Fear-Mongering Congressional Hearing on Venezuela Can Be Frightening

Last thursday’s House Congressional Western Hemispheric Subcommittee’s hearing on the state of democracy in Venezuela had a clear message: Be afraid. And they gave American listeners good reason to fear. More frightening, though, is the willful ignorance of the situation in Venezuela.

Last thursday’s House Congressional Western Hemispheric Subcommittee’s hearing on the state of democracy in Venezuela had a clear message: Be afraid. And they gave American listeners good reason to fear.

The dark visions of the new Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs, Thomas Shannon, of Venezuela’s path toward an authoritarian dictatorship united with Iran and Cuba to threaten US national security must have sent shivers up many US citizens´ spines. But for those people with an elementary knowledge of Latin American politics, Shannon’s testimony belied a lack of understanding of the Venezuelan, and indeed the Latin American, situation.

And no one can argue that ignorance of Latin America in the US’s highest-ranking official on the region isn’t a basis for concern.

Perhaps Shannon’s most obvious misconception came toward the end of his testimony. “I would argue that the image in Venezuela of the United States is relatively strong,” he asserted.

His basis for the dismissal of every opinion poll was that the perception of a negative US image is merely a byproduct of the polarization of Venezuelan society.

He fails to mention that dislike of US foreign policy is pretty much the only topic on which government supporters and large sections of government opponents are united. ¨The only positive thing I can say about Chávez is that he stands up to Bush,¨ a government critic told me a month ago, echoing the opinion of much of the moderate opposition. Then, too, the invasion of Iraq remains unpopular among government supporters and opponents alike. And, of course, elements of the most radical opposition feel abandoned by the US. The US’s answer to Chile’s Allende was Pinochet, but Venezuela appears to be stuck with its leader until the next election.

Anyway you toss it, the image of the US in Venezuela is far from ¨strong.¨

So, if well-informed diplomacy does not appear to be on the horizon for US policy toward Latin America, what does?

One element is further interference in the country’s internal politics. “I would be in favor of increased NED [National Endowment for Democracy] engagement and increased IRI [International Republican Institute] and NDI [National Democratic Institute] engagement in Venezuela and elsewhere in the hemisphere,” Shannon proclaimed, without mentioning that organizations that received NED funding supported the short-lived 2002 coup.

The other element, judging from Shannon’s testimony, is an increasingly obvious disinformation campaign. The make-up of the hearing’s speakers highlighted this point.

Of the three organizations represented at the hearing, two, Súmate and Freedom House, have fully discredited themselves as experts on democracy.  Leaders of Súmate, which calls itself a civil organization, signed the Carmona decree, which, during the brief 2002 coup, disbanded the Supreme Court and National Assembly and dissolved the constitution. They’ve hardly shown themselves to be supporters of the democratic process.

And while Freedom House, a Washington based-human rights organization, has been critical of both left and right wing regimes, it has long been known to give disproportionately low rankings to governments who lean left. In the 1980s, for example, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas received lower ratings than the unspeakably more oppressive regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. So, it is hard to tell if what is threatening democracy in Venezuela is the loss of basic human rights or the moves toward universal access to medical care, education, and low cost food.

While the make-up of the speakers may have given those concerned with democracy reason to pause, the inaccurate content of the remarks was cause for horror. The hearing mentioned suppression of the press; increasing poverty; anti-American foreign policy; increasing centralization of power of government institution; and increasing political persecution as evidence of Venezuela’s deteriorating situation. It’s an impressive list, and was backed up by worrisome, but often spurious, assertions.

Suppression of the Press

Much was made at the hearing of suppression of the press and the climate of self-censorship that exist in Venezuela. “While Venezuela continues to enjoy an independent media, in the past year, the government has taken a number of steps to erode freedom of expression,” said Shannon in his prepared remarks.

But the country’s mainstream press remains fully and vitriolically anti-government. An opinion piece in this Sunday’s El Universal, one of the countries three biggest newspapers, refers to the government’s “plans [to create a climate of] fear and persecution which victimize the sectors of Venezuelan life that resist the authoritarianism of the ruling powers.” And the Venezuelan press is the first to perpetuate the myth of government censorship, seemingly unconcerned with the irony of the announcements.

However, while claims of a climate of self-censorship are clearly spurious, it is true that a revision of the criminal code expanded the public officials protected against disrespectful attacks, and, in some cases, lengthened the prison terms related to exposing someone to public contempt. This revision of the criminal code is different from a direct strengthening of libel laws, which would prevent the media from spreading specious rumors designed to overthrow the government.

