Mainstream media accounts of the seventh Summit of the Americas, held last weekend in Panama, provide a deceptively rosy picture of U.S.-Latin American relations, echoing the official viewpoint of the U.S. government. In the mainstream account, the U.S. government’s decision to alter its policy towards Cuba by reestablishing diplomatic relations and working to ease—though not end—the fifty-four-year-old U.S. embargo has dramatically transformed U.S.-Latin American relations. At the summit, President Obama declared, “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past”.
Obama is right: the era of uncontested U.S. domination in Latin America is over. This is not, however, because the U.S. has suddenly realized that Latin American nations deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. While the region’s leaders have universally praised Obama for his recent actions with respect to Cuba, Latin America remains profoundly wary of the United States. This is not simply because of “history,” as Obama would have the world believe. Rather, it is because of Washington’s continuing efforts to assert its dominance over Latin America. The most flagrant recent example of this came on March 9, 2015, when the White House made a strategically disastrous decision to label Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”
Media accounts of the Summit of the Americas acknowledge that Latin American leaders have expressed displeasure with this action. The New York Times reported that, “Several Latin American nations have criticized recent United States’ sanctions against several Venezuelan officials it has accused of human rights violations.” This statement, however, is so deceptive that it warrants an official retraction by the Times. “Several” Latin American nations did not criticize U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Latin American nations universally condemned U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. On March 26, 2015, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which represents all 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, issued a statement rejecting U.S. sanctions on Latin America and calling for the reversal of the executive order issued on March 9. As Eva Golinger wrote, “Even staunch U.S. allies such as Colombia and Mexico signed onto the CELAC statement.” In a remarkable display of how out of touch the U.S. government has been when it comes to Venezuela, even the anti-government opposition in Venezuela rejected the view that Venezuela constitutes a threat to the US, issuing a statement that, “Venezuela is not a threat to any country.”
The U.S. government deserves a modicum of measured praise for its recent decision to backtrack on its criticism of Venezuela. In the lead-up to the Summit, a White House official declared that, “The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security”. This about-face is significant, since it demonstrates the truth of Obama’s statement that the U.S. can no longer “meddle with impunity” in Latin America.
It is important to understand why this is the case.
It is not because the U.S. has stopped trying to “meddle with impunity.” In addition to the recent sanctions on Venezuela, there are many other recent examples of U.S. “meddling” in Latin America. For instance, the US has vocally and openly supported the Venezuelan anti-government opposition’s strategy of regime change. The George W. Bush administration supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have provided the opposition millions of dollars on an annual basis. The Obama administration provided tacit support for the 2009 coup in Honduras, first refusing to label president Manuel Zelaya’s unconstitutional removal from office a “coup,” and then legitimizing a post-coup government led by the forces that orchestrated Zelaya’s removal. Even though most Latin American nations refused to recognize the results of an election widely viewed as fraudulent, the White House gave the government its stamp of approval. Obama cannot claim that these actions are “history” or that they occurred “before [he] was born.”
It is now harder for the U.S. to “meddle with impunity” because Latin American nations have made substantial progress over the last fifteen years in increasing their ability to effectively assert national and regional sovereignty. This can be seen in the increasingly important role that intra-Latin American organizations that exclude the U.S. and Canada, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and CELAC, now play in regional affairs. By contrast, the role of the Organization of American States (OAS), which includes the US and Canada, has diminished considerably.
Recent mainstream media accounts of Latin America acknowledge the region’s increasing independence from the U.S., and note that this is one of the factors that pushed the U.S. to change its stance towards Cuba. These accounts do not, however, properly acknowledge the fact that Latin America’s increased independence is due to the actions of “anti-U.S.” leftist leaders, like the late Hugo Chávez, and, just as importantly, the popular movements that brought these leaders to power and have kept them in office.
The Obama administration deserves the credit it has received, including from many Latin American leaders, for its decision to alter the U.S.’s anachronistic, ineffective, and imperious policy towards Cuba. The transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations must, however, be seen for what it is: a U.S. attempt to maintain influence in a region that has shown its ability to act independently. Latin American nations remain quite wary of the U.S. government. Unless Washington shows the ability to consistently respect Latin American sovereignty—most of all in countries, like Venezuela, that it disagrees with—skepticism about U.S. actions is likely to remain, with U.S. influence in the region continuing to decline. Given the evidence that the U.S. has not yet kicked its nasty habit of treating Latin America as its backyard, this should be seen as a good thing for the people of Latin America.
Caracas – According to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Venezuela reduced its military budget by 34 percent in 2014, leading the the region in arms spending cuts.
Venezuela is followed by Uruguay, which decreased its military spending by 11 percent over the past year.
In contrast, United States political allies Paraguay and Mexico led the region in upping military spending, raising their military budgets by 13 and 11 percent, respectively.
Brazil, which is the largest arms spender in Latin America and the tenth largest in the world, cut its military budget by 1.7 percent due to economic difficulties.
The Americas remains the region with the highest military spending, a fact undoubtedly attributable to the presence of the United States, which, despite a modest budget cut of 6.5 percent, retains its spot as the world’s top arms spender.
With an annual military budget of $610 billion, the US accounts for one-third of global spending, amounting to more than triple the budget of the second highest spender, China.
Nonetheless, this enormous disparity in spending has not prevented the US from branding Venezuela a menace to its neighbors, on numerous occasions.
In 2009, then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton accused Venezuela of fomenting an “arms race” with its purchase of Russian weapons. That same year, Venezuela led the region in cutting military spending, slashing its arms budget by one-quarter.
Last month, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order labeling Venezuela a “national security threat”, a move which has been vociferously condemned by a host of countries and multilateral blocs across the globe.
Caracas – On the eve of the much-anticipated Summit of the Americas, Senior White House Advisor Benjamin J.Rhodes downplayed his government’s designation of Venezuela as a threat to U.S. national security on Tuesday.
