The Washington Post’s Bias Against Democracy in Latin America

In the 1980s the Washington Post honed an editorial page style to attack the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua that involved complex and convoluted editorials weaving half truths, total lies, innuendo, and unsupported speculation. The “big lie” strategy, which is now used against Venezuela, is effective because to respond with the truth takes even more words than the original lie.

In the 1980s the Washington Post honed an editorial page style to attack the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua that involved complex and convoluted editorials weaving half truths, total lies, innuendo, and unsupported speculation.  These editorials were impossible to respond to with letters to the editor limited to 200 words.  The “big lie” strategy is effective because to respond with the truth takes even more words than the original lie.

The Washington Post is now using the “big lie” strategy against the Bolivarian process in Venezuela and its democratically elected president Hugo Chavez.  An editorial on August 17, 2007 is a textbook example of this strategy.  It is entitled “Cash-and-Carry Rule” with a sub heading “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez cements his autocracy with petrodollars and another push for ‘reform.’”

The US Venezuela Solidarity Network offers this sentence by sentence deconstruction of the Washington Post editorial as a public service to educate serious readers on important issues of US-Venezuela relations and the campaign to derail the process in Venezuela to use its oil wealth for the benefit of its poor majority.

WASHINGTON POST:  The Venezuelan businessman told inspectors there was nothing but books and papers in his suitcase.  So imagine everyone’s surprise when Argentine customs officers opened the suitcase – and found $800,000 in cash.  The origin and destination of this money, which was being taken to Buenos Aires on Aug. 4, shortly before a state visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is now the hottest mystery in South America.

FACTS: The Washington Post took a single fact – a Venezuelan born resident of Key Biscayne, Florida businessman was caught with $790,550  in undeclared cash entering Argentina on August 4 – and used innuendo to tie it to President Chavez.  In the first place this Venezuelan businessman was described in the first stories about the incident as being US-based.  In the second place there has been not one shred of evidence presented tying him to Chavez or the Venezuela government.  Chavez officially visited Argentina on August 7, as he has on several occasions this year.  The Post editorial commits a post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic fallacy, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”  There is nothing which ties the two incidents to each other.

WASHINGTON POST: But what is clear is that the cash-filled suitcase is an apt metaphor for the way Mr. Chavez has been using petrodollars to build an anti-American network that includes the leaders of Cuba, Bolivia and perhaps Nicaragua.

FACTS: Leaving aside that the Washington Post hasn’t even made an effort to develop a factual case that the “cash-filled suitcase” is tied to Chavez, it is interesting that Venezuela’s use of petro-dollars to pursue Simon Bolivar’s dream of Latin American integration and to produce health, education, food security and family income is determined to be anti-American.  Does that mean disease, ignorance, hunger and poverty are pro-American?

WASHINGTON POST: Mr. Chavez seized the moment to unveil a long-awaited package of constitutional “reforms.”  As you might expect, they are self-aggrandizing and threatening to what is left of democracy in Venezuela.

FACTS: It is unclear which “moment” Chavez is supposed to have “seized.”  Is it the “cash-filled suitcase” moment or the “build an anti-American network” moment?  This is simply a rhetorical device to strengthen the preceding unsupported arguments, especially when it is tied to the implication that Venezuelan democracy is threatened.  In addition, reform is put in quotes.  The Post surely knows that the Spanish word is reformar which means to amend.  Common usage of the English word reform implies a “good” change so by using the word reform and putting it in quotes, the Post editorial intends the reader to think the opposite.

WASHINGTON POST: They would extend the presidential term and abolish term limits so that Mr. Chavez could get himself reelected every seven years, starting when his current six-year term expires in 2012.

FACTS: This is factually true, but the phrase “could get himself reelected every seven years” should more accurately be worded, “could run for reelection every seven years.”  President Chavez won the December 2006 election with 63% of the vote and a 75% voter participation, a far higher percentage of total voter support than any U.S. president has won since 1964.  If Venezuelans decide in a free and fair referendum to eliminate presidential term limits, that is completely an internal issue.  Who they will vote for in any succeeding election is something that no one can know this far in advance. And if the majority of Venezuelan voters feel that President Chavez is doing a good job and they vote to keep him, then that is also their democratic right.

WASHINGTON POST: His last opponent for the presidency was a state governor; the proposed changes would weaken governors and mayors.”

