Marc Cooper’s Venezuela

Marc Cooper, contributing editor to The Nation wrote a recent feature piece about Venezuela for the new web magazine Truthdig. Although Cooper’s Truthdig article assumes the form of a standard news analysis piece, and Cooper makes an effort to tell “both sides,” he cannot escape his deep prejudices and lack of knowledge.

Marc Cooper, contributing editor to The Nation and a political columnist for L.A. Weekly, wrote a recent feature piece about Venezuela for the new web magazine Truthdig (http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_venezuela_Chavez/ ).  Cooper did the best he could do in writing this article on Venezuela, given his weaknesses. First, his knowledge of the subject matter is limited. Second, he has a deep and bitter hatred of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his supporters, and even those who have defended democracy in Venezuela since the failed coup against Chavez in April 2002.  Cooper has described Chavez as a “thug,” a “third world tin-pot dictator,” and “a cartoonish imitation of Fidel Castro with absolutely not a trace of any of the redeeming qualities one can find in the Cuban lider maximo.”

So, although Cooper’s Truthdig article assumes the form of a standard news analysis piece, and Cooper makes an effort to tell “both sides,” in that Time Magazine way, he cannot escape his deep prejudices and lack of knowledge. Reading it, I was reminded of the comedian Lenny Bruce’s imitations of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s trying to learn how to say the word “Negro.” He kept saying “Nigro.” Cooper cannot keep his prejudices from bubbling to the surface. The editors of Truthdig have to share some of the blame for this. Would they ask Ann Coulter to write an article about the Clinton years, and then leave it to random comments from readers to clean up the mess? I would expect better from a web publication that intends to be a notch above the mainstream media.

One of the funniest parts of Cooper’s essay is his quote from Aleksandr Boyd, whom he allows to describe himself as someone who “identifies neither with the government nor its formal opponents.”  This is like introducing Bill O’Reilly as a man who “says he is neither Republican nor Democrat, and that he broadcasts from the ‘no-spin’ zone.” Literally.  Just go to Boyd’s blog (http://www.vcrisis.com/index.php?content=home ) and see for yourself.  It will take you about 10 minutes of browsing to see that this guy is from the conspiratorial lunatic fringe of an opposition in which the average person lives in a bubble and actually believes that, despite the certification of the August 2004 referendum by the Carter Center and the OAS, the opposition really won and that the 59-41 pro-Chavez vote was the result of a huge electronic fraud.  Boyd says this, too, and more: he calls for the violent overthrow of the Venezuelan government (http://www.vcrisis.com/?content=letters/200412071531 ). Of course, the O’Reilly analogy isn’t exactly right: O’Reilly is much more rational and has a large following. Boyd is just a lone nutball with a blog, living in self-imposed exile in London. What was Cooper thinking when he chose Boyd as a source? Was it just ignorance or does he really see Boyd as someone to turn to for a description of Venezuelan reality? Not flattering to Cooper either way.

In this regard it is worth noting that Cooper was almost alone (with the exception of the Wall Street Journal editorial board) in suggesting that the August 2004 recall referendum was actually stolen (see his “Chavez Again – Did Uncle Jimmy Get Duped” — http://marccooper.com/Chavez-again-did-uncle-jimmy-get-duped/ ).  Cooper quotes approvingly from a grossly flawed study alleging a massive electronic fraud in the referendum. The Carter Center later appointed an independent panel of statisticians, who found that the study was flawed and concluded that there was no evidence of electronic fraud (see references at http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/12/2/17334/7970 ). So maybe Cooper really does feel at home with the conspiracy nutters.

Cooper makes other weird mistakes with regard to sources. He says that “The case for Chavez is passionately made, for example, by journalist Christian Parenti, writing in The Nation,” but anyone who reads that article will see that it is actually quite critical of the Chavez government; Cooper doesn’t get that because he is more used to “balanced” discourse from wackos like Aleksandr Boyd.  Also, at least Parenti, who had little prior knowledge of Venezuela, went there and talked to people in order to write his article in The Nation.  By his own admission, Cooper hasn’t even been to Venezuela since Chavez took office.  Did Truthdig even ask him if or when or how many times he had seen the reality that he is describing, when he invites his readers to “dig a little deeper” and take a look at “what is happening inside Venezuela?”  This is important because while it would be perfectly okay for Cooper to pontificate about U.S. foreign policy without ever getting off his ass in Los Angeles, it is another matter to write about what is happening in Venezuela under Chavez without going there. And given this and other writings by Cooper about Venezuela (e.g. his error-ridden op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on September 5, 2003), it’s quite apparent that he has not been there.

Also, Cooper erroneously describes the opposition-led oil strike of 2002-2003 as a “general work stoppage.” Less than one percent of the country’s labor force actually participated in this strike.  Not even the majority of blue collar workers in the oil industry participated in the strike.

