When I initially read the New York Time’s “Our Correspondent Answers Your Questions About Venezuela” by Nicolas Casey, I was reminded of a few years back when a number of celebrities decided to take part in the controversial “food stamp challenge”.
Much like this fad - when various famous people decided to live off of food stamps for a week, ostensibly to highlight the issue of hunger amongst working class people - Casey has decided to rough it for a bit and try his hand living as a Venezuelan. The best bit is that in his latest entry readers get to ask him their questions about the idiosyncratic intricacies of Caracas existence - which he can now rack up to the grand total of 30 days.
Despite its outward democratic appearance - “we let our readers set the agenda” - the piece was clearly an exercise in legitimising and reinforcing the mainstream media’s narrative on Venezuela, and specifically the stereotype of the country, and particularly Caracas, as some violent, warped and dysfunctional, bordering on comical, throwback.
Let’s take the questions that Casey chose to legitimise and which he didn’t as a case in point. For instance, a reader question on the quality of the art scene in Caracas was described as baffling and promptly omitted (as if Venezuela could produce art! And who has time when everyone spends 32 hours straight queuing up for toilet paper), but all the usual suspects: press freedoms, violence and the functions of the black market all made the cut.
In terms of its press freedoms, Venezuela is described as better than “Mexico and Colombia” - which is small praise if you consider that these are two of the most dangerous places to be a journalist on the planet. It’s the equivalent of asking what London is like as a place to live, and replying that it’s not too bad in comparison to Nato-besieged Tripoli. But sometimes it’s the power of association that counts, not the facts.
Casey also asserts that “Venezuela has few newspapers that are not aligned with the government of President Nicolás Maduro,” in particular referencing El Universal, an allegedly once critical conservative newspaper that now “tows the government line” thanks to its new “unnamed secret owners”.
Evidently the private market stranglehold over the media is only palatable to the NYT when the owners are quasi-fascist megalomaniacs such as Rupert Murdoch.
But even accepting that the majority of national newspapers in Venezuela are privately owned, do they all belong to new riche Chavista stooges? Well, no. Not by a long shot.
As Joe Ermesberger asks here, can NYT journalists actually read Venezuelan newspapers?
On the day that Casey published his blog post, no less, the Universal featured the following, by no means exceptional, stories.
“COPEI (Christian Democrat Party) Redoes Census of Membership to Reunify”
“Universities Only Have Money for Payments Until March”
“Schools in Lara: No Money, Lots of Trash”
“Opposition Takes its First Complaint to Supreme Court over 6D”
It reads as a virtual and totally uncensored mouthpiece for opposition politicians. Nice work Chavista spin doctors, nice work.
Not only that, but as someone who has had to share press tents with entitled corporate journalists, I can vouch that they are virtually never impeded from reporting from Venezuela. Casey even admits that his own reporting has not been hampered in any way at all since he arrived.
Historically it is Chavista journalists who have far more to fear from right-wing reprisals than private journalists do from alleged government persecution. As was highlighted this Wednesday when the acclaimed socialist journalist, Ricardo Duran,was shot dead by an apparent hired killer outside his house. An assassination that Casey has yet to report on his blog, despite his apparent concern for the wellbeing of those who share his profession.
What is interesting about the piece is that Casey is careful not to come across as rabidly anti-government in his answers, but rather as a “fair” and “neutral" liberal voice that has no other agenda than to introduce his readers to Venezuela’s reality.
But who exactly is able to stake a claim to this omnipotent capacity for neutrality?
As intellectuals such as Anibal Quijano, Ramon Grosfoguel and many others have argued, the claim to “neutrality” is a central pillar of the modern Western colonial world - in which man replaces God “as the fountain of all knowledge”.
It would also be fair to add here that this claim is also the basis of the majority of Western journalism by extension.
The God-like ability to see all (and thus rationally judge all) without being emotionally invested in anything is a status usually (and historically) conferred only upon European and US writers - who are regularly parachuted into countries and regions with little knowledge.
They alone possess the unique capability of being able to penetrate the meaning of any reality in any time or place in just a matter of days and their worldview is held up as a normative backdrop against which the rest of the planet can be judged.
There is something of this attitude littered throughout Casey’s entire blog.
Venezuelan street venders known as bachaqueros are observed by the correspondent and interviewed “in their natural habitat”. Buying coffee is akin to taking part in a “drugs deal”. Barbarous politicians “dig up the skull” of the nation’s independence hero due to their personal maniacal obsessions. Irrational Chavistas bring flowers to portraits of their dead leader, still weeping almost three years after his passing.
Clearly by any measure the country is totally illogical, “absurd” even. Who could possibly make head or tale of it?
Casey’s postmodern psuedo-journalism doesn’t even try. It relies almost entirely on sneery remarks and the constant tendency to leave comments hanging in the air to mask its superficiality, as well as to give the impression that the journalist has extremely refined observational powers.
A 21st Century version of 18th Century travel writing, it only serves to exoticise, simplify and reduce the identities of the peoples of the Global South, while reinforcing dominant, Western preconceived ideas surrounding those identities.
Casey lends legitimacy only to wealthy opposition voices which are treated as “sensible” - Chavista voices are woven into stories only to be mocked. No context is provided. We are led to believe that all Venezuelans had living standards on par with the US middle class prior to 1999, and there is no attempt to explore the historic reasons for the Global South’s relative poverty vis-a-vis the North - or to point out that poverty has been steadily falling in Venezuela since the Chavista government took office.
The anecdotes of the privileged take precedent over facts and investigation time and time again.
In fact - we are disingenuously told later on in the blog that three coffees and a bottle of water cost Casey 2200 or $349 at the official Bolivar-Dollar rate.
I don’t know where Casey buys his coffee, but in the bakeries in my neighbourhood a large (by Venezuelan standards) cup costs 150 Bolivars at most.
Secondly, 2200 Bolivars actually works out at the more normal rate of $11 at the government’s official free floating exchange known as the SIMADI.
Why this disparity? Well, the calculation that Casey mendaciously uses to convert the cost of the coffee is actually the government’s most highly subsidised rate used to import goods classified as “primordial necessity” such as medicine. Not coffee.
Yet more important than what Casey says, is what he leaves out.
Casey makes no attempt to answer the questions put to him by readers in any original way, despite being given ample opportunity to explore issues such as the Caracas urban art scene, community owned media, and the construction of new geographies of power through communal councils.
This was all omitted in favour of tantalising stories featuring new friends being held up by gangs at gun point. Can there be anything more predictable and clichéd from a Latin American correspondent than that?
Evidently, challenging preconceived ideas and assumptions doesn’t figure highly on the NYT’s agenda, and as John Pilger puts it: “One of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity”.
What might the answers to readers' questions look like if their focus was actually on usefulness to humanity and not simply to confirm the Western media’s bias? In our next piece on this topic VA writers will be answering the questions put to Casey, but filling in a couple of the important gaps that he missed out.
VA readers can also send their questions to email@example.com.