Monday, July 07, 2008

Chavez and the FARC: "you have been lied to"

Great article by Johann Hari in the Independent:

"Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the night-time of news.

As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?

Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions."

Read the whole thing here.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Real News from Latin America

Good discussion here from Pepe Escobar and Forrest Hylton on Latin American affairs, looking in particular at the role of the US and the prospects for policy change under a President Obama.


Courtesy of The Real News.

Also on the same topic, historian Greg Grandin gives an authoritative analysis here. His recent book on Latin America's place in the broader history of US imperialism is well worth a read. As is Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine", which is excellent on recent Latin American history (and in so many other ways).

And finally, check out this blog on Venezuela. Its a bit special.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chavez and the FARC

Good report from the ever-informative Pepe Escobar.


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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Venezuela: more untruths from the Guardian

In an editorial yesterday, the Guardian said that President Chavez of Venezuela had performed a "handbrake turn" when he called on the Colombian guerrilla organisation the FARC to cease its armed campaign and release all hostages, reversing his previous position.

Problem is, this is completely false. Chavez was repeating his established position, as Marc Weisbrot of the Center for Policy Research points out here. For example, on January 13, Chavez said "I do not agree with the armed struggle, and that is one of the things that I want to talk to Marulanda [the then head of the FARC] about". The only u-turn here is going to have to be the Guardian's when it issues a correction (assuming it plans to do the right thing).

"If you're not with us then you're with the terrorists".

But even if the Guardian did correct this misrepresentation, serious problems remain with the article; problems which are very much typical of the Guardian's recent, lamentable coverage .

The gist of the editorial was as follows: Chavez has attempted to transform overnight from terrorist sympathiser to peace-maker. Its ha
rd to say why, since he's the fruitloop Caudillo of a banana republic, but we think its because he got caught red-handed by the eminently trustworthy Colombian security forces giving aid to terrorists (possibly). Anyway, maybe this episode will teach him the error of his ways, and persuade him to stop being such a beastly dictator and ripping off the poor of Venezuela, who we care deeply about.

I paraphrase, but that was about the thrust of it.

Lets look at the FARC issue first, putting aside Chavez explicit comments that FARC should lay down its arms, made several months before what the Guardian calls his "U-turn". The Venezuelans have worked hard to get FARC hostages released, and with much success. There is no proven evidence that Venezuela has given military aid to FARC. Only unsubstantiated allegations made by a US-Colombian side with a vested political interest that the Guardian bends over backwards to ignore (more of this in a moment).

Take the recent Interpol report, much-heralded by the media, that purported to back up the supposedly incriminating evidence of Venezuela-FARC collusion alleged to have been found on laptops seized when Colombian security forces carried out an illegal raid into Ecuador. Few in the media found space to report that Interpol had said:

"The accuracy and source of the user files contained in the eight seized FARC computer exhibits are and always have been outside the scope of INTERPOLs computer forensic examination."

If this was mentioned even in passing by the media, the overall tone of the reporting was as though it had never been said. And the Guardian piece of the time is a perfect example.

The "validation" carried out by Interpol was strictly on the narrow question of whether the laptops had been interfered with after the Colombians seized them. And even on that point, if you read the report in detail, the picture is far from clear.

What is known about Venezuelan support for FARC, as opposed to what is alleged by those with known vested interests, is that Caracas views FARC broadly as a legitimate resistance movement existing in the context of a civil war (during which, lest we forget, US-trained security forces and allied paramilitaries have committed grisly human rights abuses for decades). This is by no means the same as endorsing the means FARC use to pursue its objectives, which few sane people would support and which Venezuela has always explicitly rejected. Broad ideological support is clearly not the same as tactical or methodological support. But apparently we've now descended to the level of "if you're not with us then you're with the terrorists".

What we have here is a set of allegations made by a Colombian government which is bankrolled by the same White House that backed a coup against the elected Venezuelan government not six years ago. How ridiculous to see the lessons of Iraq's fake WMD forgotten so quickly. Again the political usefulness of "intelligence findings" to those offering them to the media are absolutely transparent, and yet journalists are once again ignoring these motives and acting as little more than credulous stenographers.

