Introduction by Jim Lobe
While the terrible events in Egypt have delayed my plans to reply to ProPublica’s response to my critique of Sebastian Rotella’s report on the alleged build-up of Iran’s terrorist infrastructure in the Americas, Gareth Porter has written the following essay on a 2009 article by Rotella for the Los Angeles Times about an alleged bomb plot to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2008. It offers a very good illustration of some of the problems raised in my original critique of Rotella’s most recent work, notably the virtually exclusive reliance on sources that are clearly hostile to Iran with an interest in depicting it in the most negative light possible. But you be the judge.
It happened in Baku, transforming the capital of Azerbaijan into a battleground in a global shadow war.
Police intercepted a fleeing car and captured two suspected Hezbollah militants from Lebanon. The car contained explosives, binoculars, cameras, pistols with silencers and reconnaissance photos. Raiding alleged safe houses, police foiled what authorities say was a plot to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that borders Iran.
Thus begins the only detailed English-language press account of an alleged Iranian terror plot in Azerbaijan in 2008: a May 2009 article, written with a Paris dateline, by Sebastian Rotella for the Los Angeles Times.
But despite the sense of immediacy conveyed by his lede, Rotella’s sources for his account were not Azerbaijanis. Rather, the sources Rotella quoted on the details of the alleged plot, the investigation and apprehension of the suspects consisted of an unnamed “Israeli security official”, and Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and the author of a constant stream of articles, op-eds, and Congressional testimony reflecting the Israeli government’s interest in promoting the perception of a growing Iranian terrorist threat around the world.
It was Levitt who described the alleged plot in Baku to Rotella as having been “in the advanced stages” when it was supposedly broken up by Azerbaijani security forces, an assertion echoed by the anonymous Israeli security official cited in the article:
”[Iran] had reached the stage where they had a network in place to do an operation,” said an Israeli security official, who requested anonymity for safety reasons. “We are seeing it all over the world. They are working very hard at it.”
So readers of the LA Times received a version of the plot that was filtered primarily, if not exclusively, through an Israeli lens. Relying on Israeli officials and a close ally at a pro-Israel US think tank for a story on an alleged Iranian bomb plot against an Israeli Embassy is bound to produce a predictable story line where the accuracy can hardly be assumed at face value. Indeed, in this case, there were and remain many reasons for skepticism.
Yet, three years later, in a July 2012 article for ProPublica, he referred to the plot as though it was established fact.
Had Rotella sought an independent source in Azerbaijan, he would have learned, for example, that such alleged plots had been a virtual perennial in Baku for years. That is what a leading scholar of Azerbaijan’s external relations, Anar Valiyev, told me in an interview last November. “It’s always the same plot year after year,” said Valiyev, Dean of the School of International Affairs of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku.
In fact, security officials in Azerbaijan had claimed the existence of a similar plot in October 2007 and January 2012 and only two months later, authorities arrested Azerbaijani suspects in two different allegedly Iranian-initiated plots to carry out terrorist actions against Western embassies, the Israeli Embassy and/or Jewish targets. In early 2013, prison sentences were announced in yet another alleged terrorist plot to attack the Eurovision song contest in Baku in 2012. Valiyev told me that those detained by Azerbaijani security officials are always charged with wanting to kill Israeli or US officials and subsequently tried for plots to overthrow the government, which carries the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
In a 2007 article in Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus, Valiyev observed that plots, assassination and coup-attempts were “thwarted” with regularity in Azerbaijan. “Periodically the government finds a scapegoat,” he wrote, to justify attacks on domestic critics, including “Wahabbis”, followers of Kurdish-Sunni scholar Said Nursi and/or Shiite radicals. Valiyev suggested that security officials might be “trying to show that radical Islamists could come to power… should the incumbent government lose the election.”
The Azerbaijani government and its security forces are not known for their devotion to the rule of law. The current president, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of Azerbaijan’s first president, Heydar Aliyev, who, in turn, was the head of the Soviet KGB before Azerbaijan’s independence. According to Jim Lobe, who visited Baku last year, dissidents regard the first Aliyev’s tenure as relatively liberal compared that of his son. A 2009 State Department cable described Ilham Aliyev as a “mafia-like” figure, likening him to a combination of Michael and Sonny Corleone in the “The Godfather”.
Valiyev observed that virtually nothing about the alleged plot made sense, beginning with the targets. According to Rotella’s story, the alleged Hezbollah operatives and their Azerbaijani confederates had planned to set off three or four car bombs at the Israeli Embassy simultaneously, using explosives they “intended to accumulate” in addition to the “hundreds of pounds of explosives” they had allegedly already acquired from “Iranian spies.”
But the Israeli Embassy is located in the seven-story Hyatt Tower office complex along with other foreign embassies, and no automobiles are allowed to park in close proximity to the complex, according to Valiyev. So the alleged plotters would have needed a prodigious amount of explosives to accomplish such a plan.
