The day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, New York Times reporter Lizette Alvarez provided a sympathetic portrayal of “outpourings of raucous celebration and, to many, cautious optimism for the future” in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Her article, “Venezuelan Expatriates See a Reason to Celebrate,” noted that many had come to Miami to escape Chávez’s “iron grip on the nation,” and quoted a Venezuelan computer software consultant who said, bluntly: “We had a dictator. There were no laws, no justice.”1
A credulous reader of Alvarez’s report would have no idea that since 1998, Chávez had triumphed in 14 of 15 elections or referenda, all of which were deemed free and fair by international monitors. Chávez’s most recent reelection, won by an 11-point margin, boasted an 81% participation rate; former president Jimmy Carter described the “election process in Venezuela” as “the best in the world” out of 92 cases that the Carter Center had evaluated (an endorsement that, to date, has never been reported by the Times).2
In contrast to Alvarez, who allowed her quotation describing Chávez as a dictator to stand uncontested, Times reporter Neela Banerjee in 2008 cited false accusations hurled at President Obama by opponents—“he is a Muslim who attended a madrassa in Indonesia as a boy and was sworn into office on the Koran”—but immediately invalidated them: “In fact, he is a Christian who was sworn in on a Bible,” she wrote in her next sentence.3 At the Times, it seems, facts are deployed on a case-by-case basis.
The Times editorial board was even more dishonest in the wake of Chávez’s death: “The Bush administration badly damaged Washington’s reputation throughout Latin America when it unwisely blessed a failed 2002 military coup attempt against Mr. Chávez,” wrote the paper, concealing its editorial board’s own role in blessing that very coup at the time. In 2002, with the “resignation [sic] of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator,” declared a Times editorial, bizarrely adding that “Washington never publicly demonized Mr. Chávez,” that actual dictator Pedro Carmona was simply “a respected business leader,” and that the U.S.-backed, two-day coup was “a purely Venezuelan affair.”4
The editorial board—an initial champion of the de facto regime that issued a diktat within hours to dissolve practically every branch of government, including Venezuela’s National Assembly and Supreme Court—would 11 years later brazenly criticize Chávez after his death for having “dominated Venezuelan politics for 14 years with authoritarian methods.” The newspaper argued that Chávez’s government “weakened judicial independence, intimidated political opponents and human rights defenders, and ignored rampant, and often deadly, violence by the police and prison guards.” After lambasting Chávez’s record, the piece concluded that the United States “should now make clear its support for democratic and civilian transition in a post-Chávez Venezuela”—as if Chávez were anyone other than a fairly elected leader with an overwhelming popular mandate.
But there is a country currently in the grip of an undemocratic, illegitimate government that much more closely corresponds with the Times editorial board’s depiction of Venezuela: Honduras, which in 2009 suffered a coup d’état that deposed its freely elected, left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya.
While the Times criticized Chávez for weakening judicial independence, the newspaper could not be bothered to even report on the extraordinary institutional breakdown of Honduras, when in December 2012, its Congress illegally sacked four Supreme Court justices who voted against a law proposed by the president, Porfirio Lobo, who himself had came to power in 2009 in repressive, sham elections held under a post-coup military dictatorship and boycotted by most international election observers.
When it comes to intimidation of political opponents and human rights defenders, Venezuela’s problems are almost imperceptible compared with those of Honduras. Over 14 years under Chávez, Venezuela has had no record of disappearances or murders of such individuals. In post-coup Honduras, the practice is now endemic. In one year alone—2012—at least four leaders of the Zelaya-organized opposition party Libre were slain, including mayoral candidate Edgardo Adalid Motiño. In addition, two dozen journalists and 70 members of the LGBT community have been killed since the coup, including prominent LGBT anti-coup activists like Walter Tróchez and Erick Martinez (neither case was sufficiently notable so as to warrant a mention in the Times).
And although the Times editors decried police violence in Venezuela, the Honduran police systematically engage in extrajudicial killings of their own citizens. In December 2012, Julieta Castellanos, the chancellor of Honduras’s largest university, presented the findings of a report detailing 149 killings committed by the Honduran National Police over the past two years under Porfirio Lobo. In the face of over six killings by the police a month, she warned, “It is alarming that the police themselves are the ones killing people in this country. The public is in a state of defenselessness…”5 Such alarm is further justified by Lobo’s appointment of Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla as director of the National Police, despite reports that he once oversaw death squads.6
Finally, the Times editorial board lamented Venezuelan prison violence. But consider for context that the NGO Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, consistently critical of Chávez, reported 591 prison deaths in 2012 for the country of 30 million.7 In Honduras, a country with slightly more than a quarter of Venezuela’s population, over 360 died in just one incident—a 2012 prison fire in Comayagua, in which prison authorities kept firefighters from handling the conflagration for 30 crucial minutes while the inmates’ doors remained locked. According to survivors, the guards ignored their pleas for help as many burned alive.8
Given the contrast in the two countries’ democratic credentials and human rights records, obvious questions arise: How has The New York Times portrayed Venezuela and Honduras since Honduras’s 2009 coup d’état? If, in both its news and opinion pages, the Times regularly prints accusations of Venezuelan authoritarianism, what terminology has the Times employed to describe the military government headed by Roberto Micheletti, which assumed power after Zelaya’s overthrow, or the illegitimate Lobo administration that succeeded it?
The answer is revealing. For almost four years, the Times has maintained a double standard that is literally unfailing. Not a single contributor in the Times’ over 100 news and opinion articles has ever referred to the Honduran government as “autocratic,” “undemocratic,” or “authoritarian.” Nor have Times writers ever once labeled Micheletti or Lobo “despots,” “tyrants,” “strongmen,” “dictators,” or “caudillos.”
At the same time, from June 28, 2009, to March 7, 2013, the newspaper has printed at least 15 news and opinion articles in which its contributors have used any number of the aforementioned epithets for Chávez.9 (This methodology excludes the typically vitriolic anti-Chávez blog entries that the paper features on its website, as well as print pieces like Lizette Alvarez’s, which quote someone describing Chávez as a dictator.)
During this period, the paper’s news reporters themselves have referred to Chávez as a “despot,” an “authoritarian ruler,” and an “autocrat”; its opinion writers have deemed him a “petro-dictator,” an “indomitable strongman,” a “brutal neo-authoritarian,” a “warmonger,” and a “colonel-turned-oil-sultan.” On the eve of Venezuela’s October elections, a Times op-ed managed to call the Chávez administration “authoritarian” no fewer than three times in 800 words.10 And Chávez’s death offered no reprieve from this tendency: On March 6, reporter Simon Romero wrote about Chávez’s gait—he “strutt[ed] like the strongman in a caudillo novel”—and concluded that Chávez had “become, indeed, a caudillo.”11
These most basic violations of journalistic standards—referring to a democratically elected leader as a ruler with absolute power—does not simply end with its writers. On July 24, 2011, Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s executive editor, wrote the piece, “Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal,” which included a graphic of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe side by side with Chávez. Keller referred to them both when he concluded, “Autocrats will be autocrats.”12
But if despotism, defined as the cruel and oppressive exercise of absolute power, is to have any meaning, it must apply to the Honduran government, whose military—not just its police—routinely kills innocent civilians. On May 26, 2012, for example, Honduran special forces killed 15-year-old Ebed Yanez, and high-level officers allegedly managed its cover-up by dispatching “six to eight masked soldiers in dark uniforms” to the teenager’s body, poking it with rifles, and “[picking] up the empty bullet casings” to conceal evidence that could be linked back to the military, according to the Associated Press.13
The paradox of the Times—its derisive posture toward what it considers antidemocratic tendencies in Venezuela as it simultaneously avoids the same treatment of Honduras’s inarguable repression—can only be explained by one crucial factor: Honduras has been a firm U.S. ally since Zelaya’s overthrow.
Photo Credit: SOA Watch
In fact, the unit accused of killing Yanez was armed, trained, and vetted by the United States—even its trucks were donated by the U.S. government. As the AP further reported, in 2012, the U.S. Defense Department appropriated $67.4 million for Honduran military contracts, with an additional “$89 million in annual spending to maintain Joint Task Force Bravo, a 600-member U.S. unit based at Soto Cano Air Base.” Furthermore, “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras.”14
The Times’ scrupulous, unerring record of avoiding disparaging characterizations of Honduras’s human-rights-violating government may explain why it has never once made reference to 94 Congress members’ demand that the Obama administration withhold U.S. assistance to the Honduran military and police in March 2012. Nor has the paper reported on 84 Congress members’ letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later that year, condemning Honduras’s “institutional breakdown” and “judicial impunity.”15
When evaluating the newspaper’s relative silence on Honduras, it is worth imagining if Chávez were to have ascended to power in as dubious a manner as Lobo; if for years Venezuela’s government permitted its security apparatus to regularly kill civilians; or if the Chávez administration presided over conditions of impunity under which political opponents and human rights activists were disappeared, tortured, and killed.
As a careful examination of the language and coverage of nearly four years of New York Times articles reveals, concern for freedom and democracy in Latin America has not been an honest concern for the liberal media institution. The paper’s unwavering conformity to the posture of the U.S. State Department—consistently vilifying an official U.S. enemy while systematically downplaying the crimes of a U.S. ally—shows that its foremost priority is to subordinate itself to the priorities of Washington.
1. Lizette Alvarez, ““Venezuelan Expatriates See a Reason to Celebrate,” The New York Times, March 6, 2013.
2. Keane Bhatt, “A Hall of Shame for Venezuelan Elections Coverage,” Manufacturing Contempt (blog), nacla.org, October 8, 2012.
3. Neela Banerjee, “Obama Walks a Difficult Path as He Courts Jewish Voters,” The New York Times, March 1, 2008.
4. “Hugo Chávez Departs,” The New York Times, April 13, 2002.
5. “Policías de Honduras, Responsables de 149 Muertes Violentas,” La Prensa, December 3, 2012.
6. Katherine Corcoran and Martha Mendoza, “Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, Honduras Police Chief, Investigated In Killing,” Associated Press, June 1, 2012.
7. Fabiola Sánchez, “Venezuela Prison Deaths: 591 Detainees Killed Country’s Jails Last Year,” Associated Press, January 31, 2013.
8. “Hundreds Killed in ‘Hellish’ Fire at Prison in Honduras,” Associated Press, February 16, 2012.
9. Author’s research, using LexisNexis database searches for identical terms in reference to the two countries. For a detailed list of examples, contact him at email@example.com.
10. Francisco Toro, “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant,” The New York Times, October 6, 2012.
11. Simon Romero, “Hugo Chávez, Leader Who Transformed Venezuela, Dies at 58,” The New York Times, March 6, 2013.
12. Bill Keller, “Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal,” The New York Times Magazine, July 24, 2011.
13. Alberto Arce, “Dad Seeks Justice for Slain Son in Broken Honduras,” Associated Press, November 12, 2012.
14. Martha Mendoza, “US Military Expands Its Drug War in Latin America,” Associated Press, February 3, 2013.
15. Office of Representative Jan Schakowsky, “94 House Members Send Letter to Secretary Clinton Calling for Suspension of Assistance to Honduras,” March 13, 2012. Correspondence from Jared Polis et al. to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 26, 2012.
