Beware of ‘Al Chavezeera’

Competing narratives through channels such as Telesur and Al Jazeera has US diplomats worried, WikiLeaks cables show.

If past diplomatic cables are any indication, the Obama White House may be interested in perpetuating the ongoing US propaganda war in Latin America. According to classified correspondence recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Washington saw Venezuela as an upstart power whose public relations campaign stood to interfere with important US messaging efforts.

It’s no secret that the Bush administration was paranoid about media coverage which had been critical of its international foreign policy, yet as more and more cables have come to light, it is eye-opening to see just how far the State Department was willing to go in equating Middle Eastern media with newly formed South American news outlets.

What seems to have concerned US diplomats most was the possibility that Al Jazeera, whose coverage of the Iraq War had gotten under the skin of the Bush administration, might collaborate with the likes of Venezuela as well as other South American nations. Hardly popular within the Beltway elite, Al Jazeera had broadcast graphic pictures of dead and captured US soldiers during the Iraq War.

When the network aired the footage, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of violating the Geneva conventions. Then, during an April 8, 2003, air raid and artillery barrage on Baghdad, US forces killed at least three journalists, including an Al Jazeera correspondent. According to one report, President Bush no less may have even suggested that Al Jazeera offices in Qatar be bombed during a meeting with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In light of such history, it’s not entirely surprising that diplomats would be alarmed by any growth of more independent and critical international media outlets. In an earlier Al Jazeera column, I detailed some of the US concern with left-leaning South American media, but new cables bring Washington’s fixation on the issue under more scrutiny.

Conflating Al Jazeera and Telesur

In 2005, US officials went into overdrive in their media monitoring efforts, writing Washington that Hugo Chavez was “vigorously pushing” for the creation of a new South American news network named Telesur. US diplomats were concerned about such developments, and commented that, if Telesur proved to be successful, it might “promote Chavez’s ambitions for continental leadership” and even – horror of horrors – lead to “endogenous, (non-US) cultural development”.

In a warning shot which threatened to undermine US-based media such as CNN, Chavez’s Minister of Information Andres Izarra announced that Al Jazeera would open an office in Caracas. The move seems to have alarmed the US embassy, which was seemingly concerned that the Middle Eastern network might collaborate with Telesur in future.

In cloak and dagger fashion, US ambassador William Brownfield narrated how an anonymous “female journalist” representing Al Jazeera had “attended many government of Venezuela press conferences”. If that was not sufficient cause for concern, Brownfield added that the journalist in question had also participated in talk shows aired by Venezolana de Television, a state-owned TV station.

While researching my second book, I had the opportunity to interview Telesur‘s General Manager, Aram Aharonian, personally in Caracas, and asked him whether he was concerned that the Bush administration might react negatively to any Al Jazeera-Telesur collaboration [to see the more unexpurgated interview, which came out in my hometown paper Brooklyn Rail, click here]. Aharonian dismissed any such preoccupations, remarking: “Look, we collaborate with Al Jazeera just as we do with Voice of America. A delegation from Voice of America came to our offices last month, and we came to an agreement to exchange news and images.”

To Brownfield and US diplomats, however, Al Jazeera and Telesur seem to have represented a common hostile front. Indeed, in his communication to Washington, Brownfield even conflated the two, remarking at one point that Telesur could represent “the birth of al-Chavezeera,” or “Chavez’s own CNN.” What is more, Al Jazeera could provide Telesur with “provocative” film footage from the Middle East, which could then be dubbed into Spanish. Shortly thereafter, the Bush administration’s fears came to pass when Telesur began to broadcast in earnest. Moreover, a year after Brownfield sent his cable to the State Department, Telesur announced an official content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera. In Washington, Connie Mack, a right-wing Republican Congressman from Florida, remarked that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists”.

Concern over Cuban connection

For years, Washington has waged an anti-Castro propaganda war on Cuba through the likes of Radio Marti, and therefore not surprisingly the spectre of Cuban-Venezuelan media collaboration looms large in Brownfield’s cable. While the US ambassador noted that Telesur appeared to have “weak legs” for the time being, the diplomat worried that the network would spread pro-Venezuelan and even pro-Cuban ideas.