One of the reasons President Chavez gave for urging FARC to lay down its arms was that it was giving the US an "excuse" to intervene in the region (the US record of such interventions is well known, of course, with a historic death toll in the tens of thousands). Chavez appears to have now acted decisively to remove the US's ability to use this issue either to exert pressure on Venezuela or even to topple the elected government in Caracas, as it has tried to do in the past. These questions need to be understood within that broader context, but as is so often the case with the Guardian's dismal coverage of Venezuela, the context simply goes unmentioned.

"Hollow democracy"

Lets now turn to the Guardian's talk of Venezuela's "hollow" democracy. For the first time in Venezuelan history, a political movement rooted in the poor majority - not a party under the effective ownership of the minority wealthy class - is in government, and governs in the interests of its grassroots supporters. One of the first acts of this government was to facilitate the introduction of a new constitution in order to extend democracy in Venezuela. A constitutional assembly was elected by the population, that assembly drew up a draft constitution, and the draft was then ratified by 72 per cent of the popular vote in a second referendum.

The new draft constitution enshrined socio-economic rights, including rights for minority groups and a specific right to healthcare. It also added to the electoral toolkit the ability for an opposition to instigate a Presidential "recall referendum" at any time, giving the public the ability to remove the President before his or her term is up.

For a newspaper that has spoken often in favour of constitutional reform in the UK, you'd think these measures would be laudable. Would the liberal Guardian not be delighted if the British public were able to draft its own constitution and enshrine progressive values within it? But instead, in its assessment of Bolivarian Venezuela, the Guardian pretends these things never happened.

The leader writer says that "the central bank, the courts and the military are all politicised", but does not explain how he justifies the use of this adjective, making it hard to comment. The relevant question, ignored in the editorial, is whether the measures in question are legitimate under the democratic constitution.

When a writer makes assertions like "the central bank, the courts and the military are all politicised" we are forced to take it on trust that the adjective which is being substituted for an argument has been fairly used. It is hard to maintain such trust when in other instances the reader is blatantly mislead.

The editorial claims that "Parliament is a rubber stamp", but neglects to mention the reason that the Presidency enjoys such strong support in Parliament. The reason is that the right-wing opposition - which had previously tried to topple the government in a coup, and then engineer an oil industry management lock-out designed to cripple the national economy - boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections in a final, desperate attempt to discredit a government that it knew it could not beat in the polls.

To use the outcome of the Venezuelan opposition's attempt to subvert and wreck democracy as evidence of Chavez - yes, Chavez - being anti-democratic, is an odious twisting of the truth worthy of that opposition itself. To see this propaganda parroted in a supposedly centre-left/liberal newspaper is truly dismaying.

"These should be the salad days of Venezuela's oil boom"

Finally, as ever, the Guardian focuses on the negatives in the Venezuelan economy while skipping lightly over the far greater positives. Inflation is indeed a concern, not least because it offsets the gains made by the poor. But the Guardian appears to suggest that inflation cancels out those gains entirely, and that the poor may even be net losers under the current government. It must know that this suggestion is absurd. Things we hear very little or nothing of from the Guardian (which I thought was concerned about third world development) include a 37.4% reduction in poverty caused by a tripling in social spending since 1998 - truly staggering numbers. And advances in the provision of healthcare and education have been equally dramatic.

Are inflation and the recent sporadic food shortages serious? Undoubtedly. In spite of this, have the lives of poor Venezuelans been transformed since 1998, making them huge net winners economically under the current government? Without question, as this detailed report demonstrates. Has the Guardian been giving you this full picture, or just stressing the bits that suit its political point of view and skimming over the bits that don't? The answer, given the Guardian's progressive reputation, is surprising. Frankly, on Venezuela, you might as well read Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.