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As a result of many dozens—possibly hundreds—of messages from readers over the past few weeks that criticized The New Yorker’s inaccurate coverage of Venezuela, reporter Jon Lee Anderson issued a response in an online post on April 23. This marks the first time the magazine has publicly addressed its controversial and erroneous labeling of Venezuela as one of the world’s most “socially unequal” countries (I highlighted the error in mid-March). Although Anderson deprives his readers of the opportunity to evaluate his critics’ arguments (he offered no hyperlinks to either of my two articles on the subject, nor to posts by Corey Robin, Jim Naureckas, and others), he is clearly writing in response to those assertions.
To his credit, Anderson unequivocally admits two of his three errors: regarding Venezuela’s homicides, he acknowledges that he falsely wrote “that Venezuela had the highest homicide rate in Latin America. Actually, Honduras has the top rate.” Anderson proceeds to explain why Venezuela’s high homicide rate is nevertheless a grave problem—a position none of his critics, myself included, dispute.
The importance of this error rests instead in its revelation of a media culture under the influence of the consistent demonization of a country deemed an official U.S. enemy. This culture certainly played a role in allowing Anderson’s obvious falsehood to remain uncorrected for five months—five months after I first wrote about it, one month after I directly and publicly confronted Anderson about the error, and even then, days after I wrote another article urging readers to demand a correction.
While The New Yorker has dedicated literally no articles to U.S. ally Honduras since its current leader Porfirio Lobo came to power in repressive, sham elections held under a military dictatorship, Anderson was allowed to assert that Venezuela—a country with half the per capita homicides of Honduras—was Latin America’s leader in murders. One might reasonably suspect that a claim on The New Yorker’s website asserting that the United States had a higher homicide rate than Bolivia (Bolivia’s rate is actually over two times as high), would be retracted more expeditiously.
Anderson’s explanation for his second error—claiming that Chávez came to office through a coup d’etat rather than a free and fair election—further lays bare the corrupting effects of the generalized vilification of Chávez on basic journalistic standards of accuracy.
Anderson writes that despite his gaffe, he obviously knew Chávez “gained the Presidency by winning an election in 1998,” as he had “interviewed Chávez a number of times, travelled with him, and came to know him fairly well.” For Anderson to write such an egregious misstatement, then, and have it pass through what is likely the most rigorous fact-checking process in the industry, exposes a pervasive ideology under which he and his many editors and fact-checkers operate. As Jim Naureckas of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting wrote, “It’s like writing a long profile on Gerald Ford that refers to that time when he was elected president.”
Finally, Anderson offers a desperate attempt to justify his third factual error, stating:
A number of letters I’ve received dispute, out of context, my reference to “the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries”; several cite an economic statistic known as the Gini coefficient—a measure of income inequality.
Notice that Anderson never tells his readers what Venezuela’s Gini coefficient actually is. According to the United Nations, Venezuela’s Gini, at 0.397, makes it the least unequal country in Latin America and squarely in the middle range of the rest of the world. Only by sidestepping this brutal empirical obstacle can Anderson attempt to lay out his case. He carries on by reposting three paragraphs of his original essay, which in no way mitigate the falsity of his original claim, for “context.” Anderson finally concludes by offering a novel justification for his error:
In terms of some of the components of social inequality, notably income and education, Chávez had some real achievements. (Income is what’s captured by the Gini coefficient, although that statistic has its own limitations, some particular to Venezuela.) But in housing and violence, his record was woefully insufficient. Those social factors are intimately related, to each other and to the question of equality.
A quick recap is in order before unpacking Anderson’s argument. Readers may remember that he first responded to evidence on income inequality by proclaiming, on Twitter, his agnosticism toward empirical data. Next, a senior editor at the magazine justified Anderson’s contention by arguing that Venezuela was one of the most unequal amongst other oil-rich countries—a point I debunked. Now, Anderson has settled on a definition of social inequality that minimizes Venezuela’s high educational and income equality in favor of high homicide rates and unequal housing.
But simply saying that Chávez’s record “was woefully insufficient” on housing and violence does not naturally equate to Venezuela’s standing as a world leader in social inequality. Anderson must rely on comparative international statistics to justify his position, but fails to do so.
While Venezuela’s homicide rate is high by international standards and a significant social ill, this alone does not necessarily make the country more socially unequal than another country with a lower homicide rate. Are Venezuelan homicides more skewed toward low-income residents than those in Costa Rica? Or Haiti? Are Venezuelan murders more targeted at women or ethnic minorities than those in Mexico or Guatemala? And given that the high homicide rate directly affects far fewer than one in a thousand Venezuelans annually, how could this statistic possibly outweigh the effect of massive income-inequality and poverty reductions? If he is solely basing his argument on murder rates, Anderson has no credible explanation as to why Venezuela is one of the world’s most socially unequal countries.
Anderson also doesn’t offer statistics showing that housing is more unequal in Venezuela than anywhere else. That’s because it’s not.
Out of the 91 countries for which the United Nations has available data, Venezuela is 61st in terms of the percentage of its urban population living in slums. That is to say, two-thirds of the world’s countries with available data have larger percentages of their urban citizens living as slum dwellers. In the Western Hemisphere, this includes Guayana, Honduras, Peru, Anguilla, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Bolivia, Jamaica, and Haiti.
It is also worth mentioning that this data was taken from 2005, when the percentage of Venezuela’s urban population living in poverty and extreme poverty was at 37%. By 2010, according to the United Nations, it had been cut by a quarter, to 28% (p. 43). Furthermore, 2005 predates a massive governmental push in 2011 to build affordable housing. Earlier this year, Venezuela’s Housing Commission chair asserted that “in the years 2011 and 2012, the Bolivarian government together with the people reached the goal of building 350,000 homes.”
It appears, then, that Anderson has discovered a new definition of “social inequality” that has eluded economists and sociologists worldwide—one that systematically downplays Venezuela’s educational and income equality while emphasizing a high frequency of murders and a rate of slum-dwelling that is low by international standards.
While one can applaud Jon Lee Anderson for finally acknowledging the value of social indicators and statistical data, he and his magazine cannot be allowed to define “social inequality” any way they see fit. No social scientist analyzing the available data could argue, like Anderson, that Venezuela is one of the world’s most socially unequal countries. While semantics games may be expedient in avoiding a necessary correction, readers should let The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick (firstname.lastname@example.org) know that a retraction of Anderson’s claim is long overdue.
Update (4/24): FAIR’s Jim Naureckas also offers sharp criticism of Jon Lee Anderson and his fact-checkers for a transparently inadequate attempt to justify his error regarding Venezuela’s social inequality. Read more, at ”Jon Lee Anderson Explains: Because I Said So.”
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with his blog on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt
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Miami – In a public broadcast yesterday the Venezuelan government announced the transition to democracy. Measures include the sale of community media to business giant Rupert Murdoch, and the privatisation of the health sector.
A Venezuelan government spokesperson told the press, “On the advice of a special US commission, the government will be expanding media diversity by selling all of its community media to Rupert Murdoch”.
“The media package includes Latin America’s Telesur, which will no longer report from the ground and talk to real people, but rather read US government press releases from an autocue,” the government spokesperson said.
Further, the government announced it will be bringing Monsanto into the country to advise on food reform.
“We realised that organised communities shouldn’t participate in politics, they don’t know their own needs, only transnationals like Monsanto and Macdonalds really understand these issues,” the spokesperson said.
On hearing of the transition plans, Donald Trump immediately offered to buy Venezuela’s Canaima National Park, in order to build a golf course. The government has accepted.
“Trump Greens will be South America’s premier golfing destination,” Trump told Venezuelan media yesterday.
“Imagine taking a putt off the world’s highest waterfall. This is my gift to all Venezuelans… and their caddies.”
The government will also sell its Barrio Adentro health system to Richard Branson.
The privatisations will be complemented by austerity policies, with the government hoping to deliver a budget surplus by 2015.
“We have observed the unquestionable success of austerity measures in Europe. While we have struggled to reduce poverty by any more than 66% over the last fourteen years, the rise in living conditions across Europe recently is a testament to the universal fact that free markets make free people,” the spokesperson said.
The US based Human Rights Organisation, which recently declared that Guantanamo Bay is conforming with human rights standards, commented that the latest measures were “a step in the right direction”.
“We hope that within a few years our democracy will be just as good as it is in the US. They have so many types of plastic cheese there, not to mention TV snacks. The Venezuelan economy is a disaster if we don’t have that sort of choice,” said the government spokesperson.
Government officials conceded what many in the international community have suspected for some time. As Simon Hooper wrote for CNN on 6 March, Chavez relied on drawing supporters using “force of personality”.
Indeed, his down to earth rhetoric, and appealing personality tricked many Venezuelans into supporting dictatorial policies such as investment in health and education.
“This day, 1 April, we have decided not to be fools any more and to start taking the international mainstream media seriously. We appreciate everything that the US has done for this continent,” the spokesperson concluded.
Chief of an electoral observation mission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Carlos Alvarez said Wednesday that Venezuela possesses a reliable and transparent electoral system that inspires “plenty of confidence”.
Alvarez said Venezuela’s election infrastructure satisfies the requirements of a free and fair democracy, reported Prensa Latina.
On April 14, the UNASUR Electoral Council will again observe Venezuelan elections, after first doing so last October.
On 7 October 2012, Alvarez recalled, there was high participation rate in Venezuela’s presidential elections, even though voting is not compulsory. In that process, Hugo Chavez won with 55.07 per cent of the ballot; 8,191,132 votes.
Secretary of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), Alvarez added that on April 14 he will chair “a neutral mission, which allows UNASUR to gather information, knowledge and experience to have a stronger Electoral Council.”
“As UNASUR has an Electoral Council fully joined to regional tasks, the self-determination of its electoral processes will be… more guaranteed in the region,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez said that initiatives such as the council remove the need for supervision from the so-called developed nations. “Less and less countries request… international observation [from] the developed world.”
Latin America, he said, “has eliminated electoral fraud and the military coup d’etat, which used to be two tools for the [r]ight to prevent popular processes.”
Concerning the recent passing of the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, he said that it “obviously left a very big emptiness, as in Venezuela as in Latin America, as in the rest of the world.”
Edited by Venezuelanalysis
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The New York Times coverage of Hugo Chavez’ death was a bunker buster of misinformation.
