SILENCE IS VIOLENCE: Hands Off Venezuela
I have a confession. I haven’t looked deeply into Venezuela despite its use as the bogeyman for what would happen if the US dares to pursue economic justice. The use as a right-wing strawman can always be dismissed, and while I applauded the massive social programs of Chavismo (the movement started by Hugo Chavez), the country is undeniably in economic turmoil. Also undeniable, are the several coup attempts backed by the US since the day Chavez took power. When a country has been battered by foreign-funded opposition for almost 20 years, its plight cannot be solely internal.
While my suspicions of US propaganda led me to favor Chavismo, I took the movement with a grain of salt, since teleSUR is funded by the Chavista government, I didn’t trust it’s analysis. NPR’s Planet Money podcast that Venezuela’s rolling blackouts and other economic woes was caused by Chavez’s tying the entire economy to oil, forcing all other items to be imported. When the oil market tanked, the social programs became burdensome. Despite the US’s complicity in Venezuelan woes, I couldn’t believe Chavismo was innocent, especially when the government made a goofball decision in their economy.
And who would I turn to for legitimate analysis? Of course socialists and leftists would support Chavismo, and they would be right in that no matter the crimes of the government, we have no right to intervene, especially given our historic support of Saudi Arabia and our historic destruction of Latin American democracies. And anyone to the right of NPR would be screaming “SOCIALISM NEVER WORRRKS” without taking into account the massive amount of foreign interference. And after reading Manufacturing Consent and The Devil’s Chessboard and learning about Operation: Mockingbird, where the CIA infiltrated the mainstream media to promote its interests, where it wasn’t already wholly applauded as it was by the Henry Luce Time-Life media empire, how could I trust “legitimate” media? There’s a reason “fake news” and “deep state” have become popular terms.
My hesitation might have been well-meaning and partially due to other priorities of which I was certain. But as the US has already lit half the world on fire in the name of neoliberal profiteering, and seems hell-bent on continuing until everywhere on the globe resembles Darkseid’s Apokalyps, the time to speak up is long past. The US must cease interfering in the nation and other countries immediately.
WHAT FINALLY GOT THROUGH
On Eyes Left podcast, the hosts give a breakdown of the situation in Venezuela. Spencer Rapone and Mike Prysner are veterans disillusioned by the mission abroad, and Prysner (who also worked with Empire Files with Abby Martin before US sanctions killed it) actually spent time in the country. As he moved through the population, he asked people about Chavismo and found the revolution was broadly supported, especially by the poor and traditionally oppressed. Moreover, what he found was that average citizens, people who would be considered “low-information voters” in the US, were deeply knowledgeable about the political situation. Their support for the government was not uncritical, pointing to Chavistas being well informed and involved rather than the blind stereotypes they are portrayed as.
What struck me the most in the podcast was the claim the billionaires (yes, in a “socialist nightmare” there is still a powerful billionaire class) were hoarding food and other resources to sell on the black market in Colombia, thereby making an increased profit as well as pushing the narrative of delegitimizing the government. The opposition, supported by a not-insignificant segment of the population but mostly by wealthy billionaires domestic and foreign, boycott the elections rather than run a candidate who is destined to lose.
Eyes Left is, of course, leftist, and while I was hesitant to accept their analysis without scrutiny, I had never seen so forceful a defense of Chavismo. I began diving in, and I found that what was reported by Prysner was largely verifiable. The implications of the discourse are not widely reported, but they bear mentioning.
Prysner’s coworker at Empire Files, Abby Martin, did a video exploring the accusations against the Venezuelan government. She interviewed people on the street, as well as economist Pascalina Curcio, to determine the mood and get an economic analysis. What she found when she examined the accusations of a government-controlled press, food shortages due to government price controls and whether a coup is popularly supported conflicted heavily with the stories pushed in mainstream and western media.
Regarding media control, Martin visited several newsstands. Despite accusations that Maduro controls all the media, she pulled all the papers she could find from one newsstand, seven papers. One presented diverse opinions supporting the coup and the government, two were leftist supporting the government. But four were privately-funded, coup-supporting, right-wing papers all splattered with victims of the government’s actions and calling for its ouster. Another paper, found at another stand, declared in its headline, “Trump Must Take Care of Maduro.” Despite one citizen interviewed telling her, “There is no written press,” the majority of the written press seems to be private.
