Stephen Sackur’s June 13th article in The Guardian, “Hugo Chavez grants rare interview to Western media,” is quite prejudiced and could use some journalistic objectivity, even if the author is against President Chávez and everything he stands for. I was there for the interview, and saw Chávez respond with concrete answers, some that would be quite convincing to a neutral observer, but I do not see any of these points included. It seems that the author included only rhetorical points that Chávez made about capitalism, etc., rather than trying to allow the reader to hear the other side of the story. We can only hope that the televised interview does not selectively edit for the same effect.
It is possible to write an article that is highly critical of Chávez – if that is the author’s intention – without so much exaggeration and misleading or inaccurate statements.
Below is the original article with comments pointing out some of the most glaring examples.
Hugo Chávez grants rare interview to Western media
By Stephen Sackur. The Guardian. June 13, 2010
Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez intends to inject new urgency into his socialist, anti-imperialist revolution because, he says, there is clear evidence that “capitalism is destroying the world”.
In a combative 60-minute interview with the BBC Hardtalk programme in the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela’s president blamed his country’s deepening recession on the irresponsible economic policies of the US and he expressed disappointment with Barack Obama’s “very negative signals” towards Latin America.
“I wish Obama would focus on governing the United States and would forget his country’s imperialist pretensions,” the 55-year-old leader said.
Chávez rarely grants extended interviews to the western media. [What is “rarely?” Chávez did interviews recently with Larry King, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, John Lee Anderson (of the New Yorker, twice), not to mention CNN en Espanol just weeks ago . . . many others that I don’t have in front of me. Has Lula or any other Latin American president given more “extended interviews” than Chávez has to western media? I can’t recall anyone who has.]
This one was arranged to coincide with the Caracas premiere of Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border. The film portrays a Latin America being transformed by leftist radicalism. The leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador all get walk-on parts, but it is their Venezuelan counterpart who has the starring role. Stone and Chávez shared a limousine to the red carpet launch of the film in Caracas’s national theatre.
“What’s being going on in Venezuela for the last 10 years is amazing – a piece of history. The least I can do is introduce this man and this movement to the American people,” said Stone, Chávez beaming by his side.
Whether many Venezuelans will ever see the film remains unclear. The premiere was full of Socialist party bigwigs and activists who hooted with delight as their president was seen lambasting George Bush, beating off a coup attempt in 2002 and generally adopting the mantle of a 21st-century Castro. But no amount of support from a maverick US film-maker can disguise a simple truth; domestic support for Chávez’s “Bolívarian socialism” is being sorely tested by a second consecutive year of recession.
[This is a somewhat exaggerated commentary. There are no reliable polls in Venezuela, and the ones cited in the press are almost always opposition, but still I cannot find any recent poll, even from an opposition polling firm such as Datanalisis that shows Chávez with less than majority support. Most importantly, I cannot find any poll showing that people identified with the opposition come close in numbers to those who identify as pro-Chávez. If the author has empirical support for this statement, he should cite it.
(Ed. Note – Bloomberg cited a Datanalisis poll in an article published after the writing of this response. The poll shows Chávez with an approval rating of 48 percent, a 6 percent increase from the previous month. According to Gallup, this approval rating is the same as President Obama’s. Unlike in reporting polls in the United States, where partisan pollsters are reported as Republican or Democrat, Datanalisis is reported in neutral terms. José Antonio Gil Yépez, the current President of Datanálisis, has been quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying of President Chávez, “He has to be killed.” )
Also, just to clarify with regard to “a second consecutive year of recession,” at worst the recession could be said to have started in the first quarter of 2009, in which case we can say that it has been in recession for one year, or possibly 1.25 years. (By the most common definition of recession, 2 consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, we have at most 3 quarters of recession, i.e. less than one year).
The point here is not to argue that the author should go into the technicalities of measuring the business cycle, but his wording does make it sound worse than it is.]
Venezuela possesses the biggest oil reserves outside the Middle East and supplies more than a tenth of US oil imports, but still the economy has woefully underperformed others in Latin American in the last two years. [This is misleading. A number of countries in Latin America did worse than Venezuela over the last two years, including, most prominently, Mexico. The majority of countries in the hemisphere had negative growth in 2009. We have only one quarter of data for 2010.]