While this is clearly a negative move on behalf of the government, and, if enforced, could potentially create a climate of self-censorship, this situation remains purely hypothetical. Not only that, contrary to popular opposition opinion that Chavez controls all branches of government and that such changes in the penal code are part of Chavez’s master plan to impose a dictatorship in Venezuela, Chavez himself objected to some of the penal code changes and now the Attorney General is challenging practically the entire penal code reform in the country’s Supreme Court, on the basis that it is unconstitutional, largely with the same arguments opposition legislators have used.

The example of the enforcement of this law mentioned at the hearing was that of General Francisco Usón, who was convicted for more than five years for “insulting the military” after speaking about an incident in a Venezuelan military prison where prisoners died in a fire, which may have been intentionally set by military personal. His case, while horrific, was tried in a military court under a law that far pre-dates the Chávez administration, rather than the updated civilian criminal code. And this is similar to US law, where military officers also lack many rights of free speech.


Chávez ran on a campaign of reducing poverty, and a failure to do so would, no doubt, be a strong blow to his viability as president. So striking at the heart of the effectiveness of Chávez´s social policies, Congressman Robert Menedez (D-NJ) said, “I am concerned when initial Venezuelan statistics…point to a 10 percent rise in poverty during Chavez’s first five years, and a rise in extreme poverty to 25 percent during the same period. And I am even more concerned when the supposedly independent National Institute of Statistics suddenly revises its numbers and says that poverty actually fell 4.5 percent after being scolded by Chavez for telling the truth.”

An increase in poverty and a Soviet-style manipulation of statistics would certainly be cause for concern. However, the National Institute of Statistics (INE) never revised its number.

During Chavez´s first 5 years in office, between 1998 and 2003, poverty did rise 10 percentage points, according to the INE. It then, a year and a half later, released estimates for the first semester of 2005 that showed that poverty had fallen to 4 percent below the 1998 numbers.

This fall in poverty rates from 2003 to 2005 is not unbelievable or even surprising. From 1998 to 2002 poverty remained relatively stable, wavering between 39 and 43 percent. After the coup attempt and oil lockout in 2002, poverty jumped 10 percent to 54 percent in 2003, which is typical of periods of political instability and industrial sabotage. However, after a year and a half of high oil prices, relative political stability, and a functioning oil sector, the Institute estimates poverty has dropped to 38.5 percent. Likewise, the estimate for extreme poverty has fallen from 16.6 percent in 1998 to an estimated 10.1 percent in 2005. Of course, the 2005 numbers are estimates, subject, as are all preliminary economic numbers to revision.

However, even these numbers do not tell the full story. Since they measure only non-cash income, they fail to take into account the benefits of many of the growing social programs in the country. Subsidized food and increased access to medical care and education have likely all reduced poverty in the country even further. This, of course, was not mentioned at the hearing.

Foreign policy

Shannon and committee members noted Chávez´s history of meeting with leaders of authoritarian states, mentioning specifically Iran, Iraq under Hussein, and Cuba, and suggesting these meetings imply sympathy for their policies.

Chávez has, indeed, met with people who have a shameful record on human rights, including Iran’s Ali Hoseini-Khamenei and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, but also including Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah. But while alliances with Hussein have not been in vogue in Washington for more than a decade now, US citizens can hopefully not imply approval of Saudi Arabia’s barbaric laws toward women after Bush’s April of handholding with the Crown Prince last April.

Nothing insipid can easily be implied from the Chávez’s meetings with these leaders. The price of oil is vital to the Venezuelan economy, and so it stands to reason that Venezuela meets with other oil producing states, who are all fellow members of OPEC.

Shannon also focused on his remarks on Chávez’s relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, which is, by all accounts, very close, and there are strong ties between the two countries. By way of context, though, Canada’s Pierre Trudeau had an extremely friendly relationship with Castro, who attended the former Prime Minister’s funeral in 2000. The US never implied that this put Canadian democracy at risk, though, in fairness, Canada, which already had universal health care, never had a large-scale immigration of Cuban doctors.

Centralization of Powers

Perhaps the most damning element of the disinformation campaign against Chávez is that he is centralizing power, effectively giving himself unchecked control over the country. “President Chávez controls the five branches of government set out in Venezuela’s constitution — executive, legislative, judicial, electoral and the so-called ‘citizens’ power,’ which includes the Attorney General and the Accounting Office,” said Shannon, adding, later in his testimony, “And I think [the] larger problem that Venezuela’s going to have to deal with over time…is that as president Chavez consolidates power, his ability to govern actually lessens over time.”

While his concern for Chavez’s ability to govern is refreshing, there is a simple solution to this problem. The opposition could put forth candidates that would win elections, instead of relying on Washington to conflate centralization of power with electoral victory.

As in the United States, members of the National Assembly are not chosen by the executive branch, but rather by the public through elections. When a party wins more seats in Congress in the US, it is generally seen as a vote of confidence from the public, rather than a power grab by the executive branch. There’s no obvious reason it should be viewed any differently in Venezuela.