For example, the bomb that destroyed the eight-story US Air Force barracks at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 was estimated at 23,000 pounds of explosives detonated less than 100 feet away from the building. Valiyev told me that it is “practically impossible to find such components in Azerbaijan” because “Even a few kilograms of explosives would be tracked down by the ministry of national security.”
In his article, Rotella also referred — though only in passing — to the prosecutor’s charge that the alleged conspirators were planning to attack a Russian radar installation at Gabala (sometimes spelled Qabala) in northern Azerbaijan. But that part of the plot was also highly suspect, according to Valiyev. No reason was ever given for such a target, and it would have made no sense for either Hezbollah’s or Iran’s interests.
Built in 1984, the Gabala radar station was leased to the Russians until 2012, and 900 troops from the Russian Space Forces were stationed there. An attack on the station by Hezbollah or its supposed proxies in Azerbaijan would have represented a major provocation against Russia by Iran and Hezbollah, and was therefore hard to believe, as Valiyev pointed out in a July 2009 report for the Jamestown Foundation. Valiyev said it was far more plausible that the alleged plotters were simply carrying out surveillance on the station which, according to some reports, was being considered for possible integration into a regional US missile defense system.
Rotella failed to mention yet another aspect of the prosecution’s case that should arouse additional skepticism. The indictment included the charge that the leader of the alleged terrorist cell plotting these attacks was working simultaneously for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Even though it has been long been discredited, the idea of an Iran-al-Qaeda collaboration on terrorism has been a favorite Israeli theme for some time and one that continues to be propagated by Levitt.
Rotella’s account of how the suspects were apprehended also appears implausible. In May 2008, when the bombings were supposedly still weeks away, according to his story, the suspects realized they were under surveillance and tried to flee.
But instead of hiding or destroying incriminating evidence of their terrorist plot — such as the reconnaissance photos, the explosives, the cameras and the pistols with silencers — as might be expected under those circumstances, the two suspects allegedly packed all that equipment in their car and fled toward the border with Iran, whereupon they were intercepted, according to the official line reported by Rotella.
Somehow, despite the surveillance, according to anonymous “anti-terrorist officials” cited by Rotella, “a number of Lebanese, Iranian and Azerbaijani suspects escaped by car into Iran.” Only those with the incriminating evidence — including, most implausibly, hundreds of pounds of explosives — in their car were caught, according to the account given to Rotella.
Even Rotella’s description of the two Lebanese suspects, Ali Karaki and Ali Najem Aladine, as a veteran Hezbollah external operations officer and an explosives expert, respectively, should not be taken at face value, according to Valiyev. It is more likely, he said, that the two were simply spies working for Iranian intelligence.
Even the US Embassy report on the trial of the suspects suggested it also had doubts about the alleged plot. “In early October after a closed trial,” the reporting cable said, “an Azerbaijani court sentenced a group of alleged terrorists arrested the previous Spring and supposedly connected to Lebanese Hezbollah plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Baku AND the Qabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan” (emphasis in the original). It added, “In a public statement the state prosecutor repeated earlier claims that the entire plot was an operation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”
Yet another striking anomaly about the alleged plot was the fact that nothing was published about it for an entire year. No explanation for the silence was ever made public. This silence is all the more significant because during 2009 and 2010, the Israeli government either publicly alleged or leaked stories of Iranian or Hezbollah plots in Turkey and Jordan about which the host country authorities either did not comment on or offered a different explanation. But despite the extremely close relationship between Azebaijani and Israeli intelligence services (confirmed by this US Embassy cable), neither the Israeli media nor foreign journalists were tipped off to the plot until the Israelis leaked the story to Rotella a year later.
The complete absence of any leak by the Israelis for an entire year about an alleged Iranian plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Baku casts some circumstantial doubt on whether such a plot had indeed been uncovered in 2008, as claimed in the article.
Despite the multiple anomalies surrounding this story — the complete lack of any publicly available corroborating evidence; the well-established penchant for the Aliyev government for using such alleged plots to justify rounding up domestic critics; the US Embassy’s apparent skepticism, his failure to consult independent sources; and the 2009 publication by the Jamestown Foundation of Valiyev’s own critique of the “official” version of the case — Rotella has shown no interest in clarifying what actually happened. In fact, as noted above, he referred to the plot again in a July 2012 article for ProPublica as if there was not the slightest doubt with regard to its actual occurrence, identifying it, as he did in the original article, as an attempted retaliation for the assassination of a senior Hezbollah operative three months before:
Conflict with Israel intensified in February 2008 after a car bomb in the heart of Damascus killed Imad Mughniyah, a notorious Hezbollah military leader and ally of Iranian intelligence. Iranian Hezbollah publicly accused Israel and vowed revenge.
Within weeks, a plot was under way against the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan. Police broke up the cell in May 2008. The suspects included Azeri accomplices, a senior Hezbollah field operative and a Hezbollah explosives expert. Police also arrested two Iranian spies, but they were released within weeks because of pressure from Tehran, Western anti-terror officials say. The other suspects were convicted.