On March 9, President Obama issued an Executive Order branding Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” and imposing new sanctions, a move which has been roundly condemned by a multitude of nations and multilateral blocs, including UNASUR, the Non-Aligned Movement, CELAC, and the G77+China.
In response to the global outcry, the White House has appeared to soften its tone, with Rhodes dismissing the aggressive language of the Executive Order as “completely pro forma”.
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Rhodes stated in a press conference. The Presidential advisor did not, however, indicate that the U.S. administration had any intention of rescinding the executive decree.
The White House statement comes just days prior to the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which may mark a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations as the former continues to rebuild diplomatic ties with Cuba.
However, this supposed watershed moment has been vastly overshadowed by the Obama administration’s aggressive measures against Venezuela which have united the region behind Caracas and are likely to be a key point of contention at the summit.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has launched a petition campaign to gather 10 million signatures demanding the repeal of Obama’s Executive Order, of which 9 million have been collected so far. The Venezuelan head of state intends to personally deliver the signatures to the U.S. president during the summit this weekend.
Opposition Leaders Seek to Discredit Venezuela
While the U.S. attempts to downplay its aggressive posture against Venezuela, Venezuelan opposition leaders head to Panama where they plan to denounce the Bolivarian nation before the gathering of regional leaders.
The Panama summit will feature various parallel fora that will give “civil society” leaders the opportunity to present on the political and social situation in their respective countries.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed far right opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, will be given four minutes to present on Venezuela, which she claims is “on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe“. Lopez, awaits trial for his role in leading last year’s violent opposition protests known as “the Exit” which sought the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, taking the lives of at least 43 people.
Also attending is Rocio San Miguel of Citizen Control, who is a journalist specializing in military affairs closely linked to the U.S. embassy and various programs of USAID. She has actively worked to discredit President Nicolas Maduro’s relationship with the Venezuelan military as well as coordinates the provision of U.S. funds to anti-government groups.
Representing the Civil Consortium for Development and Justice, attendee Carlos Ponce Silen is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RELIAL), which funnels the millions it receives in National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funding to Venezuelan opposition groups.
According to U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks, Ponce Silen organized a meeting between the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) acting country representative and right wing student leaders in 2008.
Participating on behalf of the Venezuelan Institute of Social and Political Studies (INVESP) is Carlos Correa, director of the NGO Public Space, which has been revealed by a Freedom of Information Act request to be one of the principal fronts for over $4 million in NED funds channelled to Venezuelan opposition journalists between 2008 and 2010.
The Venezuelan opposition has received hundreds of millions in U.S. funding over the past decade, including $14 million between 2013 and 2014 alone, provided via USAID and the NED.
Boa Vista – US President Barack Obama arrived today in Jamaica as part of an ongoing effort to persuade the island and its neighbors to reduce dependency on Venezuela’s bilateral PetroCaribe program.
As the first active US president to visit Jamaica in 33 years, the primary goal of Mr. Obama’s trip will be to develop, in coordination with the World Bank, an investment plan in the Caribbean’s energy sector.
Vice-president Joe Biden has alleged that PetroCaribe, founded by Hugo Chavez in 2005, is being used as a “tool of coercion” against the region by the South American nation.
For almost a decade, Venezuela has shipped fuel to 18 nations in the Caribbean and Central America with favorable terms for payment, such as low-interest loans, while investing in community projects including hospitals, schools, highways, and homeless shelters.
Last week, the Bolivarian government, through the Petrocaribe initiative, donated US$16 million to help the government of St. Kitts and Nevis provide for former sugar industry workers.
In January, Biden gathered Caribbean heads of state in Washington as part of his Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, which he claims is seeking clean energy solutions for small island governments. However, the focus of the event was less about environmentalism and more about breaking away from Venezuelan trade.
“Whether it’s the Ukraine or the Caribbean, no country should be able to use natural resources as a tool of coercion against any other country,” he told the leaders in attendance.
Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned of “strategic damage” on Venezuela’s part which could cause “a serious humanitarian crisis in our region.”
According to a Miami Herald report published on March 26th, Venezuela has halved subsidized shipments of crude oil to Cuba and other PetroCaribe member nations from 400,000 barrels per day in 2012, to 200,000 barrels per day.
The article, which claimed to cite a Barclay’s Bank report, has since been refuted by the Venezuelan government.
Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodriguez insisted last week that the information was “not true,” and was being published in a concerted effort to discredit PetroCaribe.
Maintaining that the organization remains “pretty strong” despite sliding oil prices and a contracting economy, Rodriguez said a “war” is being waged against the socialist program, because it “brings solutions to poor people.”
As Latin America prepares for the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama City on May 9-10, the big elephant in the room is not going to be the long awaited reunion of Cuba with the organization, from which it was excluded over fifty years ago under U.S. pressure, but rather President Obama’s latest act of aggression against Venezuela.
The entire region has unanimously rejected Obama’s Executive Order issued March 9, 2015, declaring Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy” and has called on the U.S. president to rescind his decree.
In an unprecedented statement on March 26, 2015, all 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which represents the entire region, expressed opposition to U.S. government sanctions against Venezuelan officials, referring to them as “the application of unilateral coercive measures contrary to International Law”.
The statement went on to manifest CELAC’s “rejection of the Executive Order issued by the Government of the United States of America on March 9, 2015”, and its consideration “that this Executive Order should be reversed”.
Even staunch U.S. allies such as Colombia and Mexico signed onto the CELAC statement, along with U.S.-economically dependent Caribbean states Barbados and Trinidad, amongst others. This may be the first time in contemporary history that all Latin American and Caribbean nations have rejected a U.S. policy in the region, since the unilateral U.S. blockade against Cuba.
Ironically, President Obama’s justification to thaw relations with Cuba, announced in a simultaneous broadcast with President Raul Castro on December 17, 2014, was primarily based on what he called Washington’s “failed policy” towards the Caribbean island.