Inflation is at 30% and seems likely to rise further. [Chávez answered this by pointing out that inflation was higher in the decade before he took office, including hitting more than 100 percent in 1996 and 40 percent in 1998.]
The Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, has been devalued [This is a good thing, it should be devalued further. This is a common mistake among non-economists, to think that a “strong” – i.e. overvalued – currency is good for the economy, and a devaluation necessarily bad.] and is still sinking among Caracas’s parallel market money changers. In the capital’s sprawling hillside barrios jobs are scarce
[Jobs are much less scarce than when Chávez took office, with unemployment at 7.9 percent in 2009 compared to 15.3 percent in 1999, something Chávez also mentioned. Total employment also increased quite substantially during these years, from 84.7 to 92.1 percent of the labor force. An article like this would never mention it, but the vast majority of these jobs were created in the private sector. I gave this data and more to the author, but he did not seem interested. Here is a report on the first 10 years of the Chávez presidency that highlights some of these key points.]
and Chávez’s party is looking electorally vulnerable just three months before parliamentary elections. [This is not yet clear; in a non-presidential year election, turnout will be decisive, as only about 1/3 of the electorate typically votes. Chávez’s party has a sizeable organization with 7 million members; the opposition has nothing comparable. In the absence of data, this is little more than wishful thinking. Of course, many outcomes are possible.]
He blamed the economic woes squarely on America’s “rampant, irresponsible capitalism” which was taking the world “on the road to hell”. “In England and in Europe you should know this,” he said. “You have more problems than we do.”
Chávez quoted a stream of economic statistics to illustrate his claim that his 11 years in power had “begun to redress the balance between a very rich Venezuelan minority and a very poor majority” – unemployment halved, extreme poverty down from 25% to 5%, he said.
[I find it remarkable that the vast changes in Venezuelan society that explain why this man was re-elected 3 times, each time with a larger majority, are reduced to this one sentence referring to “a stream of economic statistics” cited by a source that the media has demonized and therefore is not likely to make a dent in the overwhelming negative thrust of this article.
As I explained to the author, these are vast improvements by any historical or international comparison, and these statistics are accepted and used by the World Bank, the UN Economic Commission on Latin America, and other international statistical agencies. These statistics are no less internationally accepted than those of the UK.
And this doesn’t even include that poor people now have free health care, and vastly expanded access to education; social spending per person has more than tripled. (The poverty and extreme poverty rates are based only on cash income.) See this report for more information.]
Domestic critics of his nationalisation programme – which has turned the oil, power and agriculture sectors into vast state bureaucracies [The oil industry was nationalised in early 1976, when Chávez was still a young man of 21. I’m not sure what the author means by a “vast state bureaucracy” in power or agriculture.]– accuse him of creating a “Bolívarian bourgeoisie” of corrupt officials and cronies. [Accusations are fine, but some evidence would be more convincing.]
But Chávez emphasized he intended to go further with his socialist model. Privately owned enterprises are now being expropriated [Few if any nationalizations have taken place without compensation, for example, in the oil industry all foreign companies were bought out so that the government could have its legal majority share; some 29 of 33 accepted the government’s offer; the others went to arbitration in a court friendly to the oil companies.] with increasing frequency – a recent controversial example involved the French-owned Exito supermarket chain after allegations of profiteering and currency manipulation.
“Eleven years ago I was quite gullible,” he said. “I even believed in a third way, I thought it was possible to put a human face on capitalism. But I was wrong. The only way to save the world is through socialism, but a socialism that exists within a democracy; there’s no dictatorship here.”
