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Opinion and Analysis: International | Media Watch

Venezuela's Maduro and His Motivations to Take in Snowden: The Wall Street Journal Misses the Mark

In the wake of President Nicolas Maduro's offer of asylum to Edward Snowden, there has been a renewed wave of criticism of the Venezuelan government. There has been some good commentary, and plenty of the usual misinformation.

The Wall Street Journal kicked things off on 7 July, with Mary Anastasia O'Grady arguing that by offering to take in Snowden, Maduro means to send “a message of his loyalty to Iran”. Why Maduro's decision is all about boosting relations with Iran is anyone's guess, especially given the waning strategic significance of Iran to Venezuela. In any case, things go downhill from there.

It's the economy...or is it?

O'Grady states that, the “offer of refuge to Mr. Snowden is most easily explained as an attempt to distract Venezuelans from the increasingly difficult daily economic grind and get them to rally around the flag by putting a thumb in Uncle Sam's eye.”

But why would Maduro want to distract Venezuelans from the economy? Maduro's offer of asylum to Snowden came just before the central bank released its monthly report on inflation. After a rough first quarter for the Venezuelan economy, things seem to be looking up. Along with recording a reduction in scarcity of consumer goods, the report also provides some positive signs that the inflationary spike of recent months may finally be passing. Trying to distract the electorate right as the economy starts showing signs of improvement seems like a questionable decision. Moreover, Maduro has pledged to continue the popular policies of his predecessor. Pointing this out is becoming a frustratingly tedious affair, but there is amble evidence that poverty nosedived over the last decade, while household consumption skyrocketed.

O'Grady rightly argues, “In a free society with competitive elections, economic chaos generally prompts a government response designed to mitigate hardship”, but incorrectly asserts that “Venezuela needs liberalization”. Since most international observers view Venezuela's elections as free and fair (though Carter Centre's preliminary report on the 14 April elections indicates that there is plenty of room for improvement), the government's recent efforts to mitigate hardships of the people make sense. Some recent efforts to reduce hardship that O'Grady may be interested in include the granting of new disability benefits to 120,000 Venezuelans last month, renewed investment in a “miracle” eye surgery program that provides free care to the poor from across Latin America, wage increases and other new rights for workers, cracking down on government corruption, speaking directly to the people, passing new gun control legislation that calls on arms manufacturers to compensate victims, dramatically reducing homicides in the capital, more wage increases and of course being recognised for making “exceptional progress” in reducing malnutrition. And that's just what's been happening during the last few economically strained months. Furthermore, O'Grady seems to ignore the fact that the “remarkable reduction in poverty” noted by the CEPR's Mark Weisbrot over the last decade occurred largely due to massive state investment in welfare (read more here). This happened in the same period that Venezuela “achieved high rates of economic growth”, according to the World Bank. Maybe Venezuela isn't doing too bad without WSJ-style liberalism after all.

Mitigated hardship the WSJ can approve of

In all fairness, despite failing miserably to aid average US citizens in crisis, during times of economic chaos the US government can (in its own way) smoothly shower those who matter with plenty of welfare.

Yet perhaps this kind of welfare isn't what O'Grady is alluding to. Maybe like Egyptians, Venezuelans too should count themselves “lucky” if they are someday blessed with a brutal dictator in the “mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet”, to give free reign to “free-market reformers” and midwife “a transition to democracy”, as another recent WSJ article proposes. In other words, suspend democracy for 17 years and rule as a military dictator. If, say, 30,000 people are imprisoned and tortured and thousands are executed for dissenting, as the Guardian's Martin Pengelly points out, the WSJ seems to think a population subjected to such horrors “should think itself lucky”. Increases in poverty and inequality are just the icing on the cake.

Illegitimate?