More than fifty years of unilateral sanctions and political hostility had only served to isolate the U.S. internationally, while Cuba strengthened its own relations with most countries around the world and gained international recognition for its humanitarian assistance and solidarity with sister nations.
Almost without pause, Obama opened the door to Cuba, admitting Washington’s failure, and then shut it on Venezuela, implementing an almost identical policy of unilateral sanctions, political hostility and false accusations of threats to U.S. national security. Before the region even had time to celebrate the loosening of the noose around Cuba’s neck, it was tightened on Venezuela’s.
Why, the region wondered, would President Obama impose a proven failed policy against another nation in the hemisphere, especially during a period of renewed relations?
Considering the ongoing U.S. war on terrorism that qualifies any alleged threat to U.S. security, by anyone or anywhere, to be a viable target of its vast military power, Venezuela was not about to sit quiet in the face of imminent attack.The South American nation immediately launched an international campaign to denounce Obama’s Executive Order as an act of aggression against a country that poses it no real threat.
President Nicolas Maduro published an Open Letter to the People of the United States in the March 17, 2015 edition of the New York Times alerting readers to the dangerous steps the Obama administration was taking against a peaceful, non-threatening neighboring state. The letter urged U.S. citizens to join calls for Obama to retract his Executive Order and lift the sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
The region reacted quickly. Just 48 hours before Obama’s Executive Order was issued, a delegation of Foreign Ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), representing all twelve South American countries, had traveled to Venezuela to meet with government officials, opposition representatives and members of civil society. UNASUR had been mediating dialogue between the government and opposition since anti-government protests erupted last year and caused over 40 deaths in the country and widespread instability. The fact that Obama’s decree came right after UNASUR had reignited mediation efforts in Venezuela was perceived as an offensive disregard of Latin America’s capacity to resolve its own problems. Now the U.S. had stepped in to impose its will. UNASUR responded with a scathing rejection of Obama’s Executive Order and demanded its immediate abolition.
Additionally, countries issued individual statements rejecting Washington’s sanctions against Venezuela and its designation of the South American country as an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to its national security. Argentina considered it “implausible to any moderately informed person that Venezuela or any country in South America or Latin America could possibly be considered a threat to the national security of the United States”, and President Cristina Fernandez made clear that any attempt to destabilize Venezuela would be viewed as an attack on Argentina as well. Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed full support for President Maduro and his government and lashed out at Washington, “These undemocratic actions of President Barack Obama threaten the peace and security of all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa tweeted that the Obama Decree must be a “bad joke”, recalling how such an outrageous action, “reminds us of the darkest hours of our Latin America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by imperialism…Will they understand that Latin America has changed?”
Nicaragua called the Obama Executive Order “criminal”, while wildly popular ex Uruguayan president José Pepe Mujica called anyone who considers Venezuela a threat “crazy”.
Beyond Latin America, 100 British parliamentarians signed a statement rejecting U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and called on President Obama to rescind his Executive Order labeling the country a threat.
More than five million people have signed petitions in Venezuela and online demanding the Executive Order be retracted.
Furthermore, the United Nations G77+China group, which represents 134 countries, also issued a firm statement opposing President Obama’s Executive Order against Venezuela. “The Group of 77+China deplores these measures and reiterates its firm commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela… The G77+China calls on the Government of the United States to evaluate and put into practice alternatives of dialogue with the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, under principles of respect for sovereignty and self-determination. As such, we urge that the Executive Order be abolished”.
And then there’s the CELAC statement. The entirety of Latin America has rejected Obama’s latest regional policy, just when he thought he had made groundbreaking inroads south of the border. Unsurprisingly, the White House has miscalculated regional priorities once again, underestimating the importance sovereignty, independence and solidarity hold for the people of Latin America.
While Latin America celebrates the easing of tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, the region will not stand by and let Venezuela come under attack.
If the Obama administration truly wants to be a regional partner, then it will have to accept and respect what Latin America has become: strong, united and bonded by a collective political vision of independence and integration. Any other means of engagement with the region, beyond respectful, equal relations based on principles of non-interventionism, will only have one outcome: failure.
Boa Vista – A wrecked plane, discovered on 2 April in a Western region of Venezuela, was carrying nearly a ton of cocaine and was registered with the official fleet of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office.
Three bodies and 999 kilos of cocaine were found in the Cessna Conquest 441, which crashed on Thursday.
The remains of Norberto Filemon Miranda Perez and Francisco Javier Engombia Guadarrama were confirmed by the Commanding General of Venezuela’s Armed Forces on Saturday.
Miranda Perez, believed to be the pilot, was a regional director of the General Prosecutor’s Aerial Services, a branch of the justice department responsible for investigating federal and state crimes. He held office during the presidency of Felipe Calderon.
The third individual has not yet been identified, though documents naming a Bernardo Lisey Valdez were also found in the wreck.
Built in 1981 in the United States, the aircraft belonged to the Colombian firm Aerotaxi Calamar in the late 1990s, until it passed into Mexican ownership under unknown circumstances, eventually appearing as part of the Attorney General fleet in 2000 under the code XB-KGS.
No records indicating the Cessna’s transfer to private hands have been located, though a photo on jetphoto.com shows what may be the same aircraft in the Benito Juarez airport of Mexico City in 2007, with a new code – indicating new ownership.
According to Venezuelan authorities, the plane may have been downed by military efforts. Information was recorded of a bullet impacting an aircraft of similar characteristics that day, in the nearby region of Apure.
Mexico’s Foreign Ministry released a statement yesterday indicating the government’s intent to collaborate with Venezuelan authorities to uncover the details of the crash.
By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim | TeleSUR | March 31, 2015
Amnesty International’s latest report on Venezuela calls for justice for the dozens of people killed during the unrest that shook the country a year ago, while using sleight of hand to deflect attention away from those responsible.
“The Amnesty International report documents events of February 2014 when thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets, resulting in the death of 43 people, including eight law enforcement officials,” Amnesty said in a press release accompanying the release of the report’s executive summary.