But a crackdown on opposition [Crackdown? What is a crackdown? One media owner who uses his ownership of a large media outlet as a political weapon against the government has an arrest warrant against him – selective prosecution, perhaps, but I was just watching his station last week and they were still showing anti-government propaganda that would not be shown even on Fox News in the United States. This is not to defend such isolated incidents – of which there have been only a handful in the last 11 years -- but why does the author have to exaggerate so much, giving a false impression that the media is intimidated or subject to a “crackdown,” when most of it is still controlled by the opposition? Why not just report it as it is, that Venezuela’s media is one of the most oppositional in the hemisphere, certainly more than the U.S., although there have been a few arrests in the last 6 years or so for things like criminal libel laws (which I am of course against but do exist even in some European countries?). Certainly the author can be harshly critical of any such actions without creating such a grossly exaggerated picture of the reality of press freedom in Venezuela.] was highlighted last Friday with an arrest warrant issued for the owner of the TV channel Globovisión, which takes a critical line against Chávez.
[This is also misleading, did he get arrested for “taking a critical line against Chávez?” If so, the vast majority journalists in Venezuela would have to be arrested too.]
Guillermo Zuloaga has since gone into hiding, but he recently told Hardtalk: “I have the right to have my own personal opinions and to say whatever I like about Mr Chávez … he has to be able to accept criticism.”
“The socialism that Chávez is looking for is just a way to manufacture poor people.”
During the interview Chávez became visibly agitated when questioned about his government’s respect for an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and the rights of political opponents.
[I saw this interview, and it was much more of a debate than an interview. The author was engaging Chávez in a debate, sometimes Chávez had to fight to get in a response. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this format, but it’s not surprising that Chávez might get agitated – I have never seen an interview of this nature, not from the late Tim Russert or any journalist known for challenging questions and follow-ups – it was a debate format, not an interview format, without a moderator.]
As the tension rose Oliver Stone, who was seated in a corner listening intently to the exchanges, gestured to the president with both hands. The message was easy to read: calm down.
Chávez claimed Venezuela’s press was “100 times more free than that in the US”, but when challenged over the recent suspension of the privately run RCTV, ostensibly for failing to abide by a legal requirement to air his numerous (often very long) [This too is very misleading, the legal dispute was about whether RCTV was an “international” station, as it unsuccessful tried to litigate, and therefore not subject to domestic regulation, or whether it was a domestic station.] addresses to the nation, he again went on the attack. “Another lie of yours. You’re a great compiler of lies. Where did you get these huge lies from? Listen, are you a qualified journalist?”
It’s not Chávez’s domestic record that most concerns the West; it’s his determination to create an “axis of unity” with those he sees as fellow strugglers against western imperialism. He lists the leaders of China, Russia, Syria and Belarus as “good friends”, along with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. [Chávez answered this quite succinctly; his closes allies are democratically elected leaders like Lula, he even mentioned Berlusconi as a good friend. He also pointed out the media’s extreme prejudice in only pointing to his friendships with “enemies” of the US.]
In the last three years Tehran and Caracas have strengthened military and intelligence co-operation while deepening trade ties, and Chávez responded indignantly to the latest round of UN sanctions against Iran. “Venezuela is a free country and we will not be blackmailed by anyone. We will not accept being told what to do over Iran, we will not accept being anyone’s colony,” said Chávez. [Neither will Brazil or NATO member Turkey, by the way.]
But he categorically denied claims frequently aired in the US that Venezuela is supplying Iran with uranium.
[Huh? Venezuela doesn’t even produce uranium. Sorry, this is ridiculous. What else should Chávez be forced to “categorically deny?”]
His disappointment with the US president was expressed in highly personal terms. “I shook Obama’s hand and I said, ‘I want to be your friend.’ My hand is still outstretched. I am not Obama’s enemy but it’s difficult not see imperialism in Washington. Those who don’t see it, don’t want to see it, like the ostrich.”
The president did have a dialogue with the last Democrat in the White House, and that memory seems to have sharpened his disillusionment with Obama. ‘I said to Hilary Clinton in front of President Obama, ‘I wish I could enjoy the same relationship with a US president that I had when your husband was in power.’”
Chávez refused to say whether he would seek another term in elections scheduled for 2012. Though few doubt that he will, having pushed through the abolition of term-limits in a hard-fought referendum and he has spoken of ruling until 2030.
“Fidel has spent his whole life on his [revolution],” Chávez said. “Whatever life I have left I will dedicate to this peaceful democratic revolution in Venezuela.”