Media & Opposition: False Perceptions of Venezuela’s Democracy

Earlier this week Al Jazeera English published an article by Nikolas Kozloff. The focus of Kozloff’s latest article was the Cuban-Venezuelan “Barrio Adentro” initiative, a social mission which provides free healthcare to Venezuela’s poor, and free, community based training for Venezuelan medical students.


Earlier this week Al Jazeera English published an article by Nikolas Kozloff, a former academic turned author who now spends his time writing satire and lambasting the Venezuelan government while hiding behind his Oxford PhD as a veil of objectivity. The focus of Kozloff’s latest article was the Cuban-Venezuelan “Barrio Adentro” initiative, a social mission which provides free healthcare to Venezuela’s poor, and free, community based training for Venezuelan medical students.

Despite the program being one of the government’s most popular, and the fact that it is often cited as an exemplary case of Cuban internationalism and solidarity, in his article Kozloff instead decides to detail the alleged “harrowing” conditions that Cuban doctors are subjected to while treating patients in Venezuela.

According to Kozloff’s article, Cuban medical personnel are overworked, obliged to treat 60- 70 patients a day, constantly spied on, and used by the Venezuelan state for political purposes. The sources of Kozloff’s outlandish statements are none other than leaked documents from the US embassy in Caracas, which, the cables reveal, has been aiding dissident Cuban doctors to apply to the US government for “humanitarian parole” so that they might be transferred to Miami as “asylum seekers”.

According to the documents, 73 Cuban medical personnel were transferred to Miami by 2009. Despite the fact thatover 80,000 Cubans have worked in the mission, with 30,000 Cuban medical personnel currently working in Venezuela, Kozloff finds that these 73 Cubans are representative enough of the whole Barrio Adentro mission for him to conclude that the program is “fraying at the edges” in the run-up to this year’s elections.

But questionable e-mails written by staunchly anti-Cuban US diplomats might not be the best sources for judging the merits of a social program which has, by all accounts, dramatically increased Venezuelans’ standards of living. So much so, that despite the vast amounts of propaganda against the healthcare program, the opposition’s candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has been forced to pledge that he will maintain it should he by some miracle win the elections this year.

Kozloff’s selective analysis of the state of the Barrio Adentro program is typical of most “political commentaries” covering the Venezuelan elections in the international press, which are currently contributing to a distorted understanding of Venezuela’s political reality in the run up to the October elections.

Opposition Out of Touch

While most commentators either stress Capriles’ youth (he’s 39) and his energetic campaign, or apparent “indecision” on the part of Venezuelan voters, the reality on the ground is quite different in Venezuela. The opposition have faced defeat after defeat for the past two months.

Not only do nearly all polls in Venezuela give Chavez a 20-30% lead over his opponent, but the Capriles campaign has also made several tactical mistakes. In a move that alienated working class voters in May, Capriles announced that he did not attend the country’s International Workers’ Day march because he was an “employer” and not an employee. His campaign has also been responsible for the persecution and assault of several community media journalists, harking back to the days of repression under previous governments.

In the international arena, in a subtle snub against the Venezuelan opposition coalition, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated in an interview that Chavez represented “stability” for the continent that was both essential for regional unity and beneficial for Colombia. Meanwhile US ally and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s vocal support for Capriles has backfired, only serving to reinforce the perception of Capriles as the candidate of US imperialism amongst the Venezuelan public. Just this week, Capriles’ US advisor, Peter Greenberg, also admitted that Chavez’s lead over Capriles was “irreversible”.

These concerns are also being echoed by conservatives inside the country with even rightwing journalists such as Rafael Poleo mourning Capriles’ “hopeless” election campaign and members of the opposition coalition demanding that the campaign be restructured. “Capriles could be out anywhere today, but the rest of the country does not know about it… (his) strategy is not working, his candidacy is not growing, and Chavez’s illness has hyper-personalized electoral debate. People are only talking about Chavez”, explained Oscar Schemel, President of the Hinterlaces polling company.

Throughout this election campaign the opposition’s most serious failure is to have misunderstood the extent to which new mechanisms of participatory democracy have grown in Venezuela. The concept of democracy has taken on new meaning and the working class and organized communities are currently at the helm of an unprecedented experiment with radical new forms of democratic participation. Citizens’ democratic participation is now channelled through communal councils, communes, socialist workers’ councils and cooperatives, which extend the democratic process into their everyday lives and allow them to transform their own socio-cultural surroundings. Venezuelan democracy is no longer reducible to national elections every 6 years, rather it is something constructed every single day.

Following an unsuccessful 12-year battle against Chavez waged on its own terrain, the opposition is now attempting to compete on the Revolution’s terrain and the results are perhaps even less rewarding. The opposition has totally failed to understand just how Venezuela’s political terrain is constantly shifting and continuously being propelled forwards by the country’s new grassroots democratic format.

Just like Kozloff, the Venezuelan opposition continues to look at Venezuela from a distance. Their sources are US diplomats, US political advisors or the Venezuelan elite. From this perspective, Barrio Adentro is merely a political strategy. For Kozloff, it is merely the product of a transient deal with Cuba which can be rolled back should another government take power. For Capriles it is a program he must pledge to maintain in order to have any chance of winning votes.

But for many Venezuelans Barrio Adentro is more than a political strategy and more than a program, it is a social process which has become an integral part of their everyday lives, which has brought dignity, value and identity, and shaped their communities and changed their educational possibilities. These are changes that can’t be perceived from theupper class district of Altamira in Caracas, and much less from a newsroom in New York.