Nonetheless, O'Grady also pushes the unsubstantiated claim that “Mr. Maduro's presidency is still viewed as illegitimate by roughly half of the Venezuelan electorate”. It's difficult to say how many opposition voters view Maduro as illegitimate, but it's easy to say that around 56.2% of Venezuelans would describe his performance so far as “excellent”, “fair” or “good”. It's also easy to assert that unlike O'Grady, approximately 53.4% of Venezuelans rightly perceive the economy as improving. After all, these are the findings of a recent survey from International Consulting Services. With these approval ratings, Maduro might not be as illegitimate as the WSJ would have its readers believe.

Venezuela's growing irrelevance?

Halfway through the article, O'Grady finally succeeds in accurately identifying an issue facing Venezuela.

“Venezuela has reason to fear increasing irrelevance as North America becomes more energy independent. This makes Iran crucial,” O'Grady writes.

Indeed, the first half of 2013 has seen less Venezuelan oil heading north than in years, though this is at least partially due to Venezuelan efforts to diversify buyers. But, rather than cosy up to Iran, as O'Grady seems to suggest, Maduro would be better off looking to China, which is now importing 500,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan petroleum products as payment for loans. By 2015, Venezuela's state oil company Petroloes de Venezuela (PDVSA) expects China to replace the US as their largest export market. Unsurprisingly, Maduro already is hard at work pushing for stronger ties with China. Yet PDVSA's eastward swivel isn't just due to of years of tepid relations with the US; it's also the slightly ironic result of sanctions on Iran. As former White House oil official Robert McNally has argued, as sanctions push Iran out of the Asian oil market, “it would be unreasonable to expect even Tehran’s friends like Venezuela to forgo opportunities to replace those barrels.”

The Iranian oil industry has plenty more reasons “fear increasing irrelevance” than Venezuela's. Once again, it seems that Iran really isn't all that “crucial” to Venezuelan foreign policy.

The premise

In order to reach this conclusion that this whole situation is all about Iran, O'Grady also dismisses Maduro's proclamation of defending freedom as hypocritical. 

O'Grady writes that Maduro “wants the world to know that he disapproves of secret government intelligence-gathering operations”.

According to the article, “Venezuela has expressed no such righteous indignation about information suppression by allies. Take Argentina, which has recently refused to allow its special prosecutor Alberto Nisman to travel to Washington and brief a US congressional committee about intelligence collected on Iranian and Hezbollah terror cells in the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Nisman's 500-page report on the subject is public but in a July 1 letter to the US Congress he said that by order of the Argentine attorney general he has been "denied the authorization to testify before the honorable parliament."

Mr. Maduro's lack of concern about Argentina's information suppression deserves attention.”

While reading this, I couldn't help but feel that maybe Argentina's government's “information suppression” efforts might have been just a little undermined by the fact that “Mr. Nisman's 500-page report on the subject is public”. O'Grady is concerned that there is a possibility the leftist Argentinean administration might not view sharing intelligence on “terror cells” with a government that has a long history of sheltering anti-leftist terrorists as a high priority. Yet, here are a few minor differences between Argentina's surveillance of Hezbollah and the US's surveillance of, well, basically everyone. For one, the Iranian government and Hezbollah have long been accused of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 and wounded hundreds more. Nisman believes that this wasn't an isolated case, and Iran and Hezbollah may yet hatch more “criminal plans” on the continent in the future. Although Iran's presence in Latin America is probably receding, some observers could be justified in viewing Argentina's surveillance operations as somewhat warranted, perhaps Maduro is one of them. Moreover, Maduro's “lack of concern” over the fact that Argentina may not be bending over backwards to aid US intelligence efforts in Latin America is likewise pretty reasonable; given the US's recent spying on Venezuela's petroleum industry, along with the fact that Washington has been caught snooping on Venezuela and plotted against the Bolivarian government again and again and again and again and again and again.

So, if Maduro is perfectly content with Argentina not providing his chief antagonist with an intelligence briefing, why is he kicking up such a fuss about the US National Security Agency's PRISM program, which Snowden revealed? Perhaps it's because PRISM is symptomatic of the growing authoritarianism of the US government, and in many ways antithetical to democracy, – unlike spying on people suspected of criminal activity. And of course, PRISM raises a host of ethical issues related to the basic right to privacy of every human being.