The socialist left was plunged into a state of crisis last week when its leading advocate was felled by cancer. The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dealt a potentially crippling blow to the Bolivarian revolution’s hold on the Venezuelan nation. With their leader gone, Chavistas are scrambling to align their ranks behind Nicolas Maduro, an unimposing background figure in the Chavez narrative. And despite the stunning successes of the Chavez government—from a vertiginous drop in poverty to an equally dramatic rise in literacy, the establishment of a legislative apparatus designed to benefit the nation’s majority, and the nationalization of Venezuelan oil—the opposition is poised to renew its attack on the socialist experiment of the last decade and a half. Furious over repeated humiliations at the ballot box, the Venezuelan right, led by Henrique Capriles, is anxious to steer the country back to failed prescriptions of neoliberal economics, hoping to seize on an unexpected election to reclaim the presidency.
Naturally, few if any of the Bolivarian triumphs were mentioned in The New York Times ungenerous lead on the demise of the Venezuelan leader. Already, our leading propaganda daily has begun its historical revision of Chavez’ legacy. Its prejudiced coverage of the El Commandante’s death was remarkable only it what it elided from view—namely any of the progressive transformations the Bolivarian socialist engendered. Regarding the state of the nation, only a few conditions were noted. While vague mention was made that Chavez had “empowered and energized” millions of poor people, the print edition headline said Venezuela was a nation in “deep turmoil.” The digital edition brusquely mentioned, “high inflation and soaring crime,” as well as, “soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.” While there is some truth to these claims—particularly in relation to crime—none of Chavez’ achievements were noted, an astonishing array of programmatic successes that have dwarfed the failures of his tenure.
But before adding anything else, let’s briefly look at the indictments delivered by the Times:
- After devaluing its currency in 2010, pundits predicted massive inflation. Instead, inflation declined for two years, while economic growth topped four percent both years. This is ignored. Nor does the article note Venezuela’s spiraling rate of inflation before Chavez took office—or that he has actually significantly reduced it. While prices rise with inflation, the government offers subsidized goods through weekly Mercal and also regularly adjusts minimum wage to match or exceed inflation, which increases consumer purchasing power, which itself has increased 18 percent in Chavez’ first decade in office.
- In stark contrast to improving economic numbers, Venezuela’s murder rate increased threefold during Chavez’ three terms in office, now third highest in the Americas, calling into question the effectiveness of police training. A new training program was launched in 2009, but has yet to produce results. The Bolivarian National Police, also launched in 2009, has lowered rates where it is active, but chronic problems continue to plague the country, particularly Caracas, including police corruption, biased judiciaries, the likelihood of not being prosecuted, the presence of millions of weapons, and the fact that Venezuela is a main thoroughfare for illegal drugs on their way to the United States.
- Food shortages are also present, another surprising condition in a country of declining poverty. Western critics naturally point to price controls as the cause, providing a typically ideological explanation for a problem that appears to have a more nuanced answer. Food consumption in Venezuela has exploded since Chavez took office in 1999. The population consumed 26 million tons of food in 2012, double the 13 million tons they consumed in 1999. The government suggests the shortages are a consequence of rapidly increasing consumption. Food production is up 71 percent since Chavez took office, but consumption is up 94 percent.
Claims without Context
A day later, the Times decided that its stinting initial coverage was too generous: it had merely listed the flaws in Venezuelan society. What it had failed to do was pepper the pot with a heavy dose of falsification. It then released a factless catalogue of misinformation that, when it wasn’t quoting louche academics, was irrigating the column with toxic dogma. It began, in its home page tout, with a headline about “Debating Chavez’s Legacy,” by author William Neuman. The sub-line anxiously opened the festivities with an elephantine distortion: “Venezuela had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.”
Well, after that opener, why bother writing a column? The case has already been made. Best to have the tout lead to a broken link, or redirect to Thomas Friedman hyperventilating about the glories of globalization on display in Indonesian sweatshops. But no, the Times were out for blood. This was no ordinary socialist. Chavez deserved a double-barreled dose of disinformation.
Regarding its initial claim that Venezuela had one of the “lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.” This statistic is taken from the World Bank. It is true. What it fails to mention is the nosedive the Venezuelan economy fell into when U.S.-backed, right-wing elites overthrew the democratically-elected Chavez in 2002. The economy fell at nine percent into 2003. Then there were devastating oil production shutdowns engineered by the same cadre of oppositionists when Chavez moved to nationalize the oil industry.
Despite this and other opposition attempts to sabotage the economy through food hoarding, price speculation, and other noble measures, the Times neither bothers to contextualize their claim nor balance it against the significant achievements of the Bolivarian government. If elements of socialism actually work, don’t the Times readers deserve to know about them? Evidently not, according to the editors, who see it as their duty to shelter their gullible readership from the facts. But consider these facts about Venezuela’s socialist experiment:
- Per capita GDP in Venezuela is up 50 percent since the coup.
- The Venezuelan economy was among the fastest growing Latin nations in 2012.
- Its economy has grown steadily for nine consecutive quarters.
- Inflation has been cut nearly in half since Chavez took office, when it was spiraling out of control thanks to the ever-efficient neoliberal private sector leadership.
A Legacy Belittled
The article then claims that Chavez’ massively attended funeral was “a tribute to the drawing power of the charismatic leftist leader, although perhaps not to the lasting influence of his socialist-inspired policies.” This line nicely inverts the obvious truth—the masses turned out precisely because of Chavez’ socialist-inspired policies. The policies the paper had given an unfair drubbing in the opening tout have driven consistent growth in society’s most impoverished sectors. Poverty has been reduced by 70 percent since Chavez won the presidency. Nutritional measures among the poor are up across the board, while strengthened pension programs, freely available healthcare, and an inflation-linked minimum wage are helping produce a viable workforce with growing purchasing power—a prerequisite of demand and economic expansion.
The paper then says Chavez’ revolution “remains more limited than he would have liked,” a spurious attempt to cast the Bolivarian revolution as a failure, when in fact, against most significant social and economic metrics, the socialist experiment exceeded itself. To reinforce this portrait of another foreclosed attempt to establish a socialist state, the Times trots out Alejandro Toledo, a former president of Peru. Toledo replaced the Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori, and was so unpopular—even though he succeeded one of the continent’s most vile authoritarians—that his approval rating dropped to six percent in 2004, when street rioting briefly paused to permit the survey. Here is Toledo:
“The important thing is that Mexico has not followed his example, Chile has not followed his example, Peru has not followed his example, Colombia has not followed his example, Brazil has not followed his example. I’m talking about big countries with large, sustained economic growth.”
Toledo, like the paper, obviates Chavez’ stunning impact on continental politics, an influence that has encouraged similar leftist triumphs in Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and others. Chavez convinced many of his regional colleagues of the dangers of forging discrete trade agreements with the United States—with NAFTA as the ne plus ultra in the category—and then promoted regional agreements among his Latin counterparts. Chavez worked to expand Mercosur into a continental trade platform, not simply that of South America’s southern cone. Then he established such inter-continental co-operatives as Telesur, PetroCaribe, and Petrosur, as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
With little left to criticize, and plenty of column width to fill, the author resorts to repetition and veiled attacks on socialism. The claim about Venezuela’s low rates of growth is repeated. Then the social flaws from the previous day’s coverage are hurried back into commission: high inflation, shortages of basic goods. High crime, bitter political divisions.
Then, in a turn both sour and childish, the Times concedes that “poverty went down significantly,” but quickly adds that, “other countries…made progress in reducing poverty while following paths very different from that of Mr. Chavez.”
A Brazilian academic then claims that governments in countries like Brazil have “a more balanced position” and that unnamed left-leaning governments are looking to its model and not Venezuela’s for guidance.
No evidence is offered for this claim. Nor does the Carioca academic mention what precisely is “balanced” about a Brazilian society in which the household income of the top one percent is equal to that of the bottom 50 percent of society.
After a short series of additional points—including the passing notation that masses of citizens marched for hours alongside Chavez’ casket—much is made of Chavez’ use of oil resources to build relations with other South American governments. The unstated claim: that Chavez bought his friends. An “energy fellow” at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes rather peevishly that “Venezuela’s influence in Latin America was built on the back of oil exports,” as if it is somehow bad form to play one’s cards in international affairs. And as if the United States hadn’t been bribing its way across the Middle East for the last decade.
There you have it: the disingenuous reality of The New York Times, a paper that disguises its bias behind a thin veneer of cool detachment and a studied use of non-inflammatory language, much like the paper’s bedmate in neoliberal apologetics, The Economist. The lengths to which the paper will go to discredit the creditable would be laughable if the paper weren’t so popular among self-proclaimed progressives. It is a powerful tool by which corporate power softens the blunt edges of austerity and disarms mainstream liberals with soothing messaging about good intentions and “balanced” approaches to economic development.
By rehearsing the standard refrains of American exceptionalism—a love of democracy, an abiding concern for the voiceless inhabitants of the developing world and the scourge of tyrants that seem forever to afflict them, and a noble need to extend our love of freedom to points south as well as the backward caliphates of the East—the Times tranquilizes would-be progressive protestors with the gentle rationalizations of corporate life—the ultimate virtue of which is the appearance of even-handedness. The kind of professorial restraint best represented by Obama, a façade the opposite of which—the dangerous passions of the oppressed—is frowned upon as “counterproductive” and known to be the bane of respectable men. And by respectable one may read fatally compromised.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 18-year veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- “Humanity Has Lost a Titan”: Interview with William I. Robinson on the Legacy of Hugo Chavez (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Venezuelan Post-Chavez Roadmap to the Middle East (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- In the End, Awful Journalism (alethonews.wordpress.com)
The progressive cause in Latin America but also worldwide has lost one of its most visible leaders. How would you describe the political ideology professed by Hugo Chavez and his Venezuelan United Socialist Party?
Humanity has lost a titan with the passing of Hugo Chavez. Without doubt Chavez is the most important revolutionary leader to have emerged in Latin America – indeed, from the Global South – in at least a generation, if not in a century. When Chavez came to power in 1999 it was the heyday of neo-liberal hegemony in Latin America and around the world. Chavez’ election irked the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and raised eyebrows in the halls of power in Washington and elsewhere. But it was not until the April 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec, Canada, that the direction Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution would take became clear. Chavez was the only head of state among the 24 hemispheric leaders present at that meeting who refused to sign on to the declaration approving the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas that, if approved, would have created by 2005 a giant free trade zone from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. It was at that moment that neo-liberalism definitively lost its hegemony.
But Chavez not only rejected neo-liberalism. He put socialism back on the public agenda at a time when apologists for global capitalism were still claiming it was “the End of History” and when the defeatist left was insisting that we had to be “realistic” and “pragmatic,” to renounce anti-capitalism, and to limit ourselves to putting a “human face” on the capitalist system. Chavez called for a renewed democratic socialism – what he and the PUSV called “21st century socialism” – a socialism based on the protagonism and democratic control of the popular classes from below, as evinced in the 40,000 Communal Councils, the tens of thousands of worker cooperatives, and the thousands of public enterprises run by workers councils in Venezuela. It is apropos to recall these experiences in Venezuela take place at a time when the Greek and other European peoples are reeling under the austerity imposed by the brutal dictatorship of transnational finance capital.