FACTS: This is the Non Sequitur logic fallacy and forces the reader, rather than the author to make the error since the logical fallacy is unstated.  It goes: If Chavez’ opponent Manuel Rosales was a governor, and if the constitutional amendment weakens governors, then Chavez will have even weaker opponents in the future.

WASHINGTON POST: Most menacing, Mr. Chavez wants to establish a “popular militia” alongside the regular armed forces.  Perhaps this new force is the intended recipient of the 5,000 sniper rifles Mr. Chavez has just purchased from Russia.

FACTS: Menacing to whom?  Dozens of peasants have been killed in rural areas where big landowners are resisting land reform efforts.  Armed Colombians from both sides of the civil war violate Venezuela’s border with that country.  The US embassy was caught red handed bringing in military aircraft parts as part of its “diplomatic pouch.” A US Navy attaché was expelled for attempting to buy Venezuelan military secrets.  A plot to use Colombian paramilitary forces to foment a coup was foiled when a large arms cache was discovered.  And the U.S. doctrine of “low intensity warfare” to overthrow progressive Latin American governments and to defeat liberation struggles is well understood in Venezuela.  Additionally, the Post fails to mention that, because of a Bush regime arms embargo on Venezuela, Venezuela has had to completely rebuild its military armaments from non-US sources, which include Russia.  Despite this unexpected expense, Venezuela’s military spending is significantly less than that of its neighbors.

WASHINGTON POST: This latest power grab is of a piece with other measures taken by Mr. Chavez since his reelection to a third term in December.  He has been undermining existing governmental structures by channeling public works and welfare funds through “communal councils” under his control, a process he promises to accelerate under the revised constitution.

FACTS:  Somehow the words “power grab” aren’t too convincing in a sentence that includes the fact that President Chavez has been reelected three times.  In addition, he won approval of the 1999 constitution written by a constituent assembly during his first year in office – which is what necessitated his running again before his first term had expired under the old constitution – and that he won the constitutionally permitted 2004 recall election midway through his last term.  The words autocrat, dictator, and anti-democratic were never intended to be used to describe someone who has won five internationally certified elections, each by around 60%.  One of the tenants of the “big lie” strategy is that if you repeat the lie often enough people will believe it.

It is also simply untrue to say that “communal councils are under his control.”  Community councils, in which neighborhoods and small communities, play an important role in determining the needs of their communities and administering the public funds to address those needs, are one of the most important and encouraging trends of our time to extend and expand the exercise of democracy beyond simply holding a vote every x number of years.  Because the “Bolivarian revolution” was a peaceful one through the ballot box, the discredited elites from previous governments remained in their positions in government ministries and thwarted the popular initiatives of the Chavez government.  Community councils have bypassed obstructionist career civil servants and are an exciting experiment in participatory democracy.

WASHINGTON POST: He has nationalized telecommunications, electricity and oil enterprises and established a new socialist political party.  He has forced an independent television channel off the air while plastering the public spaces of Venezuela with his own smiling portrait.

FACTS: Here’s the crux of the Washington Post hostility to the Bolivarian process in Venezuela.  The Washington Post is one of the strongest voices in support of the “Washington Consensus” of free trade and other neoliberal policies aimed at taking governments out of economic policy making and leaving corporation profit unrestrained.  These policies have been an absolute disaster for the vast majority of Latin Americans who have seen their standard of living in free fall since the 1980s. Venezuela, thanks to its abundant natural resources, has the economic means to power alternatives to neoliberalism such as the Bolivarian Alternative for Our America (ALBA) in which trade among equals is based on need and solidarity.  This is anathema to the Post and its corporate sponsors.

It is surprising that the Washington Post didn’t milk the decision to not renew the public airwaves broadcast license of the right-wing television station RCTV.  Every developed country licenses use of the public airwaves and requires that stations follow certain “public good” regulations.  Non-renewal of a license for a station that actively supported the 2002 coup and systematically violated broadcast regulations should have been a non-issue.  The fact that RCTV continues to broadcast on satellite and cable to a Venezuelan audience required the Post to use the phrase “off the air” to leave the implication that the station had been shut down.

