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Why A Book About Hugo Chavez Touched A Nerve at The New York Times

The New York Times sets the tone of public debate about foreign policy questions, and I believe we shall see articles that mimic a recent NYT review of my book on Venezuela in the months and years ahead. Here a review of the typical strategies.

(Plus a CounterPunch Book review at the end of this article)

A couple of weeks ago, many Americans might have woken up to the fact that in Venezuela, people are not too pleased with the Bush White House.  For days, TV pundits barraged viewers with hyperbolic condemnations of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  The firebrand leader, in a brash address to the United Nations, had insulted George Bush at the United Nations by calling him “the devil.” 

What was missing in the coverage, however, was any sense of why Chavez would want to malign the White House in the first place. 

That’s a question that I set out to address in my recently released book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin’s Press).  The book explains how Chavez is a manifestation of growing social and political discontent against Washington’s policies.

The Times Launches Its anti-Chavez Broadside

As a result of Chavez’s bombastic performance in New York, I received plenty of interview requests from the mainstream media.  Though I certainly wasn’t surprised by the irate right wing callers and talk show hosts on AM radio, I was slightly taken aback by a column by Roger Lowenstein in the New York Times Business Section (“An Uncertain Threat in Venezuela,” September 17, 2006), in essence a political attack on my book and not a book review per se. The Times printed my short response (“The Chavez Factor”) in a letter on October 1.

The New York Times sets the tone of public debate about foreign policy questions, and I believe we shall see articles that mimic Lowenstein’s talking points in the months and years ahead.

Strategy #1: Shift The Focus Onto Domestic Venezuelan Politics and Away From the U.S.

One of the classic strategies employed by mainstream media is to try to shift attention away from U.S. destabilization of Venezuela, and to move the conversation towards Chavez and his domestic record.  When I was recently interviewed on the Jim Bohannon show, which broadcasts to more than 300 AM stations through the Westwood One network, Bohannon kept on trying to discredit Chavez by bringing up the question of the Venezuelan media. 

At least, Bohannon made no secret of his true agenda: at one point during our exhaustive one hour interview he remarked that the U.S. should be funding the Venezuelan opposition as Chavez was a dictator.

Historically, the New York Times has been similarly bellicose on Venezuela.  In April 2002, the paper supported a brief coup d’état against Chavez, only recanting its position later.  Today, the paperis a bit more subtle than right wing AM radio and since the coup has provided some thoughtful coverage of Venezuela. 

But, in his piece about my book, Lowenstein employs a strategy that is similar to Jim Bohannon’s.  At one point he implies that I am not a “friend” of Venezuela.  A “true” friend of Venezuela, Lowenstein argues, would concentrate not on U.S.-Venezuelan relations but on Chavez’s domestic policies. 

Strategy #2: Over Generalize About the Military

What about Lowenstein’s claim that Chavez poses a threat to his own people?  Here, the Times oversimplifies a complex political milieu in an effort to demonize the Venezuelan president. 

Lowenstein first claims that Chavez has militarized the government.  That’s a serious overstatement.  While it is true that the Venezuelan president has tapped military officers for key positions, the country remains a civilian democracy.  What’s more, while I personally have reservations about Chavez’s military regalia and his arming of new civilian militias, the fact is that the military has done some positive social good in the country through Plan Bolivar 2000, a civic works program. 

In my book, I talk about my own doubts about Chavez in 2000-2001 when I was in Venezuela, which had to do precisely with the president’s own military background. But Lowenstein ignores many of the subtleties in the book, choosing instead to paint me as some kind of raging apologist for the Chavez regime and everything that it does. 

Even beyond these mischaracterizations, one wonders whether Lowenstein’s critique of militarism is consistent throughout Latin America.  Colombia, which borders Venezuela to the west, has armed itself to the teeth with U.S. taxpayer money.  Compared to the Venezuelan military, the Colombian armed forces have been involved in vastly more human rights abuses.  The Times, much to its discredit, has been largely silent on the issue.