In an era in which socialists in the west have embraced wholeheartedly the neoliberal project, on Chavez’s watch, the oil industry in Venezuela was nationalized, government spending increased substantially (up to 40% in 2012), and welfare projects were initiated on a massive scale. What challenges did Chavez have to overcome in order to accomplish these goals?
The anti-Chavista forces, Washington, and the international media are fond of saying that Chavez “polarized” Venezuela. But Venezuela was polarized long before Chavez came to power, with a tiny capitalist class and state elite and a sizable middle class on the one side – approximately some 30 percent of the Venezuelan population – and the impoverished majority on the other side. Above all Chavez reverted the country’s oil wealth to this majority. The re-nationalization of the oil industry allowed the Chavez government to redirect state resources towards this poor majority. The social achievements of the Bolivarian revolution are now well known: poverty was cut by more than half, from over 60 percent to some 25 percent of the population, and extreme poverty dropped from 25 percent to some seven percent; health and education became universally accessible; life expectancy rose from 74.5 to 79.5 years; unemployment dropped from 12 percent to 6 percent; hundreds of thousands of new homes have been constructed ; and so on.
But these achievements, and more generally, the effort to reorient the country’s resources to the poor majority, came at the cost of the enmity of the bourgeoisie and much of the middle classes, of Washington, and of the Latin American oligarchies and capitalist classes. The Chavista government faced ever more intense destabilization campaigns, including attempted coups, military and paramilitary plots, political conspiracies, disinformation and misinformation (of which much of the international press has been willing accomplices), employee strikes and economic sabotage, and so on. The country has faced a war of attrition that has taken a heavy toll.
Moreover, the drive to construct socialism has taken place within a capitalist global economy. Some 70 percent of the Venezuelan economy is still in private hands, including the financial system, and the country remains dependent on international oil companies and markets. The material power of national and transnational capital translates into continued political and ideological influence. The law of value and its logic is still very much operative in the economy.
The strategy has been to develop and state and cooperative sector to compete with private national and transnational capital; it has not been to replace the logic of accumulation with a social logic as much as it has been to develop a social logic in the state and cooperative sector alongside the logic of accumulation that remains operative for the economy as a whole. This has generated structural as well as political and ideological contradictions. With regard to the former, for instance, inflation has become a serious problem as has a black market in the currency. This is the challenge of 21st century socialism “in one country.”
Under Chavez, Venezuela had established very special relations with Cuba. Was the relationship mutually beneficial to both countries?
Chavez developed a close friendship with Fidel Castro and the two have worked closely together in confronting Washington’s political and economic domination in the region. Economic relations between the two countries on not based on the criteria of profitability and trade advantage but on solidarity and complementarity. Cuba receives Venezuelan oil in exchange for Cuba sending medical brigades and other forms of social assistance. Yet Chavez stated on numerous occasions that Venezuela is constructing its own model of socialism. Sure the relationship has been mutually beneficial, but more to the point, that relationship reflects the broader matter of international political and economic relations among socialist-oriented countries, or countries whose governments are seeking relations based on cooperation and solidarity rather than on competition.
Venezuela (together with Cuba) has played a leadership role in Latin America in forging a political union, economic integration, and an alternative regional cooperation and development model based on solidarity rather than profit and driven by member states rather than transnational corporations and such international financial agencies as the IMF and the World Bank. In 2004 Venezuela and Cuba set up the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA to promote integration and solidarity on the principle of solidarity not competition. Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several other countries have joined ALBA. While Venezuela has provided oil on concessionary terms through ALBA, it has, more importantly, promoted projects such as a regional bank and currency, regional public agricultural and industrial enterprises, and joint infrastructural, social, and communications programs. In December 2011 the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, held its inaugural summit in Caracas. The CELAC brings together every country in the hemisphere excluding the United States and Canada and is a direct political challenge to Washington’s historic domination in the region.
Beyond Latin America, Venezuela has diversified its international economic relations – China is becoming the major trading and investment partner – and promoted South-South cooperation. Venezuela has come out strongly in support of the Palestinian struggle and other such causes, and against U.S. intervention around the world, even when it has cost the country political capital and economic support internationally. In sum, Venezuela has pursued not a self-interested and opportunistic foreign policy such as that of the former Soviet Union but one based on what would be true socialist principles of solidarity and cooperation.
Socialism in Latin America is on an upwards spiral since the late 2000s. What explains its rise at this particular historical juncture?
It is not difficult to understand the rise of socialism, or certainly, the spiral of anti-capitalism. In the wake of the 1970s crisis of world capitalism the bourgeoisie in the centers of the system, together with state elites and organic intellectuals who serve that bourgeoisie, launched capitalist globalization and undertook a vast new round of “primitive accumulation” around the world, destabilizing hundreds of millions of people. One of the key vehicles for this new round of capitalist expansion was neo-liberalism, a program which has facilitated the transfer of resources from the poor and working classes everywhere to a new transnational capitalist class, especially transnational finance capital, and to emerging middle and professional strata enjoying the fruits of the new global capitalism. Very simply, global capitalism has thrown countless millions into misery and uncertainty. The system has demonstrated that it is a failure for a majority of humanity.
It is in this context that starting in the late 1990s resistance forces around the world began to coalesce into a critical anti-capitalist mass and the banner of “another world is possible” was raised. But what kind of a new world? It is in this context that the Bolivarian revolution and its worldwide impact must be understood. And it is in this context that the extraordinary vision, charisma, and foresightedness of Hugo Chavez must be appreciated. Venezuela under Chavez, much more than resistance to global capitalism, is an example that a new world truly can – and must – be created, once based on the principles and practices of democratic socialism, if not on the label.
Venezuela will hold presidential elections on April 14. Will the United Socialist Party manage to sustain the momentum without Chavez, especially since it is a well known fact that his party is fractured by intra-party rivalries?
The greatest danger to the Bolivarian revolution, in my view, has always come from within, from the “endogenous right,” or the “Chavista right-wing,” that is, from portions of the Chavista movement that wish to see in Venezuela a more mild social democratic project and also from bureaucratic state and party elites who are more interested in acquiring their own power, privilege, and authority, often through corruption, than in helping to develop the self-empowerment of the working and popular classes. Yes, there are intra-party rivalries but I think that in the larger political analysis these must be seen in light of the struggle to avoid a bureaucratic top-down hijacking of power-from-below.
Nicolas Maduro has been a leader of the radical left for several decades and comes from a trade-union background. The Chavista movement has rallied around his leadership and his candidacy. He has proven, since Chavez moved into a terminal state in December, that he is a capable leader and the Chavista mass base understands that its struggle to defend and to deepen its revolution is now tied to electoral support for Maduro’s candidacy in the upcoming vote.
William I Robinson is Professor of Sociology, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author among other books of Latin America and Global Capitalism (2008).
Merida – Private poll company Datanalisis has found that interim president Nicolas Maduro has a 14% lead over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, with 16% of respondents still undecided, or intending to vote for other candidates.
Yesterday Barclays/Datanalisis released a report in which 65% of respondents believe that pro-Chavez candidate Nicolas Maduro will win the 14 April presidential elections.
Barclays is a British multinational financial services company, and Datanalisis is a private Venezuelan company, whose poll results generally favour the opposition, but also tend to be closer to final election outcomes than some other private polling companies.
According to their poll, 49.2% of respondents intend to vote for Maduro, while 34.8% said they will vote for opposition contender Henrique Capriles, giving Maduro a prospective lead of 14.4%. Datanalisis conducted the poll from 11 March to 13 March; the days following the candidates’ registrations to run in the elections.
Only 15% of respondents believed Capriles would win the upcoming elections. Barclays identified this as a “risk” for the opposition, as a “lack of enthusiasm could lead to the abstention of voters”.
“In that sense, Capriles’s reaction has been an aggressive campaign to try to revitalize opposition voters. He is presenting the election in terms of a battle against adverse and unfair conditions, in which a significant portion of the country (roughly half of it) deserves to be heard,” the financial company’s report concluded.
The results also show that the passing of President Hugo Chavez only had a minor impact on voting intentions. Results from the same company, from a poll conducted on 20 February, show the voting intention for Maduro at 46.4%, just 2.8% less than the more recent poll. The voting intention for Capriles was 34.3%, 0.5% less than the recent poll.
The results suggest a high percentage of undecided votes, abstentions or intentions to vote for other candidates, at 16%.
Barclays argued, “Considering the short period for campaigning, the sympathy effect just after the death of Chavez, restrictions on the press, and the demobilisation of the opposition following two defeats last year, Maduro is still a favourite for the 14 of April presidential elections”.
It is not clear what “restrictions on the press” Barclays refers to. The National Electoral Council has increased the amount of electoral advertising time allowed by television and radio, given the short campaigning time. Television advertisements can last a maximum of four minutes, and radio advertisements five minutes. Official campaigning is allowed from 2 to 11 April.
“Maduro is still the favourite… however his popularity is volatile and relies on the emotional support that Chavez transferred to him,” Barclays stated in its report.
The financial transnational also concluded that the market is assuming Maduro’s victory, and that Venezuela still offers an “interesting asymmetric trade opportunity in the case of a black swan event”. A black swan event is an unexpected event with high impact, and the Barclay’s report says it sees an opposition win in this light.
Andres Izarra, a member of the team heading up the campaign ‘Hugo Chavez’ for Nicolas Maduro, criticised national and international “right wing media” for “ignoring” the poll results. He noted that at the time of speaking, yesterday, of Venezuelan media only newspaper Ultimas Noticias had reported the results.
As of today, newspaper El Universal and news website Noticias24 have also published the results, but TV channel Globovision and conservative paper El Nacional haven’t.
Today, another private, pro-opposition poll company, Hinterlaces also released its poll results. Based on a survey of 1,100 homes around the country, conducted on 16 March, 53% of respondents would vote for Maduro and 35% for Capriles, for a difference of 18 percentage points.
The poll also showed that 61% of Venezuelans think that Maduro will win the elections.
In October last year, Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections with 55.4% of the vote, to 45% by Capriles, with 81% participation. The September poll by Datanalisis gave Chavez a 13% lead.
In the face of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s ill health and subsequent death on March 5, the U.S. press—including its most unabashedly liberal wing—jumped at the opportunity to disparage him and his legacy, often on spurious grounds. Jon Lee Anderson of the urbane New Yorker magazine epitomized this tendency.
As the magazine’s corespondent for Venezuela and author of a January piece on the country that stretched to over 10,000 words, Anderson was the subject of withering ridicule. Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting wrote that Anderson’s article appeared “almost like a parody of corporate media coverage of an official enemy state.” Economist Mark Weisbrot similarly noted that Anderson wasn’t “letting commonly agreed-upon facts and numbers get in the way” of his plodding diatribe against Chávez’s failures. Those criticisms remain independent from others who have observed his increasingly bizarre Twitter outbursts against critics.
Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted fact checkers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.
