The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl Strikes Out on Venezuela

Jackson Diehl's appraisal of that country's political situation grossly "strikes out" due to its surfeit of flaws.

Isn’t it fitting that Jackson Diehl uses a baseball metaphor in his August 2 “A Missile from the South,” which savages Venezuela’s President Chavez with surprising immoderacy. The author’s appraisal of that country’s political situation grossly “strikes out” due to its surfeit of flaws. But, in true Chavista style, Diehl’s extended “rant” exemplifies the misdirected assessment that permeates some, but by no means all, media accounts, which often have heightened tension rather than enhanced comprehension of Venezuela’s political complexities. By referring to Chavez’ predicted referendum victory as an “incoming missile,” Diehl’s own inflammatory rhetoric can only worsen the explosive atmosphere existing in a country already split in half. If heeded, it is likely to cause grave damage to Washington’s alarmingly strained standing throughout Latin America.

Diehl’s attempt to label Chavez as an ultra-leftwing populist leader distorts the Venezuelan president’s commitment to reforming the country’s long neglected institutions while reversing the chronic disregard for its impoverished majority. This poverty was not produced by Chavez, but has profoundly motivated him to address the nation’s protracted social conflicts. Economic set-backs, exemplified by last year’s opposition-orchestrated general strike, cost the country several billion dollars. But this expense is now being offset by unanticipated revenue from Venezuela’s daily production of 2.9 million barrels in oil output. Nor, was it Chavez who pauperized the middle class; a series of work stoppages called by the opposition, including the infamous January 2003 strike, markedly worsened its members financial standing. Due to the country’s recent oil windfall, Caracas now has been able to earmark funds to implement an estimated $1.7 billion in welfare programs targeted at the poor.

Such social-spending priorities, however, will almost certainly be overturned after the August 15 referendum, if the pro-business opposition gains power. In a brazen attempt to resurrect the unpopular neoliberal policies that dominated the pre-Chavez era, the president’s critics plan to “flexibilize” the current Hydrocarbons Law and auction off state-owned electric companies to the highest bidder. Although such moves will go down well in Washington, they will not in the barrios of Caracas.

Diehl’s failure to spell out the anti-Chavez bloc’s continued controversial relationship with Washington further undermines his argument, leaving it one-sided and flawed. Chavez’ foes have repeatedly petitioned the Bush Administration for both funding and guidance in their numerous attempts to thwart Venezuela’s democratically-elected president. While Chavez’ recent hounding of Súmate could be called an abhorrent attack on civil liberties, Diehl also should have told us that it would be patently illegal for the Venezuelan government to fund anti-Bush political groups, like Súmate, to operate here in the U.S., as Washington has financed Caracas-based anti-Chavez entities. What would the White House do if Chavez funded U.S. organizations trying to unseat the Bush administration? During the build-up to the 2002 opposition-led failed coup, Washington spent at least $4 million in semi-covert funds to assist anti-Chavez activists to overthrow the Venezuelan leader.

A principal conduit for such U.S. funds has been the rightist National Endowment for Democracy, a Reagan-era backdoor financing operation which has repeatedly tinkered with democratic processes throughout the developing world, most noticeably in Haiti and Nicaragua. This partisan organization, for example, provided a $300,000 grant to the Center for Dissemination of Economic Information, an opposition-run institute headed by staunchly anti-Chavez advocate Rocio Guijarro.

Diehl’s failure to be even-handed in assessing blame is matched by his inability to adequately comprehend the sinuosities of Venezuela’s national life and Chavez’ populist strategy. By branding the Venezuelan president a friend of “dictators, demagogues, and terrorists,” Diehl unashamedly spends words while misinterpreting Chavez’ international agenda by linking him with rogue regimes, rather than with those seeking their own autonomous path.

Moreover, Chavez eludes Diehl’s caricature of the Venezuelan leader as a ranking human-rights violator, autocrat, and strong man. Instead, he’s a loud-mouthed maverick who has good cause to despise the U.S. Both domestically and internationally, he is more bark than bite. Could many of Washington’s closest allies, such as Pakistan, China and Malaysia, be considered as democratic as Chavez’ Venezuela?

Contrary to Diehl’s misguided remarks, Chavez’ much publicized meeting with Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with ideology, but was part of an extensive OPEC-related tour, which also included discussions with staunch U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Venezuelan leader had only the most superficial ties to the Iraqi dictator, no different than those President Bush has had with a dozen tainted leftist and rightist regimes. Furthermore, if, as Diehl infers, face-to-face discussions with Iraq’s former dictator automatically render a visitor a supporter of terror, should the same language be thrown at Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld? Both dealt with the now deposed Iraqi leader during the 1980s, when Saddam was a worse tyrant than he was when attacked by the U.S. last year.

The accusatory remarks concerning Venezuela’s subsidized sale of oil to Cuba also illustrate a clear misrepresentation of fact. As the co-founding member of the long-standing San Jose Pact, Venezuela, before Chavez gained power, along with its Mexican counterpart, provided Caribbean and Central American countries with subsidized petroleum. At present, this aid totals 160,000 barrels a day of oil, sold at a reduced financing charge to foster regional economic development. Cuba is but one of ten nations that benefit from this joint Mexican-Venezuelan facility, receiving only 53,000 barrels of the overall supply.

By insinuating that Washington’s inaction towards Chavez is “unprecedented” within Latin America, Diehl all but mocks Bush for not launching a sharper response to Chavez. Does this mean that force shouldn’t be ruled out if the nettlesome leader retains power after winning the August 15 referendum? Such thinking would harken back to Washington’s appalling policies from the 1920s until the 1990s. During this period, leftist democratically-elected governments critical of Washington’s Cold War crusade were routinely undone, while brutally oppressive dictators, like those of Nicaragua, Argentina and Guatemala, were feted.

Shame on such a senior Washington Post figure for dousing Chavez with such flammable fuel – which, if ignited, could further seriously undermine the U.S.’ professed intention to consolidate democracy throughout the hemisphere and destroy what little standing this country has today throughout the region.

To view Jackson Diehl’s article, please use the link below:

This op-ed was co-authored by Larry Birns, Director of The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), and Mark Scott, a COHA Research Associate

August 11, 2004

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