Remember When Venezuela and Bolivia Kicked the U.S. DEA Out of Their Countries, Accusing It of Espionage? Looks Like They Were Right…
In their latest article on U.S. government spying for The Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras review and publish leaked documents that show that the U.S. government may have used the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to aid the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on U.S. citizens and non-citizens in foreign countries. The NSA is shown to have assisted the DEA with efforts to capture narcotraffickers, but the leaked documents also refer to “a vibrant two-way information sharing relationship” between the two intelligence agencies, implying that the DEA shares its information with the NSA to aid with non-drug-related spying. This may explain how the NSA has gathered not just metadata but also the full-take audio from “virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”
The authors write,
The DEA has long been in a unique position to help the NSA gain backdoor access to foreign phone networks. “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners,” the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts reported in a 2004 memo. Indeed, with more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies around the globe.
But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence.”
What’s more, Selander adds, the NSA has aided the DEA for years on surveillance operations. “On our reports, there’s drug information and then there’s non-drug information,” he says. “So countries let us in because they don’t view us, really, as a spy organization.”
While the documents accompanying the article reveal detailed information that has never before been available to the public, this is not the first time that the DEA has faced allegations of spying.
In 2005, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stopped cooperating with the DEA after accusing it of espionage in his country. At the time, a State Department spokesperson responded by saying, “the accusations that somehow the Drug Enforcement Agency is involved in espionage are baseless. There’s no substance or justification for them.” Using arguments that would change very little over the next nine years, a State Department official said at the time, “I think it’s pretty clear to us that the motivation for this is not the accusation itself or not what they state is the problem. The motivation is an effort to detract from the government’s increasingly deficient record of cooperation.”
Three years later, President Evo Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia saying, “there were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage.” He also said, “we can control ourselves internally. We don’t need any spying from anybody.” The State Department spokesperson said in response, “the charges that have been made are just patently absurd. We reject them categorically”, and the news agency EFE reported that “Washington has repeatedly denied that the DEA has been involved in any activities in Bolivia apart from the war on drugs.”
Few of the press reports from 2005 or 2008 took these accusations seriously, and the State Department dismissed the allegations categorically, but in 2008, CEPR’s co-director Mark Weisbrot wrote that “To the Bolivians, the U.S. is using the “war on drugs” throughout Latin America mainly as an excuse to get boots on the ground, and establish ties with local military and police forces.” To this list, we can now add access to national phone and communication networks, and storage of the content of phone calls.
2002 documentary about the April 2002 Venezuelan coup attempt which briefly deposed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. A television crew from Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ happened to be recording a documentary about Chávez during the events of April 11, 2002. Shifting focus, they followed the events as they occurred. During their filming, the crew recorded images of the events that they say contradict explanations given by Chávez’s opposition, the private media, the US State Department, and then White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. The documentary says that the coup was the result of a conspiracy between various old guard and anti-Chávez factions within Venezuela and the United States. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Revo…
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 edition “Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?”
Countries in the “developing world” have, since the end of formal colonialism, seen their ability to act autonomously systematically constrained by a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to, macroeconomic policy conditions attached to World Bank and IMF loans, poor terms of trade with the Global North, lack of effective agency in international organizations, and the actions of multinational corporations operating in their territory.
Venezuela’s regionally oriented foreign policy during the Chávez era counteracted each of these dynamics, and in doing so opened up autonomous policy space for other states in Latin America and the Caribbean. The concrete achievements of a number of mechanisms, including counter-trading and credit provision within the PetroCaribe framework, and the recent establishment of a virtual regional currency, the SUCRE, all played a part in this process.
The first crucial action undertaken by Hugo Chávez as Venezuelan President in protecting regional economies was to vociferously oppose the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) at the third summit of the Americas, held in Quebec in 2000. The proposal represented the perfect consolidation of U.S. economic power, and was designed, in the words of General Colin Powell, to “guarantee control for North American businesses…over the entire hemisphere.”1 After Chávez voiced concerns, the Mercosur countries followed suit, stopping the FTAA conclusively at the subsequent Mar del Plata summit in 2005. If the FTAA had gone ahead, it would have resulted in the substantial economic subordination of Latin America to U.S. corporate interests. Agricultural sectors in particular would have suffered from an influx of low-cost subsidized U.S. products. In addition, areas of the public sphere that had previously avoided commoditization or privatization would have been fair game for trans-national corporations. Under the FTAA, Amanothep Zambrano, ALBA Executive Secretary, told me last August that states would not have been able to “lead any aspect of economic policy, and therefore their political capacity to solve social problems” would have been heavily constrained.
Their shared opposition to these proposals encouraged Cuba and Venezuela to form an alternative regional integration framework, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in 2004. This quickly matured from a bilateral socio-centric cooperation agreement to a nascent regional bloc, or alliance, with the addition of Bolivia in 2006. Bolivia’s newly elected president, Evo Morales, brought with him the idea of a “Peoples Trade Treaty” (TCP), which extended the ALBA’s self-identified principles of solidarity, complementarity between economies, and respect for sovereignty, into a 23-point agreement that systematically opposed the tenets of orthodox free trade agreements. The TCP opened the possibility of pursuing economic policies outside of the market fundamentalist approach of the neoliberal era, for example by stating that people’s right to access healthcare should be prioritized above protecting pharmaceuticals’ corporate profitability. In the following three years, membership of the ALBA-TCP grew to nine countries encompassing much of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.
During this time, the Venezuelan government also constructed PetroCaribe, a framework designed to facilitate the supply of its oil products to neighboring Caribbean states under preferential conditions, which at the time of writing had 18 members. Through these two channels the Venezuelan government has opened up autonomous policy space in the region, to some extent overcoming the constraints identified above. Venezuela has, largely through ALBA and PetroCaribe, become an important source of funding in the region. Oil supply agreements, signed between Venezuela and several members of both frameworks, permit countries to defer payment on set portions of their oil bill and use the capital obtained for government spending. Crucially this capital is obtained without the macroeconomic conditionality and policy prescriptions associated with World Bank or IMF loans. PetroCaribe agreements, for example, state that “member nations of the group are allowed to defer payment of 60% of their oil bills to Venezuela for 25 years, at 1% interest, in addition to a 90-day grace period on all payments, and a two year initial grace period on the credit facility.”2
This credit facility offers an alternative to IFI loans, while maintaining small Caribbean nations’ ability for autonomous decision making, which is considered critical in the post-colonial context. Specifically, credit provision has enabled Jamaica and Antigua to delay recourse to IMF loans, and put them in a better negotiating position so, I was told in August 2011 by Norman Girvan, former Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, “they were able to make an easier deal.” Venezuela, under the current administration, has also purchased billions of dollars’ worth of bonds issued by the Argentine government, enabling the country’s early exit from all of its IMF debts and associated policy prescriptions.
As a result of this mechanism, PetroCaribe funding to the Caribbean now exceeds both EU and U.S. aid by a wide margin, with only remittances from the Caribbean diaspora exceeding it in funding to the signatory states.3 For Dominica, Venezuela is now the “single largest creditor…surpassing traditional sources of credit such as regional development banks and the IMF.” Venezuela is owed 27.7% of the country’s total debt, which grew 12.6% in 2011 alone, to $8.8 billion.4 Such figures inevitably raise concerns that the agreement is increasing debt levels in the region and developing dependence on Venezuelan largesse. Barbados’s Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, has stated that his country would not join because he “would not permit the present generation of Barbadians to consume oil now to be paid for by succeeding generations of Barbadians.”5 However, the deferred portion of the bill does not constitute debt in the orthodox sense, as it is kept by the Caribbean partners and can be spent as capital towards any project deemed socio-productive, or saved to accrue interest to offset the bill, as has been the case in Guyana. The domestic opposition sees the PetroCaribe scheme as Chávez “giving away” oil irresponsibly. However, the amount is relatively small and sustainable. Supply to PetroCaribe members, including Cuba, peaked in 2009 at an average of 196.4 thousand barrels daily, which constituted only 7% of total Venezuelan oil exports that year, and operates under market prices in accordance with Venezuela’s OPEC membership.6
Due to a high level of dependence on imports, Venezuela has also been uniquely able to position itself as a regional alternative to North American and European markets. This dynamic has, again, been apparent within both ALBA-TCP and PetroCaribe. In 2008, the PetroCaribe framework was augmented with a “compensatory exchange mechanism” via which oil bills from Venezuela could be offset by the export of domestically produced goods and services. The Venezuelan market is particularly important for Caribbean countries who suffer from poor terms of trade with the North due to dependence on primary commodity exports, the continued use of tariff and non-tariff barriers by developed nations, and the erosion of colonial trade preferences. For example, up to 90% of Guyanese rice exports per annum were going to EU countries when, in 2000, the Overseas Territories (OCT) loophole was closed, resulting, I was told by the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, in a “50-60%” drop in prices. When the compensation mechanism was announced, the then-president of Guyana, Jagdeo Bharrat, actively sought a better deal with Venezuela through the PetroCaribe framework. The resultant export of both rice and unprocessed paddy has seen Venezuela become the single largest importer of Guyanese rice, replacing Portugal.7
In the case of ALBA countries, a strategic reorientation towards intra-regional trade, and particularly export to Venezuela, has reduced dependence on the United States and subsequently its ability to constrain autonomous action. For example, when Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 following his alleged involvement in separatist actions in the Santa Cruz Department, Washington retaliated by excluding Bolivia from the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Agreement (ATPDEA). Bolivia lost its U.S. tariff advantages, which was a particularly painful blow to its textile industry. Chávez immediately offered them a market under “the same or better conditions” that Bolivia had enjoyed with the United States. As a result, says the Bolivian Ambassador to Venezuela, in 2010 Venezuela “imported almost 50 million dollars in textiles alone, or nearly double that which [Bolivia] used to export to the USA” annually.
The purchase agreement was supported by initiatives by both governments to facilitate small and medium sized businesses’ entry into the regional market. A fund was established in the Bank of ALBA to provide short-term interest-free credit to Venezuelan importers in order to purchase Bolivian textiles, paired with a fund in the Bolivian national development bank to provide small textile producers credit to purchase raw materials. This agreement therefore not only minimized the impact that U.S. market sanctions could have over autonomous decision making by the Bolivian government, but also created direct relations between regional producers and consumers.
These patterns are part of a wider renewed focus on South-South trade, both within the region and with extra-hemispheric partners. However, the United States remains the region’s single most important trading partner. The objective is not to be “anti-American,” rather to reduce the U.S. ability to exert controlling influence over its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors by creating alternatives to the dollar in international trade. One way in which this was achieved was through the PetroCaribe mechanism and similar counter-purchase agreements with other regional allies. As direct non-market transactions, they circumvented the use of the dollar, thereby avoiding its automatic privileging in international trade, and avoiding the transaction costs associated with its use.
