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Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch

Foreign Policy Fantasies About Venezuela

A response to the cover story in the latest (January/February 2006) Foreign Policy Magazine.

Thanks to Josh Eidelson for pointing out some of the flaws in Foreign Policy’s latest (January/February 2006) cover story, “Hugo Boss: “How Chavez is refashioning dictatorship for a democratic age.” The article is much worse than Eidelson describes it, as will be seen below. The idea that <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Venezuela is a dictatorship is absurd, as anyone who has been there in the last six years can attest to. All you have to do is go there, turn on the TV and listen to denunciations of the government on the biggest TV stations, pick up the biggest newspapers and see the same – in fact the media plays a non-journalistic oppositional role in politics that would not be allowed in most European democracies. Even in the United States, the long-lapsed Fairness Doctrine would quickly be brought back, if our media ever got to one-tenth the level of partisan political activity exhibited by Venezuela’s major broadcast and print media, which make Fox news look impeccably “fair and balanced” by comparison.

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Let me correct one error in Eidelson’s description, which he may have gotten from the Foreign Policy article, before proceeding: the government of Venezuela has not been “keeping public databases on citizens' votes.” All voting is by secret ballot in Venezuela, and there is no record anywhere of any individual’s vote. What he might be referring to is the names of people who signed a petition to recall President Chavez in 2004. These petitions are a matter of public record, as similar petitions generally are in the United States; and in fact not only the government, but Sumate, the U.S.-funded opposition group that organized the recall effort, also kept a record of these signers. A legislator subsequently made the names of signers public, causing considerable controversy.

 

Now for some of the mistakes in the Foreign Policy piece by Javier Corrales:

 

“Chavez is “now approaching a decade in office.” [p.33] Hugo Chavez took office in February of 1999. I have never seen anyone round up to 10 from a number just under 7. Perhaps the subtitle of this article should have been “Refashioning Arithmetic for an Innumerate Age.”

 

“the poor do not support him [Chavez] en masse.” [p.35] This can be refuted by any recent poll, as well as by opposition pollsters themselves. Chavez’ recent approval ratings have ranged from 65 to 77 percent. Where does this support come from? The upper classes? Perhaps this is another arithmetic problem. Also, a look at the results of the August 2004 referendum, which Chavez won by 59-41 percent, shows one of the most polarized voting patterns in the hemisphere, with poor areas voting overwhelmingly for Chavez and the richer areas voting overwhelmingly against him.

 

“Chavez has failed to improve any meaningful measure of poverty, education, and equity.” [p.35] As I noted in a prior post (http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/11/3/154920/231): The official poverty rate now stands at 38.5 percent, but that counts only cash income. For example, if the United States were to abolish food stamps and Medicaid, poor people here would be much worse off. Similarly, the subsidized food and free health care now available in Venezuela have significantly increased living standards among the poor. More than 40 percent of the country buys subsidized food, and millions of poor people have access to free health care that was previously unavailable. If these are taken into account, the measured poverty rate would drop well below 30 percent.

 

The poverty rate when Chavez took office, in the first quarter of 1999, was 42.8 percent. So there is a meaningful measure of poverty reduction, especially if non-cash benefits are taken into account. Also, the government declared in October that 1.48 million Venezuelans have been taught to read as a result of a massive literacy drive that began in 2003. Although there is so far no independent verification of the number, even if it turned out to be significantly overestimated, there is no doubt that a very large number of Venezuelans (total population: 25 million) have learned to read under the program.

 

“Following the 2004 recall referendum, in which Chavez won 58 percent of the vote, the opposition fell into a coma, shocked not so much by the results as by the ease with which international observers condoned the Electoral Council’s flimsy audit of the results.” [p. 39]  Actually, according to all news reports at the time, they were shocked by the results; they announced that the referendum was stolen, and most of the opposition continues to maintain this position. There was nothing “flimsy” about the audit, and there is no more doubt about the results of this referendum than there is that Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by a similar margin in 1984. I have explained this in a previous post http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/12/2/17334/7970 , and in a paper refuting alleged statistical evidence of fraud http://www.cepr.net/publications/venezuela_2004_09.pdf , and so will not belabor the point here. Also, the Carter Center and the OAS did not simply “condone” an audit by the Venezuelan Electoral Council but were closely involved in the audit as observers and verified the results.