That was the finding regarding televised media, as well. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are controlled by or allied with Maduro.” But according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, privately owned televised media “captures between 74% and 92% of the country.” State-run TV, however, captures a mere 8.4%, according to a 2013 Nielsen ranking. The perception of Venezuelan state TV may be encouraged by the fact that these outlets, being primarily in Spanish, do not capture as much international attention as teleSUR, which Empire Files was featured on, as well as increased access to international media which tell the same story of a blackout of media opposition. Nevertheless, opposition voices have plenty of viewership within Venezuela.
As for whether Venezuelan want intervention, Martin finds a blend of voices calling for self-government as well as intervention. But there is a striking difference between the voices. The pro-coup voices maintain that the call for intervention is universal. One coup-supporting woman claimed “Venezuelans do not read, they do not inform themselves.” However, an anti-intervention protestor declared:
What happened with Allende in 1973 is not going to happen here. What happened with Maurice Bishop in Grenada will not happen here. What happened with Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala will not happen here. What happened under any of these governments will not happen here because of the consciousness of the people.
The opposition claims people “do not read.” However the leftist cites historical interventions by the US and allied states, many who are now calling for intervention. These interventions all ended in disaster, with death squads and economic downturns.
Now the big claim: the shortages of food and other amenities, namely toilet paper.
One of the citizens Martin interviewed was a young woman who claimed her Colombian relatives are imploring her to move there, but she insists, “No, listen, it’s not how [the international media] paint it over there, we are not dying of hunger over here.” She goes on to explain, “We are definitely in an economic war.”
Well, that’s just a kid on the street, who cares what she thinks? She probably has an iPhone, yet she criticizes capitalism? Owned.
Pascalina Curcio, the economist Martin interviewed, gave a breakdown of why the argument that price controls are to blame for the shortages are false. Fruit plays an important part in the Venezuelan diet. Shelves in grocery stores are well stocked with produce and meat products, however shortages persist in regards to processed foods and products that use imported raw materials, like the infamous toilet paper shortage. This is because, unlike the farms which have a diverse base of independent producers, secondary products, things like toilet paper, are controlled by what Curcio describes as “huge monopolies” that have formed a cartel, which the farmers have not been able to do. “Toilet paper, baby diapers and sanitary napkins are emblematic for its high consumption affecting the households,” Curcio explains, “but are produced by two or three private companies nationally.” Thus these companies are able to control which products are produced, which ones are kept in the country, and which ones are sent as exports to countries like Colombia.
Martin explains the excuse by the companies for not keeping up with production as, “the government does not give them dollars.” But production of the eight most common processed food items in Venezuela is controlled by Polar, which is run by Lorenzo Mendoza, an open member of the opposition who was busted in 2015 in a leaked audio recording with the IMF requesting intervention to sway that year’s elections. “Since 2013, $300 billion has been allocated for these importing companies, in particular for these [scarce] goods,” she says, in contrast to the claim the government is not distributing dollars.
Further, if a lack of dollars and price controls were to blame, importation and production would not be able to continue. However, the existence of a lucrative black market in domestic goods means the goods are being produced or imported. The grocery stores that lack toilet paper are well stocked with napkins and paper towels, meaning the companies are receiving the raw goods and funds to produce. Claims that Chavista policies are preventing the distribution by hampering the “free market” are patently false.
The young woman Martin interviewed brought up the fact that stores in Eastern Venezuela are well stocked with the goods that are claimed to be so scarce, while stores in Western Venezuela suffer shortages. The explanation for this is the black market in Colombia, on Venezuela’s western border. Rather than suffering a lack of production, Polar and the other cartel companies are choosing to ship their products to Colombia, where the black market allows them to be “re-exported” for much more. While there is some blame on the artificial exchange rate produced by the Chavistas, the shortage is a choice by producers. “Clandestine warehouses” have been raided for hoarding goods to artificially increase scarcity, and whatever one thinks of that as response to economic controls, isn’t a “free market” by any definition.
A criticism of Chavismo Martin does not address is the elections. The opposition and the media characterize Maduro as a dictator who does not allow free and fair elections. The opposition claims the elections are rigged against them.
