Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who says he is leading a socialist revolution for the poor in his nation, has teamed up with allies in congress to undermine the country's judiciary and limit press freedoms, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
In its annual report on the global rights situation, the organization said Latin America nations -- from Haiti to Argentina -- were still plagued by abuses ranging from overcrowded prisons to torture and widespread impunity.
There is growing discontent over the lack of economic growth and opportunities in the region, which has led some to turn away from democracy, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said.
"That's one way to understand the Chavez phenomenon," Roth said.
But Roth was also critical of Washington's role in Latin America, saying it was polarizing the region. He noted officials in US President George W. Bush's administration were treating Bolivia's president-elect Evo Morales as if he were another Chavez, without waiting to see how Morales governs.
"That's not a helpful approach," Roth said.
In an interview before the release of the rights report, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who heads the State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, said that the US "acknowledges and respects" Morales' solid victory in the presidential elections last month.
The New York-based rights group expressed concern in its annual report over the state of Venezuela's democratic institutions, citing a "packing" of the country's Supreme Court with Chavez allies in December 2004, which it called "a severe blow" to the independence of the nation's judiciary.
Venezuelan legislators "have also enacted legislation that seriously threatens press freedoms and freedom of expression," the rights report said.
Chavez, first elected in 1998 and up for re-election in December, insists he supports democracy.
At loggerheads with Washington, he remains popular at home amid high oil prices that have funded his social programs and helped bring economic growth of 9.4 percent last year.
Venezuela's Foreign Ministry declined to comment immediately on the report, but officials in Chavez's government have in the past criticized Human Rights Watch, and especially its director for the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco, as being an "instrument" of the US government.
While raising concern over developments in Venezuela, the rights group's report said Colombia's internal conflict -- pitting government forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries -- is responsible for creating the region's most serious human rights and humanitarian situation, the report said.
It noted in the last three years, more than 3 million people, as much as 5 percent of Colombia's population, have been forcibly displaced because of the fighting. The guerrillas and paramilitaries are responsible for the bulk of Colombia's abuses, the report said.
The report called Cuba "a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent."
It said Cuban President Fidel Castro's government enforces political conformity through a range of measures including criminal prosecutions, mob harassment and politically motivated job dismissals.
"The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law," the report said.