 

Corrales’ attempt to raise doubts about the referendum result is particularly disturbing in light of recent events in Venezuela. Most of the opposition parties boycotted the Venezuelan Congressional elections three weeks ago, on December 4. “We had a problem with the Venezuelan opposition, which assured us that they would not withdraw from the [electoral] process if certain conditions were met. These were met and despite this, they withdrew,” said Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the OAS, just this week.

The opposition’s primary argument for boycotting elections is that they cannot “trust” the electoral process, based on the conspiracy theory, widely held by the opposition in Venezuela, that the recall referendum was stolen. (See http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/12/2/17334/7970 ) 

Thus, with their own polls showing that they would win about 30 percent of the Congress, they opted for a long-term strategy of destabilization – to try to de-legitimize the government rather than participate in an open and transparent, democratic electoral process that was once again certified as such by international observers, this time including a 160-member team representing the European Union. Such has been the problem for several years: with the brief exception of the August 2004 referendum, wherein the opposition leadership temporarily agreed to play by the rules of democracy – until they lost the vote -- they had previously tried to overthrow the government by means of several oil strikes (one particularly economically devastating in 2002-2003) and a military coup in April 2002, which was supported by the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration also appears to be at least tacitly supportive of the opposition leaders’ decision this month to withdraw from electoral politics altogether. In its zeal to create an imaginary “dictatorship” in Venezuela, the Foreign Policy article ignores this anti-democratic role of the opposition, supported by Washington. It is also worth noting that the opposition can pursue such tactics that would have no chance of success in most other democracies because it still controls most of the Venezuelan media.

 

The editors of Foreign Policy chimed in with a box [p.38] about Chavez accusing him of “meddling in the internal politics of his neighbors” – Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, and even Mexico. They neglect to mention that no evidence has yet surfaced for the allegations listed. Also, if Chavez is “meddling” inside Brazil and Colombia, it seems odd that he has such good relations with both of their presidents, who are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Perhaps they do not appreciate the “threat” that this “dictator” poses to their countries and the region.

 

There is little evidence that Venezuela today is less democratic than it has ever been, and in fact by most standard political science measures it is more democratic. Venezuela's main governance problem is not a weakening of democracy but a failure to improve the rule of law, a problem that it shares with the region. Contrary to the images conveyed by the Bush Administration and Foreign Policy magazine, the Venezuelan state is not an authoritarian or autocratic state but a weak state, including the executive branch. That is why the main victims of political repression in Venezuela in recent years have not been from the opposition – even the leaders of the April 2002 coup against Chavez, who would have been convicted, imprisoned, and possibly executed in the United States, are almost all still at large. The real victims of political repression are pro-Chavez peasants organizing for land reform in the countryside. Many have been killed, often by hired assassins, sometimes for simply asserting their rights under the law. Impunity is rampant in Venezuela: the state at many levels does not have the capacity to enforce the law, often even against murderers.

 

 In any case there is much more in this article that is inaccurate, grossly exaggerated, or misleading – in fact that describes most of the piece.  But rather than wasting more space on this, readers may want to write to the editors of Foreign Policy -- fpletters@CarnegieEndowment.org -- and ask them why they printed something like this. And rather than just printing a 300-word letter, will they ever allow the publication of an article on Venezuela from a different point of view, one that better reflects not only the view of most Venezuelans, but most of this hemisphere? This is unlikely, but it is worth asking them why such an article would be forbidden.  It would presumably have to be of much higher quality than the present one and more accurate, not necessarily pro-Chavez, but something that respects democracy, even when poor people repeatedly elect a government that the U.S. State Department doesn’t like.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) in Washington, DC.

Source: TPMCafe.com