Cooper also quotes someone he describes as “liberal policy analyst Michael Shifterarguing that Chavez is anti-democratic, without telling us that Shifter – a former National Endowment for Democracy director for Latin America – also has quite a passionate hatred of Chavez, referring to Chavez in the media as a “strongman” and an “autocrat” rather than an elected President. A nexis search of the word “strongman” reveals hundreds of uses of the word to describe Afghan warlords, dictators such as Pinochet and Saddam Hussein, but no elected presidents. Interestingly, Cooper has a long quote from one of Shifter’s absolutely worst op-eds ever (Financial Times, April 8, 2005), which was thoroughly debunked by Julia Buxton, an academic who – unlike these pundits – is actually an expert on Venezuela. From her response:

“It is most extraordinary that Shifter thinks it possible to draw parallels between [the Chávez government and] the bloody and ruthless juntas that controlled countries like Argentina and Chile until democratisation in the 1980s . . .

[I]t is mistaken to argue [as Shifter argues] that Chávez does not come from a tradition of fighting for democracy. On the contrary, the Chavista movement is a product of the lack of democracy in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998, a product of the social, economic and political exclusion that prevailed throughout that time and a product of massive disaffection with corrupt and politicised state institutions. We may not be enthralled by the type of democracy Chávez is seeking to build, or the manner in which he has chosen to do this, but it is important to note that the Chávez government has brought marginalised and excluded people into the political process and democratised power.” (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1428 )

Cooper’s description of the U.S. role in the coup is also flawed. Cooper notes that the CIA had advance knowledge of the coup (see documents at www.venezuelafoia.info/ciac4.html ), and quotes Peter Kornbluh correctly stating that “this intelligence was distributed to dozens of members of the Bush administration, giving them knowledge of coup plotting.” Now the important part: When the coup actually took place, both the White House and the State Department publicly maintained the coup leaders’ version of events, maintaining that it was not a coup at all, but rather:

“We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis.  According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations… The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency.  Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed…”

That was Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman, the day after the coup.[i]

Perhaps an analogy will make this clear. Imagine that Ken Lay tells Marc Cooper that he is going to commit a major accounting fraud, and then he does so. Lay then announces that there was no fraud, but just an honest mistake. Imagine that Cooper, with full knowledge that the fraud was planned, writes a news report stating that no fraud took place, but rather there were some accounting mistakes. Cooper would then be complicit in the crime, regardless of the legal ramifications. Similarly, the White House lying about the coup when it occurred, and trying to convince the world of the coup leaders’ version of events, is a form of actual involvement in the coup.

Thus the Bush Administration’s involvement in the coup has been demonstrated by its own documents, and is not, as Cooper describes it, a matter for speculation.  Furthermore the State Department’s own internal investigation, which was mostly a whitewash that did not interview a single Venezuelan, acknowledged that “…it is clear that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.”[ii]

Also, the New York Times reported that both Mexican and Spanish government officials, including the Mexican foreign minister at the time of the coup, Jorge Casteneda, stated that the Bush Administration tried to get other countries to support the coup.[iii]

So we have not only hard documentary evidence demonstrating U.S. involvement in the coup, but additional circumstantial evidences as well. All this is important because it helps explain why not only Chavez but many other Venezuelans are so angry at the Bush Administration. These people actively helped the effort to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected government and install a dictatorship. 

But Cooper concludes that we just don’t know, that only “Chavez defenders” see a direct hand in the coup, and that “less partisan analysts” see something more ambiguous.

Cooper has little to say about what the Chavez government has actually done for the poor: 40 percent getting subsidized food, millions with free health care for the first time, 1.5 million taught to read, etc. He gets the economy wrong too: unnamed “critics suggest that Chavez’s success is a temporary bubble inflated by high oil prices and that underneath his revolutionary rhetoric he is more of an old-fashioned populist buying constituencies with lavish handouts. . . [W]hen and if oil prices fall, Chavez’s projects could collapse.”  Actually, the government is running a budget surplus, an enormous trade surplus, has a whopping $29 billion in reserves, and has budgeted for oil prices (in 2005) at about half their realized price. So the idea that it could all come crashing down with a drop in oil prices is a more of an opposition fantasy. Also just turning the economy to positive growth for its 6 years in office is a major accomplishment for the Chavez government, in a country that saw a 35 percent fall in per capita income from 1970-1998, one of the worst in the world, and despite oil prices in the seventies that were even higher than they are now.

There’s more but that’s probably more than this article is worth. As noted above, it’s probably the best that Cooper could do, given his limitations. Next time, Truthdig should dig around for someone with a better shovel, and one that is not so prone to spread horseshit around.

[i] White House press briefing, April 12, 2002. Available online at: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020412-1.html

[ii] “A review of U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela: November 2001 – April 2002,” Report 02-OIG-003, July 2002, www.oig.state.gov/documents/organization/13682.pdf

[iii] “Documents Show C.I.A. Knew of Coup Plot in Venezuela,” by Juan Forero, New York Times, December 3, 2004