The electoral and citizen’s powers are also not chosen by the executive branch, but rather the National Assembly. Of course, as Chávez’s party has a majority in the National Assembly, they often appoint party members to these two branches, which is exactly what would take place in any other democracy.

The question of control of the judiciary is more complex. Judicial corruption is, and has been, a problem in Venezuela far pre-dating the Chávez administration. The government’s attempts to remove corrupt judges have led to large numbers of temporary judicial appointees (which were not uncommon under previous administrations), weakening judicial independence. Also, the old Supreme Court was dissolved and reinstated under new constitutional processes (temporarily and then permanently), in an attempt to deal with judicial corruption. Later, the National Assembly, when writing the new Supreme Court law, expanded the number of judges from 20 to 32, and weakened the procedures for the confirmation of judges after a highly questionable court decision that prohibited anyone from being charged for the April coup. However, the decisions for appointing judges, unlike in the US, are completely removed from the executive branch. So while judicial independence, especially in the lower courts, remains a problem, it is not a reflection of a concentration of executive power.

Political Persecution

There were moments during the committee hearing when Congressional Representatives would just make facts up. “Even as we meet here today men and women all across Venezuela sit in jail for speaking their mind and advocating for liberty and freedom,” asserted Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL). Well, no they don’t.

Prosecution of political crimes in Venezuela is surprisingly rare, given that some 400 people signed on to the Carmona decree, which during the 2002 coup dissolved the Supreme Court, National Assembly, and Constitution. Conviction of political crimes is even more rare, and sentences, even in the military courts, are short by any standards.

But while Ros-Lehtinen’s statement is an invention of her own making, it is neither true that Venezuela is a country absent of political persecution.

In an incident at best indicating gross naiveté, and at worst maliciousness, National Assembly Member Luis Tascón, a member of the governing party, published the list of signatures of the 2003 recall referendum. He said he made the list public so that supporters of Chávez could verify that their names were not on the list. At the time, there were credible claims that private employers were forcing their employees to sign on to the petition or risk losing their jobs and that many names had been simply added by opposition activists without the supposed signers’ knowledge.

Though there clearly needed to be a process by which people could remove their names from the recall signatures, this did not require that the list be made public. Months later, in fact, the CNE came up with a system for allowing people to remove or confirm their names without using a public list. And reasonably the government should have been able to predict that government and oppositional employers could use the list for employment discrimination. While Chávez eventually called for the list to be buried, he never said that he believed that it should not have been made public. And, to date, the attorney general’s office has not prosecuted anyone for the publishing of the list, nor for using its contents as reason to threaten people’s jobs.

Then, too, prosecution for involvement in the April 2002 coup appears to be selective. The often-mentioned case of human rights lawyer Carlos Ayala Corao is case in point. The attorney general’s office opened an investigation of him for his involvement in the April 2002 coup. But there is obvious reason to investigate. According to Sumate documents, Ayala, though saying he opposed the coup, admits to having been at Miraflores shortly after the government overthrow. The Attorney General, though, argues that Ayala helped draft the coup decree.

Were the government of the United States to be overthrown only to return to power two days later, certainly presence at the White House during the coup attempt would be reason enough for the opening of an investigation. Still, many people present at Miraflores are not being prosecuted. And Ayala, who has brought cases against the government for human rights violations, currently presents more of a threat to the government than many others who may have been involved. So his prosecution, while legitimate, appears to be selective.

However, the prosecution of a human rights lawyer, or a journalist, or a bishop does not necessarily imply a government attempt to suppress these groups. It was not a popular, but rather an elite uprising that briefly overthrew the government, and so the vast majority of the people involved had positions of prestige. And holding a position of prestige, in no country, implies immunity to prosecution for treason, or for assassination (as some have implied should be the case in the trial for the murder of Venezuelan prosecutor Danilo Anderson).

While employment discrimination based on political preference and selective prosecution are certainly serious problems, they are a far cry from Congressional depictions of a country where freedom fighters wither away in prison.

But despite the misinformation propagated at the hearing, Shannon did have one moment of insight. “The ability of a small amount of money linked to an organization still can have a great deal of impact [in influencing a country’s political situation],” he said.

He was referring to his belief in the mechanisms by which Venezuela could become a danger in the region, but the remark can be more aptly applied to the danger of US influence within the country. His comment is made even more ominous by his stated desire for Venezuela to be subject to increasing NED, NDI, and IRI influence.

But he did also, unknowingly, offer a solution, which was, “to resist interventionism in any shape.” On that, at least, he and the Venezuela government seem to be in agreement. And perhaps Venezuelan resistance to US intervention is enough to make the top official’s ignorance of the region a little less frightening.