Greg Palast is a New York Times-bestselling author and a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation as well as the British newspaper The Observer.
His work frequently focuses on corporate malfeasance but has also been known to work with labor unions and consumer advocacy groups. Notably, he has claimed to have uncovered evidence that Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and Florida Elections Unit Chief Clay Roberts, along with the ChoicePoint corporation, rigged the ballots during the US Presidential Election of 2000 and again in 2004 when, he argued, the problems and machinations from 2000 continued, and that challenger John Kerry actually would have won if not for disproportional “spoilage” of Democratic votes.
Palast lectured at Cambridge University and the University of Sao Paulo. He lives in London and New York City. Palast is originally from Los Angeles, and was educated at the University of Chicago,where he studied with the “Chicago Boys”, and eventually earned an MBA. On September 13, 2006, after filming a camp of Hurricane Katrina refugees in Louisiana near a massive Exxon oil refinery, Palast reported that a complaint had been filed against him for the unauthorized videotaping of a “critical infrastructure asset.” Palast’s office later indicated that Exxon had “called off the dogs” and that no charges would be filed.
He is best known in the US for uncovering Katherine Harris’ purge of black voters from Florida’s voter rolls in 2000. His new book which is a New York Times bestseller is called Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died, as most of our viewers know now.
Now joining us to discuss the significance of his life and the meaning of his death is Greg Palast. Greg’s a investigative journalist. He’s worked for the BBC. He’s written for The Nation magazine, Rolling Stone. He’s the author of a new bestseller, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits.
Thanks for joining us again, Greg.
GREG PALAST, BBC INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Glad to be with you, Paul.
JAY: Well, first of all let’s talk about your connection with Chávez. You’ve made at least one or two films about Chávez. You got to know him personally. What were your impressions?
PALAST: Well, I was assigned by BBC Television to find out who this guy was and why the U.S. wanted to kill him. Pat Robertson made the statement on the air Hugo Chávez thinks, you know, we’re trying to kill him and we ought to just go and do it, for the simple reason that Reverend Robertson made, which is that Hugo Chávez is sitting on the world’s largest pool of oil. It’s bigger—now the Venezuelan reserves are actually bigger than those of Saudi Arabia. No one’s close. And therefore the U.S. oil companies, the British oil companies, French oil companies want to know why Venezuelans are sitting on top of their oil and won’t give it away to them.
JAY: But Chávez does sell oil to the United States. Venezuela’s one of the main suppliers of oil to the United States. And while there was a lot of rhetoric against the United States from President Chávez, they never did stop selling oil to them.
PALAST: No. Chávez never wanted to stop selling oil to the U.S. His nation would die if it didn’t sell oil. The idea that Chávez would ever threaten to remove oil is ridiculous.
But what the U.S. oil companies and the big oil companies around the world didn’t like is that Chávez wouldn’t give the stuff away. Chávez sells Venezuelan crude oil. As of last week, it was about $101 a barrel. That’s $33 a barrel more than the Canadians sell their heavy oil for, the same type of oil that Chávez sells, which is, by the way, as I’ve mentioned on your program before, the reason that the Koch brothers and the U.S. is pushing for this so-called XL Keystone pipeline. It’s all about trying to get oil at a cheaper price than Chávez will sell it. And Chávez wouldn’t sell it cheaply, because he uses that money, extraordinarily, unusually, for the Venezuelan people. It’s just unheard of that a big oil nation uses their money from oil to give to the people.
JAY: Right. Yeah. Well, in terms of what you’ve seen so far, American media’s reaction to the death of President Chávez—actually, in one of the other interviews I’m going to show this again. Here’s The New York Times just hours after President Chávez’s death, and the headline is “Chávez dies leaving a bitterly divided Venezuela.” My comment was—we can put that down now—my comment was: and tell me exactly which country isn’t bitterly divided. The United States is this great, harmonious paradise? And especially an oil country, yeah, you’re going to have a division over who gets to use the oil wealth.
PALAST: Actually, I completely disagree. It’s not a bitterly divided nation. Chávez was overwhelmingly reelected several times. I’ve been all over the United States covering elections here and all over Venezuela and all over many nations covering elections. Venezuela’s actually one of the least divided nations on the planet. The Chávez administration was unbelievably popular.
JAY: Yeah, but listen—.
PALAST: Even the Carter Center, the Carter Center’s funded by this guy Cisneros, who is a Venezuelan opponent of Chávez. Even the Carter Center says that no one’s ever accused Chávez of stealing an election.
He’s very, very, very popular there. He was popular, his party’s popular, for a simple reason: as one of his opponents told me, a broadcaster, she said, well, you know, Chávez gives bread and bricks to the people, you know, ’cause they used to live in shanties; they now live in real houses. They were starving; now they have food. They had no medicine; now they have—you know, Chávezcare beats Obamacare by a mile. So of course they vote for him. And she said that with disgust, like, you know, how dare he give the oil money to the poor people. But that’s what he did. So it’s not a divided nation that—yeah, I mean, you could say it’s divided 75-25, but that’s—.