As narrowly sourced as it was, Rotella’s original 2009 story thus helped make a dubious tale of a bomb plot in Baku part of the media narrative. More recently, he continued that pattern by promoting the unsubstantiated charge by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman and various pro-Israel groups and right-wing members of Congress, such as Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, that Iran poses a growing terrorist threat to the US in the Americas. While Jim has helped deconstruct that story line, I have recently marshaled evidence showing that Nisman’s charges about alleged Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing and the 2007 JFK airport plot were tendentious and highly questionable.
 In one illustration of Rotella’s and Levitt’s long-time symbiosis, Levitt cited Rotella’s account of the alleged Baku plot as his main source about the incident in a 2013 article on alleged Hezbollah terrorism published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC).
 Rotella referred twice to “anti-terrorism officials” as sources for describing the surveillance of the alleged perpetrators that preceded their arrest and past work for Hezbollah. Of course, the phrase “anti-terrorism officials” does not exclude the possibility that they, too, were Israeli.)
 The first time the alleged plot’s details appeared in the Anglophone Israeli press was when Haaretz published a several hundred-word piece based virtually exclusively on Rotella’s account with the added detail, citing “Israeli sources,” that the “plotters also planned to kidnap the Israeli ambassador in Baku…”
 This account, incidentally, was the first to report the arrest in the case of “two Iranian spies”, another anomaly that may be explained by a flurry of media reports in 2010 that it was the two Lebanese who were released as part of a larger prisoner exchange that also included an Azerbaijani nuclear scientist arrested as a spy by Iran.
On September 10, 2012 the Los Angeles Times published an article with the headline: “LAPD to hold meetings on use of force policies.”
Top Los Angeles police officials announced those community meetings to counter growing criticism about videoed brutality incidents involving LA police officers in the preceding months, that article noted.
On November 24, 2012 The Daily Beast posted an article with the headline: “In Los Angeles, Questions of Police Brutality Dog LAPD” reporting abuse incidents by officers of that department placed under federal oversight between 2001 and 2009 after repeated brutality and corruption scandals.
Over two months after that Daily Beast posting about LAPD brutality a fired LAPD officer unleashed a murderous rampage as revenge against his claimed unfair firing by the LAPD.
That former LAPD cop, military veteran Christopher Dorner, claimed his attack campaign was retaliation against retaliation LAPD personnel directed against him for his reporting a 2007 brutality incident he observed while on duty.
LAPD officials found Dorner’s brutality claim against a policewoman unfounded and fired him for filing false statements. The father of the alleged victim said his mentally ill son confirmed Dorner’s account.
LA police officials contend that man sustained facial injuries from falling into some bushes while resisting arrest by Dorner, not from the female officer’s kick.
Despite the recent record of brutality detailed in news coverage last fall, a New York Times article on the Dorner rampage inferred brutality by Los Angeles police – brutality that sparked two of America’s most destructive urban riots – was not a current problem.
The last sentence in the seventh paragraph of that February 7, 2013 New York Times article stated: “Mr. Dorner laid out grievances against a police department that he said remained riddled with racism and corruption, a reference to a chapter of the department’s history that, in the view of many people, was swept aside long ago.”
That ‘view’ of many people cited in the NY Times article obviously did not include the views of the dozens participating in an October 2012 demonstration against police brutality outside the LAPD headquarters.
On October 22, 2012 the Los Angeles Times published an article with the headline: “Downtown L.A. streets closed by protest at LAPD headquarters.”
Yes, the 1992 riots that rocked LA following the state court acquittal of the four LA police officers charged in the videoed savaging of Rodney King – a disturbance causing over $1-billion in damages and claiming 53 lives – arguably qualifies as long-ago.
But long-ago does not apply to incidents within the past year like the woman kicked in her groin by a female LAPD officer in July 2012 who died minutes later while hog-tied inside a patrol car.
That ‘view’ cited in the NY Times article is not shared by victims of the incidents triggering those LAPD brass community meetings like the skate boarder suckered punched by police, the nurse slammed to the ground by two officers who gave each other a fist-bump for their take-down and the handcuffed man shot by police.
While ‘many people’ certainly believe or want-to-believe LAPD brutality is long gone, perhaps by reforms implemented during that federal oversight, news media accounts pushing that view without balance of companion context comprise an element (albeit small) in the constant framing of police brutality as isolated incidents instead of long standing, systemic procedure by police across America.
At least that NY Times article referenced racism and brutality unlike many media entities that reported Dorner’s rampage without providing context beyond his crazed reaction to his firing.
The March 1968 Kerner Commission Report on sixties-era urban riots – the majority triggered by police abuse incidents including the deadly 1965 LA Watts Riots – criticized the news media for failing to “analyze and report adequately on racial matters” in America that included coverage of festering grievances like police brutality.
Compounding context-deficient coverage, news media reportage on police brutality rarely examines the central role played by prosecutors in perpetuating the problem.
The Los Angeles DA’s Office pushed one case protecting alleged police misconduct all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 2006 that court’s conservative majority issued a ruling experts said eroded protections for whistle-blowing public employees.