This concept was extended by the ALBA’s virtual common currency, the Unified Regional System for Economic Compensation (SUCRE). The SUCRE is essentially a series of clearing accounts between Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador that allow the countries to trade freely without transaction costs. Accounts are balanced every six months with one hard currency transfer. The value of trade conducted via the SUCRE in its first year of operations, 2010, was just over $8 million. It grew exponentially, to almost 100 times that the following year ($172,905,344).8 Though the SUCRE’s value was originally set against the dollar ($1 to XSU1.25), and it is typically used as the convertible currency to make balancing payments, in the long term the intention is to no longer use the dollar at all. The direct and deliberate countering of U.S. economic hegemony that the SUCRE represents has been of particular importance to Ecuador, whose macroeconomic policy options have been constrained by a prior administration’s decision to dollarize the economy in 2001. In fact, the mechanism was largely designed by Ecuadoran economists, and of the $170 million traded in 2011, $140 million was for Venezuelan purchases from Ecuador (mainly tuna).9
As we have seen, Chávez’s time in office saw an unequivocal reassertion of the state as economic actor throughout the region. This dynamic was particularly felt in the crucial energy sector. In Venezuela, governmental control of the state oil industry was consolidated, while both Bolivia and Argentina nationalized hydrocarbons with investment and technical assistance from Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), via agreements with YPFB and Enarsa, state owned gas and oil companies in Bolivia and Argentina respectively. Even in centrist or center-right Caribbean nations, Venezuelan investment has enabled state-owned oil companies and agencies to supply oil products directly to their population, “to effectively intervene in their markets to minimize retail prices” in the energy sector which had previously been “dominated by foreign companies.”10
Where state energy companies or agencies did not exist prior to PetroCaribe, they have been formed to facilitate the direct import of oil products from PDVSA. These can take the form of joint ventures with the PDVSA subsidiary PDV Caribe. Venezuelan credit and grants have also been used to fund improvements in energy infrastructure; that is namely the capacity of the member countries to store and refine oil, and in turn to generate and distribute energy. Central to this scheme has been investment in the Cienfuegos refinery in Cuba and at the Kingston refinery which now almost exclusively refines Venezuelan crude. The refinery is run by Petrojam Ltd, a mixed state enterprise in which Jamaica Oil Company owns a 51% stake and PDV Caribe 49%. This reassertion of state control over energy resources is seen as a fundamental facet of PetroCaribe’s “new oil geopolitics…at the services of our peoples not at the service of imperialism and big capital.”11
The right and power of multinationals to dictate domestic policy has been systematically undermined, both through a reassertion of the state as economic actor and in the tenets of the TCP which we briefly touched on earlier. This offers a stark contrast to the World Trade Organization’s policies such as Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which consistently privilege corporate interests, and/or offer beneficial “loopholes” for developed nations. This has been possible through the creation of new regional forums in Latin America and the Caribbean, in which members’ interests are not subordinate to those of more powerful nations. For example, in the TCP, economic asymmetries between members are recognised and therefore tariff reductions do not have to be reciprocal, disregarding the “most favored nation” principle. In addition, ALBA has no supranationality; it is best described as a framework for cooperation rather than an integration body in the orthodox sense. All programs and agreements are optional, flexible, and voluntary, thereby protecting the national autonomy of members.
Though statist in its organization, ALBA facilitates continual dialogue through presidential and ministerial summits, which have also been attended by international observers. Non-member countries are also represented in the council for social movements, whose proponents include groups such as the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement. ALBA proved to be the first in a series of new regional spaces, catalysed by massive rejection of the FTAA proposal—a rejection led by Chávez—and culminating in the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which was put together as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), and includes all the countries of the Americas except the United States and Canada. In this way, lessened economic dependence has resulted in increased diplomatic autonomy from the United States.
There are those who argue that Venezuelan projects in the region created new constraints, replaced one set of dependencies with another. But this is not the case. Though he was a catalyst for and investor in regional development, Chávez avoided constructing a position of power or privilege for Venezuela. This is evident in the lack of conditionality attached to credit mechanisms and the fact that the controlling stake of each mixed state enterprise was maintained by the partner country. Though oil wealth put Chávez in a unique position to invest in regional projects, these were not unilaterally devised or constructed; the TCP came from Bolivia, SUCRE is an Ecuadoran concept, and of course ALBA social programs were exported from Cuba. However, these ideas were made a reality by the capacity for rapid implementation that oil largesse afforded. Such apparently altruistic actions led many to question Chávez’s motives. It is important to point out that these frameworks and counter-purchase agreements have also helped reduce Venezuela’s dependence on the United States as a market and refining destination for oil. The volume of Venezuelan oil exported to the United States decreased from 1,500,000 barrels per day in 2008, to 1,166,000 bpd in 2011, a drop of 334,000 barrels per day. This can, in part, be attributed to the diversification of markets in Latin America (190 bpd to PetroCaribe, plus supply agreements with Argentina among others). This is in addition to securing crucial imports without financial outlay, specifically agricultural commodities, which are often then provided to the Venezuelan population at low cost through state owned agencies such as the supermarket chain Mercal.
Under the last ten years of Hugo Chávez’s Presidency, Venezuela’s foreign policies resulted in an opening up of autonomous policy space in Latin America and the Caribbean. What was begun in 2004 with the rejection of the proposed FTAA continued into the post-crisis conjuncture, when Chávez was instrumental in creating a new regional financial architecture to limit the power exerted by Washington-based IFIs. PetroCaribe credit provided funds for capital expenditure, without imposing macroeconomic conditionality. In addition, guaranteed oil supplies allowed the small and energy dependent nations that made up its membership to move beyond reactive policies and look to longer term socio-productive investment.
Venezuela’s concurrent strategy of sourcing imports from the region offered primary-commodity-dependent economies some opportunity to diversify their markets and baskets, with better terms of trade than offered by the United States or ex-colonial metropoles in Europe. Chávez also took the bite out of attempted control via market sanctions, as was clearly demonstrated in the Bolivian example.
These regional imports often took the form of non-market exchanges and counter-purchase agreements within PetroCaribe, ALBA, and beyond. Combined, they arguably represented a strategic de-linking from international trade and finance systems, specifically from the U.S. dollar. As such, these frameworks have lessened both the dependence on, and influence of, the United States in the region, protecting countries’ ability to act autonomously and not follow the dictates of Washington. Chávez effectively undermined U.S. economic power by offering alternatives to the hegemony of the dollar, with the SUCRE in particular offering a concerted challenge. Lessened economic dependence in turn allowed for greater diplomatic autonomy from Washington, demonstrated in its strategic exclusion from the newly formed CELAC. The various new regional initiatives provide space to build development strategies and devise economic policies, beyond the constraints of “market-friendly” logic. This allows for a reassertion of the state as an economic actor and service provider, within a culture of regional cooperation. Though the Venezuelan state is not operating outside of capitalism per se, from the initial rejection of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001 the Chávez government demonstrated that there are alternatives beyond the policy prescriptions of the neoliberal era, and what’s more, facilitated their use throughout the region to mutually beneficial ends.
1. Colin Powell cited in Katharine Ainger, “Trading Away the Americas,” New Internationalist, Issue 351, November 1, 2002, available at newint.org
2. “Venezuela: Two Countries Hold Out Against Cheap Loans and Barters,” Countertrade & Offset, 26:15 (2008)7
3. Sir Ronald Sanders, “The Chavez Effect: A life belt for the Caribbean,” Kaieteur news online, July 27, 2008, available at kaieteurnewsonline.com
4. Andrés Rojas Jiménez “Deuda dominicana con PDVSA aumentó durante 201,” El Nacional, February 16, 2012, available at elnacional.com
5. Wendell Mottley, Trinidad and Tobago’s Industrial Policy 1959-2008 Kingston. (Randle, 2008) 157.
6. This data, and all data not otherwise cited, elaborated from PDVSA annual reports, 2009-2011.
7. Guyana Rice Development Board, “Guyana Rice Development Board Annual Report 2010,” 2011.
8. Consejo Monetario Regional del SUCRE, “SUCRE Informe de Gestión 2011,” 2012.
10. Curtis Williams, “Venezuela Urged to Fast-track Petrocaribe Initiative,” Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (2004):26.
11. Hugo Chávez Frías, Petrocaribe, Towards A New Order in Our America, (Colecciones Discursos, Ministerio de Poder Popular para Comunicación.)
Stephanie Pearce is a doctoral candidate at the School of Politics & International Relations, Queen Mary College, University of London. Her research focuses on the role of countertrade in Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2013 issue: “Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?”
This is my worst-five list for articles about Venezuela. I couldn’t help but declare ties for a few of the spots, so the “worst five” list actually has more than five articles. I’ve listed them from most horrible to least.
1) It’s a three way tie! Two of the three are very recent articles that referred to Venezuela as a dictatorship. An article on Yahoo.com said Venezuela was “military-style dictatorship”. Another one on MSN.com said Hugo Chavez was a “dictator”. Sadly, these may have been honest mistakes – gross ignorance that results from corporate journalists being over exposed to their colleagues’ work which, in turn, leads them to spread even more ignorance among themselves and countless readers.
The third article sharing the worst spot is an editorial in the UK Independent that appeared just after Hugo Chavez died. The “Indy” editors wrote that Chavez “was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi…” A letter I wrote to the Indy about this editorial was initially accepted but then rejected.
2) Jon Lee Anderson eleven page “slumlord” article in the New Yorker, not only trashed Hugo Chavez’s government but also the majority of Venezuelans who consistently voted Chavista since 1998 as I explained here. Anderson strongly insinuated that a coup (not a free and fair election as actually took place) led to Hugo Chavez first assume office in 1999. As Keane Bhatt pointed out, The New Yorker’s “vaunted fact-checkers somehow permitted the publication” of that falsehood. The article combines disregard for facts with very noticeable amount of class bigotry. I debated awarding it the worst spot but decided that its long-windedness probably mitigated the damage done.
3) This Economist article, which was thoroughly taken apart by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim, comes in third. My favorite part of Ryan’s demolition is the various TV interviews he points to that feature Henrique Capriles – the opposition leader whom the Economist claimed was “ignored” by a “cowed” media in the months prior to recent municipal elections. This lengthy interview with Capriles was shown on Venevision about a month before those elections. Venevision’s news broadcasts have the highest audience share in Venezuela. Capriles droned on and on unchallenged and uninterrupted. He also didn’t say a peep about being ignored by broadcasters which was unsurprising. To do so under the circumstances would have looked quite ridiculous.
4) Arguably, any five randomly chosen AP articles about Venezuela could take up most of the spots on this list. A very partisan op-ed should make some effort to present counterarguments to the views it promotes. AP dispenses with that in news articles where, readers are so often told, reporters have their fabled “objectivity” on display. In this piece I pointed out two recent AP articles that spread the myth of the voiceless opposition and a falsehood about Venezuela’s inflation rate.
5) Given the incredibly dishonest and incompetent reporting about Venezuela, a spot must be reserved for this LA Times article “Nicolas Maduro Gaffes: Top 5 Worst Blunders Made By Venezuelan President In 2013”. Yes, an article that tells readers about things like President Maduro falling off a bike and mispronouncing some words made international headlines. The LA Times could obviously look at itself and its peers for “blunders”, and ones that actually matter. Just consider the other articles on this list.