Strategy #3: Over Generalize About the Threat to Democratic Liberties

In a further effort to shift attention away from the U.S. role in Venezuela, Lowenstein claims that Chavez has anti-democratic tendencies and has intimidated the media.  Lowenstein says he lived in Venezuela in the 1970s, but he seems out of touch with reality on the ground in the country.  The Times is taking on a very complicated and thorny issue here and oversimplifies.

Time and again during my recent six week trip to Venezuela, I turned into Globovision, a leading opposition TV station based in Caracas.  Watching Globovision, I heard commentators make incredibly scurrilous and vitriolic attacks against the president.  Indeed, Venezuelan media is much more combative than mainstream TV news in this country.

To his credit, Chavez has not shut down Globovision or opposition newspapers.  That is remarkable when you consider that the opposition media exhorted people to come out onto the streets and actually overthrow the government in April, 2002.

One may easily imagine that the Bush White House would not be so tolerant were Lowenstein and his colleagues to preach rebellion on the front pages of the Times.

I had the chance to learn more about the Venezuelan media during my recent trip to the country.  According to Carlos Correa, the former director of Provea, a leading human rights organization in Caracas, there was incredible freedom for the media to express its views.  “In fact,” he said, “there’s been some abuse in that both state and private media have gone too far and said too much.” 

To be fair however, the media picture was not entirely rosy.

The problem, as Correa explained it, was that after journalists had reported, some had been physically attacked.  Correa told me that the government had not been zealous enough in investigating the crimes.  Additionally, opposition journalists did not always have access to information or to leading politicians (though that’s a situation which is certainly not unique to Venezuela).

Despite these problems, Correa said, only four Venezuelan journalists had been killed since the April 2002 coup.  One was killed in the violence during the coup itself.  Another was killed by hit men while pursuing a story on drug trafficking.  Two others were killed during political protests, and both were from pro-Chavez newspapers. 

That’s a far cry from a place like Colombia, where the human rights situation is appalling and journalists get attacked and killed routinely.  Given the kind of gross human rights violations in Colombia and the terrible climate faced by many journalists, one would think that the newspaper of record would run frequent stores on the issue, but the Times ignores the story.

Strategy #4: Misrepresent the State of The Economy

In yet another attempt to focus attention away from U.S. foreign policy, Lowenstein says that Chavez has eroded confidence in the economy.  But contrary to the Times’ claims, the economic outlook in Venezuela looks very promising. 

It should be said that Chavez inherited a very unenviable economic situation when he was elected in 1998; the country in fact was on the road towards increasing poverty, misery and inequality.  Additionally, Chavez had to contend with disruptive economic sabotage through the oil lock out in 2002-3 which resulted in almost $8 billion in losses.

Despite this incredible hardship, investment has actually increased in recent years.  In 2002, in the midst of political and financial instability, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) plunged to $800 million, a drastic decrease from 2001 when FDI was $3.7 billion.

Since then FDI has been up and down, but recent figures indicate that Venezuela is on the rebound with an FDI of $1.2 billion in 2005, a 4.5% increase from the previous year.  What’s more, the investment bank Bear Stearns is forecasting that Venezuela will increase FDI in 2006 by a further 25%.  Despite FDI volatility and investor concern over growing government control over the economy, all but three oil companies have agreed to sign joint oil ventures with the state.

Not only is FDI looking up, but the macroeconomic indicators look positive.  In 2005-6, Venezuela had the fastest economic growth in Latin America; inflation has been halved; unemployment has been steadily dropping; incomes of the poor doubled in the past two years, and the poverty rate has been dropping.

In its effort to discredit Chavez, the Times has vastly oversimplified the economic picture.

Strategy #5: When All Else Fails, Resort to Cold War Rhetoric

In his column, Lowenstein attempts to tar both the Venezuelan government and myself through retrograde rhetoric.  For example, he argues that Chavez is pushing forward a failed socialist agenda and is unhappy with my supposedly Marxist “new-lefty rhetoric [which] I had thought went out in the ’70s.” 

