The vilification of Venezuela’s government has never been subtle over the past two decades. Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, was called a “dead communist dictator” by Bernie Sanders’ campaign in response to attacks by a Clinton super PAC. The Democratic National Committee just released a pro-Clinton commercial that depicted Chavez as a dictator. In reality, the only dictatorship to exist in Venezuela over the past 18 years was led by Pedro Carmona after a military coup deposed Chavez for two days in 2002.
That dictatorship had the backing of the U.S. government and major U.S. media like the New York Times. Key leaders of the opposition participated in the 2002 coup: Leopoldo Lopez, Henrique Capriles, Maria Corina Machado to name some of U.S. media’s favorites. In August, Henry Ramos, the president of the opposition–led National Assembly, publicly lamented the defeat of the 2002 coup.
On October 26, the New York Times, NYT, essentially reprised its infamous editorial of April 13, 2002, in which it said that Carmona was a “respected business leader” who ensured that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” The NYT’s 2016 versionof the editorial said that Venezuela is now a “dictatorship in the making” and that “If there is more bloodshed, Mr. Maduro (the current Venezuelan president) will be responsible.” The message to the Venezuelan opposition could not be clearer: no matter how violently you or your supporters behave, we will ignore it as we always have in the past.
The opposition has some valid complaints. On August 11, the National Assembly was found in contempt of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, or TSJ, for swearing in three legislators before allegations of vote buying were resolved. Declaring the National Assembly in contempt until those legislators are removed was disproportionate. The votes of the illegally sworn in legislators could have been discarded until the matter is resolved. It’s important to note, however, that one “Chavista” legislator was also barred from taking office by the TSJ.
The opposition is justified in pointing to some foot-dragging on the part of Venezuela’s electoral authority (the CNE) and the courts to delay the holding of a recall referendum beyond a crucial January 10 deadline. A victory by the opposition in a recall referendum after January 10 of next year would result in President Maduro stepping down, but would not trigger a new presidential election. The vice president would simply take over for the remainder of the presidential term if Maduro lost the vote.
What the U.S. media invariably ignores is that the January 10 deadline would have been very tight without foot-dragging. The opposition (disregarding the strong objections of Henrique Capriles who wanted to begin as soon as possible) delayed for three months before initiating the process. The 2004 recall referendum process took eight months after the required signatures were successfully obtained. The recall vote in 2004 was held only four days before the deadline to trigger a new election had Chavez lost. He won the recall vote in a landslide.
Venezuelan elections in the “Chavista” era (i.e after Chavez was first elected in 1998) have been so clean that the government’s enemies have often made themselves look very silly denying it. At least they’ve looked silly to people who don’t rely on the corporate media to be informed. Shortly before the National Assembly elections of Dec. 6, 2015 which were won by the opposition in a landslide, the Washington Post ran the editorial “Venezuela’s dirty election approaches.”
The TSJ is stacked in favor of President Maduro’s party but that’s because Chavistas have won so many elections since 1998. If, over a 17-year period, the Republicans in the United States consistently won the White House and control of Congress, then the U.S. Supreme Court would be very lopsidedly Republican. The Democrats, in this hypothetical scenario, would have to struggle a lot longer and harder to unstack the Supreme Court under the U.S. Constitution than they would under Venezuela’s.
Moreover, with two parties beholden to the moneyed elite who dominate U.S. elections, partisan bickering over U.S. Supreme Court appointments obscures a grave lack of judicial independence from that elite. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous ruling that handed George W. Bush the presidency ultimately stuck, at least in part, due to the complicity of Al Gore and all the Democrats in the Senate at the time. Numerous examples show that the interests of U.S. elites are reliably served by U.S. courts regardless which of the two dominant parties appoints judges.
Venezuela’s judicial independence should be improved, but using that as an excuse to call the country a dictatorship is absurd and very hypocritical unless one is willing to apply that label to the United States.
The most egregious lies told about Venezuela’s democracy involve “press freedom.” Here, for example, is opposition legislator Julio Borges giving a lengthy interview on the private broadcaster Venevision a few weeks ago.
In 2013, the Carter Center data said that Venevision had the largest audience share for news of any government or private broadcaster in the country. Borges lies (on two occasions) during this interview that the 2004 recall process took only four months. He was not challenged by the interviewer — nor was Borges challenged when claimed that the current recall process (which began in early April) has been going on for “almost a year.” Op-eds by Borges have appeared regularly in the newspaper El Universal, one of the largest in the country, for many years.
Luis Vicente Leon, head of the widely cited Datanalisis polling firm, is another of one the many government critics who have had regular access to TV and print media in Venezuela for years. His latest op-ed in El Universal ran with title “Repression as political strategy”.
It would be easy to convince people who have never been to the United States and don’t speak or read English that the U.S. is essentially a dictatorship. Outright lying would probably not be required. Just cherry-pick everything that is wrong with its democracy: an incarceration rate that is off the charts, an abundance of racist trigger-happy police, impunity for wars of aggression, a mass media accountable to unelected billionaires to list just a few.
Within the United States, progressives can sometimes make the serious mistake of exaggerating their country’s democratic deficit. Keane Bhatt did a nice job of explaining that is this teleSUR op-ed last year. On the U.S. left, that can lead to defeatism, self-marginalization and a lack of effective organizing. As we see with Trump and his supporters, when the far right exaggerates the U.S.’ democratic deficit the consequences are potentially explosive. The U.S. media is attempting to incite a coup in Venezuela at the same time it is outraged that Trump supporters would hint at something like that taking place in the United States.
Joe Emersberger was born in 1966 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada where he currently lives and works. He is an engineer and a member of the Canadian Auto Workers union.