The case involved a veteran LA prosecutor who said supervisors retaliated against him arising from his exposing improprieties by a deputy during a drug investigation. Those supervisors pursued the drug prosecution despite those improprieties and then bashed the whistle-blower for providing the defense details of the improprieties as required by law.
That 11/12 Daily Beast article began with an anecdote about LA city prosecutors declining to charge officers caught lying about a December 2010 incident where a woman was beaten and tazed by four officers, one of whom videoed the incident.
Fired Officer Dorner alleged that his LAPD problems began in July 2007 when his training officer, a female, kicked a man during an arrest outside a hotel. Dorner claimed that training officer and their immediate supervisor compelled him to fudge his official report omitting the kicking, according to court findings.
LAPD officials found Dorner guilty of making false statements relying largely on an Internal Affairs investigation. The IA investigator interviewed the training officer and two hotel employees but neither Dorner nor the victim according to an October 2011 California state appellate court ruling that upheld a trial court ruling rejecting Dorner’s appeal of his 2009 LAPD firing.
LAPD officials, in their administrative proceeding, faulted Dorner for failing to immediately report the alleged kicking incident. Officials brushed aside Dorner’s stated fears of backlash for exposing that alleged misconduct and his having quickly reported that incident privately to two LAPD supervisors he knew whom he also had told about racial slurs directed at him during his police academy training.
Officials also claimed Dorner manufactured the brutality complaint to maliciously deflate an adverse performance evaluation he suspected he would receive from his training officer.
LAPD officials have initiated a reexamination of Dorner’s firing since the rampage began.
Dorner, in an online manifesto posted before his rampage, criticized the fact that officers involved in both the Rodney King and other brutality scandals were promoted not penalized.
An analysis of the Dorner incident prepared by Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher and Mike King, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz reminded that brutality against non-whites remains a “structural function” of the LAPD.
“It is the commonness of excuses for police abuse/murder, the erasure of the victims as collateral damage that should be highlighted when trying to make sense of this broken, rogue, former Los Angeles cop,” Ciccariello-Maher and King wrote.
Photo – credit Wikipedia
Over the last few weeks the private English media has stepped up its campaign against the Venezuelan revolution, spreading a number of lies and misconceptions around President Hugo Chavez’s health, the politics and legalities involved in his swearing-in for his new term, and the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation. [...]
Here, Venezuelanalysis.com debunks the top five lies currently being spread by private media.
1) The Venezuelan government is being secretive about Chavez’s health
This charge has been made by international media since Chavez first announced he had cancer in June 2011. Criticisms by the private media of government “secrecy” around his condition have intensified as the swearing-in date approaches, in part reflecting an increasingly fractious Venezuelan opposition anxious for details they could use to their advantage.
Mass media sources describe Chavez’s medical condition as “a mystery”, with outlets such as the Los Angeles Times referring to government information on Chavez’s post-operatory recovery as “sporadic and thinly detailed medical updates”. Outlets such as the British BBC and the Australian have picked up the opposition’s call for the Venezuelan government to tell the “truth” on Chavez’s health, implying that the government is withholding information, or outright lying.
The argument that the Venezuelan government is keeping secrets feeds into the discourse most mainstream media use in relation to the Bolivarian revolution, recently describing the government as “despots” (Chicago Tribune) and “autocratic populists” (Washington Post).
Other media has put out its own versions of Chavez’s state of health, with the Spanish ABC going to great lengths to describe even his bowel movements, and reporting that he is in a coma, and the multinational Terra mistaking its desires for reality, reporting that Chavez is already dead. These media outlets have just one “anonymous” source for their reports; they somehow, apparently, have an infiltrator (or an “intelligence source” as they call it) among Chavez’s Cuban medical team.
The government has in fact released 28 statements updating the public on Chavez’s condition since his operation on 11 December, an average of around 1 per day. These statements are available in full text on the internet, and are also being read out by communication minister Ernesto Villegas on all Venezuelan public television and radio.
In the latest statement, released yesterday, Villegas said that Chavez’s condition remains “stationary” compared to the last report, where the public was informed that he has a respiratory “deficiency” due to a pulmonary infection.
It is true however, that beyond mentioning the general cancer site; the pelvic region, the government hasn’t revealed the exact type of cancer that Chavez has, nor the exact nature of the operation that he underwent on 11 December. This is possibly due to privacy reasons.
When asked directly about this issue in a recent interview, Jorge Rodriguez, a doctor and key figure in Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said “I’d give the example of Mrs. Hilary Clinton, who had a cerebral vascular accident. There are three factors which influence these cases: the part of the brain where it happens, the size of the affected zone, and if it produces a hemorrhage or obstruction. Well fine, I’ve not seen any serious and decent doctor ask in which zone she had the lesion. And I think it’s fine that they don’t ask because that lady has the right to privacy. I’ve not seen Ramon Guillermo Aveledo (the executive secretary of the opposition’s MUD coalition) asking to know if her accident affected her in the frontal lobe, in which case, of course, she couldn’t continue giving the instructions she normally gives”.