However, they bolster that story by boycotting the elections they know they won’t win. It is true that the opposition suffers a split vote compared to the solid bloc of Chavista voters. But Venezuelan elections are free and fair. Venezuelan elections adhere to the requirements outlined by a “seldom cited document titled ‘International Standards and Commitments On The Right To Democratic Elections: A Practical Guide To Democratic Elections Best Practice’, issued in 2002 by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE),” but moreover, contrary to unspecified criticisms by governments (including the US, Canada and Switzerland) who have sanctioned Tibisay Lucena, the head of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is “as independent and impartial as it can be.”
SAME OLD STORY
I mentioned Manufacturing Consent and The Devil’s Chessboard above. These books outline the history of the US intelligence community, in collusion with business and mafia interests, disrupting nations around the world, particularly in Latin America. The banana wars, as laid out by Major General Smedley Butler, were fought for nothing more than corporate control of resources. These wars-for-profit were driven by what Herman and Chomsky called, the “state religion” of the US, anti-communism. The single-minded focus on destroying communism led the US to support some of the most brutal dicators in the world, who enforced obedience by leaving the bodies of torture victims out in the open as examples.
Manufacturing Consent notes media collusion with the government sources, part of a quest for “access.” Seymour Hersh, in Reporter: A Memoir, recounts a story where a fellow reporter at the Times, Bernard Gwertzman, covered Henry Kissinger. According to Hersh, Gwertzman would receive calls from “Henry,” and would take them across from Hersh.
“Sure enough, in a few moments Bernie would avidly begin scratching notes as he listened to Kissinger—he listened far more than he talked—and the result was a foreign policy story that invariably led the paper the next morning, with quotes from an unnamed senior government official. After a week or two of observing the process, I asked the always affable and straightforward Bernie if he ever checked what Henry was telling him with Bill Rogers, the secretary of state, or Mel Laird at the Pentagon. “Oh no,’ he said. ‘If I did that, Henry wouldn’t speak to us.’”
This quest for access, which is a cheap way to score “real information” as opposed to deep investigation, leads to every word from official sources taken as gospel while the stories of people “on the ground” are just “bias.”
Couple the quest for access with Operation: Mockingbird, and what you have is a mainstream media that will always say whatever the US power elite wants it to. Originally broken by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Mockingbird was a CIA program that paid and threatened “over 400 American journalists…whether tacit or explicit.” “By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials,” Bernstein wrote, “have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.”
And speaking of the Paper of Record, searching “Venezuela” on their website proves the Mockingbirds are still singing. Apart from a couple of lukewarm pieces urging against intervention because “In a fight between elephants, it is the grass that suffers,” most pieces are desperate pleas to rid Venezuela of Maduro and the legacy of Chavismo. Even the lukewarm assert Venezuelans have “suffered under an economy in free-fall and a government in chaos,” with no mention of the effect of US sanctions or the interference of economic elites within the country. No, the US simply wants to reclaim “leadership over its ‘backyard’” as John Kerry asserted while Secretary of State, proving the “one-party system” of the US as both factions scramble to go to war with the last remnants of communism.
The Times asserts its commitment to journalistic standards by publishing an op-ed by no less a figure than Juan Guaidó, the self-declared “interim president” of Venezuela. Accompanying Chavista opinions are nowhere to be found. Instead, we are treated to multiple articles and opinions painting the struggle as a “duel” with a legitimate question of succession and “average Venezuelans” openly declaring victory against the “dictator” whose only claim to power was winning an election.
Maduro tries protesters in military courts, the Times cries in shock, but gives no coverage to the “Burning Man,” who was one of many Afro-Indigenous people targeted as a Chavista simply on racial lines. Nor is there a cry from US media of “the real fascists” when “hooded teenagers” attempt to halt the economy to prove communism doesn’t work.
Joe Emersberger of ZCommunications claims the media blackout is caused by “international media and NGOs,” not Chavismo. Girish Gupta of Reuters, Emersberger writes, “called bullshit on claims made by some in [the opposition]…that the government had used chemical weapons on protesters.” But Gupta apparently had to save face by tweeting a Caracas Chronicles (a “pro-opposition, but not insane” blog which was praised by such neoliberal figures as David Frum, and openly calls prospective writers nasty names) post claiming Venezuela has “no free media.” Emersberger cites a 39 minute video from Venevision, a privately owned tv station featuring no less than eight opposition members, as well as Rex Tillerson accusing the government of “violating its own constitution,” notably without tangible example.