While the full report was unavailable online at the time of writing, the executive summary unequivocally laid the blame for 2014’s violence at the feet of state security forces, but ironically chose to shy away from actually admitting how those 43 people died.
“The use of unnecessary or disproportionate force is precisely what exacerbated the wave of tragic events last year,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director.
The summary levels blame at both security forces and government supporters. The latter were accused of engaging in state sanctioned human rights abuses. However, Amnesty’s allegations don’t match the facts. How did those 43 people die?
At the time of the protests, the independent news organization Venezuelanalysis.com listed a total of 40 deaths, 20 of which were deemed to have been caused by opposition barricades, or opposition violence. The deaths included people gunned down while trying to clear barricades, ambulances being blocked from hospitals by opposition groups, and a motorbike rider who was decapitated after opposition groups strung razor wire across a road. A similar death toll count by the Center for Economic and Policy Research reflected a similar consensus: while security forces were indeed responsible for a few deaths, the opposition groups were hardly peaceful. Around half the victims of the 2014 unrest were either government supporters, members of security forces or innocent bystanders.
While condemning the government for supposedly cracking down on freedom, the report shied away from any criticism of the opposition’s intentional restriction of movement through the use of barricades, widespread intimidation and attacks on government supporters, and repeated attacks on journalists ranging from state media workers and community radio stations to international media. For example, in March 2014, a mob of anti-government protesters beat journalists working for organizations such as Reuters and AFP. One photo-journalist, Cristian Hernandez, was beaten with a lead pipe, but was rescued by state security forces.
Another journalist that witnessed the beating tweeted, “They protest for freedom of expression and against censorship, and they attack photo-journalists … for no reason? Where’s the coherence?”
Unlike that witness, Amnesty chose not to question why incidents like this took place – instead preferring to turn a blind eye to widespread human rights abuses committed by anti-government groups.
Indeed, none of this is included in Amnesty’s executive summary. teleSUR did try to contact Amnesty for clarification as to whether any of this would be included in the full report, but received no reply.
One possible explanation is that Amnesty prefers to criticize governments, rather than call out substate actors. However, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On Feb. 20, 2015, Amnesty International issued a report accusing both Boko Haram and the Nigerian government of human rights abuses. Then on March 26, 2015, they accused Palestinian militants of war crimes, after also condemning Israeli forces for human rights abuses in 2014. Clearly, in many parts of the world, Amnesty is capable of critiquing both sides of a conflict – but not in Venezuela.
At first, the question of what makes Venezuela unique may seem baffling, but it all became clear after I spoke to a former Amnesty employee, who asked to remain anonymous. He explained quite simply that within Amnesty, the biggest priority isn’t human rights. It is securing funding – mostly from wealthy donors in the West.
Amnesty isn’t alone – other former NGO workers I’ve spoken to in the past have made similar comments. Some have gone as far as arguing NGOs will engage in projects or research they know is next to worthless to the people they claim to defend, so long as it produces a photo opportunity that could woo Western donors. These former workers affirmed that human rights are important to many NGOs; they just take a back seat to fund-raising.
The claim that Amnesty and other NGOs are primarily concerned with money may seem excessively cynical, but a glance at pay for those at the top of the organization shatters any rose tinted glasses. In 2011, Amnesty’s 2009 decision to hand their outgoing head Irene Khan more than £533,000 (around US$794,000 at current exchange rates) in a hefty severance package sparked a public outrage. The payout was worth more than four years of Khan’s salary. In late 2012, Amnesty again found itself in the spotlight after it announced plans to offshore much of its workforce from the U.K., sparking a bitter showdown with the Unite workers’ union. While management claimed the offshoring would put a higher proportion of their workforce on the ground in the countries they report on, workers accused the NGO of trying to cut costs, while failing to adequately assess the physical risks to workers. One worker told the Guardian newspaper the deal could turn out to be a “cash cow” for Amnesty.
Assuming cash speaks louder than justice, the reason why Amnesty is willing to criticize the Venezuelan government but unwilling to lift a finger against the opposition suddenly makes perfect sense. While condemning Boko Haram or Hamas is palatable to much of the Western public, criticizing Venezuela’s wealthy, Westernized opposition would be edgy at best, financial suicide at worst. On the other hand, while Venezuela’s government has plenty of supporters in Latin America, it doesn’t have many friends within the well-heeled elite of Western nations. The latter, of course, are prime targets for appeals for donations. In the competitive world of NGOs, Amnesty can’t afford to risk tarnishing its appeal to wealthy donors by accusing Venezuela’s opposition of human rights violations.
In a surprising way, this makes Amnesty an inherently ideological organization, it just doesn’t have its own ideology per se. Instead, because of its pursuit of the wealthiest donors (generally liberal Westerners), Amnesty reflects the ideology of middle and upper class Westerners. It’s staunchly vanilla liberal: willing to call out miscellaneous African militias, but unwilling to accuse an element of Venezuela’s middle class of giving birth to a violent movement. It’s willing to criticize Israeli colonialism in the name of liberal values, but allergic to revolutionary politics driven from the bottom up by the world’s poor. Amnesty doesn’t reflect the ideology of the poor and repressed, but rather of its privileged, yet guilt-stricken donors.
Unfortunately, Amnesty International’s whitewash of the right-wing opposition’s human rights abuses in Venezuela is symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the world of NGOs, where fierce competition for funding means adjusting the message to suit Western audiences — and occasionally letting human rights take a back seat.
One wonders how many mistakes, glaring omissions and biased statements can one fit in just two paragraphs of just 88 words. When it comes to Venezuela, the answer is, a lot. On Friday, 27 of March, the Guardian published a piece called Democracy behind bars: 11 opposition leaders facing jail or death”, which was “sponsored by Crown Agents”. First in the list of 11 “democratic opposition leaders” facing jail or death around the world is Venezuela’s Leopoldo Lopez.