Of course, when the international media report on the Venezuelan opposition’s stance towards Chavez’s health situation, they invariably fail to mention that the opposition’s approach has a lot less to do with a crusade for truth, and more to do with its hopes of creating a political and constitutional crisis over the issue. They make out that the Venezuelan government is being deliberately misleading and manipulative with information, but would never point the finger at Western leaders such as George Bush or Barack Obama for not announcing the exact locations of their frequent, long, and luxurious vacations, for example.
2) It is unconstitutional if Chavez doesn’t take the oath of office on 10 January
This is another lie that takes a leaf straight from the opposition’s book. Most opposition leaders, and even the Venezuelan Catholic Church, are arguing that if Chavez cannot be officially sworn-in as president on 10 January then he will lose his status as president of Venezuela. They say that in that case, Chavez should be declared “permanently absent”, and the head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would have to take over as president and call fresh elections. The opposition also claim that the swearing-in ceremony cannot be postponed, and that if Chavez continues on as president after 10 January it would be a “flagrant violation of the constitution”. Their strategy is to use their own interpretation of the constitution in order to try and depose Chavez on a technicality while the president-elect lies in Cuba struggling in post-surgery recovery.
Private media outlets have latched onto this argument, and misinformed about the Venezuelan constitution. In a highly misleading article, the Washington Post claimed that a delay in Chavez’s inauguration ceremony would be “a stretch of the constitution’s ambiguous wording”. Similar comments were made in other U.S. outlets, with Time arguing that Venezuela’s constitution is “a murky map that could send the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation into precarious governmental limbo this year”. Reuters argued that the Venezuelan government is “violating the constitution” and the country will be “left in a power vacuum”, and the BBC, which maintained a more reserved tone, still portrayed interpretations of the constitution as muddied debate between government and opposition.
However, Venezuela’s constitution is clear on the situation. The conditions under which a president can be declared permanently absent and new elections called are covered by article 233, and are, “death, resignation, destitution decreed by the Supreme Court, mental or physical incapacity certified by a medical council designated by the Supreme Court with the approval of the National Assembly, abandonment of the post, [or] a popular recall of the mandate”.
Currently Chavez’s status is that of “absence from the national territory”, a status which is granted by the national assembly. This could eventually be declared a “temporary absence” from the presidency, which is granted by the national assembly for a period of ninety days, and can be extended for 90 further days, as outlined by articles 234 and 235 of the constitution.
What the opposition are trying to do is use article 231 of the constitution, which describes the presidential inauguration, to argue for Chavez’s deposal. The article states that the president elect “will assume their mandate on the 10th of January of the first year of their constitutional period, through a swearing-in ceremony in front of the National Assembly”. The opposition claim that Chavez’s inability to attend that ceremony means that he has not assumed his term and his “permanent absence” should be declared. However, as noted above, not being able to attend the inauguration ceremony is not considered a reason for “permanent absence” in the Venezuelan constitution, leaving the Venezuelan opposition without a constitutional leg to stand on.
Rather, this situation is dealt with by the second half of article 231, which states, “If for any supervening reason the president cannot take office in front of the National Assembly, s/he will do so before the Supreme Court”. No date is specified.
Venezuelan constitutional lawyer Harman Escarra, an opposition supporter who helped draft the 1999 constitution, explained in an interview with Venezuelan daily Ciudad CCS that constitutionally, even if the president can’t attend the 10 January ceremony, the new presidential term still begins, including the constitutional mandate of the president’s council of state, the vice-president, and government ministers. As such, he affirmed that in Venezuela “there isn’t a power vacuum”.
The constitutional lawyer further explained that under both the letter and spirit of article 231 of the constitution, “The President, from the point of view of sovereignty, is the President. There’s no other, and the mandate of the popular majority cannot not be overturned because of the issue of a date at a specific moment, because that would be to violate a sacred principle that is in article five of the constitution, which says that power resides in the sovereignty of the people”.
Therefore, it is erroneous for international media to report that Venezuela is entering a constitutionally ambiguous situation in which either the status of the president or the next constitutional step is not clear. Further, it is not only misleading, but dangerous to wrongly paint Chavez allies as looking to subvert the constitution to stay in power, when the opposition is trying to question the government’s constitutional legitimacy in order to provoke a political crisis and depose Chavez as president. The opposition is not the “critical” and “unbiased” democratic voice that the private media represent them as. Such reporting also displays a certain level of hypocrisy, as one can be sure that if the U.S. president or British prime minister were unable to assume a particular inauguration ceremony for health reasons, such outlets would not start casting doubt on their legitimacy, as they are currently doing with Chavez.
3) Should elections have to be called, they may not be “fair”, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles has a good chance of winning
This third myth adds to the previous two to create the impression that the Bolivarian revolution is undemocratic. It is spouted by most private media, but especially media from the US, which rarely points out the utterly unfair conditions in which elections are held in its own country.
The Washington Post claimed that if Chavez were to die and new elections had to be called, “Chavez’s inner circle…may consider postponing the election or even calling it off”.