US relations with Venezuela illustrate the specific mechanisms with which an imperial power seeks to sustain client states and overthrow independent nationalist governments. By examining US strategic goals and its tactical measures, we can set forth several propositions about (1) the nature and instruments of imperial politics, (2) the shifting context and contingencies which influence the successes and failures of specific policies and (3) the importance of regional and global political alignments and priorities.
Method of Analysis
A comparative historical approach highlights the different policies, contexts and outcomes of imperial policies during two distinct Presidential periods: the ascendancy of neo-liberal client regimes (Perez and Caldera) of the late 1980’s to 1998; and the rise and consolidation of a nationalist populist government under President Chavez (1999-2012).
During the 1980’s and 1990’s US successes in securing policies favorable to US economic and foreign policy interests under client rulership fixed, in the mind of Washington, the optimal and only acceptable model and criteria for responding (negatively) to the subsequent Chavez nationalist government.
US policy to Venezuela in the 1990’s and its successes, were part and parcel of a general embrace of neo-liberal electoral regimes in Latin America. Washington and its allies in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) promoted and supported regimes throughout Latin America which privatized and de-nationalized over five thousand public enterprises in the most lucrative economic sectors. These quasi-public monopolies included natural resources, energy, finance, trade, transport and telecommunications. Neo-liberal client regimes reversed 50 years of economic and social policy, concentrated wealth, deregulated the economy, and laid the basis for profound crises, which discredited neo-liberalism. Continent-wide popular uprisings and regime changes, led to nationalist populist governments.
The historical-comparative approach allows us to analyze Washington’s response to the rise and demise of neo-liberal clients and the subsequent ascendency of populist-nationalism and how regional patterns and changes influence the capacity of an imperial power to intervene and attempt to re-establish its dominance.
The key to understanding the mode and means of imposing and sustaining imperial dominance is to recognize that Washington combines multiple forms of struggle, depending on resources, available collaborators, opportunities and contingencies.
In approaching client regimes, Washington combines military and economic aid to repress opposition and buttress economic allies by cushioning crises. Imperial propaganda via the mass media provide political legitimacy and diplomatic backing, especially when client regimes engage in gross human rights violations and high level corruption.
Conversely when attempting to weaken or overthrow a nationalist-populist regime, the empire will resort to multiple forms of attack including (1) corruption (buying off government backers) (2) funding and organizing opposition media, parties, business and trade union organizations, (3) organizing and backing disloyal military officials to violently overthrow the elected government (4) support employers’ lockouts to paralyze strategic sectors of the economy (oil)(5) financing referendums and other ‘legal mechanisms’ to revoke democratic mandates, (6) promoting paramilitary groups to destabilize civil society and sow public insecurity and undermine agrarian reforms; (7) finance electoral parties and non-governmental organizations to compete in and delegitimize elections; (8) engage in diplomatic warfare and efforts to prejudice regional relations; (9) establish military bases in neighboring countries, as a platform for joint military invasions.
The multi-prong, multi-track policies occur in sequence or are combined, depending on the opportunities and results of earlier tactical outcomes. For example, while financing the electoral campaign of Capriles Radonski in April 2013, Washington also backed violent post-election assaults by rightist thugs attempting to destabilize the government.
Secretary of State Kerry while pursuing an apparent effort to re-open diplomatic relations via negotiations simultaneously backed a highly inflammatory declaration by Samantha Power, US United Nations representative, vowing aggressive intrusion in Venezuela’s domestic politics.
US-Venezuelan relations provide us with a case study that illustrates how efforts to restore hegemonic politics can become an obstacle to the development of normal relations with an independent country. In particular, the ascendancy of Washington during the “Golden Age” of neoliberalism in the 1990’s, established a fixed ‘mind set’, which was incapable of adapting to the changed circumstances, of the 2000’s, a period witnessing the demise and discredit of ‘free market’ client politics. The rigidity derived from past success led Washington to pursue a ‘restoration politics’ under very unfavorable circumstances, involving military, clandestine and other illicit policies with very improbable possibilities of success.
The unfavorable outcome of US efforts to destabilize a democratically elected nationalist popular regime in Venezuela occurred when Washington was heavily engaged in multiple, prolonged wars and conflicts in several countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya). This validates the hypothesis that even a global power is incapable of waging warfare in multiple locations at the same time.
Given the shift in world market conditions, including the increase in commodity prices, (especially energy), the relative economic decline of the US and rise of Asia, Washington lost a strategic economic lever – market power – in the 2000’s, a resource which it possessed during the previous decade.
Given the shift in political power in the region, the rise of popular-nationalist governments in most of Latin America, Washington lost regional leverage to ‘encircle’, ‘boycott’ and intervene in Venezuela. Even among its few clients, like Colombia, Washington could do no more than create ‘border tensions’ rather than a joint military attack.
Comparative historical analysis of the strategic changes in international and regional politics, economies, markets and alignments provides a useful framework for interpreting US-Venezuelan relations, especially the successes of the 1990’s and the failures of the 2000’s.
US-Venezuela Patron-Client Relations 1960’s -1998
During the 40 year period following the overthrow of the Dictator Perez Jimenez (1958) and prior to the election of President Hugo Chavez (1998) Venezuela’s politics were marked with conformity to US political and economic interests on all strategic issues. Venezuelan regimes followed Washington’s lead in ousting Cuba from the Organization of American States, breaking relations with Havana and promoting a hemispheric blockade. Caracas followed Washington’s lead during the cold War, backed its counter-insurgency policies in Latin America. It opposed the democratic leftist regime in Chile under President Allende, the nationalist governments of Brazil (1961-64) and Peru (1967-73), Bolivia (1968-71) and Ecuador (in the 1970’s). It supported the US invasions of the Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada. Venezuela’s nationalization of oil (1976) provided lucrative compensation and generous service contracts with US oil companies, a settlement far more generous than any comparable arrangement in the Middle East or Latin America.
During the decade from the late 1980’s to 1998, Venezuela signed off on draconian International Monetary Fund programs, including privatizations of natural resources, devaluations and austerity programs which enriched the Multinational Corporation (MNC), emptied the Treasury and impoverished the majority of wage and salary earners. In foreign policy Venezuela aligned with the US, ignored new trade openings in Latin America and Asia and moved to re-privatize its oil, bauxite and other primary resources. President Perez was indicted in a massive corruption scandal. Implementation of a US-IMF austerity program led to a massive popular uprising and the massacre of over a thousand protestors. The subsequent Caldera regime presided over the triple scourge of triple digit inflation, 50% poverty rates and double digit unemployment.
Venezuela touched bottom at the peak of US hegemony in the region. The inverse relation was not casual, as Venezuela under Caldera followed austerity, open markets and US centered policies which undermined any public policies to revive the economy. Moreover, world market conditions were unfavorable, as oil prices were low and China was not yet a world market power.
US and the Rise of Chavez: 1998-2001
The US viewed the Venezuelan elections of 1998 as a continuation of the previous decade despite significant political signs of changes. The two parties, which dominated and alternated in power, the Christian Democratic COPEI, and the social democratic Democratic Action Party, were soundly defeated by a new political formation headed by a former military officer, Hugo Chavez, who led an armed uprising six years earlier and who had engaged in a massive grass roots campaign, attracting radicals, revolutionaries, opportunists and defectors from the two major parties.
Washington’s successes over the previous decade, the entrenched ascendancy of neo-liberalism and the advance of a regional US free trade agreement blinded the Clinton regime from seeing (1) the economic crisis and discredit of the neo-liberal model; (2) the deepening social and economic polarization and hostility to the IMF-USA among broad sectors of the class structure; (3) the decay and discredit of its client political parties and regimes. Washington tended to write-off Chavez’s promises of a new constitutional order and new “Bolivarian” foreign and domestic policies which included promises of nationalist-populist reforms, as typical Latin campaign rhetoric. The general thinking in the State Department was that Chavez was engaging in electoral demagogy and that he would “come to his senses” after taking office. Moreover Washington’s Latin Americanists believed that the mix of traditional politicians and technocrats in his motley coalition would undermine any consequential push for leftist radical changes.
Hence Washington under Clinton did not adapt a hostile position during the first months of the Chavez government. The watchword among the Clintonites was “wait and see” and count on long-standing ties to the major business associations, friendly military officials, and corrupt trade union bosses and oil executives, to check or block any new radical initiatives emanating from Congress or the Executive. In other words Washington counted on using the permanent state apparatus to counter the electoral regime.
Chavez recognized the institutional obstacles to nationalist socio-economic reforms and immediately called for constitutional changes, convoked elections for a constituent assembly, which he won handily. Washington’s growing concerns over the possible consequences of new elections were tempered by two factors: (1) the mixed composition of the elected assembly (old line politicians, moderate leftists, radicals and ‘unknowns’); (2) the ‘moderate’ appointments to the Central Bank and the orthodox economic policies pursued by the finance and economic ministry. Prudent budgets, fiscal deficits and balance of payments were at the top of the agenda.
The new constitution, included clauses favoring a radical social and nationalist agenda, and led to the defection of some of the more conservative early supporters aligned with Washington which in turn signaled the first overt signs of US opposition. Veteran State Department officials debated whether the new radical constitution would form the bases of a leftist government or whether it was standard symbolic fare, rhetorical flourishes to be heavily discounted, merely symbolic changes by a populist president to satisfy the Latin temperament in hard times but not likely to be followed by substantive reforms. The hard liners linked to the exile Cuba lobby argued that Chavez was a “closet” radical, who was preparing the way for more radical ‘communist’ measures. In fact Chavez policies were both moderate and radical. His political zig-zags, reflected his efforts to navigate a moderate reform agenda without alienating the US and the business community on the one hand, and on the other hand he sought to retain and respond to his mass base among the impoverished slum dwellers (rancheros’) who voted for him.
Strategically Chavez succeeded in creating a strong political institutional base in the legislature, civil administration and military which could (or would) approve and implement his national-populist agenda. Unlike Chilean Socialist President Allende, Chavez first consolidated his political and military base and then proceeded to socio-economic changes.
By the end of 2000, Washington moved to regroup its internal client political forces into a formidable political opposition. Chavez was too independent, not easily controlled, and most important moving in the “wrong direction”, away from a blind embrace of neo-liberalism and US centered regional integration. In other words while Chavez was still well within the parameters of US hegemony, the direction he was taking portended a possible break.
The Turning Point: Chavez Defies the ‘War on Terror’ 2000-2001
The decade beginning the new millennium was a tumultuous period which played a major role in defining US-Venezuelan relations. Several inter-related events polarized the hemisphere, weakened Washington’s influence, undermined collaborator client regimes and led to a major confrontation with Venezuela.
First, the neo-liberal model fell into deep crises throughout the region; discrediting the US backed clients in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere. Secondly, repeated major popular uprisings occurred during the crises and populist-nationalist politicians came to power, rejecting US-IMF tutelage and US centered regional trade agreements. Thirdly, Washington launched a global “war on terror”, essentially an offensive military strategy, designed to overthrow adversaries to US domination and Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. In Latin America, Washington’s launch of the “war on terror” occurred precisely at the high point of crises and popular rebellion, undermining any regional support. Fourthly, beginning in 2003, commodity prices skyrocketed, as China’s economy took off, creating lucrative markets stimulating high growth for the new left of center regimes.