WASHINGTON POST: In short, Mr. Chavez’s “21st-century socialism” looks depressingly line the 20th-century version: a bloated, repressive state headed by a hectoring strongman.  Mr. Chavez has adjusted the model by adding certain methods of Middle Eastern petro-states, such as the use of cash to purchase popular support, or quiescence, at home – and to buy allies abroad.  Mr. Chavez’s mentor, Fidel Castro, stumbled on the road to socialism for want of hard currency; Mr. Chavez can pump dollars out of the ground.

FACTS: How many emotionally laden words can be packed into one paragraph?  Let’s see: socialism, bloated, repressive, hectoring strongman, Middle East, purchase popular support, quiescence, buy allies, Fidel Castro. It is intended to leave the reader with a distasteful impression without having to actually present any evidence.  And, it’s mostly lies.  Not even those working toward it know what “21st century socialism” is going to look like.  But, based upon actual changes in Venezuela so far it looks likely that it will have a far stronger component of capitalism than committed socialists will be happy with.  To call Venezuela a “bloated, repressive state headed by a hectoring strongman” is to be reduce the writer to the level of shouting school yard insults that have no basis in reality.  The majority of the Venezuelan population that is rising out of poverty, thanks to a more equitable distribution of the oil wealth, might not agree with the Post that their “quiescence” is being purchased; they might think it is their natural due as Venezuelan citizens.  Now there’s a revolutionary thought!  As far as buying allies abroad, isn’t there a universal belief that rich countries have an obligation to help poorer ones?  Isn’t that the premise upon which U.S. foreign aid is based?  Why is Venezuela’s aid “buying allies” and U.S. aid is humanitarian, or democracy building?  Finally, we missed the fact that Cuban socialism had stumbled.  Even with Fidel Castro ailing, it looks pretty stable to us, and is still standing independent despite 48 years of unrelenting hostility by the U.S. government.

WASHINGTON POST: Though corrupt and corrupting, both for Venezuela and the hemisphere, Mr. Chavez’s militaristic formula is undeniably potent,… 

FACTS: When you control the editorial page of a corporate newspaper, apparently you can say anything.  “Corrupt and corrupting.”  What does that mean?  Undoubtedly there are some corrupt individuals as there are in every human endeavor, including a few plagiarizers at the Washington Post over the decades.  But there have been no credible claims that Chavez has personally enriched himself while in government, and since the most important element of the Post’s “big lie” campaign is to personalize the Bolivarian process by naming it Hugo Chavez, then the corruption charge must be aimed at him.  Where’s the evidence.  And what does corrupting mean?  Is it corrupting for the people of the hemisphere to see the Venezuelan people rise out of poverty through the equitable distribution of national wealth?  Well, yes, probably it is.  It is like Nicaragua in the 1980s which Oxfam UK labeled “the threat of a good example.”  If people see that they don’t have to allow the corporations to steal their labor and their resources, or that their governments don’t have to catch a cold when the US sneezes, then they might begin to rediscover the concepts of self-determination and sovereignty, and that would be bad news indeed for militarists and corporate globalizers in the government, board rooms, and corporate media.

And again, to label the Bolivarian process as “Chavez’s militaristic formula” is without basis in fact.  Venezuela’s military does not threaten its neighbors or even its own people.  It is one of the most respected institutions in the country. 

WASHINGTON POST:  and no doubt he relishes demonstrating its power in polarizing combat with the weakening Venezuelan opposition. Hence the launch of yet another constitutional crusade. Since the opposition unwisely boycotted the past election, the entire National Assembly supports Mr. Chavez and is likely to approve his plan.  The next step would be a national referendum this year, which might be Venezuela’s last chance to prevent Mr. Chavez from setting himself up as president for life.

FACTS: The Post appears to be making the argument that:

1.      The Venezuelan opposition is the minority of the population.

2.      They stupidly boycotted the last National Assembly elections resulting in a legislature made up of supporters of the Bolivarian process (although many are not members of Chavez’s political party).

3.      The majority of the National Assembly will approve the constitutional amendments.

4.      There will be a national referendum this year in which voters will decide if the constitution should be amended.

How, by acknowledging that Venezuela is undergoing a democratic process, does the Washington Post come to the conclusion that the result will be Chavez’s “setting himself up as president for life?”  Apparently they believe their readers cannot recognize logical fallacies if they string enough of them together and repeat them often enough.

Chuck Kaufman is the Interim Coordinator of the Venezuela Solidarity Network