In a Spanish-language interview with the BBC on March 9, Anderson also accused the deceased Venezuelan president of having been machista, or sexist, “but in a cultural sense. Women tended to be hosts at parties, for example, not political advisers.” If true, that would be news to Erika Farías, the recently departed head of the Office of the Presidency; Adina Bastidas, Chávez’s vice president from 2000-2002; Cilia Flores, currently the country’s attorney general; Gabriela del Mar Ramírez, currently public defender; Edmée Betancourt, head of the Ministry of Commerce; and scores of others. At present, women direct three of the five branches of the Venezuelan government.
Even more damning is the number of Anderson’s falsehoods exposed through simple arithmetic. For instance, in a NewYorker.com piece published before Venezuela’s elections, he wrote in error that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides.” The most recently available United Nations data show that Honduras, with 91.6 killings per 100,000 in 2011, has twice the rate of homicides as Venezuela, which recorded 45.1 in 2010. (El Salvador has 69.2.) When confronted with these facts on Twitter in February, Anderson admitted his mistake publicly, addressing even his editors at The New Yorker, and agreed to offer a correction. Over a month later, however, neither Anderson nor his editors have fixed his invented claim.
In his NewYorker.com “postscript” for the death of Hugo Chávez on March 5, he published yet another factual inaccuracy, claiming that Venezuela “is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries.” Impressively, in just 16 words, he managed to err on two counts: First, under Chávez, inequality did not stay “the same as ever,” but rather fell enormously. Publicly available UN data confirm that Venezuela’s Gini index, a standard measure of inequality, fell from 49.8 to 39.7 between 1999 and 2011. Secondly, this decline made Venezuela anything but one of the world’s most socially unequal countries; according to the UN, it is now Latin America’s least unequal country. This reduction resulted from governmental priorities which halved poverty and unemployment over the past 10 years, while living standards improved through a healthy 2.5% annual per capita income growth since 2004. These massive reductions in poverty, which even many anti-Chávez editorials have noted, have never been reported by Anderson. Instead, he deceptively points to “extremely high levels of poverty and unemployment” in order to stress “the magnitude of the mess that Venezuela finds itself in.”
Finally, Anderson’s criticisms over Caracas’s slums suffer from flagrant omissions of chronology. He pinpointed the “height of [Caracas’s] allure” in 1983—it was a “boring, pristine, very North American” city, “buzzing along in modernity.” Yes, he admitted, there were “shacks on the hills, but not too many at the time.” “Now,” he says, “the slums are kind of everywhere.” It is “extraordinary” that “la revolución couldn’t tackle this” given that “the slums are still there 14 years later.” Anderson is performing sleight of hand with arithmetic here. He is excluding 16 disastrous years of economic history in which Chávez was never in office: from 1983 through 1998, real per capita income actually fell substantially, exacerbating poverty and housing insecurity to an unprecedented degree.
In a February panel discussion for the Frontline Club in London, he wondered “how to quantify the improvement in the standard of living in a city or in a place where people are still living in slums.” One way to do it is by looking at UN data, or other publicly available data on income, poverty, employment, and other social indicators that are heavily scrutinized and widely used by social scientists. Another way to do so is by acknowledging critics’ corrections to his false socioeconomic assertions, rather than referring to them on Twitter as “trolls” and “scum.” He should follow their advice, and complement his impressionistic firsthand reporting with empirical evidence.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with him on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt
As interim Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro’s first protocol act was to hold talks with a Chinese delegation, in order to reinforce economic ties with the People’s Republic. Following the meeting on March 8, Maduro declared that “China is the biggest economic driving force of the new world and a main political actor in world decisions.” The meeting was broadcast live on local Venezuelan media and on big screens around the military academy, where Chavistas were paying an emotional farewell to their leader Hugo Chavez.
The meeting concealed a double meaning: It served as a public political cover against anyone interested in destabilizing the Bolivarian revolution, as had occurred in 2002 with the failed coup against Chavez. Officials in Washington likely took note. The second implicit meaning was to reinforce the spirit of the Chavista revolution. It represents a continuity with Chavez’s foreign policy: the Bolivarian revolution which started 14 years ago will pursue Chavez’s main personal goal of creating a multipolar world grounded on strong anti-imperialism.
In his speech at the funeral ceremony, Maduro lightly opened up to the United States, who had dispatched two low-profile delegates to the ceremony, but clearly stated that his future duty would lie in “shap[ing] a world where there are no hegemonic powers, especially here in America.”
Under Hugo Chavez’s presidential mandates, Venezuela attempted to establish a multipolar world order in order to challenge US hegemony. Since 1999, Chavez increased Venezuela bilateral relations with countries such as China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, Syria and Libya. He personally built a bridge between leftist countries in Latin America and this multi-polar world.
Chavez’s international relations were indeed very much self-oriented and grounded in strong friendships. Most of these friendly countries assisted with high profile delegations at the funeral and considered Chavez’s death a personal loss more than the passing of a mere political ally.
Chavez’s Legacy and the Middle East
However, the main focus of Chavez’s foreign policy has been the Middle East and especially the Arab cause, which was considered a priority. Chavez found in the Middle East a common ground for his anti-imperialist policy and good allies not fearful to speak out against US hegemony. In the last decade, Venezuela signed several agreements with Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria, Libya and Iran, concerning natural resources, housing and trade, but mainly preparatory in order to reinforce the political alliance.
The future of these strong ties between Venezuela and Middle Eastern countries hostile to United States represents the main question after Chavez’s death.
Several delegations from the Middle East arrived in Venezuela to pay their condolences to the Venezuelan president. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a telegram to Maduro and a delegation to assist with the funeral. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent around 24 hours in Caracas and attracted much attention from Venezuelan media. During the ceremony, Ahmadinejad kissed several times the coffin and finally raised his fist in homage to his political ally and close friend.
Venezuelan media followed him around until his last steps on Venezuelan soil at the airport of Maiquetia. The relationship between Venezuela and Iran was solidified with Ahmadenijad’s rise to power in Iran in 2005, and with the consolidation of the Bolivarian political project in Latin America. Ahmadinejad traveled to Latin America on several occasions and received numerous visits from Latin American leaders.
On the other side, Chavez opened Latin America to Ahmadinejad as well, especially in terms of ideological and trade relations with other leftist governments in the region and especially with the members of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).
Facing international media speculations on the Venezuelan vacuum and about the end of bilateral relations between Iran and Venezuela after Chavez’s death, Ahmadinejad declared upon landing in Iran that “the Iranian nation has strong ties with revolutionary nations and we will help strengthening these ties. Thus, nobody should believe that our relations will be weaker because of the death of Chávez.”
The Iranian state PressTV also reported the declaration of Iran’s Vice-President for International Affairs Ali Saeedlou affirming that the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez would not undermine relations between Tehran and Caracas, and that it was wrong to consider ties with Venezuela as based merely on a personal relationship.
Beside the condolences from regional heads of states and the rush to discredit speculations, the main question remains after Chavez death: Will his successor be able to manage such a self-oriented foreign policy and stance toward the Middle East?
The Arab Spring and Venezuela Last Stances on the Middle East
In the last months, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro publicly supported China and Russia’s veto against UN Security Council resolutions to sanction Syria. In previous years, Chavez’s government expelled the Israeli ambassador as consequence of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, and he vehemently criticized foreign intervention in Libya, supporting instead his close friend Muammar Gaddafi against what he considered another imperial aggression.
The Arab Spring destabilized Chavez’s relations with some Middle Eastern countries, and Libya was the first loss. But Adriana Boersner, director of the Venezuelan think tank Diploos, is skeptical that the Arab Spring represented any serious inconvenience for Venezuela: “the bilateral relations with Libya were merely related to an ideological component and they were very pragmatic in terms of trade, social, educational and cultural agreements. Of these 150 treaties, only 10 were being ratified by the assembly. Definitely the death of Gaddafi did not greatly affect Venezuela.”
Gaddafi’s death instead affected Hugo Chavez on a personal level. According to Reinaldo Bolivar, vice-minister of foreign affairs for Africa, “Venezuela lost contact with Libya but maintains good relations with other countries in the area.”
Indeed, Venezuela managed to maintain good relations with other countries from the region even if with different perspectives on the events in the Middle East – at least on an official level. That is the case especially with Qatar. The honeymoon between the emir and the comandante was mainly motivated by Chavez’s attempt to emulate the al-Jazeera model with his own creation, TeleSUR.
With the spreading of the Arab Spring to Syria, the agreements between the channels almost faded. But Venezuelan criticism toward al-Jazeera and Qatar’s role in Syria was left to low profile ministers and grassroots groups or individuals. The government publicly remained silent.
According to Reinaldo Bolivar, “in terms of Venezuelan politics toward the Middle East and North Africa, Maduro’s government will act in perfect continuity with Chavez’s mandate. Venezuelan foreign policy will be coherent with the Plan de la Patria of 2013-2019, which basically aims to create a multipolar world, express international solidarity with the oppressed people of the world, the defense of sovereignty and the complete rejection of foreign intervention.”
The Plan de La Patria is to be considered a road map for the coming years of the Bolivarian revolution and it was written a few months before Chavez’s death. It indicates that Venezuela’s prerogative in foreign policy is to shape a multipolar world which aims to preserve peace based on the principle of respect for all countries’ sovereignty.
Maduro, the Chavistas and the Middle East
Doubts persist if Maduro will be able to continue Chavez’s multipolar path and will be able to keep political alliances strongly based on friendship. Maduro was directly chosen by Chavez as his successor in his last public speech on December 8, before he traveled to Cuba for medical treatment against cancer.
Venezuelan analysts have different perspectives on the future of their country’s relations with the Middle East. Carlos Romero, professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, reminds us that “even if Chavez established very strong and personal relations with Middle East leaders, Maduro was his minister of foreign affairs for seven years before becoming vice president. He personally knows all these country’s leaders, and probably the relationship with the Middle East will be even deeper in the next years.”
Adriana Boersner instead maintains that after Chavez’s death “Venezuelan foreign policy will be deeply affected. During Chavez’s self-oriented mandates, the foreign ministry was reduced to a merely bureaucratic institution and it did not participate actively and autonomously in shaping international relations with other countries.”
Chavez’s self-oriented relationship with Middle Eastern countries is evident, too, from the limited awareness in terms of foreign policy at the grassroots level of the Bolivarian revolution.
Roso Grimau, delegate of the Venezuelan Communist Party and member of the Committee of International Solidarity in the Venezuelan Assembly considered that “Chavez personally accelerated Venezuela’s relations with the Middle East and Arab nations, because he considered it a right cause. Relations have never much been at the popular level, but now it is the duty of the Venezuelan people to engage and internationalize at its grass root’s basis, the Bolivarian revolution, by expanding ties with people who are facing imperialist aggressions, especially in the Middle East.”
That work needs to be done already. And beside this internationalist stance, Chavistas in the streets in the days of his funeral were sincerely unaware of who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was when he was interviewed on local television. The basis of the Bolivarian revolution seems definitively uninterested in foreign policy and the Middle East, in particular at this stage.