During my own interview with Aharonian, I asked the Telesur General Manager whether he thought the network would contribute to the end of Cuba’s isolation. “Cubans,” he remarked, have had “a very siege-like mentality, ie that everything that comes from the outside is bad, it’s necessary to defend ourselves, etc. The US has been trying to transmit its media to Cuba for forty years, and it has done it poorly – Radio Marti, for example.”

“We have a different approach,” Aharonian added. “We see our presence in Cuba as an opportunity to get the Cuban people more informed about what is happening in Latin America and in the world. We now get three hours on prime time on Cuban television. In a certain sense, we have a captive audience as there’s not a lot of opportunities to change channels. For us, it’s a beneficial arrangement, and also for Cuba.”

Perhaps, the possibility of greater Cuban-Venezuelan cultural exchange was exactly what bothered US officials. According to Brownfield, Aharonian was a radical Uruguayan exile who originally came to Caracas in the 1980s to open an office of the Cuban media outlet Prensa Latina. Asking around in Caracas for further information on Aharonian, the US embassy located an unnamed foreign correspondent who was all too happy to smear the reputation of a fellow colleague in the interests of furthering US intelligence. According to the reporter, Aharonian had “formal or informal ties” to Cuban spies.

Assessing Telesur’s trajectory

Eager to dispel the notion that Telesur was tied to some kind of specific political agenda, Aharonian told me that the new network would not serve as the mouthpiece for any particular government, Venezuelan or otherwise. “I don’t think there’s any campaign against Bush or anything like that,” he remarked, adding that Telesur was not in favour of the Bush administration either. “Which is a different thing. We give opinions from both sides, which is different from the US media where you have only one side. The idea is to provide more alternative information. In Miami, by contrast, there’s a mentality that we must encourage ‘anti-Cuba’ media, but we at Telesur are providing a balanced public space. We can’t be against anyone.”

At another point in the interview, Aharonian declared that I was “starting from a false assumption”, in believing that Telesur was “against the US”. Though the network had been critical of Washington, Aharonian said, Telesur also provided independent coverage of many Latin American countries. When I pointed Aharonian’s attention to a photo on the wall showing him standing next to Chavez, the Uruguayan exile said that the Venezuelan president never called him and the authorities did not get involved in the station’s business or internal politics.

Such nuanced positions notwithstanding, it appears from WikiLeaks cables that the US embassy was not convinced by such utterances. The ideological tilt of Telesur was evident, diplomats remarked: “leftist, anti-American, and pro-Chavez”. Though the network’s programming was initially “insipid,” the Americans believed the station later demonstrated “qualitative improvement”.

Chavez’s ‘dollar diplomacy’

So much improvement, apparently, that the US embassy saw fit to monitor the station’s finances. Aharonian, one diplomat noted, “is a notoriously slippery character and may not have told the whole truth when he announced their budget as 10 million dollars”. In yet other cables, US officials sought to estimate how much Chavez spent on propaganda more generally, noting that Caracas had signed a $1.2 million contract with lobbying firm Patton Boggs to help improve Venezuela’s image in the US.

As Chavez began to spend lavishly on foreign aid, US diplomats grew even more concerned. In 2006, they noticed that Venezuela was beginning to “win friends and influence countries in the region and beyond”. In a detailed report, the Americans catalogued Chavez’s long list of foreign projects, including projected dollar amounts for a construction initiative in Cuba, an infrastructure loan to the Dominican Republic, and even financial aid to help build an airport on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica.

But the Americans didn’t stop there, honing in on any and all projects which stood to enhance Venezuela’s image, even Chavez’s financing of a samba school in Brazil – as well as scholarships for poor Bolivians, a loan for a hospital in Uruguay, food assistance to the impoverished African nation of Mauritania, and humanitarian aid to Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Personally, Brownfield worried that Chavez could divert some of Venezuela’s National Development Fund to support diplomatic initiatives without effective public scrutiny or oversight.

US diplomats interest in media studies

To read diplomatic cables emanating from the US embassy in Caracas, one might think that their diplomats had turned into graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in Media Studies. In a testament to the rising importance of Venezuela on the political radar, US officials showed a surprising degree of interest in everything from TV to advertising to documentaries to electronic media and even to incendiary billboards and murals.

