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Opinion and Analysis: International | Law and Justice | Opposition

For US Officials in Venezuela, Ideology Trumps Competent Analysis

Looking at how US officials have privately assessed press freedom in  Venezuela provides a good way to judge their ability to put ideology aside when  they analyze Venezuela - and reality in general. It's easy to judge the  extent to which anti-government views can be expressed in Venezuela and - most  crucially - reach a wide audience.

US officials in Caracas could, for example, simply read newspapers and watch TV. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that US officials have indeed carried out this rudimentary form of intelligence gathering.

For example, one US Embassy cable from 2009 entitled "Venezuela's medical system in disarray as GBRV [Venezuela's government] shifts resources to Barrio Adentro'" says that:

"In recent months, newspapers across Venezuela have carried daily reports of a growing crisis in the public hospitals. On November 30, for example, 'Notitarde' published reports of a vigil by patients and doctors to protest...the daily 'El Universal' reported that doctors in Merida had shut down the University Hospital of Los Andes (HULA) due to medical supply shortages, pronouncing the hospital 'dead.'"[1]

In other words, according to the cable, it seems Venezuela's private media is relentless in its criticism of the Chavez government. Protests against the government not only take place but are highly provocative ("protests have paralyzed hospitals across Venezuela" says the author) and are given considerable media coverage.

However, another cable, also from 2009, takes it as given that Hugo Chavez has "fostered self-censorship in the media" and is facing "no checks on his power at home".[2] Another 2009 cable relates how leaders of Venezuela's Jewish community met with US officials to complain that there is no freedom of expression in Venezuela - and therefore no freedom of religion they added.[3] According to the cable, US officials did not, even among themselves, question the claims made by Jewish leaders.

Was the "crisis in public hospitals" reported "daily" for "months" in "newspapers across Venezuela" in 2009 some kind of aberration?

One cable makes a rare and weak effort to use data to support its negative assessment of press freedom in Venezuela:

"Chavez regularly requires all local television and radio networks to  
carry his speeches ('cadenas'); he has wracked up over 1200 such hours (50  
days) on the air."[4]

The data comes from Chavez opponents and is supposedly the total time accumulated by "cadenas" over a ten year period. [5]It accounts for 1.4% of the private media's programming hours over ten years. Apparently, US analysts are not interested in checking their conclusions using arithmetic.

Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg, with the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), just put out a brief report about Venezuelan TV. Its shows that government owned TV has an audience share of only 5%. [6] Contrary to the impression conveyed by the international press, the Venezuelan media remains dominated by private interests fiercely opposed to the Chavez  government. Rarely do reporters describe the relentless anti-government output of the Venezuelan media - as did the 2009 cable about the "hospital crisis".

Instead, reporters routinely write the way the U.K. Guardian's Rory Carroll did in January of 2010. Carroll stated that Chavez has "expanded the state's media empire and cowed private broadcasters. This year he shut dozens of radio stations and said Globovisión, the last critical TV voice, would follow."[7]

Rory Carroll has been based in Caracas for several years and must have known very well that calling Globovision (which has not been closed) the "last critical TV voice" is outrageously dishonest - as is labelling state media, with its audience share of 5%, an "empire".

Presumably, Carroll is capable of distinguishing between a "cowed" media that is no longer "critical" and one that is no longer as openly  subversive as it was during the 2002 coup and the oil industry shutdown oil industry  shutdown of December 2002 - February 2003. If US outlets had been as  subversive as Venezuela's then their owners and managers would have faced the  death penalty. The reaction of the US political elite to Wikileaks (ranging  from calls for extrajudicial assassination to imprisonment) should make this  impossible to dispute. Wikileaks has embarrassed US government and corporate elites. That's a far cry from playing a key role in a coup and in major economic sabotage. 

But Rory Carroll is a corporate journalist writing for an audience outside  Venezuela. In contrast, the cables released by Wikileaks show how US  officials talk among themselves. At least in private, shouldn't they be capable  of assessing facts? Judging from the cables released so far, it seems that  the only fact that matters to them is that the Chavez administration is a  threat to US influence in Latin America. The truth about other things, like  the state of press freedom in Venezuela or the state of its economy or its  medical system, is not seriously investigated. Sources that should cast  significant doubt on official assumptions, including some glaring  contradictions within their own reports, are simply ignored. This creates potential  problems for US imperialism. On the other hand, the examples of Philip Agee,  Daniel Ellsberg, and Bradley Manning reveal that too much attention to reality can be  infinitely more problematic. 

[1] Wikieaks REF# 09CARACAS1551 
[2] Wikieaks REF# 09CARACAS750 
[3] Wikileaks REF# 09CARACAS1401  
[4] See note 2 
[5] The IACHR brought this up in a recent human rights report. See  
VenezuelaAnalysis. Com; Joe Emersberger, "IACHR Rehases Debunked Claims  
about Venezuela" 
[6]; Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenburg, "Who  
Dominates Media in Venezuela?", Dec 14, 2010 
[7] Guardian (UK), Rory Carroll, South America: Media has become a  
political battleground, Jan 4, 2010