverly avoiding the idea that America holds people as political prisoners, AI has spoken of the US as having violated the fair trial requirements of Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier and others-- the same is the reason they oppose the holding of 600-plus in Guatanamo, because of civil liberties violations. By definition, then, they are not political prisoners.

When Palestine is discussed, Israel is not holding political prisoners. Yet people are given indefinite detainment by the IOF, in the thousands, based on most often no estimates but rather hunches-- 'hunches' often based on simple age and being Palestinian. These and other 'not political' issues come with no end date in sight assigned to those held. Amnesty, as was mentioned in a statement from CanPalNet , has still not referred to the case of Mordechai Vanunu as political, either. All he did was risk his life exposing Israel's secret nuclear weapons program and he has served 11.5 years solitary confinement as a result. Amnesty believes that Vanunu's taking a stand against nuclear armament is, despite supporters on all parts of the globe, a security matter when such a stand is taken from within Israel. After on-air discussion around some of the issues here, Co-Op Radio had already been granted a table inside the lobby of the theater as one of the biggest contributors to the festival. There discussion was able to start inside with people attending the remaining films. During this time, Amnesty continued on with the dancing around previous reasons for the censorship of the film.

Some other friends of the film (that had also just returned from doing human rights observation work in Mexico ) had a wonderful idea as well: They got a TV, VCR and a generator and showed up at the film festival and showed the damn movie outside! Then you had the spectacle of watching the movie that you were under orders from the Amnesty hierarchy not to watch being shown to people out front. The optics alone were to be treasured. People walking in to see this film and getting a chance to stand outside, in the near freezing cold, huddled around a small TV screen to watch the movie. As always with this movie, nearly everyone was riveted by the film. Then the audience here started to ask questions about Venezuela. And the guerrilla theater was on. We continued on with the petition drive, and at one point as many as could possibly see the screen were stopped staring at the images. People standing outside a movie theater in the cold watching a documentary pulled for political reasons usually see the problem rather clearly. Plus, I got to see the film two more times, never a difficult situation.

We also put the movie on at the same time plus half an hour-- that it was supposed to be on at the film festival, but we did so across the city at the Dogwood Centre, which was provided free of charge . All but about 3 of the approximately 50 seats filled. I personally believe that the film garnered a larger screening than it would have at the festival, had it been kept quiet and remained only the last film in a festival of many. This movie has been seen fairly widely already; showing on 'The Passionate Eye' twice is not minimal coverage. At any rate, it was decided that the best way to handle charging for the movie was to make it purely donation based, and donations only to be made after the movie-- based on how important you feel the documentary is. The money raised will be spent on getting the film seen by as many people as possible. One of the best feelings to arise out of this small action is the satisfaction it gives when people who are clearly longtime Amnesty International supporters stop to shake our hands and thank us for getting them to see the film. It is no surprise to say of the audience the biggest donations came from AI people, who are frankly quite disturbed and rethinking what it means to be with Amnesty International now. Having these people leave with a better understanding of Venezuela and also fumbling through what that actually means is a great seed to plant. It is an opportunity for very important work to be done. If people wanted their own copies (made at cost) we were going to produce these tapes as soon as possible. And if Venezuela can defend themselves from these coup plotters, then we all advance human rights, democracy and defense of the Bolivarian constitution. And that is in everyone's interests-- except the very coup plotters shown in the movie, and apparently, Amnesty International as well.

The questions raised by this case go to the heart as to how we see ourselves -when we see ourselves in global terms, that is-- and what it is that we indeed stand for. I have the extremely unfortunate footnote to add of an email landing in my inbox during the days of writing this article. Amnesty International director William Schulz decided to spell it out, in a brief article to "If democratic elections would bring a radical Islamist government to power in Pakistan that might distribute nuclear weapons to terrorists, should we still call for democracy there over military rule? "

Answer: Not if we align ourselves with the belief that democracy has an escape clause. But Schulz's definition of democracy clearly no longer encompasses people being a sovereign body and carrying self-determination into all spheres. Amnesty has an inability to recognize that 'terror', if it means anything, is covered by people like Posada Carriles who openly admits on the pages of major American media to plotting the blowing up of civilian hotels in Cuba, killing tourists. "Defending democracy" appears then, to Schulz to be more along the lines of maintaining governments that are friendly to the Empire and abandoning those who are not-- whether it be his hypothetical Pakistan situation come true, or the already existing hypocrisy with the cases of Cuba and Venezuela (to mention only two). However, I would retort that what the global social justice movement has begun to understand is something quite different indeed. That is, that empire-- understood as imperialism and inherent to the functioning of this society as super-exploiter-is as counter a concept to self-determination and full human rights as could ever be contemplated. What Schulz is proposing is that we take on the idea that the Third World peoples struggling for human rights need to behave themselves before they are granted these rights inherent in human beings. And that is the language of George W Bush and his oil administration. It is also the language of Rudyard Kipling. In this denial of democracy you speak of, is it for us then, to "bear the burden", Mr Schulz?

In the context of what is happening in Venezuela, and with the cancellation of the documentary about what has already happened in Venezuela, apparently the question posed by Schulz above has already been used to rationalize abandoning human rights victims in the name of big power diplomacy and against their own mandate (including Amnesty's often well-meaning general membership).

Since the ascension of the Bolivarian revolution Venezuela has already stood side by side with struggling people throughout the world. One of the most beautiful scenes of the film was when Chavez held up pictures of murdered children in Afghanistan during the first phase of the "War on Terror". He asked those who wanted to fight terror-- in fact, demanded-- that we stand up and be rational and not commit terror fighting terror. Venezuela has denounced the FTAA, and has made itself a friend of the Cuban revolution-- not out of a love for socialism, but social justice and revolutionary independence. For the same reason Chavez and his government is the only government in the Western Hemisphere other than Cuba that has utterly rejected the FTAA. Chavez appears to believe in the most important self-determination battles for human rights of all: Free from great power coercion, from illiteracy, poverty, and military rule. Human rights are social justice, and social justice is the most fundamental human right. This people has shown that they will speak for the downtrodden in every barrio, in every corner of the world, against the powerful and greedy and for the hungry, illiterate and devalued. Now we must stand up for Venezuela.

Most of the signers of the online petition are from this revolutionary country. One woman wrote a comment that "We in Venezuela count on this film to tell the world the truth of what is happening here[...]!" Another person said simply "We need your support" . So there you have it, a brilliant documentary, an act against censorship by a supposed human rights organization-- and a chance to support Venezuela in the largest battle they have to fight, that is, the one on the world's stage. Please, whatever way you do it, make sure that you help more people see this extraordinary film. Tell the world.

If indeed, "we are everywhere" and "we are the other Superpower", then let us support our foot soldiers. Theirs is the battlefield of ideas rather than bloodshed. Skirmish won.

Macdonald Stainsby


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