A Quick Response to BBC’s Article, “Venezuela’s economy in further slide”

There are few things more condescending and arrogant than a journalist who arrives in a foreign country, walks around briefly in its streets, and from a few superficial observations, believes they can make a judgement on the entire economic situation of a country, as well as the social movements and hopes of millions of members of that country.

There are few things more condescending and arrogant than a journalist who arrives in a foreign country, walks around briefly in its streets, and from a few superficial observations, believes they can make a judgement on the entire economic situation of a country, as well as the social movements and hopes of millions of members of that country. In yesterday’s article “Venezuela’s economy in further slide”, BBC journalist Robert Plummer admits it’s been a long time since he set foot in Venezuela.

His article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8464960.stm) is an un-contextualised, gloomy surface skim of a list of things apparently going wrong right now in Venezuela, creating the impression of a dirty, downtrodden country wrecked by economic crisis and bad governance. Ironically, he writes it at a time when the rest of the world really is suffering such a calamity.

He begins by remembering a honey moon stop over trip of his to Caracas in 2002, and suggests that little has changed since then. Caracas has “bags of rubbish piled up”, pro and anti Chavez graffiti, and shops that are “less well-stocked than before”. Oh horror.

It’s hard to know whether these bags of rubbish are part of the simple rubbish collection system here (where rubbish is put out in the street on certain days of the week to be collected), or if its something else, but it is worth pointing out that the current government has invested in a range of large bins, big containers, and small garbage trucks.  And for a bit of balance for the BBC who purports to like the stuff, the UK is the fourth highest producer of industrial waste, whereas Venezuela does not make the list of the 33 highest waste producing countries. The UK also produces 34.85 million tonnes of rubbish per yeah, ranking it 5th in the world, and giving it a per capita production of roughly three times that of Venezuela, with 7.3 million tonnes yearly.

Lots of pro and anti Chavez graffiti. The BBC and most mainstream media always talk about Venezuela in terms of Chavez. It’s true that Chavez is playing a big role here, but he isn’t the only player and there is a lot of grassroots organising that the media tends to condescendingly overlook. Likewise, most graffiti isn’t actually about Chavez, but it is political, interesting, and often very creative and beautiful. Frankly I love it, it makes the streets much more alive and interesting to walk in.

As to the shops having less, well it’s hard to say if that’s true or not. Perhaps some shops do have less. Clearly a sign of a healthy economy that looks after all its citizens is when supermarkets have at least 19 varieties of cereal. Lack thereof is proof that life is rough, and never mind all the advances here in health, education, grassroots democracy, indigenous representation, recuperation of history and culture, and the massive decrease in poverty and extreme poverty.

Plummer’s article intentionally ignores all these things and anything that is positive, preferring to list apparent problem after problem and create the impression that everything is just going wrong and falling apart. He begins his anti-Chavez diatribe by quoting the only person he quotes in the whole article, described as a “former colleague” and therefore probably not Venezuelan. The colleague notices “some deterioration” and so does Plummer, and that’s it, that’s all that has apparently changed about Venezuela since Chavez first became president.

Next, Plummer reads a few of the latest AFP articles about the electricity problems here and the recent devaluation, does a rough summary of them, adds in a quote from “respected survey organisation” Consensus Economics and apart from a few sentences, doesn’t at all bother to examine causes of these issues or propose any possible solutions that the government has some how overlooked.

He concedes that previous administrations are “equally responsible” for the lack of investment in electricity infrastructure, but ignores the other causes of the electricity shortage (such as the draught drying up the main hydropower plant and increased electricity consumption due to higher disposable incomes) and does not mention any of the various projects and agreements that the current government has undertaken in an attempt to deal with the demand. Hence the reader has the impression that the government is doing next to nothing.

Regarding inflation, Plummer’s “research” is selective and plain wrong. He says that inflation was “at least 27% in 2009” when in fact it was 27.6% in 2008 and 25.1% in 2009. He says, “More worrying is Venezuela’s apparent inability to get to grips with persistent inflation.” But inflation under Chavez has averaged 22% and under the previous government of Caldera it averaged 57.8%.

Ah, its doomsday for the Venezuelan economy! Chavez’s attempt to “impose price controls….have largely failed to work” and his “heavy-handed measures…have not done anything to promote economic growth…Venezuela is still bogged down in the financial mire.” Venezuela has been one of the countries least affected by the global economic crisis, why single it out when in the United States many people have lost their homes and jobs? Unemployment here increased by 0.6% last year from 7.4% in 2008 to 8%. This is not a good thing, but relative to other countries, is minor.

Venezuela has also had 20 quarters of non stop economic growth, then last year, a 2.9% contraction in the GDP, but has maintained its levels of social spending.

Finally, Plummer refers to the recent nationalisation proceedings initiated against the Exito supermarket chain, saying its “French owners failed to please Mr Chavez” and that, “As a result [of “failed” price controls, Chavez] has increasingly resorted to the ultimate economic sanction – confiscating the businesses of those who refuse to curb their prices.”

One gets the impression that Chavez is driving around like a dictator, closing shops he doesn’t like and those who don’t charge prices that he has demanded. However, since the recent devaluation of the bolivar, many businesses have increased prices on their current stock, bought at the old exchange rate, thereby earning huge profits at customers’ expense. The majority of workers at Exito support the nationalisation measure, and Exito will now be incorporated into the Corporation of Socialist Markets (COMERSO), a publicly owned network which sells products at subsidised rates.

The BBC’s coverage of Venezuela, in general, is highly biased against the government, but usually includes a few token paragraphs quoting government officials towards the end for “balance”. However, it is clear their main writer in Caracas, Will Grant, sees the country and its processes, changes, mistakes, dreams and problems, from the perspective of a very comfortable first world citizen. He sympathises with the upper class and opposition minority, and complains of petty things like the price of luxury goods, while ignoring all the improvements and the increased voice of the majority poor.

Further, the BBC, like most mainstream press today, targets Venezuela (as well as a short list of other countries like China), constantly highlighting what it perceives to be problems here in a way that it does not do for other countries. The media finds one or two mistakes or problems with the Venezuelan government, and uses it to discredit the Bolivarian revolution, and therefore, the possibility that other ways are possible. On the other hand, the 55% of Mumbai’s population living in slums, and the one billion people in the world living in slums and going without sufficient food, and so on, couldn’t possibly indicate that capitalism is the system that is failing.