How the Mass Media Tamed the Perplexed Herd in Venezuela

The perplexed herd—international public opinion—is letting itself be guided by a national Venezuelan media that only shows one side of the story of what is happening in Venezuela. The human rights situation cannot be judged without hearing the other side's story

March 14, 2004

In an article of February 24,[1] I announced that the opposition was preparing “to repudiate the arbiter and to produce a situation of chaos in the country.” Three days later, anti-Chavista forces organized a march that attempted to approach the area where the Group of 15[2] was meeting, knowing that they were expressly prohibited from doing so. The National Guard stopped them, but small groups begin to burn tires and to provoke the state security forces. The day ended with a death toll of one and 21 wounded. The next day the national and international media, in an orchestrated campaign, open their front pages with big headlines blaming what happened on the government and the National Guard.

The opposition did not manage to bring about a major demonstration, but it did manage to create the images of chaos and violence that it needed.

The outbreaks of violence continued for five days. The smoke of burnt tires and teargas invaded the elegant homes of the neighborhoods of Caracas’s East.

The National Electoral Council is once again in a holding pattern

In the midst of this situation, on March 2nd, CNE (National Electoral Council) President Francisco Carrasquero reveals that the opposition has only 1,832,493 out of 2,452,179 signatures that are needed and that 816,017 signatures must be revised in accordance with the norms, since there are some doubts about the authenticity of these signatures because they present similar handwriting. In other words, the opposition must get 619,686 persons to return and present themselves at one of the 2,600 tables that will be distributed throughout the country, to confirm that they did indeed sign.

A little later, the international observers of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center issued a pronouncement about the CNE’s plans and the country’s situation.

According to them, the signature collection process had sufficient control mechanisms, such as: 1) the use of watermarked security paper for the forms; 2) the inclusion of forms’ serial numbers in the closing documents; 3) the clear identification of citizens via the request for a signature and a fingerprint; 4) the physical verification of the forms, including the checking of citizen names against the voter registry; 5) the examination of the closing documents so as to verify that the forms were duly related to these documents; and finally, 6) the presence of witnesses from both sides and of personnel trained and designated by the CNE.

The observers of the Carter Center and the OAS also recognized the CNE’s good will in having followed their recommendations and manifested their support for “the efforts of the electoral power in finding the necessary guarantees for the citizens,” who wanted to revise their signatures, “exhorting them to continue in this direction.”

Nonetheless, discrepancies have become public with regard to the arbitrator’s decision to re-certify the so-called “exercise” forms, that is, those in which the data was written by the same hand on an entire form. They use as argument that which they observed during their review of the signature signing tables during the signature collection process. They recall having seen cases in which people at the tables offered to write the personal data for someone else and then put the other put their signature and thumbprint.

The OAS and Carter center consider that one must “assume the good will of the citizen as a universal principle” and that, as such, one should not question all of these signatures, as the electoral body has done.

What these international observers do not know, because it has never been made public, is that the sixth condition, one of the key conditions for guaranteeing the will of the signers, the presence of witnesses form both sides during the entire process of signature recollection was not followed properly. This was both due to the inexperience of the Chavista witnesses, who were insufficiently vigilant of the fraudulent maneuvers of the opposition, as well as due to the frequent absence of Chavista witnesses during the trips that the itinerant forms made, that is, those which went outside the area of the signature collection locales, in order to traverse the neighborhood in search of signatures.

It would obviously have been much easier to explain why the so-called “exercise” forms were suspicious if the Comando Ayacucho, the group politically responsible for the process on the part of the Chavistas, had recognized this weakness once the signature collection process ended.

The absence or incompetence of Chavista witnesses, the possibility that the opposition had maintained in its power the physical forms for nearly a month, and the tradition of fraud of the traditional parties, whose dimensions had rarely been seen in the history of other countries, make it absolutely understandable and desireable that all of the signatures be revised.

Saying this does not mean that the CNE is doubting the “good will” of the signers, rather, and with reason, what is being doubted is the good will of the political operators of the opposition, who have been accustomed by decades of fraud and electoral muddying that “fabricated citizen will.”

There is no doubt that not taking into account these elements and revealing criticisms of the recent CNE decisions to re-certify the “exercise” forms, the OAS and the Carter Center have provided the opposition with elements for disavowing the CNE and for continuing to place obstacles in the signature verification process.

One should ask why the opposition places so many problems in the path of re-certifying the “exercise” forms if it has repeatedly said that it has over three million signatures? The only plausible explanation is that it does not have the necessary number of signatures.

Currently the CNE is ensnared because there still is no agreement among all parties as to how to realize the re-certification process (the “repair”). On the other hand, emboldened by these declarations, an opposition sector is looking to go directly to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in this case, so that it might pronounce itself in opposition to the CNE decision and considers the signatures on the “exercise” forms valid. If this happens, one would have to go straight to a recall referendum against the president.

But who can assure that an opposition that bypasses the rules of the game whenever it is convenient to its interests will accept the verdict of the people at the urns if this verdict should prove to be favorable to Chavez?

The Violence Backfires against the Opposition

Negative with regard to the recall process, the declarations of the OAS and Carter Center were very positive with regard to their condemnation of the violence unleashed in Venezuela and justified the participation of the National Guard in the maintenance of public order.