“That’s why the first responsibility of the United States and Venezuelan neighbors such as Brazil should be to insist that the presidential election be held and that it be free and fair,” the WP said, and even suggested that “Mr Chavez’s followers or military leaders” might “attempt a coup”.
The US State Department has also called for any elections that Venezuela has to be “free and transparent” and the Chicago Tribune in an article today said, “In October, Chavez vanquished his first serious challenger, Henrique Capriles, despite being too sick to campaign… Too sick to give speeches, he bought votes through political stunts like awarding a free government-built home to his 3 millionth Twitter follower.”
The Chicago Tribune’s statement is a lie; Chavez attended one to two huge rallies around the country in the month before the presidential elections, including one in Merida the authors of this article attended, as well as fulfilling his duties as president. And, of course there is no basis or need for these calls for “fair” elections. None of the private media will remind its readers of the 16 elections held over the last 14 years, that 81% of Venezuelans voluntarily turned out to vote in the October presidential elections, that Venezuela is building up participatory democracy through its communal councils, and that Venezuelans have access to completely free and widely available health care, education, and even to subsidised housing—basic conditions necessary for democracy to be practiced.
The Washington Post argued that the Venezuelan government “fears” free elections because “a fair vote would be won by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the October presidential ballot but is more popular than Mr. Maduro.” This is wishful thinking, another example of the media mistaking its desire for reality. The opposition did not receive more votes than the governing PSUV in the recent 16 December regional elections, despite Chavez’s absence. The opposition is weak, divided, disillusioned after 14 years of losing election after election (except the 2007 constitutional referendum), has no street presence what so ever, and has no program or cause to unite around, beyond wanting power.
4) A split within the Chavista leadership between Maduro and Cabello is coming
This is another idea bandied about by the Venezuelan opposition and propagated by the international media. The notion, or hope, is that if the worst were to happen and Chavez were to die, Chavismo would immediately become divided among itself and fall apart. In particular, it is argued that national assembly president Diosdado Cabello would try to seize the presidential candidacy of the PSUV from Vice-president Nicolas Maduro. Some opposition figures appear to be actively encouraging this, with opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado demanding that Diosdado Cabello take power on 10 January and that “distrust” and “fear” exist between Cabello and Maduro.
On cue, always backed by vague “analysts” or “observers”, the international media has informed the public of, “A potential rift inside Chavismo between Maduro’s more socialist faction and that of the more pragmatic Cabello” (TIME), or, “Mr Cabello wields considerable power and is thought to harbour his own political ambitions” (BBC), and that, “Chavez’s death or resignation could set off a power struggle within the party among Maduro, Cabello, Chavez’s brother Adan and state governors” (LA Times).
Such commentary has been slammed by Maduro, Cabello and other leaders within Chavismo, who all stress the unity of different currents within the Bolivarian movement in the current difficult situation. Indeed, the scenario of a direct power grab by Cabello or any other figure within Chavismo of Maduro’s role as successor if Chavez cannot assume his presidential term is very unlikely. Just before Chavez flew off to Cuba for surgery in December, he told the nation that, “If such a scenario were to occur, I ask you from my heart that you elect Nicolas Maduro as constitutional president of the republic”. Chavez has such strong support and respect from among his followers that it would be almost unthinkable for another leader within Chavismo to publicly go against Chavez’s express wish that Maduro be his successor. Any attempt to usurp Maduro’s leadership and candidacy in fresh presidential elections would be seen as political suicide.
5) That the revolution is over without Chavez
Most private media have also subtly cast doubt that the revolution will continue without Chavez, suggesting that the leadership will collapse, that Venezuela is already in “economic chaos” and “disaster”, that Venezuela is living a political “crisis” right now, and that the revolutionary process can’t survive without Chavez. The Chicago Tribune said that, “Whoever ends up running Venezuela will preside over the mess Chavez made of a prosperous and promising nation” and there is now “high unemployment, record inflation and rampant crime”. This is despite Venezuela ending 2012 with 19.9% inflation, the lowest in years, and unemployment lower than the US.
The media is ignoring the fact that the country has been doing fine this last month without Chavez, that the PSUV leadership won 20 out of 23 states in the regional elections in December, without Chavez’s presence, that there is no crisis here; schools started again as normal today, the barrio adentro clinics are open, people are working, shopping, returning from Christmas season vacations, as normal. There is no panic buying, no looting, no political unrest.
Most importantly, the media is ignoring, is invisibilising the biggest factor there is; the people of Venezuela. Chavez isn’t just a person, or a leader, he represents a political project; of economic and cultural sovereignty, of Latin American unity, of freedom from US intervention, of all basic rights satisfied, and of participatory democracy. The majority of Venezuelans have shown their support for that project by turning out to vote en masse time and time again, including in elections in which Chavez wasn’t running, with voting rates generally increasing each year. In most other countries people would be tired and would have gotten over so many elections by now. Venezuelans have marched in the thousands and millions around the country again and again, not just to support electoral candidates, but to march for workers’ rights on May Day, as well as for other causes such as gay rights, defending journalists against violent attacks by the opposition, in support of various laws, and more. It was Venezuelans, en masse, who helped overturn the coup against Chavez in 2002.