Moreover, there are a few other minor difference between the Argentinean surveillance programs alluded to in the WSJ article, and the US's global surveillance regime.

  1. As far as I'm aware, Argentinean authorities don't have access to the servers of internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple, and didn't collect information from millions of innocent people around the world, unlike the US National Security Agency.
  2. Argentina didn't spy on 38 embassies and diplomatic missions, including those of its own allies and the United Nations.
  3. The NSA helped its counterparts in the United Kingdom “skirt UK law”.
  4. Argentina hasn't infuriated a sizable chunk of Europe lately (actually, this one is debatable).
  5. The Argentinean surveillance operations generally appear to have targeted specific suspects, and Nisman's report indicates that the surveillance at least resulted in a greater understanding of the subject matter. There is scant evidence to suggest PRISM has done either.
  6. James Clapper never provided congress with the “least untruthful” answer (in other words, committed perjury while visually demonstrating every tell known to mankind) to cover up the Argentinean investigations.

In other words, unlike Argentina, the US isn't just engaging in anything vaguely like conventional surveillance.

Over at Politico, David Nather put forth another example of the Venezuelan government's hypocrisy; the case of Isabel Lara, who according to Nather “had a phone conversation between herself and her mother played and mocked on Venezuelan television in 2009 — because the government considered her mother a political opponent”. Along with pointing to the Lara case, a recent Daily Kos article also cited the release of a recording of a private conversation between opposition politician Maria Machado and a local academic as evidence that Venezuela is a “surveillance state”. Authorities have alleged that the recording indicates sectors of the opposition discussed overthrowing the government with the US State Department. They appear to have reached this conclusion after hearing Machado state that the head of the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable's (MUD) Ramon Guillermo Aveledo “has told the State Department that the only way out of this is to provoke or to accentuate a crisis...a coup”. Perhaps if PRISM had uncovered evidence of a plot being hatched by the largest opposition party in the US in collaboration with one of Washington's most powerful allies, then there might be a slightly less weak justification for the NSA's global snooping operations. Unfortunately, these cases aren't the full story. These cases are part of a wider, tit-for-tat snooping game between the government and opposition. There is a reasonable argument that neither side is respecting the other, and that politicians sometimes act like toddlers. However, while these recordings do indeed set dangerous precedents for (and arguably evidence of) abuse and further erosion of privacy, there's no reason to believe that either the government or opposition is engaged in mass surveillance of the wider population, let alone the entire world.

And finally, the media

While O'Grady and others have mostly stuck to rehashing many of the same old apocalyptic presumptions about the Venezuelan media that have been circulating for years, more serious discussion of genuine issues facing the country's changing media landscape is often left off the table in the corporate media (something I tried to address in a previous article). Nonetheless, to its credit the Washington Post far exceeded the efforts of the WSJ by actually discussing a case that perhaps highlights excess on behalf of Venezuelan authorities; Nelson Bocaranda. Luckily for him, in Venezuela Borcaranda probably isn't going to spend years imprisoned in conditions that could be considered torture (skip to page 75) before being whisked off to a secretive trial to face charges than can carry the death penalty. Of course, there is another controversial case where the Venezuelan government has been accused of violating its own values, that of Guillermo Torres Cueter (also known as Julian Conrado). The musician and member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) remains in Venezuelan custody, with a pending extradition request from Colombia. His imprisonment in Venezuela has faced serious criticism, including from Venezuela’s Public Ministry, which in 2011 recommended he not be extradited to Colombia, where he could face execution. Sadly, that story has again slipped under the radar.

As for Snowden, if he chooses to head to Venezuela he would have plenty to look forward to, despite what most of the Western media is saying. After all, the Venezuelan government's recent treatment of its own whistleblowers juxtaposes quite nicely with the Obama administration's response to Snowden's leaks. Moreover, in Venezuela Snowden will have access to free healthcaregovernment subsidised food and maybe even free housing. So, while Venezuela is far from perfect, the “economic death spiral” and other spooky fables peddled in the West are just a little exaggerated.