Exchange with Guardian correspondent re.Hugo Chavez
I was puzzled by a few aspects of your piece in today's Guardian about the inaugurations of Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. I'm quite interested in what's happening in that part of the world at the moment and I just wondered if you could clarify a few things, if you've the time?
Firstly, I was surprised to see Chavez described as a communist. I've been reading about Chavez for a few years now and I've not seen the description used before, at least not by anyone other than the usual right-wing headbangers, and certainly not by Chavez himself. One of the distinctive things about Chavez's project has always seemed to be his insistence that Latin America be original in its approach - neither following the Washington consensus nor anyone else's prescriptions but inventing its own way forward (which view goes right back to Bolivar and Rodriguez, as I'm sure you know). However, your piece suggests that Chavez is sending his country towards nothing more than plain-old communism. I wondered what the basis for your saying this was. I realise the general theme you were trying to portray was of Ortega and Chavez moving in opposite directions - one "forward", one "backwards" - but I assume there's something more substantive backing up your use of the term "communist" than that.
In particular, you said that Chavez spoke of using Trotsky's "principles of permanent revolution". I'm quite prepared to believe it but would you mind quoting me the part of the speech were he said this? You also call him a "self-described" communist, which again, I'm quite prepared to believe, but it'd be nice to see the quote, which didn't appear in your article. If Chavez did indeed 'come out' as a straightforward communist at his inauguration it'd be a pretty surprising, not to say seminal moment in the "Bolivarian Revolution", which has hitherto only presented itself as nationalist, socialist and democratic.
Secondly, you describe Ortega and Chavez as having indulged in "US-bashing". As far as I'm aware, neither Chavez nor Ortega have ever planned, called for, ordered or backed any physical attacks on the US, so presumably the "bashing" referred to is the use of strongly critical language. I just wonder if your choice of terminology is really appropriate.
Let's suppose that a foreign country - say the USSR - backed a dominant, privileged elite in Britain, arming and training some particularly barbaric security forces to keep that Soviet-friendly elite in power against the wishes of the British population, which languished in squalor. Let's suppose that popular forces overthrew that minority order and the new order was endorsed by internationally recognised free and fair elections. Let's suppose that Russia then - as the US did in Venezuela - helped to engineer a coup to topple the elected government and suspend a constitution that had been ratified in a referendum. Or let's suppose that Russia - as the US did in Nicaragua - backed a terrorist campaign, fought out of a neighbouring country, that aimed at "soft targets" like schools and hospitals, and was condemned by the World Court.
And let's suppose that British leaders retaliated directly against Russia with no more than strongly critical language. If you then called such leaders "Russia bashers" or "Moscow's nemesis" that might of course be literally true. But do you think it would really be appropriate or representative of the situation?
Thirdly, you mention Chavez not renewing the license of an "opposition-aligned TV station". Yours was a fairly long piece, so I wondered why you didn't find space to mention the active role sections of the media, including this TV station, played in the US backed coup of 2002. Again, suppose a foreign country - for the sake of variety, let's say Nazi Germany (I'm not saying the US is the same as the USSR or the Nazis btw; just illustrating the point) - tried to overthrow the elected British government in a coup, and that certain media organisations - e.g. the Daily Mail - played an active role in supporting that operation, only for it to be foiled. Surely any subsequent moves to shut the Mail down would have to be reported as being related to the coup attempt, rather than simply saying that the Mail "opposes" the government, which sends the reader's understanding of the facts in a very different direction. This would be true whether or one thought the paper had the right to continue publishing in spite of its activities. So may I ask why the relevant background wasn't included?
I'd be interested in your responses
Twice in the past week Chavez has publicly described himself - and once included the ex-VP, Rangel - as a communist. I paraphrased the Trotsky permanent revolution reference but there was no ambiguity in the quote from his inaugural address. Fish around and you'll find transcripts.
As for "bashing", well, the rhetoric Chavez uses, and the rhetoric Ortega used in the 80s, are/were very strong verbal attacks. Calling it bashing is a neutral description, not a value judgment on whether it's justified or not.
There are limits to how much background can be included in copy and given that RCTV was not the focus of the story it felt sufficient to term it opposition-aligned.
Hi Rory - thanks for taking the time to respond.
Transcripts apparently aren't available yet for the speech, but I'll have a read when they are. I think you should have provided a quote if only because Chavez has only portrayed himself or acted as a social democrat until now (albeit with much revolutionary rhetoric). To call himself a communist was a shift (though communist can mean anything from Stalin to Gorbachev) so a direct quote would've been useful.
Re."bashing" - I'm not asking you to make a value judgement (though the word "bashing" does seem a trifle emotive to me). Just to mention the relevant background so people have the necessary information to make a balanced judgement for themselves.
The same is true with RCTV. You say word limits are an issue. I quite understand that. They're an issue for anyone who has to produce written work. The trick (which you don't need me to tell you) is to get all the relevant points across - within the word limit - so that the reader can make a balanced judgement. My point was that you presented the RCTV issue, as you did again today, in a way that distorts the picture. I'm not accusing you of doing that deliberately, but that's certainly the effect, and the word limit doesn't really justify it. The impression you give is of a government silencing people simply for disagreeing with it, as though complicity in a coup (which far goes beyond mere disagreement) were not a factor worthy of the reader's consideration.
Finally, going back to value judgements, there are plenty of implicit and barely implicit value judgements of Chavez and his government in your articles. That's your right as a journalist and I don't have any objection to it. I see no harm in you expressing your opinion, or making it plain, whilst still giving the whole story so other people can come to different views if they choose. My only issue is with the excision of relevant aspects of the story having a distorting effect on the picture that's presented.
Carroll didn’t reply to my second email.
If anyone knows where I can get hold of an English language copy of the Chavez inauguration address from earlier this month please let me know. Of course its quite possible that Chavez did declare himself as a communist, but then its also possible that his remarks are being represented that way because the word “communist” is the equivalent of a swearword for many people. Since Chavez took some time to even declare himself a socialist, and since I’ve not heard him describe himself as a communist before or since Carroll’s article, I’d rather read the speech for myself than take his word for it.