The US embassy was particularly exorcised over state-owned Venezolana de Television, which aired a video clip depicting crowds queuing up in line to buy liquid fuel canisters during an opposition-led oil lockout. A voice intoned: “The opposition unleashed terrorism on the Venezuelan people and it led to hunger and unemployment. Thanks to the new PDVSA (state oil company), PDVSA is for all of us, all of us are PDVSA.”

In addition to Venezolana de Television, the pro-government tabloid VEA “took on Uncle Sam” and was wont to “lob darts” at the US ambassador “through the use of insulting caricatures or altered photos”. In addition, both Venezolana de Television and VEA put out “soft and friendly” ads featuring a woman “who, thanks to a government of Venezuela micro-credit loan, has established a successful weaving business”.

Documentary film, cyberspace and popular murals

Apparently concerned that poor women receiving money to pursue weaving might one day turn against the US, diplomats left no stone unturned in their wider media analysis, including documentary film. As someone who has participated in panel discussions following screenings of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a film dealing with the 2002 coup directed at the Chavez government, I was particularly intrigued by US officials’ alarm over the documentary.

In a cable, the Embassy noted with disappointment that the film had been catching on with major screenings being held “at several prestigious US universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California system, and most recently at the Lincoln Centre in New York”. Unfortunately, noted US diplomats, the mainstream media had not seen fit to question “the documentary’s veracity” and so the pro-Chavez documentary had started to attract a following.

The US embassy worried about the internet, too. “The government of Venezuela,” noted one cable, “liberally uses cyberspace to spread its war on the oligarchy, neoliberalism, the United States government, and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.” I was personally intrigued to find that diplomats were concerned about such pro-Chavez websites as venezuelanalysis.com and vheadline.com, both of which I have written for at one time or another.

During a trip to Caracas in 2006, I was taken aback by incendiary pro-Chavez murals in Caracas, and apparently the US embassy was, too [to see some photos I took during my stay, click here]. Writing to Washington, diplomats took note of one billboard which bore the slogan: “Venezuela now belongs to all of us.” Yet another had shots of Chavez embracing an elderly woman, listening to a young girl sporting a red beret, and laughing along with a member of one of Venezuela’s indigenous tribes.

The monitoring of popular imagery continued into the Obama era, with the US embassy cabling Washington in late 2009 in relation to a mural attacking Bush’s successor in Washington. In central Caracas, diplomats declared: “A prominently displayed, high-quality painted mural denigrating President Obama is currently on public display.” The mural in question depicted Obama’s face divided into two parts, “one half machine and the other half human”. Off to the left, a caption read: “Toy of the Empire. Easy to use, totally manipulatable,” while to the right, another read: “False Nobel Prize. 68 thousand Yankee soldiers in the Middle East. 680 billion dollars for the war.”

The US embassy sent photos of the mural to Washington in an attachment, noting that the public art work “seems to have been professionally produced”. Diplomats added that they would submit a formal letter of protest to the local mayor and request that the mural be removed.

Monitoring everyone from celebrities to students

Though certainly extensive, the embassy’s propaganda monitoring efforts were not limited to public art and cyberspace. In 2004, for example, the Americans grew concerned about US celebrities who had grown sympathetic toward Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, including actor Danny Glover and even boxing promoter Don King. Even worse, Venezuela had expanded its network of so-called “Bolivarian Circles” in the US, including Florida, New York, Washington DC, Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and sympathisers had organised pro-Chavez rallies in such public spaces as Times Square.

The notion that US and Venezuelan leftists might make common cause was apparently not very agreeable to the American embassy. US diplomats related that the director of the Bolivarian Circle of Miami, Alvaro Sanchez, was seeking to recruit US university students to work for Chavez’s Barrio Adentro health programme. The embassy was so interested in Sanchez that it saw fit to pass along the activist’s personal email address, adding that the Miami native had sought out volunteer students to teach English in poor Venezuelan barrios.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to speak to members of Venezuela’s innovative Women’s Bank or Banco de la Mujer, and in my second book I discussed the interesting story of the entity’s director, Nora Castaneda. From diplomatic correspondence, it seems I wasn’t the only one who had picked up on the novel institution: US officials noted that the bank had deployed women to the US to “to talk to audiences of the glories of the Bolivarian Revolution and to lambaste the US government’s hurtful neo-liberal policies that aim to enslave the populations of developing countries”.

