Over the course of two articles in as many days the Guardian's
Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll has described the most recent
crisis to beset relations between Venezuela and the Unites States. In
article, published on 12 September 2008, Carroll reports on the
Venezuelan government's expulsion of the US ambassador amid allegations
that the latter was involved in fomenting a coup against Venezuela's
democratically elected government. In the second
article, published on 13 September 2008, Carroll reports the US's claim
that the Venezuelan government is aiding Colombian rebels and drug
At this point it is worth looking at some of the
criticism Rory Carroll's reporting of Venezuela has come in for in
recent months. For example, in a response to criticisms that Carroll's
coverage of Venezuela lacked objectivity, the Guardian's readers' editor, Siobhain Butterworth, defended Carroll by arguing the Guardian
is not required to be impartial. Carroll for his part acknowledged that
he was ‘not a champion of impartiality'. Emphasising the polarising
nature of Venezuelan politics, he instead saw it as his task ‘to steer
a course between' the two opposing sides.
Since Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1999, relations between the US and Venezuela have steadily deteriorated,
especially after George W Bush became US president in January 2001.
However, this latest confrontation arguably marks an all-time low in
relations between the two countries. With both the US and Venezuela
being given their respective voices in Carroll's two aforementioned
articles, this provides us with an opportunity to test whether
Carroll's articles measure up to the standards he has set himself.
When weighing up the strength of any allegations there
are two main things to consider. The first is the available evidence to
back up the allegations. The second is prior plausibility. I will deal
with each in turn.
In his first article Carroll stresses that Chavez, ‘did
not offer evidence of wrongdoing by the ambassador or [any] other US
officials'. Furthermore, for Carroll there is ‘scant' evidence that
military officers detained by the Venezuelan government were involved
in a plot either. The ‘scant' evidence he is referring to (but
curiously does not mention) is taped phone conversations of retired military generals broadcast on Venezuelan television last on the night of 10 September.
Carroll also reports in the first article that the
Bolivian government had expelled its US ambassador for ‘allegedly
backing opposition groups engaged in bloody clashes with police and
government supporters'. Carroll does not address the weight of these
allegations in this article, but it is clear that he is sceptical of
In an audio interview
he gave a little over a month ago he stated that the idea of US
interference with Bolivia is merely ‘a standard line from Evo Morales
which he has repeated from his big ally Venezuela's president Hugo
Chavez. So he frames ... the opposition ... [as] almost stooges of
Washington and that they are reflecting the interests of the United
States. I think this plays well with his own hard core supporters but I
think generally in Bolivia people realise that this is very much an
Readers might at this point want to compare Carroll's analysis with that of Benjamin Dangl,
another Latin America-based editor. Nonetheless, Carroll (perhaps
rightly) remains suspicious of evidence that emanates exclusively from
Venezuelan and Bolivian government sources. The question is: does he
apply an equal standard to the allegations made by the US government?
The answer is no, and Carroll employs a number of
discursive devices to convey this. The first is to dispel the notion
that the US allegations were in any way a counter claim. He quotes a US
state department spokesman who dismissed the allegations as
‘reflect[ing] the weakness and desperation of these leaders'. (In
contrast Carroll describes Chavez in the same article as ‘embarrassed'
by the Maletinazo scandal.) Then he supplements this quote with his own assertion that the US's allegations were indeed separate from the events of the preceding days:
‘Separately, the US treasury accused three members of
Chávez's inner-circle of materially assisting the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (Farc), leftist guerrillas who traffick cocaine and
are considered terrorists by the US and EU.'
Carroll employs the phrase ‘materially assisting' FARC
presumably in order to give the impression of tangible evidence
possessed by the US government, albeit evidence which Carroll himself
is not privy to. What Carroll can provide however are the names of
Chavez's ‘inner circle' alleged to be involved with FARC along with
particularly incriminating circumstantial evidence:
‘Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Henry Rangel Silva are
senior intelligence officials and Ramón Rodríguez Chacin was interior
minister until this week when he unexpectedly resigned, citing personal
Equally Carroll could have provided names of the military officers
alleged to have been plotting against the Venezuelan government - among
them Ruperti Sanchez Caceres and Helimenas Jose Labarca Soto - but he
chose not to.
Readers well acquainted with Carroll's reporting will
know that he has a certain preoccupation with the Venezuelan president.
In less than two years of reporting on Venezuela, Carroll has written
an astonishing 79 articles
with Chavez's name in the headline alone. It is predictable then that
the allegations against the US are presented by Carroll as yet another
example of Chavez's quirky and paranoid persona; the latest in a long
running feud between the ‘self styled revolutionary' (as Carroll
repeatedly refers to him) and ‘the superpower' he calls ‘the empire'.
Of course the allegations did not emanate from Chavez at all, but from Venezuelan intelligence services. According to the New York Times
Venezuelan military prosecutors are already in the process of
questioning the officers concerned. This Carroll is willing to concede,
but lest we should draw our attention away from Chavez for a moment, he
is quick to remind us that (after all) they are ‘his intelligence
In stark contrast to the personalisation of the
Venezuelan allegations, Carroll shows a reluctance to even attribute
the US claims to the US government as a single entity. Instead we are
provided with the conclusions by separate and perhaps even disparate
elements of the US government. Carroll had already implied that there
was sufficient distance between the US treasury and the State
Department for us to consider their claims ‘separately'. However should
we be in any doubt regarding the credibility of the treasury's claims,
Carroll quickly backs them up with the conclusions of ... well ... err ...
another member of the US government:
‘US drugs czar, John Walters, repeated claims that
Venezuela and Bolivia were taking over from Colombia in the export of
cocaine. ‘Venezuela is becoming a real super-highway for cocaine,' said
Walters. There had been a ‘four-fold' increase in the flow through
Venezuela in five years.'