In this vortex of change, President Chavez rejected Washington’s “War on Terror”, arguing against “fighting terror with terror”. By the end of 2001, Washington dispatched a top State Department official, Marc Grossman, to Caracas where he bluntly threatened dire reprisals – thinly veiled destabilization measures – if Caracas failed to fall-in with Washington’s attempt to reimpose global hegemony. Chavez dismissed Grossman and realigned with the emerging Latin American nationalist populist consensus. In other words Washington’s aggressive militarist posture polarized relations, increased tensions and, to a degree, radicalized Venezuela’s foreign policy.
Washington’s interventionary machinery went into high gear: Ambassador Shapiro held several meetings with FEDECAMARAS (the business association) and the trade union bosses of the CTV. The Pentagon and the Southern Command met with client military officials. The State Department increased contacts and funding for opposition NGO’s and right-wing street gangs. The date of the coup was set for April 11, 2002. Meanwhile, the Chavez government began to assess its resources. Loyalist military groups especially in the armored battalions and paratroops were contacted.
Local neighborhood committees emerged and set out to mobilize the poor around a more radical social agenda and to defend the government, as the US backed opposition escalated street fighting. The coup was welcomed and openly supported by Washington and its semi-official mouthpiece the New York Times, and the rightwing Spanish Prime Minister Aznar. The illicit regime moved quickly to arrest President Chavez, dismiss Congress, dissolve political parties and declare a state of emergency. The masses and leading sectors of the military quickly and massively responded: millions of poor Venezuelans descended from the ranchos and amassed before Miraflores, the Presidential Palace, demanding the return of their elected President and repudiating the coup. The constitutionalist military led by an elite paratroop battalion threatened a full scale military assault. The coup makers, politically isolated and militarily outgunned, surrendered. Chavez returned to power. The US policy of regime change to restore hegemony was defeated; important assets were forced into exile and purged from the military. Washington played a risky card and lost on several fronts. First of all US support for the coup, strengthened the Bolivarian anti-imperialist sectors of Chavez’s movement. Chavez discarded illusions of “reaching an accommodation” with Washington. Secondly, the loss of key military assets weakened the possibility of Washington launching a future coup. Thirdly, the complicity of the business groups weakened their role in influencing Chavez’s economic policies, forcing him toward a more statist economic strategy. Fourthly, the mass mobilization of the poor to restore democracy pressured the government to increase social spending on welfare programs. Anti-imperialism, social welfare and national security concerns led Chavez toward strategic ties with Cuba, as a natural ally.
Washington’s escalation of aggression and overt commitment to regime change altered the entire relationship to one of permanent hostility. Spurred on by its backing of a failed coup, Washington resorted once again to ‘direct action’, backing a “boss’s lockout” of the strategic oil industry led by “client assets” among the executives and sectors of the petroleum workers union.
Washington put into practice in Venezuela the global militarization of US foreign policy. Under the subterfuge “War on Terror” formula for global intervention, (which included the invasion of Afghanistan, 2001) and later the war against Iraq (2003) imperial policymakers plunged ahead with new aggressive policies.
The pretext for aggression against Venezuela was not directly linked to oil or Chavez’s appeal for Latin American integration. The trigger was Chavez’s rejection of Bush’s world view of global empire conquered by force of arms and sustained by collaborator vassal states. The oil conflicts – Chavez nationalization of US oil concessions and his appeal for regional integration excluding the US and Canada, were a result of and in response to US overt aggression. Prior to the US backed April 2002 coup and the oil-executives lockout of December 2002 – February 2003, there were no major conflicts between Chavez and US petroleum companies; Chavez’s conception of Bolivarian unity of all Latin American states was a “vision” not a concrete program for action. Chavez’s takeover of US oil concessions was a defensive political move to eliminate a political adversary controlling the strategic export and revenue sectors. He did not intervene against European oil companies. Likewise, Chavez’s move to promote regional organizations flowed from his perception that Venezuela required closer ties and supportive relations in Latin America to counter US imperial aggression.
In other words US empire builders used (and sacrificed) economic assets to restore hegemony via military means. The military and strategic dimensions of the US Empire took precedence over Big Oil. A pattern evident in all of its subsequent imperial endeavors in Iraq, Libya and Syria and its severe economic sanctions against Iran. The same hegemonic priorities were evident in Washington’s intervention in Venezuela.
Contrary to some theorists of imperialism, who argue that imperialism expands via economic “dispossession”, recent history of US Venezuela relations demonstrates that 21st century US imperialism grows via political intervention, military coups and by converting economic collaborators into political agents willing to sacrifice corporate wealth to secure imperial military-political domination.
The decision by imperial policymakers to overthrow Chavez was based on his opposition to Washington’s global military strategy. The White House thought it had strong assets in Venezuela: the mass media, two major opposition parties, the principle business federation (FEDECAMARAS), the official trade union bureaucracy, sectors of the military and the church hierarchy … Washington did not count on the unorganized masses and popular movements with powerful loyalty and affection for President Chavez. Nor did imperial strategists recognize that strategic military units like the paratroops retained national, personal and political ties with the democratically elected President.
The rapid restoration of Chavez to power (48 hours) was the first blow to Washington’s restorationist pretentions. The second was the defeat of the US backed oil executives lockout. Washington counted on its close ties with the senior executives of the state oil company (PDVS) and the heads of the oil workers union. Washington failed to take account of the minority of executives and close to half of the oil workers who opposed the lockout and the fact that Latin American oil producers would supply Chavez and break the lockout.
The twin defeats, the military-business coup and the bosses’ lockout had a profound impact on US-Venezuelan relations. The US lost strategic internal assets – business and trade union elites fled to exile or resigned. Pro-US oil executives were replaced by nationalists. Moreover, Washington’s direct imperial intervention radicalized the Chavez government, which moved decisively from conciliation to confrontation and opposition. Venezuela adapted to the new active radical mood of the country by launching a nationalist, populist agenda and actively promoting Latin American integration. Venezuela launched UNASUR, ALBA, PetroCaribe and scuttled a US centered free trade treaty.
The loss of key assets undermined Washington’s direct action military strategy. The White House turned to is remaining political and social assets channeling funds to the electoral parties and especially to so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Washington via the National Endowment for Democracy and other “front groups” bankrolled a recall referendum which was decisively defeated, demoralizing the right-wing electorate and weakening remaining US assets.
Having lost on the military, economic and electoral front, Washington sought to delegitimize the government by boycotting Congressional elections, leading to the final debacle. Pro-Chavez parties swept the election, gained an overwhelming majority, and proceeded to approve all of the government’s nationalist-social reform agenda. The US backed opposition lost all institutional leverage.
The US imperial failures between 2002-2005 did not merely reflect mistaken policies but had a deeper cause: the incapacity to make a proper estimate of the correlation of forces. This strategic failure led it to continue to throw its shrinking domestic assets into conflict with less resources and backing. Despite repeated defeats, Washington failed to realize that popular power and nationalist allegiances within the military could successfully counter US business-military intervention. Political hubris informed by military-driven imperialist ideology blinded Washington to the on-the ground realities that Chavez possessed popular support and was backed by nationalist military officers. Acting under increasingly unfavorable conditions, but desperate for some political ‘victory’, Washington plunged from one adventure to another, without reflecting on lost assets or declining opportunities. It failed to take account of decisive political shifts in Latin America and favorable conditions in the world economy for petrol exporters. To support a recall referendum in the face of double-digit growth, a radicalized mass public and booming commodity prices, was the height of imperial imbecility.
Imperial Policy During the Commodity Boom 2004-2008
With virtual no active assets of consequence, Washington turned toward an ‘external strategy’ linked to its only loyal collaborator, the death squad narco-President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Washington secured seven military bases, airfields, Special Forces missions and a platform for cross border intrusions. The strategy was to launch a joint intervention based on the pretext of Venezuelan links to the FARC guerillas.
However, full scale imperial warfare in Iraq, a prolonged war in Afghanistan, threatened conflicts with Iran, low intensity warfare in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, weakened Washington’s capacity to engage in a new prolonged war in Venezuela. US intervention would be opposed by every country in the region. Colombia was not willing to go it alone especially with a full-scale guerrilla war internally.
Because of Venezuela’s trade surplus and high export revenues traditional Washington financial levers like the IMF and World Bank were inoperative. Likewise Venezuela signed multi-billion dollar military trade agreements with Russia, undermining a US arms sales boycott. Trade agreements with Brazil and Argentina lessened Venezuela’s dependence on US food imports.
All non-US MNC in the petroleum sector continued operations, ignoring the conflicts with US companies. The government’s selective nationalization program and moderate increases in taxes and royalty payments weakened EU support for the US, given the high price of oil (exceeding $100 dollars a barrel). Chavez’s left-turn was well funded. The massive allocation of oil revenues for a wide-range of social programs, ranging from subsidized food, housing and welfare, and free health and educational programs, led to the massive reduction of poverty and unemployment and secured an electoral majority. Washington’s “pivot to the Middle East” led to the US becoming bogged down in a series of prolonged wars, eroding Washington’s quest for regional power.
More significantly, the State Department and Pentagon’s Latin Americanists remained tied to the 1990’s paradigm of free markets and vassal states at a time when the most important countries in the region were moving toward greater independence in trade, greater intra-regional integration and social inclusion. Unable to adapt to the new regional realities, Washington witnessed the region’s rejection of US centered free trade accords. China displaced, the US as the regions’ main trading partner. The loss of collaborator military elites as coup-makers for empire, further eroded imperial reach. Coup efforts in Bolivia and Ecuador failed and radicalized political relations toward the US.
However, Washington was not without partners: bilateral trade agreements were signed with Chile, Panama, Colombia and Mexico. The Pentagon engineered a coup in Honduras. The National Security Agency engaged in major cyber spying operations in Brazil, Mexico and the rest of the continent. The White House poured over six billions into Colombia’s armed forces as a proxy for the US military. These “gains” had little impact. US support for the Honduran military coup displaced a Venezuelan ally in ALBA but led to Washington’s diplomatic isolation and discredit throughout Latin America. Even Colombia, its closest client, opposed the coup. US military support for Colombia temporarily contributed to border tensions with Venezuela but with the election of a new President (Santos), Colombia moved toward reconciliation and peaceful coexistence with Venezuela. Under President Uribe trade fell to less than $2 billion; with Santos’ conciliatory policy it rose to nearly $10 billion.
Washington’s external strategy was in shambles. Cyber spying by the NSA was exposed by Edward Snowden and resulted in greater animosity toward Washington, especially from Brazil, which cancelled a White House visit and allocated $10 billion to fund a nationally controlled IT system. Imperial policy makers relied exclusively on interventionist strategies which depended on military-intelligence operations, an approach which was out of touch with the new configuration of power in Latin America. In contrast, Venezuela deepened its economic ties with the new regional and global economic power centers, as the foundations for its independent policies.