And speaking of videos…
MEET THE NEW MEDIA, SAME AS THE OLD MEDIA
In the wake of “Russiagate,” YouTube decided it was worth noting which states are funding news outlets. There is a caveat below the Empire Files video, “teleSUR is funded in whole or in part by the Latin American government” of which there is apparently only one (according to Wikipedia, it is “Venezuela-based, multi-state funded”). RT America cannot be posted without the caveat, “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government,” despite featuring US journalists like Chris Hedges, Larry King and the late Ed Schultz. HispanTV is “funded in whole or in part by the Iranian government.
But consider other media. Breitbart News, when founder Andrew Breitbart was still alive, posted “deceptive” videos like the Project Veritas story James O’Keefe edited to falsely smear ACORN as helping cover up child prostitution, and briefly cost Shirley Sherrod her job when they aired a partial clip to frame her as racist against white people. Breitbart has been staffed by edgelord Milo Hanrahan, and was run by overt white supremacist Steve Bannon. In 2011, billionaire Robert Mercer gave Breitbart $10 million.
MSNBC is owned by multiple corporations. In 2011, Comcast purchased majority shares from General Electric. GE, a major defense contractor, was not disclosed as the majority shareholder while multiple generals were trotted out to say how swimmingly the Iraq War was going (spoiler alert: it wasn’t) and MSNBC silenced anti-war voices. When it was purchased by Comcast, who was pushing for the Trans Pacific Partnership, which among other things granted corporations the power to override local communities in corporate courts, cut away from Senator Bernie Sanders as he denounced the TPP, and fired Ed Schultz for criticizing the agreement.
But despite clearly promoting the interests of their funders, neither MSNBC or Breitbart have their funding disclosed. According to chief product officer Neal Mohan of YouTube, “The principle here is to provide more information to our users, and let our users make the judgment themselves, as opposed to us being in the business of providing any sort of editorial judgment on any of these things ourselves.” However by disclosing only “enemies of the state” like Russia, Venezuela and Iran, and not corporate outlets that would have a clear stake in promoting the interests of their benefactors, YouTube is in the business of providing editorial judgements. Even the distinction between how “enemy” states and The BBC and NPR, both funded by the UK and US governments respectively, are presented is telling. “[NPR/The BBC] is an [American/British] public broadcast service,” while the other outlets mentioned are “funded in whole or in part” by scary governments likely to show up as the antagonists in a Jack Reacher novel. Not even privately funded Noticiero Venevisión is disclosed as funded by Gustavo Cisneros, “Venezuela’s Murdoch.” And speaking of ol’ Rupert, you guessed it, FOXNews also does not disclose its ownership by a media demagogue or anyone else.
The distinction of language between friendly and enemy governments may seem nitpicky, but it’s a common trend in media bias. Black families “loot,” White families “find.” In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky found media much more sympathetic to states friendly to the US often for committing crimes worse than Soviet satellite states, such as condemning the “genocide” in Kosovo while dismissing the killing in East Timor by Indonesia. When the US bombs a hospital, the US is “blamed,” not “responsible,” and when Israel kills innocents, it wasn’t their fault, they were “human shields.” “Public broadcasting service” sounds legitimately sanctioned by the government, “funded in whole or in part” sounds like a black-op. If the distinction in characterizing the different countries isn’t important, why do it?
NOT WORTH WIPING WITH
The Business Insider piece previously linked relied on figures from DolarToday, which claims to simply report economic issues. Abby Martin identifies the website as run by a “right-wing former Venezuelan colonel,” Gustavo Díaz, now a salesman at Home Depot in Alabama. The PRI article has him praised by a Twitter account known as @FriedrichHayek, Milton Friedman’s mentor, the grandfather of neoliberalism, the economic philosophy that spawned the “Chicago Boys” who unleashed Augusto Pinochet on Chile.
Unlike the Times, The BBC had the decency to cover the “Burning Man,” identified as Orlando Figuera. But the only facts they present was he was burned over 80% of his body and later died. Opposition leaders blame Maduro, Maduro said they burned him because he was a government supporter, witnesses said the crowd accused him of being a thief. Maybe I’m unfamiliar with Venezuelan protest culture, but people don’t generally set you on fire for theft, nor do they bring cans of gasoline to protests unless they plan on setting something (or someone) on fire.