We are not given a link to the data cataloguing this
four-fold increase, but then isn't Walters' word good enough? He is the
drugs czar after all - he should know.
Journalists afflicted with the same degree of paranoia
as Chavez might entertain the idea that there is some cohesion in the
activities between the different departments of the US government.
Indeed investigations by Eva Golinger reveal that the US allegations
might not have stemmed from the treasury at all, but the Pentagon. In
May of this year she reported that:
‘[The] Pentagon has been seeking evidence that
intimately relates President Chávez and his government with the FARC.
Top secret documents from the Department of Defense (that we have
declassified under FOIA) evidence that the Pentagon has been unable to
find proof of a clandestine, subversive relationship between the
Venezuelan government and the FARC. The sources used in some Pentagon
documents that attempt to show such a relationship are completely
unreliable, since they are mass media outlets from Venezuela and
Colombia, such as Globovisión, Caracol, El Universal and El Nacional -
all of whom are aligned with the opposition to Chávez.'
The fact remains that in spite of the different ways in
which Carroll presents the two opposing sets of claims, both are
strictly government claims and cannot be divorced from the political
dynamics operating between the two countries. In this respect
evaluating the prior plausibility of the allegations is especially
Saturday's article is by no means the first time that
Carroll has reported links between the Venezuelan government and FARC.
In previous articles he has attempted to explain these ties as
ideological. On numerous occasions he describes the affinity between
Chavez and FARC as ‘no secret'
, presumably in the hope that if he says it confidently enough no one
would contest it. Nonetheless this will come as a surprise to many
people, particularly as Chavez has explicitly appealed to FARC to give up
their armed struggle. However while Chavez might espouse conciliation
between Colombia's warring sides, Carroll remains under no illusion
regarding Chavez's extremism, referring to him
as ‘a social democrat turned US-bashing communist revolutionary' and a
‘self-described communist'. This latter allegation drew the attention
of David Wearing of UKWatch, who reported the following on his blog:
‘I emailed Carroll to ask for a direct quote ... and he
suggested I'd find one in a transcript of the presidential inauguration
speech. I found the transcript. No quote. When challenged with this in
a subsequent email, Carroll insisted that Chavez had called himself a
communist ‘on television' and that ‘millions of Venezuelans' heard him.
Yet still couldn't summon up a quote.
‘Then a few months later, in an article on Che Guevara
co-written by Carroll (4/9/07), we were quietly told that these days
‘Not even Mr Chávez, the reddest tinge in the pink tide, advocates
communism'. Interesting that just a few months previously Carroll had
repeatedly insisted in print and in correspondence with me that Chavez
had publicly ‘declared himself a communist' and that ‘millions of
Venezuelans', and Carroll, had heard him. Needless to say that I found
this episode puzzling, to put it generously.'
Intriguing indeed. On this note we turn our attention
to evaluating the plausibility of Chavez's allegations. It is here that
Carroll's reporting borders on the farcical. In attempting to provide
some context to the Chavez's allegations, he notes that ‘Venezuela's
president has made previous claims about other alleged conspiracies,
which were never substantiated.' Carroll then goes on to suggest that
Chavez's claims are just populist rhetoric:
‘The timing of yesterday's rhetoric prompted some to
suspect political theatre designed to distract voters. Chavez faces
important municipal and regional elections in November with inflation
at 30%, Latin America's highest, and a spate of damaging headlines
about violent crime and crumbling hospitals.'
What Carroll quite preposterously fails to mention however is that just six years ago the US did support a coup
against Venezuela's democratically elected government. In April 2002
the presidential palace was surrounded by tanks, Chavez was arrested
and promptly ousted from office and replaced with the leader of
Venezuela's business sector lobby group. The coup lasted only 47 hours
however. In one of the more remarkable stories of popular direct
action, Chavez's supporters responded by surrounding the presidential
palace themselves, ultimately forcing the conspirators to back down and
re-installing Chavez as president. US involvement in the coup is now
well known. However in reading through Carroll's articles on Venezuela,
I was moved to doubt whether Carroll actually knew about this crucial
detail. How else could one explain this extract?
‘No one wants a return to the era of CIA-backed coups
and rightwing dictatorships [of the 1970s] but there is, say
policymakers, a yearning for a productive engagement with Washington
that was sorely missed during the distracted Bush administration [my emphasis].'
I was partially relieved then when I finally found an acknowledgement that the coup had taken place. Back in June 2007 Carroll notes:
‘The Bush administration tacitly backed a coup that
briefly ousted Mr Chávez in 2002 and has made no secret of its distaste
for a leader who has thrown an economic lifeline to Fidel Castro's
Does tacit support cover over $20 million dollars of tax-payers money given to anti-Chavez groups and plans to target
the arrest of Chavez as well as 10 other senior officials? On this
point I am prepared to give Carroll the benefit of the doubt. The
strict definition of tacit is ‘understood without being openly expressed'. Perhaps the word Carroll meant therefore was clandestine.
The reality is that Carroll has never intended to steer
an even course between the Chavez government and its opponents. He has
been far more concerned with titillating his readers by slandering the
Venezuelan government. In the same piece in which the Guardian defended
Carroll's journalism, Butterworth notes that
‘[Carroll] considers Chávez's personality to be part of
the story. [He told me]‘"I try to give a sense of how bizarre and funny
some things are...You have to get the tone right... the average reader
knows when a piece is observational and can see for himself what is
Readers can judge for themselves whether or not Carroll
is getting the tone right. If by tone he meant misrepresentation,
selectivity and bizarre omissions, it would appear, to this reader at
least, that Carroll is fast becoming the butt of his own joke.