The Future Bolivarian Roadmap to the Middle East
Maduro will probably win the next elections and act with greater pragmatism. It is not clear if other Latin American leftist leaders such as Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Raul Castro or Daniel Ortega will follow in Chavez’s footsteps. Chavez’s path toward the Middle East was based on direct confrontation with the United States in the background, and not all these leaders seem interested or able to support that stance.
On the other side, the popular basis of the revolution neither appears ready nor interested in conducting and building solid relations with their counterparts in the Middle East.
The key lies in Maduro’s strength on the international scene. According to Carlos Romero, “Maduro will definitely continue on the path established by Chavez and he will maintain the basic axis of Venezuelan foreign policy for the Middle East, which is based on the support for a nuclear Iran, the rejection of foreign intervention in Syria and the condemnation of the occupation in Palestine.”
At least in the near future, the shadow of Hugo Chavez will guarantee the maintenance of strong relations between Venezuela and Middle East countries. Chavez was an extraordinary charismatic figure, but he shaped strong friendships that will be difficult to replace.
President Hugo Chavez was unique in multiple areas of political, social and economic life. He made significant contributions to the advancement of humanity. The depth, scope and popularity of his accomplishments mark President Chavez as the ‘Renaissance President of the 21st Century’.
Many writers have noted one or another of his historic contributions highlighting his anti-poverty legislation, his success in winning popular elections with resounding majorities and his promotion of universal free public education and health coverage for all Venezuelans.
In this essay we will highlight the unique world-historic contributions that President Chavez made in the spheres of political economy, ethics and international law and in redefining relations between political leaders and citizens. We shall start with his enduring contribution to the development of civic culture in Venezuela and beyond.
Hugo Chavez: The Great Teacher of Civic Values
From his first days in office, Chavez was engaged in transforming the constitutional order so that political leaders and institutions would be more responsive to the popular electorate. Through his speeches Chavez clearly and carefully informed the electorate of the measures and legislation to improve their livelihood. He invited comments and criticism – his style was to engage in constant dialogue, especially with the poor, the unemployed and the workers. Chavez was so successful in teaching civic responsibilities to the Venezuelan electorate that millions of citizens from the slums of Caracas rose up spontaneously to oust the US backed business-military junta which had kidnapped their president and closed the legislature. Within seventy-two hours – record time – the civic-minded citizens restored the democratic order and the rule of law in Venezuela, thoroughly rejecting the mass media’s defense of the coup-plotters and their brief authoritarian regime.
Chavez, as all great educators, learned from this democratic intervention of the mass of citizens, that democracy’s most effective defenders were to be found among the working people – and that its worst enemies were found in the business elites and military officials linked to Miami and Washington.
Chavez civic pedagogy emphasized the importance of the historical teachings and examples of founding fathers, like Simon Bolivar, in establishing a national and Latin American identity. His speeches raised the cultural level of millions of Venezuelans who had been raised in the alienating and servile culture of imperial Washington and the consumerist obsessions of Miami shopping malls.
Chavez succeeded in instilling a culture of solidarity and mutual support among the exploited, emphasizing ‘horizontal’ ties over vertical clientelistic dependency on the rich and powerful. His success in creating collective consciousness decisively shifted the balance of political power away from the wealthy rulers and corrupt political party and trade union leaders toward new socialist movements and class oriented trade unions. More than anything else Chavez’ political education of the popular majority regarding their social rights to free health care and higher education, living wages and full employment drew the hysterical ire of the wealthy Venezuelans and their undying hatred of a president who had created a sense of autonomy, dignity and ‘class empowerment’ through public education ending centuries of elite privilege and omnipotence.
Above all Chavez speeches, drawing as much from Bolivar as from Karl Marx, created a deep, generous sense of patriotism and nationalism and a profound rejection of a prostrate elite groveling before their Washington overlord, Wall Street bankers and oil company executives. Chavez’ anti-imperial speeches resonated because he spoke in the language of the people and expanded their national consciousness to identification with Latin America, especially Cuba’s fight against imperial interventions and wars.
International Relations: The Chavez Doctrine
At the beginning of the previous decade, after 9/11/01, Washington declared a ‘War on Terror.’ This was a public declaration of unilateral military intervention and wars against sovereign nations, movements and individuals deemed as adversaries, in violation of international law.
Almost all countries submitted to this flagrant violation of the Geneva Accords, except President Chavez, who made the most profound and simple refutation against Washington: ‘You don’t fight terrorism with state terrorism’. In his defense of the sovereignty of nations and international jurisprudence, Chavez underlined the importance of political and economic solutions to social problems and conflicts – repudiating the use of bombs, torture and mayhem. The Chavez Doctrine emphasized south-south trade and investments and diplomatic over military resolution of disputes. He upheld the Geneva Accords against colonial and imperial aggression while rejecting the imperial doctrine of ‘the war on terror’, defining western state terrorism as a pernicious equivalent to Al Qaeda terrorism.
Political Theory and Practice: The Grand Synthesizer
One of the most profound and influential aspects of Chavez’ legacy is his original synthesis of three grand strands of political thought: popular Christianity, Bolivarian nationalist and regional integration and Marxist political, social and economic thought. Chavez’ Christianity informed his deep belief in justice and the equality of people, as well as his generosity and forgiveness of adversaries even as they engaged in a violent coup, a crippling lockout, or openly collaborated and received financing from enemy intelligence agencies. Whereas anywhere else in the world, armed assaults against the state and coup d’états would result in long prison sentences or even executions, under Chavez most of his violent adversaries escaped prosecution and even rejoined their subversive organizations. Chavez demonstrated a deep belief in redemption and forgiveness. Chavez’s Christianity informed his ‘option for the poor’, the depth and breadth of his commitment to eradicating poverty and his solidarity with the poor against the rich.
Chavez deep-seated aversion and effective opposition to US and European imperialism and brutal Israeli colonialism were profoundly rooted in his reading of the writings and history of Simon Bolivar, the founding father of the Venezuelan nation. Bolivarian ideas on national liberation long preceded any exposure to Marx, Lenin or more contemporary leftist writings on imperialism. His powerful and unwavering support for regional integration and internationalism was deeply influenced by Simon Bolivar’s proposed ‘United States of Latin America’ and his internationalist activity in support of anti-colonial movements.
Chavez’ incorporation of Marxist ideas into his world view was adapted to his longstanding popular Christian and Bolivarian internationalist philosophy. Chavez’ option for the poor was deepened by his recognition of the centrality of the class struggle and the reconstruction of the Bolivarian nation through the socialization of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’. The socialist concept of self-managed factories and popular empowerment via community councils was given moral legitimacy by Chavez’ Christian faith in an egalitarian moral order.
While Chavez was respectful and carefully listened to the views of visiting leftist academics and frequently praised their writings, many failed to recognize or, worse, deliberately ignored the President’s own more original synthesis of history, religion and Marxism. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, some leftist academics have, in their self-indulgent posturing, presumed to be Chavez’ ‘teacher’ and advisor on all matters of ‘Marxist theory’: This represents a style of leftist cultural colonialism, which snidely criticized Chavez for not following their ready-made prescriptions, published in their political literary journals in London, New York and Paris.
Fortunately, Chavez took what was useful from the overseas academics and NGO-funded political strategists while discarding ideas that failed to take account of the cultural-historical, class and rentier specificities of Venezuela.
Chavez has bequeathed to the intellectuals and activists of the world a method of thinking which is global and specific, historical and theoretical, material and ethical and which encompasses class analysis, democracy and a spiritual transcendence resonating with the great mass of humanity in a language every person can understand. Chavez’ philosophy and practice (more than any ‘discourse’ narrated by the social forum-hopping experts) demonstrated that the art of formulating complex ideas in simple language can move millions of people to ‘make history, and not only to study it’..
Toward Practical Alternatives to Neoliberalism and Imperialism
Perhaps Chavez greatest contribution in the contemporary period was to demonstrate, through practical measures and political initiatives, that many of the most challenging contemporary political and economic problems can be successfully resolved.
Radical Reform of a Rentier State
Nothing is more difficult than changing the social structure, institutions and attitudes of a rentier petro-state, with deeply entrenched clientelistic politics, endemic party-state corruption and a deeply-rooted mass psychology based on consumerism. Yet Chavez largely succeeded where other petro-regimes failed. The Chavez Administration first began with constitutional and institutional changes to create a new political framework; then he implemented social impact programs, which deepened political commitments among an active majority, which, in turn, bravely defended the regime from a violent US backed business-military coup d’état. Mass mobilization and popular support, in turn, radicalized the Chavez government and made way for a deeper socialization of the economy and the implementation of radical agrarian reform. The petrol industry was socialized; royalty and tax payments were raised to provide funds for massively expanded social expenditures benefiting the majority of Venezuelans.
Almost every day Chavez prepared clearly understandable educational speeches on social, ethical and political topics related to his regime’s redistributive policies by emphasizing social solidarity over individualistic acquisitive consumerism. Mass organizations and community and trade union movements flourished – a new social consciousness emerged ready and willing to advance social change and confront the wealthy and powerful. Chavez’ defeat of the US-backed coup and bosses’ lockout and his affirmation of the Bolivarian tradition and sovereign identity of Venezuela created a powerful nationalist consciousness which eroded the rentier mentality and strengthened the pursuit of a diversified ‘balanced economy’. This new political will and national productive consciousness was a great leap forward, even as the main features of a rentier-oil dependent economy persist. This extremely difficult transition has begun and is an ongoing process. Overseas leftist theorists, who criticize Venezuela (‘corruption’, ‘bureaucracy’) have profoundly ignored the enormous difficulties of transitioning from a rentier state to a socialized economy and the enormous progress achieved by Chavez.
Economic Crisis Without Capitalist Austerity
Throughout the crisis-wracked capitalist world, ruling labor, social democratic, liberal and conservative regimes have imposed regressive ‘austerity programs’ involving brutal reductions of social welfare, health and education expenditures and mass layoffs of workers and employees while handing our generous state subsidies and bailouts to failing banks and capitalist enterprises. Chanting their Thacherite slogan, ‘there is no alternative’, capitalist economists justify imposing the burden of ‘capitalist recovery’ onto the working class while allowing capital to recover its profits in order to invest.
Chavez’ policy was the direct opposite: In the midst of crisis, he retained all the social programs, rejected mass firings and increased social spending. The Venezuelan economy rode out of the worldwide crisis and recovered with a healthy 5.8% growth rate in 2012. In other words, Chavez demonstrated that mass impoverishment was a product of the specific capitalist ‘formula’ for recovery. He showed another, positive alternative approach to economic crisis, which taxed the rich, promoted public investments and maintained social expenditures.