Chavez and President Maduro’s regional strategy was seen in Washington as a security threat rather than an economic challenge to US hegemony. Venezuela’s success in promoting bilateral ties, even with US clients like Colombia and Mexico, and several English-speaking Caribbean islands, undermined efforts to ‘encircle and isolate’ Venezuela. Caracas success in financing and backing multi-lateral regional economic and political organizations – that exclude the US– in South America and the Caribbean reflects the power of oil diplomacy over saber rattling. Venezuela’s promotion of PetroCaribe, aligned a number of neo-liberal and center-left regimes in the Carribbean, previously under US hegemony, with Venezuela. In exchange for subsidized oil prices, medical aid and interest free loans, they rejected US intrusions. ALBA brought together several center-left governments, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua into a common political bloc opposing US interventionism.
ALBA firmly rejected coups in Latin America and Washington’s overseas wars in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Venezuela successfully joined the powerful economic bloc, MERCOSUR, enhancing its trade with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Cuba (oil for medical aid) enormously improved Caracas capacity to implement its free health program, an important welfare reform which solidified Chavez and Maduros’ electoral base among the poor and undermined Washington’s funding of NGO “grassroots” subversion in poor neighborhoods. Venezuela successfully undercut Bush and Obama’s efforts to use Colombia as a “military proxy” through a historic peace and reconciliation agreement with President Santos. Colombia agreed to end its cross-border paramilitary and military incursions and support for US destabilization operations in exchange for Venezuela closing guerrilla sanctuaries, reopening trade relations and encouraging the FARC to enter into peace negotiations with the Santos regime. Santos’ embrace of Venezuela’s trade and diplomatic ties, eroded Washington’s ‘outside military strategy’ and forced imperial policy-makers to emphasize relying on internal clients engaged in electoral politics and ‘direct action’ (sabotage of electoral power grids, hoarding of essential foodstuff).
While Washington’s imperial rhetoric emphasizes Venezuela as a “security threat” to the Hemisphere, no other country subscribes to that doctrine. Latin America sees Caracas as a partner in integration and a lucrative market. Moreover, US diplomacy does not follow trade: only Mexico is more dependent on the US oil market than Venezuela. Venezuela’s dependence on the US market for oil is in the process of changing. In 2013 Venezuela signed off on a $20 billion dollar investment and trade deal with China to exploit “heavy oil” in the Orinoco Basin. Venezuela’s trade ties to the US contrast with the hostile diplomatic relations which have led to the mutual withdrawal of ambassadors and continuing US gross interference in Venezuela’s electoral process. For example in March 2013, two US military attaches were expelled for attempting to recruit Venezuelan military officials. Later the same year in September, three Embassy officials were expelled for plotting destabilization activity with members of the far right opposition.
Imperialism’s Multi-Track Opposition
US hostility toward Venezuela is based on three levels of conflict. At the country-level, Venezuela marks out a new development paradigm which features public ownership over the free market, social welfare over multi-national oil profits, and popular power over elite rule. At the regional level, Venezuela promotes Latin American integration over US centered Latin American Free Trade Agreements; anti-imperialism over “pan-Americanism”; foreign aid based on reciprocal economic interests; and non-intervention as opposed to US military pacts, narco-military intrusions and military bases.
At the global-level Venezuela has rejected the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, ignored US trade sanctions toward Iran, opposed Washington and NATO’s bombing of Libya and proxy invasion of Syria. Venezuela condemns Israeli colonization and annexation of Palestine. In other words Venezuela upholds national self-determination against US military driven imperialism.
Chavez and Maduro pose a successful alternative to neo-liberalism. Venezuela demonstrates that a highly globalized, trade dependent economy is compatible with an advanced welfare program. The US, on the other hand, as it “globalizes”, is eliminating welfare programs to finance imperial wars. Venezuela is telling the US public that a market economy and large social welfare budget are not incompatible. This paradigm conflicts with the message from the White House. Moreover, US Empire builders have no economic initiatives to counter Venezuela’s regional and global alliances. Unlike the 1960’s when President Kennedy proposed the “Alliance for Progress” involving trade, aid and reforms to counter the revolutionary appeal of the Cuban revolution. In contrast Bush and Obama “offer” costly military and police co-operation and warmed over neo-liberal clichés accompanied by market constraints.
Despite severe diplomatic setbacks, regional isolation, the loss of a military platform, and a commodity driven economic boom in Venezuela, Washington persisted in its efforts to destabilize Venezuela. Beginning in 2007, imperial strategy re-focused on electoral processes and destabilization. The first success was the defeat by less than 1% of Chavez constitutional amendments in December 2007 right after a substantial Presidential victory. Apparently the overtly socialist constitution was too radical for a sector of the Venezuelan electorate.
From 2008 onward Washington pumped large sums into a variety of political assets including NGOs and middle class university students’ organizations engaged in agitation and street demonstrations. The goal was to exploit local grievances. US funding of proxies promoted extra-parliamentary, destabilization activity, disrupting the economy while blaming the government for public insecurity and covering up opposition violence.
Business owners were encouraged to engage in hoarding in order to provoke shortages and popular discontent; the media blamed state “inefficiency”. Opposition political parties received financial backing, on condition that they unified and ran on a single slate in contesting elections and questioned the legitimacy of elections (claiming ‘fraud’) after their defeat.
In summary US efforts to restore hegemony relied on surrogates, which ran the gamut from violent paramilitary groups, NGO’s, political parties, elected officials and manufacturing and commercial executives, linked to the production and distribution of essential consumer goods.
Washington’s shifts in policies, from internal violence (coup of 2002, oil lockout of 2002-03), and external military threats (2004-2006), to a return to internal electoral politics and business destabilization campaigns reflects attempts to overcome failed policies without surrendering the strategic objective of restoring hegemony via overthrowing the elected government (“regime change” in the imperial lexicon).
Seven Keys to Imperial Politics: An Overview
Washington’s decade and a half efforts to restore hegemony and reimpose a client regime revolve around imperial capacities to secure seven strategic goals.
1) Imperial capacity to successfully overthrow a nationalist government revolves around possessing a unified client military command. Chavez ensured that he retained loyal strategic military sectors able to counter the imperial proxies.
2) Imperial capacity to militarily intervene depends on not being tied down in ongoing serial wars and on securing regional partners willing to jointly engage. Neither condition was present. US imperial policy concentrated its military forces in the Middle East and South Asia, in prolonged wars which created public antipathy to launching another war in Venezuela. The attempt to convert Colombia into an active ally in war failed because of the economic trade losses incurred by the Colombian business elite in the run-up to border skirmishes. Washington offered little or nothing in economic compensation or alternative markets for Colombian exporters since most of US “aid” (Plan Colombia) involved military transfers and sales.
3) The imperial destabilization campaign ran through strategic assets because of premature, ill-calculated and high risk operations in which one failure led to even higher risk interventions in an effort to cover-up a bankrupt strategy. The US backed coup of 2002 was clearly based on poor intelligence and underestimation of President Chavez’s support. Washington failed to appreciate Chavez’s astute institutional changes, in particular the promotion of loyalist sectors of the armed forces. Blinded by ideological blinders, Washington counted on its business allies and trade union bureaucrats to “turn-out the crowds” to back the junta and provide a legal cover. In the face of serious losses resulting from the subsequent purging of client elites in the military and business associations, Washington unleashed its client oil executives and trade union officials to mount an oil lockout, which lacked backing among the loyalist military. Over time the shutdown of oil production and delivery, alienated wide swathes of the business community and consumers, suffering from the absence of transport and distribution of commodities. The defeat of the oil lockout resulted in the purge of over ten thousand US clients among senior and middle management and the reorientation of the PDVSA (the state oil company) into a formidable political instrument funding Venezuela’s comprehensive social welfare programs.
Increases in social spending in turn provided a powerful boost in Chavez’s electoral support and consolidated his mass base among the vast majority of the poor. Imperial strategists then converted their extra-parliamentary defeats into an electoral rout by launching a referendum in the face of the Chavez offensive and suffered a decisive and demoralizing defeat. To make a virtue of multiple disasters, Washington backed a boycott of Congressional elections which resulted in near unanimous Chavista control of Congress and a mandate to legally approved Chavez executive prerogatives. Chavez used executive decrees to promote an anti-imperialist foreign policy without even minimum opposition.
4) Imperial ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘war on terror’ ideological warfare was launched in Latin America against Venezuela (2001 onward) at the precise moment of widespread revolts, uprisings and client regime changes throughout the region. The continental rebellion against US centered free-market regimes, resonated with Chavez’s nationalist-populism. As a result Washington’s ideological appeals fell on arid soil. The dogmatic embrace of a failed development strategy and the continued embrace of hated clients ensured that Washington’s ideological war against Venezuela would boomerang: instead of isolating and encircling Venezuela, it led to greater Latin American regional solidarity and the isolation of the US. Instead of dumping discredited clients and attempting to adapt to the changing anti-neo-liberal climate, Washington, for internal reasons (the ascent of Wall Street), persisted in pursuing a self-defeating propaganda war.
5) Imperial efforts at the restoration of hegemony required an economic crises, including low world market prices and weak demand for commodities, declining incomes and employment, severe balance of payment problems and fiscal deficits to provide leverage to destabilize targeted regimes. None of these conditions were present in Venezuela. On the contrary commodity demand and prices boomed. Venezuela grew by double-digits. Unemployment and poverty sharply declined. Easy and available consumer credit and increased public spending greatly expanded the domestic market. Free health and education and public housing programs grew exponentially. In other words global macro-economic and local social conditions favored the anti-hegemonic perspectives of the government. US and clients’ efforts to demonize Chavez failed. Instead of embracing popular programs and focusing on problems of implementation and mismanagement, Washington embraced local political clients associated with the deep socio-economic crises of the ‘lost decade’ (1989-1999) prior to Chavez assent to power. Imperial critics in Latin America easily refuted Washington’s attacks on the Chavez development model by citing favorable employment, income, purchasing power and living standards compared to the previous neoliberal period
6) Imperial policy makers emphasized global ideological-military confrontation at a moment when leaders and public opinion in Latin America were thinking and pursuing market opportunities. The “War on Terror”, Washington’s hobby horse for global supremacy, had minimum support; China’s demand for Latin America commodities led to the Asian country displacing the US as the major market for Latin exports. Global militarism was not conducive to restoring hegemony when the Latin consensus pivoted around markets, poverty reduction, democracy and citizen participation. During past decades US global militarism resonated in Latin America when it was ruled by military regimes. Washington’s attempt to resort to the earlier period of military rule by backing a military coup in Honduras was soundly denounced throughout the continent, not only by center-left governments but even by conservative civilian regimes, fearful of a return to military rule at their expense.
7) The change from a Republican to a Democratic regime in Washington, did not result in any substantive change in imperial policy toward Venezuela or Latin America. It only led to the entrée of the “double discourse”. Obama spoke of a “new beginning”, ‘new overtures’ and ‘shared values’. In practice Washington proceeded to military provocations from its bases in Colombia, backed the Honduras military coup, supported a violent destabilization campaign in April 2013 following the defeat of its Presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by the Chavista, Nicholas Maduro. The Obama regime was the only one in the hemisphere (and the OECD) which failed to recognize the legitimacy of the Presidential election results. Political changes in imperial countries, from a liberal to a conservative president (or vice versa), does not in any way affect the deep imperial state, its military interests or strategies. President Obama’s resort to the double discourse, to talk diplomatically and act militarily, as a mode of hegemonic rule, quickly lost its attraction and effectiveness even among centrist-post-neo-liberal leaders.