JAY: Well, we could argue about this, ’cause I think it may be more like the vote breaks down, which is maybe 55, 60 was the support in Chávez, and you could have 30 to 40 percent that were opposed, which here—I mean, the United States, you’re—who knows? I mean, a lot of people don’t vote, and it’s maybe 50-50.
But I think you’re right. I mean, clearly he won election after election and he had majority support. But that doesn’t mean there was a lot of bitter opposition to him, and not only from just the rich. There were—you know, if you—I’ve been in Caracas quite a few times, and, you know, there was opposition even at levels in the working class, in the middle class. But I take your point. The majority of people clearly supported Chávez and what he was doing.
PALAST: Yeah. I mean, there are always those that felt that the revolution, as he called it, didn’t go far enough. So there’s always a big opposition on the left. And young people were chafing. They want a new world. They hadn’t had the deprivations of their parents. But, you know, he was a popular guy.
JAY: So talk a little bit about the American media reaction to his death. The level of venom is really something.
PALAST: It’s unbelievable, both—and what’s amazing to me is it doesn’t matter whether it’s, you know, the kind of Fox News stuff—or you assume that the right wing will attack Chávez and you’ll assume Pat Robertson will attack Chávez, but you get this from The New York Times, you get this from PBS.
And, well, we know why PBS. Number one funder of PBS is Chevron Corporation. I mean, they’re the petroleum broadcast system, and they carry the oil company line.
And the oil companies have always been just screaming angry about Hugo Chávez. And why? It’s because of his hydrocarbon law. In 2001 he passed a law through the legislature that said that Venezuelans will no longer take 16 percent of the value of their oil in selling it abroad but 30 percent. That’s because they cut the first contracts and set the first royalties when oil was $10 a barrel. Now it’s $100 a barrel, so they said, you know, some of that profit has to go to the people. Heavy oil in Venezuela was sold to foreign companies like Exxon at a 1 percent royalty—the Venezuelans got a penny out of the dollar of their own oil. He said, well, that changes to 16 percent.
Now, there’s another leader who did that named Sarah Palin in Alaska, who also raised royalties on the same U.S. oil companies by about the same amount. But no one said that Palin was a dictator. But in the case of Chávez, they say he’s a dictator so that they can try to overthrow him.
JAY: Yeah, you couldn’t over the last few years read a newspaper story, hardly a story where the word dictator didn’t get into the first paragraph when describing Chávez, in spite of the fact he would win election after election. But let me ask you something else.
PALAST: Yes, in fact—yeah, in fact, let me give you—this is, I think, an important example. You had a guy named Romero of The New York Times, has the interview with Chávez, and he asks him: when are you going to give up power? Now, has he ever gone up to Obama or to Bush and say—and Bush wasn’t even elected, unlike—you know, did he ever go to Bush, any New York Times reporter, and say, when are you going to give up power, when you have an elected president in the middle of a term? And he kept calling him a strongman, an authoritarian, dictator-like (whatever that means; that’s like Italian-like or something).
And, you know, this is all about—in other words, he didn’t go along with what the oil companies wanted. And they would say things like, bitterly divided nation, oh, destroyed the Venezuelan economy. The Venezuelan economy is increasing about 5 percent this year, as it has been steadily for a few years. I’ll take that type of wreckage for the United States growing at 5 percent a year. And, you know, he’s done a tremendous job for the Venezuelan people.
Now, look, I had my problems with Chávez. Chávez called me his friend. I said, no, I’m not your friend, because I’m not the friend of any politician. I don’t care who they are. I don’t want to be charmed. I don’t want—you know, they always disappoint me, they always break my heart. I’m here to report the story, and I told some stories that he and his crowd didn’t like.
But, you know, I’m not going to join the New York Times crowd and talk about him as a dictator or a guy who won’t give up power. They keep talking about him holding power. He’s elected.
And I got to tell you that during the—there was a coup d’état. Chávez was kidnapped. The New York Times reported that he had resigned from office. It was a lie. I was working for BBC Television and The Guardian. I stayed up all night to finally get a hold of Chávez’s people who had heard from Chávez that he was kidnapped. He hadn’t resigned. The New York Times, when I asked them why did you run the story that he’d resigned, they said, well, because the State Department told us. And that’s how The New York Times gets [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, I remember that moment. You were one of the only one or two journalists that actually tracked that story down. Everyone else either took it from the State Department or they took it from the Venezuelan media, who were actually in on organizing the coup.
PALAST: That’s right. The Venezuelan media were in on it. In fact, one thing I disagree with Chávez is that he closed down one of the stations. But it was a few years after that coup attempt. But if any United States network, yours or Fox or anyone else, called for the violent overthrow of the Obama administration, said, kidnap the president, kill him, take over, I think you’d be shut down. Now, violent overthrow of the government is punishable by death in our constitution.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
PALAST: You’re very welcome.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.