Social Transformation in a ‘Globalized Economy’
Many commentators, left, right and center, have argued that the advent of a ‘globalized economy’ ruled out a radical social transformation. Yet Venezuela, which is profoundly globalized and integrated into the world market via trade and investments, has made major advances in social reform. What really matters in relation to a globalized economy is the nature of the political economic regime and its policies, which dictate how the gains and costs of international trade and investment are distributed. In a word, what is decisive is the ‘class character of the regime’ managing its place in the world economy. Chavez certainly did not ‘de-link’ from the world economy; rather he has re-linked Venezuela in a new way. He shifted Venezuelan trade and investment toward Latin America, Asia and the Middle East — especially to countries which do not intervene or impose reactionary conditions on economic transactions.
Anti-Imperialism in a Time of an Imperialist Offensive
In a time of a virulent US—EU imperialist offensive involving ‘pre-emptive’ military invasions, mercenary interventions, torture, assassinations and drone warfare in Iraq, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan and brutal economic sanctions and sabotage against Iran; Israeli colonial expulsions of thousands of Palestinians financed by the US; US-backed coups in Honduras and Paraguay and aborted revolutions via puppets in Egypt and Tunisia, President Chavez, alone, stood as the principled defender of anti-imperialist politics. Chavez’ deep commitment to anti-imperialism stands in marked contrast to the capitulation of Western self-styled ‘Marxist’ intellectuals who mouthed crude justifications for their support of NATO bombing Yugoslavia and Libya, the French invasion of Mali and the Saudi-French (‘Monarcho-Socialist’) funding and arming of Islamist mercenaries against Syria. These same London, New York and Paris-based ‘intellectuals’ who patronized Chavez as a mere ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’ and claimed he should have listened to their lectures and read their books, had crassly capitulated under the pressure of the capitalist state and mass media into supporting ‘humanitarian interventions’ (aka NATO bombing)… and justified their opportunism in the language of obscure leftists sects. Chavez confronted NATO pressures and threats, as well as the destabilizing subversion of his domestic opponents and courageously articulated the most profound and significant principles of 20th and 21st Marxism: the inviolate right to self-determination of oppressed nations and unconditional opposition to imperial wars. While Chavez spoke and acted in defense of anti-imperialist principles, many in the European and US left acquiesced in imperial wars: There were virtually no mass protests, the ‘anti-war’ movements were co-opted or moribund, the British ‘Socialist’ Workers Party defended the massive NATO bombing of Libya, the French ‘Socialists’ invaded Mali- with the support of the ‘Anti-Capitalist’ Party. Meanwhile, the ‘populist’ Chavez had articulated a far more profound and principled understanding of Marxist practice, certainly than his self-appointed overseas Marxist ‘tutors’.
No other political leader or for that matter, leftist academic, developed, deepened and extended the central tenets of anti-imperialist politics in the era of global imperialist warfare with greater acuity than Hugo Chavez.
Transition from a Failed Neo-Liberal to a Dynamic Welfare State
Chavez’ programmatic and comprehensive reconfiguration of Venezuela from a disastrous and failed neo-liberal regime to a dynamic welfare state stands as a landmark in 20th and 21st century political economy. Chavez’ successful reversal of neo-liberal institutions and policies, as well as his re-nationalization of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ demolished the reigning neo-liberal dogma derived from the Thatcher-Reagan era enshrined in the slogan: ‘There is no alternative’ to brutal neo-liberal policies, or TINA.
Chavez rejected privatization – he re-nationalized key oil related industries, socialized hundreds of capitalist firms and carried out a vast agrarian reform program, including land distribution to 300,000 families. He encouraged trade union organizations and worker control of factories – even bucking public managers and even his own cabinet ministers. In Latin America, Chavez led the way in defining with greater depth and with more comprehensive social changes, the post neo-liberal era. Chavez envisioned the transition from neo-liberalism to a new socialized welfare state as an international process and provided financing and political support for new regional organizations like ALBA, PetroCaribe, and UNASUR. He rejected the idea of building a welfare state in one country and formulated a theory of post-neo-liberal transitions based on international solidarity. Chavez’ original ideas and policies regarding the post-neo-liberal transition escaped the armchair Marxists and the globetrotting Social Forum NGO pundits whose inconsequential ‘global alternatives’ succeeded primarily in securing imperial foundation funding.
Chavez demonstrated through theory and practice that neo-liberalism was indeed reversible – a major political breakthrough of the 21st century.
Beyond Social Liberalism: The Radical Definition of Post-Neo-Liberalism
The US-EU promoted neo-liberal regimes have collapsed under the weight of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Massive unemployment led to popular uprisings, new elections and the advent of center-left regimes in most of Latin America, which rejected or at least claimed to repudiate ‘neo-liberalism’. Most of these regimes promulgated legislation and executive directives to fund poverty programs, implement financial controls and make productive investments, while raising minimum wages and stimulating employment. However few lucrative enterprises were actually re-nationalized. Addressing inequalities and the concentration of wealth were not part of their agenda. They formulated their strategy of working with Wall Street investors, local agro-mineral exporters and co-opted trade unions.
Chavez posed a profoundly different alternative to this form of ‘post-neoliberalism’. He nationalized resource industries, excluded Wall Street speculators and limited the role of the agro-mineral elites. He posed a socialized welfare state as an alternative to the reigning social-liberal orthodoxy of the center-left regimes, even as he worked with these regimes in promoting Latin American integration and opposing US backed coups.
Chavez was both a leader defining a more socialized alternative to social liberation and the conscience pressuring his allies to advance further.
Socialism and Democracy
Chavez opened a new and extraordinarily original and complex path to socialism based on free elections, re-educating the military to uphold democratic and constitutional principals, and the development of mass and community media. He ended the capitalist mass media monopolies and strengthened civil society as a counter-weight to US-sponsored para-military and fifth column elites intent on destabilizing the democratic state.
No other democratic-socialist president had successfully resisted imperial destabilization campaigns – neither Jagan in Guyana, Manley in Jamaica, nor Allende in Chile. From the very outset Chavez saw the importance of creating a solid legal-political framework to facilitate executive leadership, promote popular civil society organizations and end US penetration of the state apparatus (military and police). Chavez implemented radical social impact programs that ensured the loyalty and active allegiance of popular majorities and weakened the economic levers of political power long held by the capitalist class. As a result Venezuela’s political leaders, soldiers and officers loyal to its constitution and the popular masses crushed a bloody right-wing coup, a crippling bosses’ lockout and a US-financed referendum and proceeded to implement further radical socio-economic reforms in a prolonged process of cumulative socialization.
Chavez’s originality, in part the result of trial and error, was his ‘experimental method’: His profound understanding and response to popular attitudes and behavior was deeply rooted in Venezuela’s history of racial and class injustice and popular rebelliousness. More than any previous socialist leader, Chavez traveled, spoke and listened to Venezuela’s popular classes on questions of everyday life. His ‘method’ was to translate micro based knowledge into macro programed changes. In practice he was the antithesis of the overseas and local intellectual know-it-alls who literally spoke down to the people and who saw themselves as the ‘masters of the world’ … at least, in the micro-world of left academia, ingrown socialist conferences and self-centered monologues. The death of Hugo Chavez was profoundly mourned by millions in Venezuela and hundreds of million around the world because his transition to socialism was their path; he listened to their demands and he acted upon them effectively.
Social Democracy and National Security
Chavez was a socialist president for over 13 years in the face of large-scale, long-term violent opposition and financial sabotage from Washington, the local economic elite and mass media moguls. Chavez created the political consciousness that motivated millions of workers and secured the constitutional loyalty of the military to defeat a bloody US-backed business-military coup in 2002. Chavez tempered social changes in accordance with a realistic assessment of what the political and legal order could support. First and foremost, Chavez secured the loyalty of the military by ending US ‘advisory’ missions and overseas imperial indoctrination while substituting intensive courses on Venezuelan history, civic responsibility and the critical link between the popular classes and the military in a common national mission.
Chavez’ national security policies were based on democratic principles as well as a clear recognition of the serious threats to Venezuelan sovereignty. He successfully safeguarded both national security and the democratic rights and political freedoms of its citizens, a feat which has earned Venezuela the admiration and envy of constitutional lawyers and citizens of the US and the EU.
In stark contrast, US President Obama has assumed the power to assassinate US citizens based on secret information and without trial both in and out of the US. His Administration has murdered ‘targeted’ US citizens and their children, jailed others without trial and maintains secret ‘files’ on over 40 million Americans. Chavez never assumed those powers and never assassinated or tortured a single Venezuelan. In Venezuela, the dozen or so prisoners convicted of violent acts of subversion after open trials in Venezuelan courts, stand in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands of jailed and secretly framed Muslims and Latin American immigrants in the US. Chavez rejected state terror; while Obama has special assassination teams on the ground in over 70 countries. Obama supports arbitrary police invasions of ‘suspect’ homes and workplaces based on ‘secret evidence’ while. Chavez even tolerated the activities of known foreign (CIA)-funded opposition parties. In a word, Obama uses ‘national security’ to destroy democratic freedoms while Chavez upheld democratic freedoms and imposed constitutional limits on the national security apparatus.
Chavez sought peaceful diplomatic resolution of conflicts with hostile neighbors, such as Colombia which hosts seven US military bases – potential springboards for US intervention. On the other hand, Obama has engaged in open war with at least seven countries and has been pursuing covert hostile action against dozens of others.
Chavez’s legacy is multi-faceted. His contributions are original, theoretical and practical and universally relevant. He demonstrated in ‘theory and practice’ how a small country can defend itself against imperialism, maintain democratic principles and implement advanced social programs. His pursuit of regional integration and promotion of ethical standards in the governance of a nation – provide examples profoundly relevant in a capitalist world awash in corrupt politicians slashing living standards while enriching the plutocrats.
Chavez’ rejection of the Bush-Obama doctrine of using ‘state terror to fight terror’, his affirmation that the roots of violence are social injustice, economic pillage and political oppression and his belief that resolving these underlying issues is the road to peace, stands as the ethical-political guide for humanity’s survival.
Faced with a violent world of imperial counter-revolution, and resolved to stand with the oppressed of the world, Hugo Chavez enters world history as a complete political leader, with the stature of the most humane and multi-faceted leader of our epoch: the Renaissance figure for the 21st century.
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent book is The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chavez is dead, but his revolution goes on (alethonews.wordpress.com)
You could almost hear the sigh of relief coming out of Washington at the news of Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5.
President Obama issued a brief statement that failed even to offer condolences, forcing a senior State Department official to patch over the evident callousness and breach of diplomacy by offering his personal condolences the following day.
Within moments of Chavez’s death, commercial media and mouthpieces for the U.S. government were verbally dancing on his grave and predicting the imminent demise of Chavismo—Chavez’s political legacy in Venezuela and abroad.
Time headlined its article “Death of a Demagogue.” The New York Times, which bent over backwards to minimize Chavez’s overwhelming victory in Venezuela’s October elections—and later to portray his battle with cancer as a cover-up, mimicking opposition claims—proclaimed that Chávez’s death“casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution” and “alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America”—and this in a news article with no sourcing provided.
The Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank, concluded that “Chavez’s legacy, and the damage he left behind, will not be easily undone,” and predicted that the social gains and regional institutions Chavez built over his political lifetime will soon fall apart and things will soon return to normal—that is, with the United States back in the hemispheric driver’s seat.
Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) came right out and said “Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.”
So why did Washington hate this guy so much?
It never helped that the South American president had a penchant for insulting his adversaries personally. But one supposes that diplomacy rises above name-calling, even if the other guy did it first. The anti-Chavez current in Washington goes far deeper than personal enmity or even political differences.
What scared Washington most about Chavez was not his failures or idiosyncrasies. It was his success.
The official reasons given for demonizing Hugo Chavez don’t hold water. Chavez is accused of restraining freedom of the press in a nation known for its ferociously anti-Chavez private media. And while his Yankee critics called him a dictator, Chavez and his policies won election after election in exemplary electoral processes. You can disagree with his reform to permit unlimited terms in office, but this is the practice of many nations deemed democratic by the U.S. government and considered close allies. And the criticisms of Chavez’s social programs as “patronage” cannot ignore the millions of lives tangibly improved.
Before Chavez turned Venezuela away from the neoliberal model, the nation was a basket case. But throughout his tenure, social indicators that measure real human suffering showed steady improvement. Between 1998, when he was first elected, to 2013 when he died in office, people living in poverty dropped from 43 percent of the population to 27 percent. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.8 percent of the population to 7 percent. According to UNESCO, illiteracy—nearly 10 percent when Chavez took office—has been eliminated. Chavez also reduced childhood malnutrition, initiated pensions for the elderly, and launched education and health programs for the poor.
Venezuela’s human development ranking subsequently climbed significantly under Chavez, reaching the “high” human development category. The programs that Washington scorned as “government handouts” made people’s lives longer, healthier, and fuller in Venezuela.
Now that Chavez is dead, the U.S. press has revived the State Department’s practice of designating the “good left” and the “bad left” in Latin America. Chavez, of course, embodied the “bad left,” while Brazil’s Lula was unilaterally and unwillingly designated the “good left”.
Yet it was Lula da Silva who defended his friend and made the case for Chavez’s lasting positive legacy in the pages of the New York Times. He eulogized the leader and predicted, “The multilateral institutions Mr. Chávez helped create will also help ensure the consecration of South American unity.”
In fact, Chavez’s success in building institutions for alternative regional integration is one of the big reasons Washington hated him. The self-declared anti-capitalist led Venezuela as it joined with regional powerhouse Brazil and other southern cone countries to make a bid to crack the Monroe Doctrine. Along with Andean nations, they also sought, in varying degrees, to wrest control of significant natural resource wealth from transnational corporations to fund state redistribution programs for the poor.
In 2005, Chavez helped scuttle the U.S. goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Later he spearheaded the formation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in 2008. As a Latin American alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, the 12-member Unasur proved its value by successfully mediating the Colombia-Ecuador conflict and the Bolivian separatist crisis in 2008. In 2010, Chavez again played a major role with the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, made up of hemispheric partners, excluding the United States and Canada.
The Bank of the South, also promoted by Chavez, seeks greater South-South monetary and financial autonomy. As Lula writes in his editorial on Chavez´s death, the Bank offers an alternative to the World Bank and IMF, which “have not been sufficiently responsive to the realities of today’s multipolar world”.
With stops and starts, these initiatives have moved regional integration forward outside the historic model of U.S. hegemony.
U.S. Moves and the Principle of Self-Determination
What happens next? Venezuela held an emotional funeral on March 8 and is planning for April elections. Most predict that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, selected by Chavez as his successor, will win easily. He has the advantage of Chavez’s blessing: a common slogan in Caracas these days is “Chavez, te juro, que voto por Maduro” (“Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro”). Another sign that Chavismo lives on was the thousands of people at the funeral chanting “Chavez didn’t die; he multiplied.”
The State Department views dimly the prospect of an improved U.S.-Venezuela relationship under Maduro. On March 6, the State Department held a press call on which “Senior Official One” (a State Department practice for “background” when its officials apparently don’t want to be identified with their own public statements) said the department was optimistic following Chavez’ death, but that “yesterday’s first press conference, if you will, the first address, was not encouraging in that respect. It disappointed us.”
He referred to a 90-minute address by Maduro, stating that “the enemy” attacked Chavez’s health. The Venezuelan government also announced the expulsion of two U.S. military personnel in Venezuela, allegedly for having contacted members of the Venezuela military to stir up an insurrection.
The State Department noted that it plans “to move ahead in this relationship” by holding conversations in areas of common interest, citing “counternarcotics, counterterrorism, economic or commercial issues including energy.” It added, “We are going to continue to speak out when we believe there are issues of democratic principle that need to be talked about, that need to be highlighted.”
During the Chavez years, U.S. officials and the press went into contortions to avoid congruency with the basic principle that democracy is measured by elections. With Chavez having indisputably won some thirteen elections, the U.S. government applied new criteria to Venezuela along the lines of “democracy can be wrong.” Despite his broad-based support, many went so far as to dub Chavez a “dictator.”
The U.S. government’s commitment to democracy falters when Washington doesn’t like the results. It supported the failed coup against Chavez in 2002 and blocked the return of Honduras’s elected president after the 2009 coup there.
Now all eyes will be on Washington to see whether it upholds another value reiterated by President Obama—the right to self-determination. Will U.S. “democracy-promotion programs” under NED, IRI, and other regime-change schemes resist the temptation to meddle in Venezuela’s April 14 elections? Venezuela without Chavez will be a test of moral and diplomatic integrity for the second Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department, and a challenge for Congress and the citizenry to monitor and prevent covert activities that interfere with the exercise of democracy.
- Unprecedented Show of Support and Honor at the Historic Funeral of Hugo Chávez (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Chavez Is Dead, the Media Are Alive and Kicking (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- U.S. and Canada Isolated as Latin American Leaders Acknowledge Chávez’s Regional Leadership (venezuelanalysis.com)
On Tuesday 5 March, at the age of 58, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez lost his almost two-year battle with cancer and passed away. Within seconds of the news being announced, the wheels of the global media bandwagon went into overdrive, with largely unsurprising results, in both the US and British media. At the most distasteful end of the spectrum was the headline in the New York Post, the paper with the 7th highest circulation in the US, that read ‘Off Hugo! Venezuela bully Chavez is dead’.
New York Post Cover on Chávez
Other US media followed closely behind. ‘Death of a Demagogue’ ran a headline on the website of Time, the world’s biggest selling weekly news magazine. These and other US media reaction were included in a piece by the US media watchdog Fair and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that also examined the distorted, often hysterical, US media coverage of Chávez during his presidency. It’s worth recalling that following the 2002 US-supported coup that briefly removed Chavez from the presidency the New York Times declared that Chavez’s “resignation” meant that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”
Following Chávez’s death, the antipathy towards a president that had so vehemently challenged the actions and interests of the United States was also evident in the British media. Rightwing outlets displayed the usual cynical disdain that had characterised their reporting of Chávez’s presidency, although Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s former vice-president, the current interim president and the government’s candidate for the April 14th presidential election, was also now in the firing line. In the UK’s biggest selling broadsheet, the rightwing Daily Telegraph, its chief foreign correspondent David Blair described Maduro’s role as foreign minister under Chavez in the following terms: “Mr Maduro was the obedient enforcer of his master’s highly personal foreign policy”. For Blair, Maduro, rather than responsibly representing his government’s foreign policy, was “a loyal purveyor of ‘Chavismo’ around the world”.
The ‘liberal’ left in Britain
Britain’s liberal-left media also offered a timely reminder of where their loyalties lay in relation to Chavez, whose democratic mandate included presiding over 15 national elections since he took office in February 1999, a greater number of elections than were held during the previous 40 years in Venezuela. In a remarkable editorial, The Independent newspaper opined:
“Mr Chavez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.”
This from a newspaper that in June 2009, following a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, ran an editorial that included the following:
“The ousting of the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the country’s military at the weekend has been condemned by many members of the international community as an affront to democracy. But despite a natural distaste for any military coup, it is possible that the army might have actually done Honduran democracy a service.”
The Independent’s competitor in the UK’s liberal-left newspaper market, The Guardian, showed a similarly hostile stance towards Chavez during his presidency. In a piece on the New Left Project website examining the critical UK media coverage of Chavez following his death, Josh Watts noted how the anti-Chavez bias of Rory Carroll, a Guardian journalist and its former Latin America correspondent, “has been extensively documented”. As Samuel Grove noted in a damming 2011 article, Carroll’s Latin America coverage “has attracted widespread criticism for its selectivity and double standards, brazen anti-left bias, and above all slavish loyalty to Western interests”. There is now surely a book’s worth of material exposing Carroll’s distorted Venezuela coverage.
Carroll has managed to take his agenda beyond the confines of The Guardian. For example, in an Al Jazeera English debate on the continued demonisation of Chavez by the Western media that took place three days after Chavez’s death, Carroll repeatedly tried to present Venezuela under Chavez as an economic failure. He repeated this line of attack in a BBC 3 radio interview in late February, where he accused the Chavez government of being responsible for “decay, ruin, waste” in relation to the economy. Contrast this with the rigorous reports on the socio-economic changes under the Chavez presidency by the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which completely undermine Carroll’s narrative of economic failure.
This fact-based approach to appraising elements of the Chavez legacy has not been lost on The Guardian’s associate editor Seumas Milne, who referenced CEPR’s latest report when he tweeted: “Media claims #Chavez ruined #Venezuela‘s economy absurd: here are the facts on growth, unemployment, poverty http://bit.ly/13Nnwno @ceprdc”
It was precisely these socio-economic gains, especially for those in the low-income neighbourhoods known as barrios that encircle Caracas and other Venezuelan cities and who formed Chávez’s support base, that lay behind his popularity and his repeated electoral victories.
Focus on denigrating the individual
Rather than try to explain Chávez’s appeal to large sectors of the Venezuelan population or understand the process of radical change underway in the country, the West’s media class preferred to focus almost entirely on the figure of Chávez. It was precisely this narrative that was so effective in discrediting the Venezuelan process through concealing the role of collective agency, silencing the people from below, and rendering them insignificant. While the mainstream media routinely ignores the voices of the government’s grassroots supporters, they have been instrumental in driving the Venezuelan process forward and should be at the centre of the story.
Thus, when we contrast Chávez’s popularity at home with the open hostility with which Western political elites viewed him, we’re left questioning the motivation behind the anti-Chávez mass media campaign that has systematically misrepresented events in Venezuela.
John Pilger is right when he writes:
“Never has a country, its people, its politics, its leader, its myths and truths been so misreported and lied about as Venezuela.”
Even though Chávez is dead, his vilification by the US and UK media is alive and kicking.
Pablo Navarrete is a LAB correspondent and a PHD student at Bradford University in the UK, researching the political economy of the Chavez presidency. He is also the director of the documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). You can watch the documentary online here.