Imperialism is not simply a ‘policy’ it is a structure, with a powerful military aid financial component which depends on strategically placed collaborators and supporters in targeted countries, operating in favorable (crises ridden) environments. Imperialism flourishes when its military and diplomatic approach serves economic interests which benefit the ‘home market’ and rewards local collaborators. In the second decade of the 21st century, the predominance of ‘military driven imperialism’ bleeds the home economy, impoverishes the targeted society and depresses living standards. Destructive wars even weaken client elites.
Latin American and Venezuelan development oriented leaders look elsewhere, to newly emerging economic powers with growing markets. They pursue economic ties which are not accompanied by military and security threats of intervention. Chinese investments are not accompanied by military missions and massive spy networks like the CIA, DEA and NSA posing armed threats to national sovereignty.
The Imperial Dynamic and the Radicalization of Venezuelan Politics
Imperial intervention can have multiple and contrasting effects. It can intimidate a nationalist government and force it to renege on its electoral promises and revert to a liberal agenda. It can lead to an accommodation to imperial foreign policies and force a progressive government to moderate domestic reforms. It can lead to concessions to imperial interests, including military bases, concessions to extractive capital including the dispossession of local producers to facilitate capital accumulation. Covert or overt intervention can also radicalize a moderate reformist government and force it to adopt anti-imperialist and socialist measures as defensive strategy. Over time incremental changes can become the bases for a pro-active radical leftist agenda.
The range of systemic responses illustrates the analytical weakness of the so-called “center-periphery” framework, which lumps together (a) disparate political, social and economic internal configurations, (b) opposing strategies and responses to imperialism and (c) complex international relations between imperial and nationalist regimes. The polar opposite responses and political-economic configurations of the US and China (so-called “centers”) to Venezuela further illustrates the lack of analytical utility of the so called “world system” approach in comparison with a class anchored framework.
The imperial dynamic, the drive by Washington to reassert hegemony in Venezuela by overthrowing the nationalist regime, had the unintended consequence of radicalizing its policies, consolidating its power and furthering the spread of anti—imperialist programs throughout the region. In the first years of the Chavez government, roughly between 1999-2001, Venezuela pursued largely orthodox policies, friendly relations with Washington, while espousing a Bolivarian vision. In practice Chavez did not put into practice his vision, nor provide any resources to fund a regional organization that excluded the US.
Washington, at this time, retained ties to its clients in the opposition. It sought to influence a motley collection of opportunist politicos who jumped on the Chavez bandwagon, to counter the left political sectors of the coalition government.
The first break in peaceful co-existence was precipitated by Washington’s big push for global power via the so-called “War on Terror” doctrine. Its ultimatum that Chavez support its military offensives targeting Afghanistan and Iraq or face retaliation provoked the break. Chavez resisted and adopted the position that the “War on Terror” violates international law. In other words, Venezuela upheld traditional international norms at a moment of Washington’s embrace of global military extremism. Washington perceived Chavez’s policy as setting an example or precedent for other “recalcitrant” states within Latin America and across the globe. As a result beginning with an overt State Department warning that “he (Chavez) would pay a price” for not submitting to the US global military offensive, Washington rapidly proceeded to put into operation plans to overthrow the ‘government via the coup of April 2002. If the trigger to US imperial intervention was Chavez lawful opposition to the global military strategy, the defeat of the coup and his restoration to power, led a redefinition of Venezuelan-US relations. Bilateral relations went from co-existence to confrontation. Venezuela began the search for regional allies, actively supporting left and nationalist movements and governments in Latin America. Simultaneously it pursued relations with imperial rivals and adversaries including Russia, China, Belarus and Iran.
Washington launched a second effort to unseat Chavez by backing the oil executives lockout – severely damaging the lifeblood of the economy. The defeat and purge of the US backed PDVS oil executives, led to the radicalization of social policy – vast reallocation of oil revenues to working class based social programs. Chavez appointed nationalists to key economic ministries selectively nationalized some enterprises and decreed a radical agrarian reform involving the expropriation of fallow landholdings. In part the radical policies were ‘pragmatic’, defensive measures in pursuit of national security. They also were a positive response (payback for support) to the newly mobilized urban and rural poor. Radicalization was also a response to pressure from the nationalist and socialist sectors of the newly formed Socialist Party and trade union confederations. US imperial efforts to isolate Venezuela in the Hemisphere, in the same fashion that it accomplished this policy with regard to Cuba in the 1960’s failed. The region was moving in line with Venezuela: nationalist populist and leftist movements and electoral alliances were replacing US client regimes. Washington’s policy backfired by regionalizing the conflict under unfavorable conditions, Venezuela gained popularity and support while Washington exposed its isolation and witnessed the demise of its effort to secure a regional free trade agreement.
The threat from the US pushed Chavez to redefine the nature of the political process from ‘reform’ to ‘revolution’; from moderate nationalism to 21st century socialism; from a bilateral conflict to a regional confrontation. Venezuela sponsored and promoted several key alliances including ALBA and PetroCaribe; Chavez later broadened Venezuela’s regional ties to include UNASUR and MERCOSUR.
Venezuela’s radical rejection of US hegemony was, however, tempered by structural limitations which provided US empire builders and internal clients with access points to power. The ‘socialization’ program did not affect 80% of the economy. Banking, foreign trade, manufacturing and agriculture remained under private ownership. Over 80% of the mass media remained in the hands of US backed private owners. Transport, food distributors and supermarkets remained privately owned. Electoral processes remained vulnerable to foreign funding by the National Endowment for Democracy and other US conduits. While the mixed economy and open electoral system, secured approval from Latin America’s center-left regimes and neutralized hostile US propaganda, they also allowed the empire through its clients to engage in sabotage and hoarding of vital consumer goods, violent electoral confrontations and permitted the mass media to issue open calls for insurrectionist activity.
The dialectic confrontation between US imperial aggression and Venezuelan nationalism deepened the revolution and spread its appeal overseas. Venezuela’s successful defiance of US imperialism became the defining reality in Latin America.
Imperialism based on militarism and regime destabilization led Venezuela to begin a process of transition to a post neo-liberal, post capitalist economy rooted in regional organizations. Yet this process continued to reflect economic realities from the capitalist past. The US remained Venezuela’s most important petroleum market. The US, caught up in Middle-East wars and sanctions against oil producers (Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria) was not willing to jeopardize its Venezuelan petrol suppliers via a boycott. Necessity imposed constraints on imperial aggression and Venezuela’s anti-imperialism.
US-Venezuela relations is a casebook study of the complex, structural and contingent dimensions of imperialism and anti-imperialism. Contemporary US empire building, with its global engagement in prolonged serial wars and deteriorating domestic economy, has witnessed a sharp decline in its capacity to intervene and restore hegemonic influence in Latin America. Latin America, in particular Venezuela’s success in resisting imperial threats, demonstrates how much imperial power is contingent on local client regimes and collaborator military elites to sustain imperial hegemony. The entire process of imperial capital accumulation through direct exploitation and ‘dispossession’ is based on securing control over the state which in turn is contingent on defeating anti-imperialist and nationalist governments and movements. Imperialist hegemony can be based on either electoral processes (“democracy”) or result from coups, lockouts and other anti-democratic, authoritarian mechanisms. While historically, economic interests are an important consideration of imperial policymakers, contemporary US imperialism has confronted emerging nationalist governments because of their rejection of “global war” ideology. In other words Venezuela’s rejection of the ideology and practice of offensive wars and violations of international law is the trigger that set in motion imperial intervention. Subsequent conflicts between Washington and Caracas over petrol expropriations and compensation were derived from the larger conflict resulting from the practice of imperial militarism. US oil companies became economic pawns not the subjects of imperialist policymakers.
US imperialist relations to Latin America have changed dramatically in line with the internal changes in class relations. US financial and militarist elites, not industrial-manufacturers dictate policy. The relocation of US manufacturers to Asia and elsewhere is accompanied by the ascendancy of a power configuration whose political pivot is in the Middle East and in particular, in their own words, “securing Israeli superiority in the region”. This has had two opposing effects: on the one hand it has led imperial policymakers to pursue non-economic military agendas in Latin ‘America and on the other to “neglect” or allocate few resources, investments and attention to cultivating ties in Latin America. Inadvertently, the “mid-East pivot” and the militarist definition of reality has allowed Latin America to secure a far greater degree of independence and greater scope for cultivating diverse economic partners in the 21st century than was the case for the greater part of the 20th century.
Have US-Latin American relations permanently changed? Has Venezuela consolidated its independence and achieved the definitive defeat of imperial intervention? It would be premature to draw firm conclusions despite the substantial victories which have been achieved during the first decade and a half of the 21st century.
Pro-US regimes and elites still wield influence throughout Latin America. As was evident in the Presidential elections in Venezuela in April 2013, the US funded opposition candidate Henrique Capriles came within 2% of winning the election. And Washington, true to its destabilizing vocation, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the outcome. Since those elections, several members of the Embassy have been implicated in plots to overthrow the elected government. The ongoing intrusive imperial cyber spying system run by the US National Security Agency is a new element in colonial intervention reaching into the highest spheres of the political and economic systems of the entire region including Venezuela and Brazil the largest country in Latin America. On exposure, Washington affirmed its right to colonize and dominate Brazilian and Venezuelan cyber-space and control all communications between strategic elites.
Obama’s affirmation of the “right to spy” prompted new anti-imperialist measures, including proposals to end ties to US based and controlled information networks. In other words new imperial methods of colonization based on new technologies trigger new anti-imperial responses, at least for independent states.
The anti-neoliberal governments in Latin America heading up the struggle against US hegemony, face serious challenges resulting from the continuing presence of private banking and finance groups, US based multi-nationals and their local collaborators in electoral parties. Except for Venezuela and Bolivia, on-going US-Latin American joint military programs provide opportunities for imperial penetration and recruitment.
The high dependence of Venezuela and the other center-left countries (Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, etc.) on commodity exports (agriculture, minerals and energy) subjects their finances, and development and social welfare programs to fluctuations and sharp downturns in revenues.
So far world demand for Latin commodities has fueled growth and independence and weakened domestic support for military coups. But can the mega-cycles continue for another decade? This is especially important for Venezuela which has not succeeded in diversifying its economy, oil accounting for over 80% of its export earnings. The China trade, which is growing geometrically, has been based on exports of raw materials and imports of finished goods. This reinforces neocolonial economic tendencies within Latin America.
Intra- Latin American trade (greater integration) is growing and internal markets are expanding. But without changes in class relations, domestic and regional consumer demand cannot become the motor force for a definitive break with imperialist dominated markets. In the face of a second world economic crisis, the US may be forced to lessen its global military incursions but will it return to hemispheric dominance? If commodity demand lessens and the Chinese economy slows, do the post-neoliberal regimes have alternative economic strategies to sustain their independence?