The list of gains over the last 14 years is a long one. To mention just a few: complete literacy, broadly available and free university education, free healthcare centres in most communities, free laptops to primary school children, free meals for primary school children, subsidised food, subsidised books, increased street culture and street art, a range of new public infrastructure such as train lines and cable cars, laws supporting the rights of disabled people, women, and so on, government assisted urban agriculture, legalised community and worker organising, nearly a 1000 free internet centres, music programs, pensions for the elderly, and much more. These huge changes can’t be quickly reversed, and the Venezuelan people have every reason not to let them be.
Further, over the last 14 years, Venezuelans have woken up. They read and know their laws, everyone, even opposition supporters, spends hours each day debating and discussing politics and economics. Apathy still exists, but is way down. There is a political consciousness and depth that can’t be turned off overnight.
While it is true that after Chavez there will probably be bureaucracy, corruption, reformism, and some internal disagreements, these issues existed with him as a leader as well. Any change in political circumstances is an opportunity to bring these problems to the surface and to confront them.
The people of the Bolivarian movement are fighters, and are here to stay.
By Keane Bhatt | NACLA | June 19th 2012
The presidential candidate of Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties, Henrique Capriles, hosted a rally on June 10 to formally initiate his campaign against President Hugo Chávez. “Hundreds of thousands” of Venezuelans—according to Reuters, the Associated Press, and The Miami Herald—flooded the streets of downtown Caracas to support his candidacy.
The “good looks of the bachelor candidate” helped attract a huge crowd to the event in which Capriles walked or jogged six miles to register with electoral authorities, “burnishing his image of physical fitness,” per Reuters’s account. He “exuded youthful energy,” said the AP, and had won praise for being an “energetic and dedicated leader” as the governor of Miranda State, according to The Miami Herald.
All three news outlets contrasted Capriles’s vigor with Chávez’s frailty (he is recovering from an undisclosed form of cancer), while conveying Venezuelans’ disgruntlement. Even some Chávez supporters “have grown tired of a murder rate that rivals some war zones, sputtering public services such as electricity and periodic shortages of staple goods,” asserted Reuters. It was only natural, then, that a marcher was quoted stressing, “It’s time for a change.”
The AP, for its part, quoted a housewife who would vote for Capriles “because of his reputation as an efficient administrator and out of fear that Chávez will ruin the economy and drive millions of Venezuelans to emigrate if he is re-elected.” The AP used the housewife’s ominous prediction as the final sentence for its report: “If Chávez emerges as the winner in October, he’s going to destroy this country.”
Censure for Chávez has so thoroughly permeated Venezuela’s body politic, apparently, that even communists oppose him: “Chávez was the great hope for our cause, but we’ve given up on him because he has turned his back on the people even as he claims to be the voice of the people,” The Miami Herald quoted the secretary general of the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) Party as saying.
So it came as no surprise that just one day later, the U.S. press reported that Chávez’s own rally to officially inaugurate his presidential campaign attracted a crowd an entire order of magnitude smaller than that of Capriles. The AP’s headline, “Chavez rallies thousands launching re-election bid”—a figure also used by NPR and the Los Angeles Times—implied that the number of pro-Chávez participants could have been anywhere between 20 to 500 times smaller than the number present at the previous day’s pro-Capriles rally. The AP’s Fabiola Sanchez cited a higher estimate of “tens of thousands” in the body of her piece, but even this number (also used by The Miami Herald) amounts to just a fraction of Capriles’s “hundreds of thousands” of supporters.
Reuters went further in minimizing Chávez’s support. Correspondent Brian Ellsworth provided a sinister explanation for a 66-year-old pro-Chávez retiree’s observations, as she danced in the city square during the rally. “Look at this sea of people; look at the happiness,” she urged. “For every person that came out yesterday, we’ve brought out 10, 20, 30 more. And that’s going to be reflected in the election.” But Ellsworth countered this with circumstantial evidence that the event was little more than a Potemkin spectacle:
Hundreds of buses that ferried his followers to Caracas stood parked in side streets. . . . Critics accuse Chavez allies of using state resources to swell demonstrations and forcing government employees to attend. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said the ruling Socialist Party had ordered ministries to help bring 120,000 people to the march, citing what he called an internal party document.
Reuters provided no follow-up on the veracity of the unnamed critics’ accusations, nor did it verify the existence of the internal party document that Leopoldo López cited. This lapse in journalistic ethics is even more remarkable considering that in relying upon López’s hearsay for the final word on Chávez’s mobilization, Reuters displayed exactly the same flaw as Fox News’ coverage of Venezuela in 2005. (López, as I will mention in further detail below, is a long-time collaborator of Capriles, and played a crucial role in the short-lived coup government that overthrew Chávez in 2002.)