Even liberal darling John Oliver took potshots at the country. Pryser, narrating a dissection of the video for Empire Files, notes Oliver’s use of a masked opposition protester flinging bottles of human feces as the “desperate act of a desperate person.” But the majority of the opposition are in the middle class and above, hardly desperate. Oliver refers to a Reuters article and presents the quote, “Maduro [has]…support of about one fifth of Venezuelans.” But Pryser looked up the article and showed it in context, that Maduro “nevertheless has a core support,” which Pryser clarifies as “die hard” supporters, of one fifth of Venezuelans. The full quote is then followed by a quote from John Quintero, a 47 year old welder, who admits Maduro has made some mistakes, but he will vote for him anyway, because he “is the legacy of Chavez.” Pryser also chastizes Oliver for claiming, “to understand anything about present-day Venezuela, you really have to start with Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.” Pryser rightly points out that you have to go back further, “to the period before Chavez.” Venezuela, the “victim of what’s been called 500 years of social disaster,” including genocide and slavery, and continuing into the 80s, “when neoliberal reforms hit the country…it devastated them just like it did every other country that was hit with these predatory neoliberal reforms.” Oliver is supposed to be a “funny man,” but like the Daily Show’s old tagline used to say, Last Week Tonight is “where more people get their news…than probably should.”
US and international media are desperate to paint Venezuela as emerging in 1998 as a failed state almost immediately. But whenever media outlets go painstakingly over the failures of socialism, two things are never mentioned: the effects of foreign intervention and economic sanctions, and the history of what came before. Right-wingers are always laughing off socialism as having “already been tried” in Venezuela and Cuba, but fail to mention that in those countries, capitalism has also been tried and it sucked hard. The reason the countries have clung so hard to their socialist forms of government, imperfect though they may be, is because they remember what came before and how socialism lifted them out of poverty. Chavismo may not be perfect, but opponents of Latin American socialism would return those nations to slave states at the behest of corporations.
The Venezuelan election in 2018, despite the date being changed twice, had what would have been a respectable turnout for a US election, 46.07%. For Venezuela, this was the lowest turnout in the history of their democracy. One could point to Maduro for changing the schedule, but one could point as well to the billionaire elites, backed by US economic interests. After all it took 20 years of sanctions and pressure to reduce turnout to just under half. And one would ask, if one was being honest, if socialism is destined to fail, what is the need for economic sanctions, which only harm the populace and not the government, especially in a “dictatorship?”
When Trump declared a military option “on the table,” I immediately believed it was a method of scaring constituents into the “compromise” of supporting the local coup. When Guiado was recognized as president by the US, the UK, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Israel, Latvia, The Netherlands, Lithuania, Portugal, Finland, and Poland, I realized it’s too late. The list brings to mind the “coalition of the willing,” countries either threatened or bribed into supporting the US’s war in Iraq, a criminal action under false pretenses. The ability for the US and international media to influence global opinion is frightening, but what may be even more frightening is the list of countries that support Maduro openly: Turkey, Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Add to that garbage fire John “5000 Troops to Colombia” Bolton and Elliott Abrams, who was convicted for lying to Congress and supported a dictator convicted of genocide, “has spent his life crushing democracy.” As in World War I, the alliances are being formed, teams picked, and war is imminent. A new Cold War, or World War III? To Venezuela, it may be one and the same.
My initial skepticism for both sides of the debate surrounding Latin American socialism was lazy, neutrality aiding the oppressor. While I may just be a blogger with more piss-and-vinegar than actual influence, there are millions of US citizens just like me who know the US government is dealing shady and drumming for war, a stamping elephant that doesn’t care what grass is crushed in the duel, but don’t know if they can trust a “dictatorship.” When there is a well-funded, international effort to promote lies, you have to look hard and ask the hard questions. Abby Martin and Mike Pryser have, and I thank them for doing what I was unwilling or unable to do. And now I add my voice to those seeking justice.
Hands off Venezuela, now and forever. All peoples of the world have a right to decide their own destiny, and the best chance for the Venezuelan people is a Chavismo government unmolested by US and international intervention, militarily or economically. It’s never worked, and it never will, and there is too much blood on our hands and pain in the global south already.