Imperial power in Latin America, and in Venezuela in particular, has suffered serious setbacks but the private property power structures are intact and imperial strategies remain. If the past half-century offers any lessons, it is that imperialism can adapt different political strategies but never surrenders its drive for political, military and economic domination.
Political Chronology of Venezuela
December 1998: Chavez elected
1999: Three referendums all successful: to establish constituent assembly to draft new constitution; to elect membership of constituent assembly; to approve new constitution.
July 2000: ‘Mega-election’: to elect President, national legislators and state and municipal officials. Chavez wins 6 year term with approx. 60% of the popular vote, his Patriotic Pole coalition wins 14 of 23 governorships and majority of seats in National Assembly
April 2002: Failed US backed military-civilian coup
December2, 2002 – Feb. 4, 2003: Failed oil executive and businessmen lockout to topple Chavez government.
August 2004: Recall referendum which Chavez wins by substantial margin
December 2005: Legislative elections: opposition boycotts, results in Chavez supporters dominating the National Assembly.
December 2006: Chavez re-elected with approx. 63% of the popular vote
December 2007: Chavez constitutional amendment package (‘socialism in the 21st century’) narrowly defeated in national referendum
2008: Chavez moves to unite supporters into a single party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)
November 2008: State and municipal elections: pro-Chavez candidates won 17 of 22 governors’ races and 80% of more than 300 mayoral races
January 2009: National Assembly votes to hold referendum on constitutional amendment to abolish terms limits for all elected government officials.
February 2009: Referendum approved 55% to 45%.
September 2010: National Assembly elections, Chavez supporters won 98 seats (94 for PSUV candidates) versus 87 seats for opposition parties (65 won by 10 opposition parties known as Democratic United Platform/MUD). But the Government failed to win enough seats to enact various part of government agenda such as approving constitutional reforms.
October 2012 Presidential elections: Chavez wins with approx. 55% of popular vote.
December 2012: State and municipal elections, PSUV sweeps to victory.
April 2013: Chavez successor Nicholas Maduro wins election by 51% to 49%.
Venezuela’s foreign policy under the late President Hugo Chávez, and now his successor Nicolas Maduro, has been subject to sharply differing interpretations. Some observers see the oil-rich country’s foreign relations since Chávez’s election in December 1998 as shaped by a visionary who has promoted international solidarity with the oppressed, combated poverty, and pushed for a just world order free of uni-polar domination. For critics, however, Venezuela’s foreign policy has been incoherent, militaristic, and prejudicial to regional stability.
Does Venezuelan foreign policy include ethical considerations, as its supporters claim? The evidence suggests it does and that as a result we can be more optimistic about possibilities for incorporating ethics into international affairs than some scholars would have us believe.
The Ethical Dimension of Venezuelan Foreign Relations
To evaluate a possible ethical dimension to Venezuelan foreign policy, it is necessary to understand the ideology Chávez imbued in the country’s international affairs. Five concepts are central. The first two are the primacy of national sovereignty and Latin American and Caribbean integration. These are based on an understanding of foreign policy as a continuation of the Pan-American vision of Venezuela’s founder and 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, who also gives the name to Chávez’s “Bolivarian” political project. The third and fourth are the importance of international solidarity and south-south cooperation, which hold that Venezuela’s development should be based on mutual solidarity and cooperation with the countries of the global south. Finally, these concepts coalesce to form the pursuit of a multi-polar world order, which sees Venezuela’s international role in strengthening ties with emerging powers across different regions as part of a shift to a more balanced international system which will guarantee “world peace” and “universal well-being.” This implicitly involves an attempt to counter-balance the weight of the United States in international affairs.1
One example of Venezuela’s pursuit of these values is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). This alliance of leftist Latin American nations founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 has implemented regional development strategies based on the principles of “solidarity, cooperation and complementing.” Programs aiming to guarantee food security, universal literacy, free health and education, and decent housing are strongly marked by values of social justice and human development.2 Social programs promoted by the ALBA include the “Miracle Mission,” which provides free eye treatment and surgery to Venezuelan citizens and those of several Latin American countries. The program has treated around 1.2 million people in Venezuela since its launch in 2004.3
Development assistance and solidarity have also been evident in Venezuela’s outreach to the Caribbean, particularly with the PetroCaribe initiative. Launched in 2005, the program offers Venezuelan petroleum to Caribbean nations at a discount rate. Participating nations only pay a percentage of the oil’s market price up front, with the rest converted into low-interest, long-term loans. A portion of these loans can be amortised through payment in goods and services; for example, Cuba sends medical personnel to Venezuela in exchange for oil shipments. The loans also become important sources of capital spending for the region’s governments. Eighteen Caribbean states now participate in the program, and Venezuelan oil minister Rafael Ramirez estimated in 2011 that PetroCaribe covers 43 percent of participating nations’ energy needs.4 In the context of rising oil prices in the 2000s, a Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) report on the scheme described it as “the most concrete proposal on the table to alleviate the region’s suffering.”5
Perhaps no other Caribbean nation has benefitted more from this kind of regional solidarity than Haiti. Following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, Venezuela pledged $2.4 billion in financial and relief aid, more than any other of 58 donors. This aid has included building power plants, shelters, a new hospital (in collaboration with Cuba), sending food and medical supplies, and assistance to develop Haiti’s agricultural sector.6 Venezuela even wrote off $400 million of Haiti’s PetroCaribe debt. This important reconstruction aid was given despite the fact that Haiti is by no means an ideological ally of Venezuela’s leftist government; its president, Michel Martelly, is close to Haiti’s business elite and the United States. Nevertheless Martelly has publicly thanked Venezuela for its solidarity and help since the earthquake, commenting in December 2011 that for Haiti, “cooperation with Venezuela is the most important right now, in terms of impact, direct impact.”7
Africa is another continent where relations seem to be driven as much by ideology and ethical values as by strategic interests. From 2005, Chávez began referring to Africa as a “motherland” and pursuing “south-south cooperation,” or mutual development strategies, in the region. Over the next six years Venezuela established diplomatic relations with all 54 African countries, opened new embassies, and signed over 200 cooperation agreements with the continent, where only 20 had existed beforehand.8 Many of these agreements contain a clear element of solidarity and humanitarian assistance. In 2009 Venezuela pledged $20 million to the West African ECOWAS group for malarial eradication programs, while in February 2013 it offered technical assistance and personnel training to the Sahrawi Democratic Republic to improve the population’s access to safe drinking water. Further, around 500 students from over 15 African countries study in Venezuela courtesy of government scholarships, many of these in medical courses, with the intention that after their studies these newly-trained professionals return to their home countries to provide much needed public services.9 A similar program is offered to Palestine, where Venezuela has also committed to build medical facilities.
Such attempts at greater cooperation with countries of the global south have led Venezuela to play a key diplomatic role in moves toward intensifying Latin American and south-south integration. In addition to founding the ALBA and PetroCaribe, Venezuela was also a founding member of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, and played host to the founding conference of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, which brings together every nation in the Americas with the exception of the U.S. and Canada. Venezuela was also host to the II Africa–South America (ASA) summit in 2009, and is set to host the tri-annual summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in 2015, and thereafter become the president of the grouping of 130 developing nations. The country was also elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council for 2013–2016 and is a mediator in peace talks underway between the FARC guerrilla group and the Colombian government. Taken together, these aspects of Venezuela’s foreign policy have led observers such as Venezuelan geographer and analyst Rosalba Linares to conclude that Bolivarian-era foreign relations aim to construct “a sovereign, democratic and more humanitarian multi-polar world, of greater social justice and fair trade in benefit of those most in need in Venezuela and the world.”10
The Pursuit of Strategic Interests
Of course, it would be mistaken to understand Venezuelan foreign relations as solely motivated by ethical or altruistic considerations. Even solidarity-based policies have clear “soft” benefits such as raising the government’s diplomatic and international standing. Venezuela’s foreign relations have also been shaped by concrete strategic interests. Chief among these are energy interests, which are woven throughout foreign policy, as Venezuela holds the largest crude oil reserves in the world. The Bolivarian government has sought to increase ties with other energy powers for the extraction of Venezuelan crude and to diversify its oil export markets. In the context of the deterioration of relations with the United States, strategic policy goals have also included creating a robust network of international alliances and securing alternative sources of financing, technological assistance, and military hardware.
In the first years of Chávez’s presidency the state oil company PDVSA was brought under greater government control. At the same time the government pushed for the revitalisation of OPEC, advocating the policy of production quotas to help ensure that world oil prices rose to levels favourable to exporting countries. The elevation of oil prices in the 2000s gave the Venezuelan government flexibility to pursue active energy diplomacy abroad while funding a wave of new social programs at home.
The government has built what it calls “strategic alliances” with several energy powers, including Russia and China. Russian energy giant Gazprom now works with PDVSA to explore gas deposits in the Gulf of Venezuela and Russian firms are active in the extraction of oil in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. Russia is also useful to Venezuela as a source of military hardware, with Chávez’s government becoming Russia’s biggest customer of military goods after India.11
Meanwhile China has provided Venezuela with a new market for its petroleum exports. Oil exports to China rose from almost zero in 2004 to 460,000 bpd in 2010, a number that officials want to increase to one million.12 The relationship has also resulted in over 300 bilateral agreements and 80 major projects, and has allowed the Venezuelan government access to financing and technology, the latter exemplified by the launching of Venezuela’s first satellites with Chinese assistance in 2008 and 2012.
Venezuela has formed a web of links with other countries enjoying oil and gas reserves, such as Iran, Syria, Brazil, and certain African countries. Given their relatively independent diplomatic stance in world affairs, strengthening ties with these nations has also fitted within the ideological goal of building “south-south cooperation” and a “multi-polar world order.”
Meanwhile relations with Venezuela’s traditional commercial partner and top recipient of crude exports, the United States, have been frozen at the charge de affairs level since 2010. Venezuelan officials blame this on the U.S. government’s belligerence and lack of respect for Venezuela’s independence and sovereignty, including support for and alleged involvement in the short-lived coup attempt to topple the Chávez administration in 2002. For its part, the United States has accused Venezuela of failing to sufficiently cooperate with counter-narcotics and anti-terrorism efforts, and of acting against U.S. interests by pursuing relations with “enemy” states such as Iran. Nevertheless, there are signs that the relationship is improving under the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, after Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua met with Secretary of State John Kerry during an OAS summit in early June. “We would like to see our countries find a new way forward, to establish a more constructive and positive relationship,” said Kerry following the meeting. However, it remains to be seen whether the recent decision by President Maduro to offer asylum to ex-NSA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden will have an impact on efforts to improve bilateral relations.
Criticisms and Contradictions
Critics point to contradictions in the conduct of Venezuela’s foreign policy, and question the existence of an ethical dimension to Venezuelan foreign relations.