Immediately below this headline is a big picture of Leopoldo López, giving the impression that he himself is potentially facing a death sentence. The writer is probably unaware that Venezuela was the first country in the world still in existence to abolish the death penalty, back in 1863. In contrast, in Britain it was not fully abolished until 1998 and of course in the US is still widely used. But, as they say, why let the facts get in the way of a striking headline?
The section on Leopoldo López opens with a quote from the Harvard graduate regarding a political disqualificaion which saw him banned from running for public office. A quote which is totally unrelated to the reasons why he is currently in jail. López is disqualified from standing for public office for his role in two separate corruption scandals. The first goes back to 1998, when he worked as an analyst at the state-owned oil company PDVSA and his mother, a PDVSA manager, signed a donation to the Primero Justicia NGO, which Leopoldo López was a member of (and which later became the Primero Justicia political party, of which Lopez was one of the main leaders). The second corruption scandal is related to the irregular use of funds when he was Mayor of Chacao. All that the first paragraph of the Guardian article proves, therefore, is that Leopoldo Lopez was involved in two corruption scandals and, as a result, is barred from standing for public office until 2017.
In the second paragraph, Lopez is described as “founder of the opposition Popular Will party.” While this description is true, it leaves out an important part of the story, as Lopez is also well known in Venezuela for his active participation in the April 2002 coup against the democratically elected president Hugo Chávez. During the coup, using his authority as Mayor of Chacao, he led the illegal arrest of Minister of Justice Ramón Rodríguez Chacín (report, videos and pictures). Hardly the conduct of a democrat! Charges against him for these events were dismissed by an amnesty decreed by president Hugo Chávez in December 2007.
In yet another misleading statement, the author of the article, Lauren Razavi, asserts that Lopez was arrested after calling for citizens to protest against the government. Of course, the timeline is correct, in the sense that one thing happened after the other, but the information is not complete. He did not call “for citizens to protest”, but rather called for citizens to forcefully oust the democratically elected government through street protests and barricades which saw whole communities left without access to food, water or gas, and even emergency services refused access.
In a joint appeal with Maria Corina Machado, López called on citizens to join his “La Salida” campaign (“The Way Out”), described the government as a “dictatorship” and called on Venezuelans to “rise up” emulating the example of January 23, 1958 (when a popular uprising overthrew the Perez Jimenez dictatorship). The message was clear: Venezuela was a dictatorship, the government had to be overthrown by force.
As a result of this appeal there were violent protests by their supporters, including arson attacks against public buildings, health care centres, university campuses, the use of sharp shooters to kill police officers, national guard officers and Bolivarian supporters who were removing road blockades. Opposition violence instigated by Machado and López included the setting of steel wire traps above roads which was aimed at, and succeeded in, decapitating a number of motorbike riders. A total of 43 people were killed, a majority of them as a result of the action of violent opposition protesters (see full analysis by Ewan Robertson). The violent protests, involving hired guns and vandals, as well as criminal elements, managed to alienate the majority of the population, including many of the opposition’s own supporters. Despite the escalating violence, Lopez consistently refused to respond to government requests to call off the barricades and protests. It is for his responsibility in these events that López is in jail pending trial.
Yet the article is not just misleading in its description of Lopez. Razavi also says Nicolas Maduro’s leadership has “seen Venezuela pushed into the top 10 countries in the world for corruption and homicide”. The only source she provides for this is assertion is a link to an article signed by Rory Carroll, notorious for his bias against the Bolivarian revolution.
Amazingly though, on closer inspection, Carroll’s article does not even make the claim which Razavi attributes to him. The result? A totally fabricated statistic.
Corruption is certainly a serious problem in Venezuela, but according to the most recent report by Transparency International, Venezuela does not figure amongst the 10 most corrupt countries in the world. As for the homicide rate, the source which is most commonly used is the Global Study on Homicide by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The last time this study was published was in 2013 with data from 2012. No one would deny crime is a problem in Venezuela, but President Maduro was inaugurated in April 2013, so he can hardly be blamed for figures collected the previous year.
Two final notes on this short piece. The hook for the article is a report by Freedom House a US based government funded organisation whose current director is a former head of Bureau at the US State Department. Past board members include Otto Reich, Paul Wolfowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Donald Rumsfeld and other outspoken advocates of US imperialist aggression. In other words, the type of “freedom” that this house advocates is the freedom of the US to interfere in other country’s affairs.
On the other hand, the organisation “sponsoring” the article is Crown Agents. It describes its own history thus: “Our story begins in the 1700s, when colonial administrations employed agents to recruit people and procure and ship supplies to the colonies”. In other words, this is an organisation dedicated to promoting the interests of British colonialism. A perspective which is shamelessly manifest in the article itself, which cites jailed opposition leaders in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but which fails to mention political prisoners in Europe or the Unites States. For example, Basque opposition leader Arnaldo OtegiOtegi (in jail for his political ideas), or the countless political activists and whistleblowers languishing in US jails for their political ideas and defence of democracy (from Mummia Abu Jamal to Chelsea Manning).
It is beyond doubt that Crown Agents would not have sponsored an article about the achievements of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the fields of education, healthcare, housing, political empowerment, workers’ and gender rights and others.
The Bolivarian revolution has won 18 out of 19 democratic elections and referenda held in the country since 1998, yet this, it seems, will not stop Western mass media from presenting it as an “authoritarian regime”.
Letter to the Guardian:
I was disappointed to see a piece in the Guardian (Democracy behind bars: 11 opposition leaders facing jail or death) mentioning Venezuelan Leopoldo López at the top of a list of democratic opposition leaders jailed by what the article presents as authoritarian regimes. López has been disqualified to stand for public office for misuse of public funds twice. He played an important role in the 2002 coup against the democratically elected government of president Chávez, during which he led the illegal and violent arrest of the then Minister of Justice Chacín.