If Lowenstein had actually gone to Venezuela and spoken with the beneficiaries of Chavez’s social programs, he’d be able to recognize the fallacy of his argument. 

During a recent trip to the country I was able to observe some of the successes of the Chavez regime.  In Catia, a poor district of Caracas, I toured a so-called “Endogenous Center of Development,” where women had set up a flourishing textile cooperative.  The women were proud of their new red T-shirts, which displayed a profile of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

Contrary to Lowenstein’s claims however, the economy does not follow a strictly socialist model.  Venezuela is open to thriving foreign investment and its people are voracious consumers of imported Scotch Whiskey as reported by the Times itself on August 20. 

It would be fairer to say that Venezuela is pursuing a nationalist course based on poverty relief for the neediest.  In this sense Chavez’s economic approach is more akin to FDR’s New Deal, a not so subtle difference lost on the likes of Lowenstein.

Summing Up: The Times’ Belief System

Lowenstein’s discrediting of Chavez is not surprising in light of the overall economic philosophy at the Times.  For years, the paper has been touting the so-called virtues of free trade and hemispheric integration, tendencies which Chavez has successfully challenged through anti-poverty programs and promotion of a regional initiative called Bolivarian Alternative of The Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA).  Chavez’s own trade initiative is a challenge to Washington, which has long pushed its own corporately friendly FTAA or Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The issue of the Times’ historic support for free trade was analyzed in a thorough 2001 report by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).  Though the Times reported on the contentious FTAA summit at Quebec in 2001 which drew thousands of anti-globalization protesters, the paper “tended to focus more on the politicking and ‘challenges’ that Bush must navigate to seal the deal than on the particulars of what might happen if he succeeds.”

As I point out in my book, Chavez was critical of the FTAA in Quebec, and his antipathy towards the agreement only increased with time.  In this sense Chavez shared some common ground with anti-globalization protesters, who were also vilified by the Times.  According to FAIR, Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman led the charge in seeking to discredit FTAA critics and the anti-globalization movement.  Friedman in fact went as far to say that protesters were “choking the only route out of poverty for the world’s poor.”

Krugman agreed with Friedman, remarking that “many of the people inside that chain-link fence [hemispheric politicians supporting the FTAA] are sincerely trying to help the world’s poor.  And the people outside the fence, whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor even poorer.” 

In a telling aside, FAIR remarked: “Perhaps the most startling thing about these editorials was their failure to acknowledge that the ‘world’s poor’ have in fact themselves been taking to the streets to protest globalization.”

Fast forward now from 2001 to 2006, and it’s not surprising that the Times would carry on the torch and seek to criticize Chavez.  The fact that the Venezuelan leader has been able to successfully resist some of the tenets of “neo-liberal” economics, in line with the thrust of the earlier anti-globalization movement, is disagreeable to the paper of record.

Chavez will most certainly win the December 2006 presidential election. The question is now just a matter of how wide the margin shall be.  George Bush and whomever his successor may be will almost certainly try to further destabilize Venezuela in future. 

In light of Lowenstein’s piece, it seems likely that the mainstream media will take its cue from the Times, over generalizing and misrepresenting the truth on Venezuela until the public starts to become obsessed with Hugo Chavez.   

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin’s Press)

Book Review – CounterPunch

The Politics of Hugo Chavez

The General Who Called Out the Devil

By Ron Jacobs

The reaction of most mainstream US politicians to Hugo Chavez’s recent rhetorical flourish during his speech at the United Nations where he called George Bush the devil certainly showed the world how much of a threat the Washington powermongers consider his Bolivarian revolution to be. From the liberal Nancy Pelosi of California to the far-right, Chavez’s comparison provoked a virtual flood of angry criticism. Interestingly enough, the White House did not issue a denial, leaving it open to speculation as to whether or not Chavez’s characterization of Mr. Bush was more accurate than previously acknowledged. At any rate, the point I’m trying to make here is that Hugo Chavez does not really seem to care what the politicians in Washington and their backers in the boardrooms of the US think about him. Furthermore, by adopting this attitude and expressing it at forums like the UN, Mr. Chavez has vocalized the sentiments of millions of people the world over.