Ellsworth’s article also failed to include any estimate of the number of participants at Chávez’s rally, despite a widely-distributed Spanish-language dispatch by Reuters itself, which stated in its first paragraph that Chávez was “accompanied by hundreds of thousands of sympathizers.” Although the Spanish news website Público.es and Britain’s The Guardian corroborated this estimate, no major U.S.-based news source used it to describe the number of participants in Chávez’s rally.
Far more troubling than partial reporting on the popularity of the two candidates is the U.S. media’s superficial portrayalof Capriles as simply a “a polite, non-confrontational politician,” above the fray of Chávez’s insults and negativity. “I want to be everybody’s president, not the president of a single group,” the AP quoted Capriles as saying. “I am not anybody’s enemy,” he continued. “I’m the enemy of problems.”
At times, Capriles deviates from this persona, as when he referred to poll numbers—many of which consistently show Chávez leading by double-digit margins—as the work of “immoral mafiosos,” according to Reuters. More importantly, his political record betrays far-right tendencies that contradict his inclusive, conciliatory image. As the BBC notes, Capriles “was involved with a group of other young politicians in setting up in 2000 a new opposition party Primero Justicia.” In the lead-up to the 2002 coup d’etat against Chávez, which killed dozens, Primero Justicia indirectly received hundreds of thousands of dollars and training from a foreign government—in this case, the United States, through the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency largely financed by Congress. Leopoldo López and Leopoldo Martinez, two of Primero Justicia’s other top leaders, went on to play key roles in the 2002 coup government of Venezuelan business magnate Pedro Carmona. López—who Reuters deemed fit to comment on the supposedly authoritarian nature of last week’s pro-Chávez rally—himself signed on to Carmona’s 2002 decree to abolish the General Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution.
During this U.S.-backed two-day coup, hundreds of anti-Chávez demonstrators destroyed cars outside the Cuban embassy in the Caracas municipality of Baruta. They also cut off water and electricity to the building. Capriles, then the mayor of Baruta, was filmed approaching the Cuban ambassador and reportedly asking for proof that there were no Chávez administration officials who had sought refuge inside the embassy. The Cuban embassy later released a statement condemning Capriles’s behavior: “The immediate responsibility of Mr. Capriles Radonsky and other Venezuelan state authorities was demonstrated when they failed to act diligently in order to prevent an increase in the aggression to which our embassy was subjected, causing serious damage and endangering the lives of officials and their families in clear violation of national and international law.”
It is in this light that Chávez’s public broadsides against Capriles become more understandable. The Miami Herald quoted Chávez at his June 11 rally as saying, “We have made the vital strategic decision that every time there’s aggression from the imperialists and the bourgeoisie . . . we will respond by deepening the socialist revolution.” But the Herald leaves out any background information about the 2002 coup d’etat, in which the military reportedly threatened to bomb the presidential palace. Only within this context does the Herald’s quotation of Chávez make sense: “‘Their plan is the imperialist project from Washington,’ he said. ‘They are the puppets of imperialism…and now they hope to trick the people to take back the Miraflores [presidential palace]. But they’ll never get it back.’”
The truly remarkable aspect about Capriles’s candidacy is that more than a decade of aggressive poverty reduction and social spending has created a political climate that has forced an otherwise reactionary opposition to fully endorse Chávez’s social programs in order to be viable with the Venezuelan public. Ten years after the Cuban embassy fiasco, Capriles says he would be “mad” to end Chávez’s Barrio Adentro program, which dispatches Cuban doctors to poor neighborhoods in Venezuela to provide residents with free healthcare. Capriles reassured Venezuelans by saying “the missions belong to the people,” and on a separate occasion announced, “I want to expand them.” In a fairly stunning transformation, the opposition—rather than plotting coups and carrying out debilitating oil strikes—has rallied around Capriles, who has publicly modeled his platform after that of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who the AP said “financ[ed] expansive social programs . . . that made him popular among the poor.”
As all of the press coverage duly notes, Capriles has an uphill battle, and the poll numbers are not in his favor. It’s hard not to see why. As journalist Stephanie Kennedy notes in the Huffington Post, Venezuela was ranked the “happiest” country in South America by Columbia University, which she attributes, in large part, to serious improvements in Venezuelans’ material conditions under the Chávez administration:
The country currently boasts the highest minimum wage in Latin America and its latest bill for workers rights hails in a new era of legal protection and social security to a large part of the population who had up until recently been labouring within informal and vulnerable frameworks. Domestic workers, voluntary full time carers of family relatives and housekeepers now too have rights and a state pension, whilst peasants, fisherman and others practicing the more traditional trades, who have always been omitted from formal registers, will now enjoy the same rights as their urban peers. There are local clinics where people had never seen a doctor before, new brick-layered houses for people who had been living in cardboard slums, and subsidized food products and medicines.
A leader seeking reelection with a track record of spearheading the policies listed above can surely afford some bravado on the campaign trail.
- Henrique Capriles, Chavez Challenger, Leads Massive March In Venezuela (huffingtonpost.com)
- With song and dance, Venezuela’s Chávez launches reelection bid (miamiherald.com)