An accusation which emanates principally from the United States is that rather than seeking “world peace,” Venezuela in fact pursues an aggressive policy of building up its arms stockpile while forming alliances seen as threatening to U.S. national security. In September 2009 then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised concerns over Venezuela’s arms purchases from Russia, arguing that the Chávez administration was engaging in a military build-up which could trigger a South American “arms race.” “They [Venezuela] outpace all other countries in South America [in military purchases] and certainly raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region,” she said.13 Further, some conservative politicians and analysts have argued that Venezuela should be considered a “national security threat” due to its ties with countries regarded as hostile to the U.S, such as Iran and Syria.14
However, neither the figures nor events bear out fears that Venezuela is unduly arming itself or seeking military-style alliances with U.S. adversaries. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2009 Venezuela put 1.4 percent of GDP toward military spending, the 5th highest in the region and less than the U.S., Colombia, and Chile. By 2012, military spending in Venezuela had halved as a percentage of GDP to 0.7 percent, with the country spending less than most major countries in the region, being only 153rd out of 173 countries measured globally for military spending.15 Venezuelan government officials meanwhile state that its international alliances are “about peace” and not in any way an aggression toward a third party. This point was highlighted during the visit from former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinajad to Venezuela in January 2012. Nicolas Maduro, in his capacity of foreign minister, said to press at the time that bilateral ties between the two countries were part of a “peaceful relationship…we have a relationship of cooperation for development… and above all, for peace”.16
This appraisal of Venezuela’s diplomatic and defence policy appears to be shared by the U.S. military establishment. In August 2012 General Douglas Fraser, chief of U.S. Southern Command, said that although he would like greater cooperation from Venezuela against drug trafficking, he did not consider Venezuela a security threat to the United States. When asked if he thought Venezuela’s arms purchases constituted a danger to the U.S., Fraser replied, “From my standpoint, no…I don’t see them [Venezuela] as a national security threat.” Further, when asked whether Venezuela’s relationship with Iran amounted to a “military alliance,” the general disagreed, stating, “As I look at Iran and their connection with Venezuela, I see that still primarily as a diplomatic and economic relationship.”17 President Barack Obama has taken a similar stance, announcing in an interview in July 2012, “Overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us.”18
Thus the notion that Venezuelan military purchases and bilateral relationships represent a threat to the United States appears to be an overreaction from certain observers within U.S. political and media spheres, who confuse Venezuela’s independent foreign policy with one threatening U.S. security.
Others argue that there exists a contradiction in Venezuelan foreign policy between claims to pursue the values of democracy, humanitarianism, and solidarity, while supporting governments considered authoritarian or with poor human rights records. In 2011, political sociologist and author Gregory Wilpert argued that Venezuela ran a “significant” risk of losing legitimacy among progressives when Chávez continued to support former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi against an insurgency in that country, a point that could be extended to several other of Venezuela’s allies in the Middle East.19
Another seemingly contradictory move by a government purporting to promote ethical values in its foreign policy is Venezuela’s decision to withdraw from the OAS’ Inter-American Court and Human Rights Commission (IACHR) in 2012, on the basis of the body’s alleged “shameful” bias against the Chávez administration. The decision is also part of a shifting focus toward Latin American autonomy and integration, with several states in the region pushing for the formation of new mechanisms to promote human rights within the UNASUR and CELAC. 20
A final question for Venezuela’s foreign relations is the extent to which policies pursued under Chávez will continue under the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, who was elected to power in April, following Chávez’s death in March. Maduro was Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006–2012, and in that role helped to build Venezuela’s contemporary foreign relations. The new president has pledged to continue these policies and his active foreign diplomacy over the previous three months seems to confirm this. Present challenges for Maduro include assuming the presidency of the Mercosur trade bloc this summer, and seeking productive relationships with the U.S. and Europe; steps toward which appear to have already been taken.
Between Ethics and Interests
In common with all nation states, over the past 14 years Venezuela has pursued clearly defined strategic and economic interests through its foreign policy. These have included developing greater links with other energy powers and ensuring access to sources of financing and military hardware. The government has also sought commercial, technological, agricultural, educational, health, and other forms of cooperation considered beneficial to Venezuela’s national development.
Although certain criticisms of contradictory behaviour can be levelled at Venezuela’s foreign relations, policymaking has followed a coherent logic. From technological cooperation with China to malaria eradication assistance in Africa, Venezuela’s new foreign relations have been built within an ideological framework embodied by the notions of “south-south cooperation” and a “multi-polar world.”
Further, while all nations could be said to act in their own strategic interests, not all have also placed norms of cooperation, solidarity and humanitarianism as a central focus of foreign policy. These values can be seen in agreements Venezuela has made with countries across all continents, but especially in the Americas and Africa. Even in the United States, PDVSA subsidiary CITGO aids around 100,000 low-income families during the winter with donated Venezuelan heating oil.21 Thus while it would be false to state that Venezuelan foreign policy is solely motivated by ethical considerations, it would be misleading to explain the country’s external relations without reference to these. This ethical dimension to Venezuela’s foreign policy is a demonstration that if the political will exists, governments can pursue such values within their foreign relations. In doing so, concrete and mutual benefits can be reaped for both the development of societies and the wellbeing of peoples.
1 Chávez, H. (2012), Plan de la Patria: Programa del Gobierno Bolivariano 2013 – 2019, accessed at: http://www.minci.gob.ve/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/04/PLANDELAPATRIA-20133-4-2013.pdf.
2 Ullán de la Rosa, F.R. (2012), La Alianza Bolivariana para las Americas – Tratado de Comercio de Los Pueblos (ALBA-TCP): Análisis de un Proyecto de Integración Regional Latinoamericana con Una Fuerte Dimensión Altermundista, Estudios Politicos, no. 25, (Enero – Abril), pp131 – 170, Mexico, D.F. (p151-152).
3 Morales, M. (27/5/2013), Hija de Chávez Manejará Presupuesto Millonario en la Misión Milagro, El Nacional.
4 Rojas, R. (December, 2011), Venezuela Increasing Influence in Caribbean through PetroCaribe, Press TV.
5 Lai, K. (January, 2006), PetroCaribe: Chávez’s Venturesome Solution to the Caribbean Oil Crisis, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).
6 Information taken from, Wyss, J. (05/07/2010), Venezuela Leads the World in Earthquake Relief, Miami Herald; Edmonds, K. (February 2012), ALBA Expands its Allies in the Caribbean, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA.org); Robertson, E (01/06/2012), Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina Sign Development Assistance Agreements with Haiti, Venezuelanalysis.com.
7 The Editors, (April, 2012), Haiti Using Funds from PetroCaribe to Finance Reconstruction, Council for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
8 Bolivar, R. J., (February, 2011), “Entrevista: Reinaldo José Bolívar, Viceministro de Relaciones Exteriores para África,” Encontrarte.
9 (14/01/2011), “Venezuela ha Firmado 200 Acuerdos de Cooperación con África,” Agencia Venezolana de Noticias.
10 Linares, R., (2010), “La Estrategia Multipolar de la Political Exterior Venezolana,” Aldea Mundial, Año 15, No. 15, Julio – Diciembre (2), pp51-62, (p60).
11 Rinna, A. (09/03/2013), “Russia’s Uncertain Position in Post-Chávez Venezuela,” Centre for World Conflict and Peace blog.
12 Ellis, R.E. (2010), “Venezuela’s Relationship with China: Implications for the Chávez Regime and the Region,” Centre for Hemispheric Policy, University of Miami, pp1-10; Cornejo, R. & Garcia, A.N. (2010), “China y América Latina: Recursos, Mercados y Poder Global,” Nueva Sociedad, No. 228 (Julio-Agosto), pp79-99 (p95); Manduca, P.C. (2012), “La Energía en la Política Sudamericana: Características de las Relaciones entre Brasil y Venezuela,” Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales,” no. 216, (Septiembre – Diciembre), pp81-100.
13 Labott, E. (16/09/2009), “U.S. Fears Venezuela Could Trigger Regional Arms Race,” CNN.
14 Noriega, R. (08/02/2013), “Hugo Chávez: An Uncounted Enemy,” The Washington Times.
15 Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook (Military Expenditures, Venezuela), accessed at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html?countryname=Venezuela&countrycode=ve®ionCode=soa&rank=153#ve.
16 Pearson, T. (10/01/2012), “Iran-Venezuela Relationship “About Peace,” Venezuelanalysis.com.
17 (01/08/2012), ” Top US General: Venezuela Not a National Security Threat,” Associated Press.
18 Mazzei, P., Bolstad, E., (11/07/2012), “Mitt Romney, GOP howl over President Barack Obama’s remark about Hugo Chávez,” Miami Herald.
19 Wilpert, G, (06/03/2011), “Venezuela and Libya: An Interview with Gregory Wilpert,” Venezuelanalysis.com.
20 Britto Garcia, L. (12/05/2013), Avanza el Golpe Judicial, Aporrea.org.
21 Citgo Press, (31/01/2013), “Eighth Annual Citgo-Venezuela Heating Oil Program Launched,” Venezuelan Embassy, Washington.
- US NSA Spied on Venezuela When President Chavez Died, Documents Reveal (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Venezuela Reaffirms Commitment to Haiti’s Reconstruction | venezuelanalysis.com (rapadoo.com)
- PetroCaribe moves closer to Economic Zone (antiguaobserver.com)
- Toward a new Venezuela-Caribbean relationship (caribbean360.com)
Economy ministers of member countries of Banco del Sur are meeting today in Caracas to define the operational details and implementation of this financial institution – a new regional funding entity independent of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
Hernán Lorenzino, the minister of economy and public finance of Argentina, Luis Arce, Bolivian minister of economy and Carlos Marcio Cozendey, secretary of international affairs at the Brazilian ministry of finance, have already arrived to the Venezuelan capital.
Paraguay is the only country that has not confirmed the attendance of any representative at the meeting.
Ministers are expected to establish a ‘start date’, when each country will have to make its contribution to the newly founded institution. As a full member and founder, Argentina will provide US$400 million to Banco del Sur.
Days ago, Ricardo Patiño, Ecuadorian foreign affairs minister, had stated that the new bank “can be used to bail out a country, small or big, and meanwhile not have to submit to the dictates and conditions of the IMF.”
Banco del Sur is a result of an initiative by the late leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and was formalised in February 2007 when he and then Argentine president Néstor Kirchner signed a memorandum of creation, which also included Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay.
The South American financial institution aims to promote development, economic growth and improvement of infrastructure in all member countries.
The entity’s constitutive agreement establishes that Banco del Sur will have US$20bn of authorised resources and subscribed capital of US$10 billion, with US$7 billion in initial contributions by partner countries. A member contributes according to the capacity of its economy.
The headquarters of Banco del Sur which began preliminary operations on 3rd June is in Caracas, but also has offices in Buenos Aires and La Paz.
- Venezuela arrests Colombian paramilitaries plotting instability (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The Egypt-IMF loan negotiation: The soap opera continues (dailynewsegypt.com)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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- The New Yorker Should Ignore Jon Lee Anderson and Issue a Correction on Venezuela (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The New Yorker Corrects Two Errors on Venezuela, Refuses a Third (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Nicolas Maduro did not Steal the Venezuelan Elections (venezuelanalysis.com)
- Honduras: Murdered Lawyer’s Brother Killed in Aguán (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- NPR Examines One Side of Honduran “Model Cities” Debate (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- IMF Ignores Proven Alternatives With Recommendations to Honduras (alethonews.wordpress.com)
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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 (email@example.com) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “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)