Yet, his words matter little when compared to his actions to subvert the neoliberal/neoconservative agenda of Washington and its cohorts. It is these actions that strike at the heart of the Empire and which have drawn the true wrath of those whom interests they attack. The latest example of this is the stalemated campaign between Guatemala–Washington’s choice for a temporary Security Council seat at the UN– and Venezuela. Whether one is discussing Chavez’s campaign to reinvigorate OPEC or his land reform actions in the Venezuelan countryside, revolution that Chavez has named after the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar has angered Washington, Wall Street and many a rich landowner. In addition, Chavez has frustrated many corporate hacks used to buying of Third World politicians.

It is this revolution that author Nikolas Kozloff explores in his recently released book, Hugo Chavez, Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the US. A somewhat frequent visitor to the nation as a grad student and researcher, Kozloff intertwines personal observations and experiences in Venezuela with an intelligent analysis of the meaning of Chavismo to the poor and indigenous people of Venezuela and other countries of Latin America. Something of an anti-authoritarian leftist, Kozloff is at first hesitant to give Chavez much credit for the popular movement against the neoliberal governments that ruled Venezuela prior to Chavez. However, as he investigates the changes and as the movement takes root, he writes quite positively about the changes in the Venezuelan political and economic landscape. Never, however, does the prose become a sycophantic apology for anything Chavez.

Kozloff traces the life of Chavez from an impoverished rural region of Venezuela into the military, jail and into electoral politics. While relating Chavez’s political development, the author reminds the reader that Chavez’s background is not that different from many Venezuelans. It is, however, quite different from the circumstances of those that ruled the country until Chavez’s election in 1992. As one reads the book, it becomes clear that Chavez has not forgotten his roots and, as he has developed politically, has discovered some of the fundamental reasons for the poverty he and so many of his countrymen and women live(d) in. Naturally, as his understanding developed, Chavez’s politics turned leftward. Also, quite naturally, as his politics turned left, the opposition to the man and the movement he represents has become more vocal and willing to consider extralegal means to rid themselves of him.

One of those attempts was made in 2002, when various members of Venezuela’s elite took over the seat of power on April 11. The coup lasted barely twenty-four hours. Soldiers loyal to Chavez refused to follow the orders of those officers who were involved in the coup and took back the Presidential Palace while hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters rallied in the streets. Kozloff’s description of this event and the oil “strike” led by sectors of the oil industry wanting to hold on to industry agreements that opposed to using oil profits for Chavez’s plans to help the poor (and not share said profits with foreign companies and their Venezuelan accomplices) provide a clarity to events that have never been adequately explained in the US mainstream press.

Acknowledging Chavez’s growing role in world politics, Kozloff examines his government’s foreign aid programs that emphasize barter instead of cash and tend towards highlighting the solidarity of those nations and peoples taken advantage of by the US-led neoliberal campaign. In a chapter titled “The Chavez-Morales Axis,” Venezuela’s campaign to include the indigenous populations of the Americas in the Bolivarian revolution championed by Chavez and Morales is described. According to Kozloff, much of Chavez’s interest in the plight of the indigenous stems from his mixed heritage and the consequent empathic understanding he derives from his experiences related to that heritage.

Kozloff’s book, which was recently received the wrath of a reviewer in the New York Times Business Section because of its leftist slant, is a worthwhile survey of the current political situation in Venezuela and its relations with the rest of the Americas. The supposedly leftist slant is not a detraction, even for those skeptical individuals who would approach this book with negative preconceptions regarding Mr. Chavez. Indeed, this particular take is the appropriate viewfinder from which his government should be examined. The book’s one drawback is its brevity, although it is also that aspect that makes it a good introduction to the politics and the personality that make Hugo Chavez and his supporters the force for change that they are.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: [email protected]