The reason he is in jail pending trial today, is because of his call for an uprising against the democratically elected government of president Maduro last year. His appeal directly led to violence on the part of his supporters leaving 43 people dead. Most of those were killed by the actions of violent supporters of Mr López which used arson attacks, sharpshooters and steel wires to decapitate motorbike riders.
Venezuela has had 19 democratic elections and referendums with full participation of opposition forces since 1998. All bar one have been won by the Bolivarian revolution. Democratic opposition is not a problem, attempts to overthrow a democratically elected government is a different matter.
This piece was published with contributions from Venezuelanalysis.
Caracas – A recent report has emerged revealing that Venezuelan billionaire and media tycoon, Gustavo Cisneros, donated up to US$ 1 million dollars to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation between 2009-2013, while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.
A recent review of the foundation’s disclosures, carried out by the Wall Street Journal, brings to light a number of donors that were previously unknown to the public.
The figures include Argentinian and Ukrainian businesspeople, as well as Prince Turki al-Faisal of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, who collectively donated up to US$68 million to the organisation over the course of four years. The majority of large donations came from residents in the Ukraine (US$10 million), England (US$8.4 million) and Saudi Arabia (US$7.3 million), according to the report.
Described as Latin America’s “Berlusconi,” Gustavo Cisneros appears in the report as having donated up to US$ 1 million to the couple’s foundation between 2009 and 2013. The exact amount and number of donations that he made are still unclear, however, as the foundation’s disclosure reports only cite donations in ranges as opposed to specific amounts.
The revelation has provoked a fierce backlash from the Republican party, as well as some figures within the Democrat camp. They have cited the donations as an attempt to circumvent an agreement between President Obama and the Clintons, in which the couple vowed to reject donations from foreign governments during Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State.
Designed to insulate Clinton from charges of political corruption, the agreement is reported to have been a deal breaker for her designation as chief diplomat within the Obama administration. Nonetheless, politicians from both parties have pointed out that many of the individual donors to her foundation had strong links to foreign governments and presented a clear conflict of interest with her political position.
This latest report has added to the growing scandal surrounding Clinton who has recently come under fire for using a personal e-mail instead of an official state.gov address during her time as Secretary of State. She also deleted thousands of work related emails from her private account which should have been handed over for independent review by the State Department at the end of her tenure.
The political quagmire has put a dampener on her potential 2016 bid for presidency, which she was widely expected to announce over the next few months.
Who is Cisneros?
Known as Venezuela’s “Rupert Murdoch,” Cisneros runs the Cisneros Group, one of the largest privately held media and entertainment companies in the world. He was originally linked to the Clintons back in 2010 when he was also alleged to have made a donation to their foundation, despite being a staunch supported and friend to former Republican President, George W. Bush.
His commercial empire includes property investment, Venezuela’s largest television channel, Venevision, and forays into international business ventures in the United States and Asia.
As a principle ally of former Venezuelan presidents such as Romulo Betancourt and Carlos Andrez, both tied to the country’s old political regime, Cisneros was one of the major players in the short-lived 2002 “media” coup which attempted to oust then president Hugo Chavez, famed for having brought Venezuela’s two party system to a crashing end with his election.
Cisneros met with coup ringleaders in the immediate aftermath of the putsch and prohibited the circulation of news surrounding the illegal nature of the ousting on Venevision. He also censured reports of the popular uprising which eventually returned Chavez to power.
He currently lives in the Dominican Republic.
Cisnero’s link to the Clintons has particularly angered members of the Republican National Committee, who have suggested that the business tycoon is somehow “tied” to the current Venezuelan government – despite his history of staunch opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution.
An official representative for the Clinton Foundation, however, has responded to accusations by denying any wrongdoing. In responses to press, spokesperson Craig Minassian refuted charges that donations to the organisation had been used to buy political influence or to conduct political lobbying.
“Like other global charities and nongovernmental organizations, the Clinton Foundation receives support from individuals all over the world because our programs are improving the lives of millions of people around the globe,” he asserted.
The Clinton Foundation began to accept donations from foreign governments following Hillary Clinton’s departure from office in 2013.
I have sometimes noted that in the current “four legs good, two legs bad” discourse about Venezuela, journalists can write almost anything about the country and no one will question it – so long as it is something negative. On Saturday, March 13, the Wall Street Journal published this chart on its front page in the print edition, below, and claimed health care spending as a percent of economic output was “lower in Venezuela than in all other major economies in Latin America.” The chart shows Venezuela’s health care spending at 1.6 percent of GDP.
The chart and text don’t say it, but they are referring to public (i.e., government) spending on health care, which one can find by looking at the original data from the World Health Organization. When I read this, I thought, this can’t be true: The Venezuelan government spends about the same percentage of GDP on health care as Haiti? The lowest of 19 countries in the hemisphere? Less than some of the poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa? And these numbers are for 2012, when the economy was booming (5.7 percent real GDP growth), Venezuelan oil was at 103 dollars per barrel, and the government built more than 200,000 homes. They had no money for health care?
This should have set off some alarm bells at the WSJ, if any editors were paying attention. This number is not plausible because it is wrong. When the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela decided to make health care a priority after getting control over the national oil industry in 2003, it was unable to accomplish very much by going through the health ministry and the public hospitals – running into various bureaucratic and political obstacles. So it created Misión Barrio Adentro, a system of health clinics that served people in both urban and rural areas where many did not previously have access to health care.
The short story is that the numbers used by the WSJ apparently didn’t include most of Venezuela’s health care spending, since it has gone through the misiones. In 2012, the national oil company contributed $5.5 billion for Misión Barrio Adentro. Also, the government of Venezuela has an actual agreement with Cuba, which provides specifically for the supply medical care through Misión Barrio Adentro in exchange for 98,000 barrels of oil per day, which Venezuela has provided. The value of that oil in 2012 was $3.44 billion. The medical services include not only 40,000 doctors but also medical equipment, medicines, and other health care services.