US propaganda counter-offensive

In other ways, too, Chavez managed to show up the US in Latin America, for example through Venezuela’s promotion of international conferences. Through skillful and shrewd use of so-called Bolivarian People’s Congresses, Chavez was able “to spread his ideology and influence”. Diplomats suspected that the congresses provided a means for Chavez to come through with direct assistance for other impoverished Latin American nations.

The embassy was apparently so concerned about Chavez’s growing profile at such venues that it saw fit to forward the names of individual indigenous representatives from Ecuador who attended the December 2004 Bolivarian Congress. “While anti-imperialism, ie anti-American sentiment, is often a hook with many indigenous leaders,” diplomats remarked, “Chavez also capitalises on racial or ethnic tensions. In countries like Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador he uses these tensions to encourage mass protests and demonstrations and to undermine shaky governments or weaken others from the left flank.”

By 2006, the US clearly saw the need for greater countermeasures to offset Chavez’s propaganda offensive. In a cable to Washington, Ambassador Brownfield endorsed the US Southern Command’s planned “partnership of the Americas” maritime surge into the Caribbean, to be led by aircraft carrier the USS George Washington. Always the Machiavellian, Brownfield saw great PR value in the naval show of force. Specifically, the diplomat declared, “the deployment will help us to counter President Hugo Chavez’ courtship of Caribbean countries and his attempts to pit them against the United States”.

Brownfield believed that, by providing direct benefits to local people, the USS George Washington would provide a “stark contrast” to Chavez’s supposed failure to combat drug trafficking and promote economic development in the Caribbean region. Brownfield planned to portray the carrier group deployment as a “routine US military and humanitarian outreach to the region” leading to economic benefits for local people at various ports of call.

Always the wily diplomat, Brownfield hoped that Chavez would “take the bait”, deplore the US as imperialist, and thereby appear “at best silly and at worst clinically paranoid”. One of the more scheming US diplomats to emerge from WikiLeaks cables, Brownfield hoped that Chavez would “alienate himself if he publicly suggests participating countries are collaborating in the US military’s alleged machinations against him”. The ambassador added: “This is a win-win for us.”

Preoccupation over Telesur’s South American expansion

By 2007, one year after Brownfield sent his cable to Washington about the US naval deployment, US diplomats candidly admitted that they were in an all out propaganda war with Venezuela. In correspondence disclosed by Argentine paper Pagina/12, US diplomats spoke about the need to counteract media initiatives launched by Chavez, including Telesur, an outlet which served as the “main source to broadcast anti-US propaganda,” running “particularly slick” documentaries about CIA meddling in Latin America.

According to WikiLeaks cables, the Americans monitored Telesur General Manager Aharonian not just in Venezuela but in other countries farther afield. When Aharonian traveled to Chile to promote Telesur, US diplomats were on the case, noting that the Uruguayan radical had met with local government officials. The Americans even took note of Aharonian’s address to the Professional Journalists’ Association meeting in Vina del Mar, remarking that “the presentation included a 15-minute speech followed by a 15- minute promo-tape.” The US embassy in Santiago was apparently concerned that Telesur might form a partnership with Chile’s main cable TV operator, VTR, and diplomats later spoke with representatives of the local station in an effort to ascertain the feasibility of any deal.

Assessing WikiLeaks’ lasting Impact

Yet, based on the past year of WikiLeaks’ revelations and the “cablegate scandal”, one might conclude that the public and media establishment will only take note of declassified information if it is linked to blatant illegalities. Perhaps we will have to wait, therefore, for a CIA leaker or other high level intelligence agencies to disclose more insidious deeds before we can get a wholesale debate about the course of US foreign policy.

That’s a pity, however. Though “cablegate” hasn’t revealed scandal at the same level as, say, the Iran-Contra affair or covert wars in Central America, the cables show the State Department as a deeply crass and troubling agency. Perhaps the lasting question, then, is whether the US public believes that devoting considerable diplomatic resources to monitoring the Latin American media and counteracting Chavez’s propaganda initiatives is constructive or even particularly moral.

Sadly, for the time being, Americans seem passive and accepting of business as usual. Perhaps in the long run, however, they will start to demand reform at the State Department and a thorough revamping of US foreign policy – so as to reflect a more conciliatory and harmonious relationship with Latin America, as opposed to the patronising and sardonic posturing of diplomats such as Ambassador Brownfield.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left, and Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the US. Visit his web site, www.nikolaskozloff.com