Jennifer McCoy, representative of the Carter Center, rejected any violent solution and called on all citizens, the media, and the public forces to avoid violence and to protect the life of all Venezuelans. Fernando Jaramillo, observer of the OAS, for his part, said verbatim: “the members of the National Guard are receiving orders and completing a mission, […] its difficult to think that the NG or the military forces cannot combat anarchy in the country, and for this reason too we make a call to the citizens […] with all respect for their rights to protest, consecrated in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, that they do so in a peaceful manner, that is what is most important.”

The opposition strategy of provoking cells of violence in order to amplify and diffuse en masse an image of chaos and ungovernability in the country, which would prepare the terrain for a potential foreign intervention, thus suffered a serious blow.

But not only the international observers rejected the violence; more rejection was provoked among the inhabitants of the accommodated barrios. Their own spaces suffered the consequences. The burning of tires, the destruction of street lights and all types of signs, the cutting of trees, and the dumping of garbage to burn and make barricades, the tear gas, produced an ambiance of war and devastation. Hundreds of millions of Bolivars will be spent to repair the damage caused by the focal groups, provoked by opposition mayors and political leaders. Internal surveys reflect that more than the 80% of the population rejects this violence.

Human Rights in the Center of the New Media Campaign

In the face of the obvious failure of the intent to gather internal strength with their violent project, the opposition’s political command thus decided to make an about face in their campaign: avoid acts of violence, peacefully protest in the streets and initiate a new campaign.

With the images of victims of violence that they themselves unleashed, which symptomatically occurred in areas where there were television cameras, a well-orchestrated global media campaign was launched against the current Venezuelan government—one of the most democratic and least repressive governments of the world—accusing it of violating human rights.

The resignation of Milos Alacalay, Ambassador to the UN[3] on March 4, accusing the Venezuelan authorities of human rights abuses, served as additional fodder for this campaign.

The image filmed by the 24-hour news channel Globovision on the first day of the violent protests, on February 27th, of a young woman thrown to the floor by the National Guard, after having marched unarmed but with a firm pace towards the first lines of defense of the state security forces, fits those objectives.

What the media did not broadcast is that the beaten-up young woman is a karate athlete—her martial arts training is obvious when you see the way she walked and fell to the floor—that she was previously instructed to go forward and to provoke the National Guard. Why is Globovision at that place precisely at that time? Why did they edit out the initially transmitted image where the woman insulted and spit on the soldiers’ faces? Why don’t they say is that those who replied to her provocation were inexperienced women in uniform who committed the mistake of not controlling themselves in the face of such a situation?

Why don’t they report that one of the deaths was a victim of shots fired from a hunting weapon (with a marble as a bullet), used by hired agent provocateurs of the so-called “democratic opposition?”

Why don’t they say that six members of the National Guard were wounded by bullets, one in the face, another one in the legs, while trying to preserve the order in Venezuela?

Why is the government accused of the detention of several political activists and one does not report that Carlos Melo, leader of the party Causa R, was detained while carrying two light automatic rifles, known as “FAL,” a weapon of war, exclusively used by the military and already rejected by the First World armies, because a shot of that caliber can split a person in two?

Why it is it not reported that with the use of the ATD technique, gunpowder was discovered on the hands of two policemen from Baruta (municipal police of a mayor opposed to Chavez government), proving that it was members of the police, and not the National Guard, who used guns against the protesters?

Why are the images of a raid where military uniforms and different kinds of weapons were found inside a private home not shown?

Why are images of the evident brutality of paid provokers—according to several detainees—who destroyed the Fifth Republic Movement and Comando Ayacucho headquarters, located at the Libertador Ave and Los Caobos respectively, not shown?

How can it be justified that the very anti-Chavez mayor of Chacao, a residential municipality of Caracas, shows up throwing stones on the Libertador Ave and carrying a 9mm gun in a peaceful march, when it is nationally and internationally forbidden to participate with guns in marches? How can it be justified that this character did not take the appropriate measures to avoid that the symbolic Altamira plaza—where the opposition usually gathers—be razed and that the traffic signs, street lights, and fences destroyed?

Why has the media not broadcast the statements of Chavez and of other members of his government when they declared their disposition to investigate any excesses in the use of public force against the protesters?

Why has it not been highlighted that the President of the Republic and the Communications Minister have highly valued the important peaceful march conducted by the opposition on Friday the 5th, where both the Metropolitan Police and the National Guard stood at their positions without being forced to intervene?

The international community should have answers to these questions before making statements on the Human Rights situation in Venezuela.

It is heartbreaking to see how many countries are being receptive to this campaign. In our opinion this reflects the scarce critical distance that many political personalities of the world have in the face of information broadcast by the media. It is hard to believe that renowned personalities have become part of the “perplexed herd” tamed by the media of which Chomsky speaks in one of his books.

Translated by Gregory Wilpert, Dawn Gable, and Yosvany Deya Martinez.

[2] Which groups 19 countries of the South.

[3] He supported the coup government of the 11th and 12th of April 2002 and only due to the benevolence of Chavez maintained his position.