If we add in these expenses, and use the IMF’s 2012 exchange rate to convert to domestic currency, this adds another 3 percent of GDP to the government’s health care spending.
This would bring Venezuela’s health care spending to 4.6 percent of GDP. In the above chart, that would move Venezuela from 19th to 7th place among the 19 countries shown. And this figure does not include all of Venezuela’s government health care spending.
(Note: the WSJ article also claims that “the share of state spending on health, at 6%” was also “lower in Venezuela than in all other major economies in Latin America.” This is also false, for the same reasons discussed above.)
The “Free Press” in Action
In Latin America last year, there were two events that each produced 43 casualties. Which elicited greater outrage?
For the U.S. media, it was the “violent crackdown” leaving “43 people dead” (NPR) in “an autocratic, despotic state” (New York Times ) run by “extremists” (Washington Post ). Surely these charges were leveled at Mexico, where 43 student activists were murdered in Iguala last September. In their forthcoming A Narco History, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace describe how the victims, “packed into two pick-up trucks,” were driven to a desolate ravine. Over a dozen “died en route, apparently from asphyxiation,” and the rest “were shot, one after another,” around 2:00 a.m. The killers tossed the corpses into a gorge, torched them, and maintained the fire “through the night and into the following afternoon,” leaving only “ashes and bits of bone, which were then pulverized.”
Initial blame went to local forces—Iguala’s mayor and his wife, area police and drug gangs. But reporters Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, after reviewing thousands of pages of official documents, reached a different conclusion. Hernández explained “that the federal police and the federal government [were] also involved,” both “in the attack” and in “monitoring the students” the night of the slaughter. Fisher added that the Mexican government based its account of the massacre on testimonies of “witnesses who had been directly tortured.”
The Hernández-Fisher findings reflect broader problems plaguing the country. “Torture and ill-treatment in Mexico is out of control with a 600 per cent rise in the number of reported cases in the past decade,” Amnesty International warned last September, pointing to “a prevailing culture of tolerance and impunity.” The UN concurred this month, and “sharply rebuked Mexico for its widespread problem with torture, which it said implicates all levels of the security apparatus,” Jo Tuckman wrote in the Guardian.
Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has done his part to escalate state violence. He gave the orders, while governor of México State, for what Francisco Goldman calls “one of the most squalid instances of government brutality in recent years”—the May 2006 assault on the Atenco municipality. Some 3,500 state police rampaged against 300 flower vendors, peasants and their sympathizers, beating them until they blacked out and isolating women for special treatment. Amnesty International reported “23 cases of sexual violence during the operation,” including one woman a trio of policemen surrounded. “All three of them raped her with their fingers,” a witness recalled.
Peña Nieto responded by asserting “that the manuals of radical groups say that in the case of women [if they are arrested], they should say they’ve been raped.” Amnesty stumbled into a trap laid by attention-desperate women, in his opinion. Regarding Atenco, he stressed: “It was a decision that I made personally to reestablish order and peace, and I made it with the legitimate use of force that corresponds to the state.” Surely this is the “autocratic, despotic state” the New York Times criticized.
The paper’s archives lay bare its views—that Peña Nieto can “do a lot of good,” given his “big promises of change” and “commendable” economic agenda. The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth interviewed Mexico’s president just before the Iguala bloodbath, dubbing him “a hero in the financial world.” A Post editorial praised his ability to summon the “courage” necessary to transform Mexico into “a model of how democracy can serve a developing country.” The Post clarified, with a straight face, that Peña Nieto displayed his bravery by ignoring “lackluster opinion polls” as he pushed through unpopular reforms—a truly “functional democracy,” without question. There was no serious censure of the Mexican president in these papers, in other words. The charges of despotism and extremism, quoted above, were in fact leveled at Venezuela—the site of the other episode last year resulting in 43 Latin American casualties.
But these demonstrations, from February until July, were dramatically different from the Mexican student incineration. What, in the NPR version, was “a violent crackdown last year against antigovernment protesters,” in fact—on planet Earth—was a mix of “pro- and anti-government protests” (Amnesty International) that “left 43 people dead in opposing camps” (Financial Times ). “There are deaths on both sides of the political spectrum,” Jake Johnston, a researcher with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, affirmed, noting that “members of Venezuelan security forces have been implicated and subsequently arrested for their involvement.” He added that several people were apparently “killed by crashing into barricades, from wires strung across streets by protesters and in some cases from having been shot trying to remove barricades.” Half a dozen National Guardsmen died.
In the wake of these demonstrations, the Post railed against “economically illiterate former bus driver” Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president, for his “hard-fisted response to the unrest” and “violent repression.” The New York Times lamented his “government’s abuses”—which “are dangerous for the region and certainly warrant strong criticism from Latin American leaders”—while Obama, a year after the protests, declared Venezuela a national security threat. His March 9 executive order, William Neuman wrote in the Times, targets “any American assets belonging to seven Venezuelan law enforcement and military officials who it said were linked to human rights violations.”
Compare Obama’s condemnation of Maduro to his reaction to the Iguala murders. When asked, in mid-December, whether U.S. aid to Mexico should be conditioned on human rights, he emphasized that “the best thing we can do is to be a good partner”—since bloodshed there “does affect us,” after all. The Times followed up after Obama hosted the Mexican president at the White House on January 6, noting that “Mr. Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington came at a time of increased cooperation between the United States and Mexico.”
This cooperation has won some major victories over the decades. NAFTA shattered poor farming communities in Mexico, for example, while promoting deforestation, environmentally ruinous mining—and corporate profits. In 2007, U.S. official Thomas Shannon stated that “armoring NAFTA” is the goal of Washington’s security assistance, which “totaled $2.5 billion between FY2008 and FY2015,” the Congressional Research Service reported. The result is a death zone, with perhaps some 120,000 intentional killings during the Felipe Calderón presidency (2006-2012). Tijuana’s Zeta Magazine published a study claiming the slayings have actually increased under Peña Nieto, and the nightmare has deepened to the point where the murder rate “exceeds that of Iraq,” according to Molly Molloy.
None of these developments infuriated Washington like those in Venezuela, to be sure. After Chávez’s first decade in power, “the poverty rate ha[d] been cut by more than half” and “social spending per person more than tripled,” while unemployment and infant mortality declined, the Center for Economic and Policy Research determined. And the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found, in May 2010, that Venezuela had the region’s most equal income distribution. In Mexico a year later, the Los Angeles Times noted, “poverty [was] steadily on the rise.” Throughout this period, Washington’s aims included “dividing Chavismo,” “protecting vital US business,” and “isolating Chavez internationally,” as former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield outlined the strategy in 2006.
Reviewing this foreign policy record in light of recent Mexico and Venezuela coverage makes one thing obvious. There is, most definitely, a free press in the U.S.—it’s free to print whatever systematic distortions it likes, so long as these conform to Washington’s aims.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The following is the Declaration of the Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of States and Government of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – People’s Commerce Treaty (ALBA – TCP)
We, the heads of state and government, representatives of the member countries of ALBA, gathered on March 17, 2015 in Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, declare:
1. Our rejection of the Executive Order issued on March 9, 2015 by the Government of the United States of America, on the basis that this Executive Order is unjustified and unjust, which constitutes a threat of interference that runs counter to the principle of sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.
2. Our commitment to the application of international law, a peaceful resolution to conflicts, and the principles of non-intervention that call on all governments to act within the framework of the universal principles and the Charter of the United Nations, in particular the necessity and willingness for governments to abstain from employing unilateral coercive measures that violate international law.
3. Our sovereign and sincere request that the government of the United States accept and engage in dialogue with the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as an alternative to conflict and confrontation, based on ongoing respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the peoples of independent nation-states.
4. Our proposal to create a Facilitator’s Group comprised of institutions from our hemisphere (CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA-TCP, and CARICOM) in order to facilitate an earnest diplomacy between the governments of the United States of America and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in order to reduce tensions and guarantee a friendly solution.
As such, we decided to:
1. Ratify our commitment and unconditional support with the sister nation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in search of the mechanisms for dialogue with the government of the United States, so that the aggressions by that government against Venezuela cease.
2. Reaffirm that Latin America and the Caribbean is a Region of Peace, where nations are driving processes of integration and friendly relations, with the aim of continuing to guarantee that greatest amount of happiness for our peoples.
3. Emphasize that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not represent a threat to any country, being a country that practices solidarity, that has shown its spirit of cooperation with the people and governments of the whole region, becoming a guarantee of social peace and stability for our continent.
4. Demand that the government of the United States immediately cease the harassment and aggression against the government and people of Venezuela, as that policy encourages destabilization and the use of violence by a section of the Venezuelan opposition.
5. Highlight that the Executive Order approved by the president of the United States, Barack Obama, flagrantly ignores the “Declaration of Solidarity and Support for Democratic Institutions, Dialogue, and Peace in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” approved by the Permanent Council of the OAS on March 7, 2014.
6. Denounce the vicious international media campaign against the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and its government, designed to discredit the Bolivarian Revolution, attempting to create the conditions for a larger scale intervention and counter to a peaceful solution of differences.
7. Reiterate the strongest support for the democratically-elected and legitimate government of the president of the sister Federative Republic of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, while contributing to the strengthening and consolidation of democratic values and principles of freedom and solidarity in Our America.
8. Express our deepest words of solidarity and support for the president of the Argentine Republic, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and the rest of her government officials, who are being subjected to a campaign of personal and institutional discrediting by a section of the political and media right-wing in her country, at the same time as they are being attacked by vulture funds and international financial capital.
9. Applaud the constructive dialogue held during the 20th Meeting of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), held in Antigua, Guatemala on March 10, 2015, which dealt with the disproportional Executive Order signed by the president of the United States, Barack Obama, against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
10. Instruct the Ambassadors of the member countries of ALBA-TCP throughout the world to conduct an informational and publicity campaign covering the truth about what is happening in Venezuela, and the threats that loom over it and the region.
11. Urge social, worker, student, rural worker, indigenous, and women’s movements to mobilize in a permanent fashion and remain vigilante in order to inform the whole world and the people of Our America that Venezuela and the legitimate government of Nicolas Maduro are not alone and that the peoples of the world categorically reject this new imperialist intervention in the Greater Homeland, whose consequences could be dire for peace and stability in the region.
12. Reaffirm that ALBA-TCP will continue promoting unity, integration, solidarity, and peaceful coexistence as an expression of the ideal and commitment of Latin America and the Caribbean for the building of a peaceful region and a world, as the foundation for the consolidation of relations between peoples.
In addition, we declare and reiterate, in the context of an effective commitment to avoiding confrontation, our support for the “Letter to the People of the United States: Venezuela is not a threat” issued by the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in particular where it refers to the following aspects:
a) The commitment of Venezuela to freedom, independence, and multilateralism
b) Venezuela’s fundamental belief in peace, national sovereignty, and international law
c) The reality of Venezuela as an open and democratic society according to its Constitution and the aspirations of its people
d) The long-standing friendship of Venezuela with the people of the United States
e) The false, unjust, unilateral, and disproportional action encompassed in the Executive Order of the government of the United States of America where Venezuela is declared to be a threat to the national security of the United States of America
f) The declaration by Venezuela that its sovereignty is sacred.
As a consequence, we the leaders of ALBA-TCP are in solidarity with Venezuela. We understand our fundamental freedoms and assert our rights. We unequivocally support Venezuela in the defense of its sovereignty and independence and the fact it does this standing tall and not on its knees.
To that effect, we ask the government of the United States of America, and specifically President Barack Obama, to repeal the Executive Order approved on March 9, 2015, which constitutes a threat to sovereignty and an intervention in the internal affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Approved in the city of Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, March 17, 2015