Two countries are mentioned in the Guardian editorial: Colombia and Venezuela. While misleading its readers about Venezuela, the Guardian and its reporter on the ground found time to produce a glossy advertising brochure providing PR for the Colombian business class, a class often implicated in serious human rights abuses (see here for that PR brochure, some of which was written by the Guardian's reporter. Its now described on the website as an "advertisement feature", but in print at the time it was presented not as an advert but as a "special report" from Colombia). Perhaps the Guardian might care to reflect on the trail of misery and death left in the wake of the US and Colombian governments over the decades, compare that with Chavez's record (including no death squads, torture, dictatorships or consciously enforced impoverishment), and ask itself how a supposedly liberal newspaper got its priorities so badly wrong on Latin American politics in the past few years. With this latest editorial, the Guardian's reporting is descending into farce.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Venezuela: Complaint to the Guardian

Earlier this year, I made a formal complaint to the Guardian about what I view to be its consistently slanted and misleading coverage of Venezuelan politics. Click on the "Venezuela" label at the bottom of this post if you're unfamiliar with my views about their reporting, and you'll see what I've written previously on this.

After several months, and much prodding, the Guardian responded to me personally, and in a “Reader’s editor” article in the main paper itself. Much of the response I received either addressed points that I hadn't raised, misrepresented points I had raised, or gave answers so absurd that I began to question whether the "Reader's editor" herself believed what she was writing, or whether the exercise was designed simply to say anything to contradict me.

I wrote back, saying that I could not view my complaint as having been dealt with satisfactorily. I attached a marked-up version of
the Readers' editor’s reply to me, with my comments in bold (reproduced here, below). That was two months ago. No substantive response has been received, and the reasons for that will become obvious to you as you read further. The fact is that the Guardian has, in six months, been totally unable to deal with the concerns I've raised. All it has managed is a response which dissolves upon examination, and which it now fails to defend. Have a read, and decide for yourselves whether their defence of their reporter stands up.


Dear David

I write in response to your complaint about the Guardian’s coverage of Venezuela. Your correspondence raised some interesting issues about the way news is reported and I've referred to it in tomorrow’s column on the subject of whether news reports need to be impartial (without, of course, identifying you as the complainant). As I’m sure you will appreciate it wasn’t possible, in the space available in my column, to address all of your complaints about the coverage. I will try to do so here.

My response is based on your emails to Harriet Sherwood of January 19 and February 4. In the course of considering your complaint I’ve also reviewed more than sixty articles about Venezuela published in the Guardian over the last 15 months.

In the next paragraph you describe my concerns. Let me then use this opportunity to clarify what they were.

You complain that: the correspondent fails to put his “obvious personal dislike of the Caracas government” to one side when he reports on events in Venezuela; the coverage is not balanced;

The central concern is that the coverage is misleading to the reader, and that, when noting this, one cannot help but also note the political views of the reporter, which are clear.

there are too many “sideways glances at the personality of the president”; some of the news reports mix fact and opinion;

I said from the outset that the correspondent is entitled to his views. The concern is that these views are distorting – through omission or questionable contextualisation - the factual picture that is presented to the reader; skewing it in favour of the correspondent’s point of view. This is distinct from presenting both the news and the reporter’s personal view of what is happening.

and the correspondent was wrong to call Chavez a “self-described communist”.

I do not know whether the reporter was wrong to do this or not. I’ve asked for an explanation as to why Chavez was called a “self-described communist” in January, and then, in September, as someone who did not describe himself as a communist. Both these statements could not be true simultaneously. I also continue to seek a direct quote supporting the former description.

The correspondent considers himself to be open-minded in his reporting of Venezuelan politics. His view is that the government has done some good things, as well as some bad things and some bizarre things. He points out that Chavez has had a difficult year: a referendum went against him, there have been defectors from his movement, he has closed down a television station,

This provides a very good example of what I’m referring to.

As you can see here, RCTV is not closed down.

I note that this description was also used in the “Open Door” article on Monday.

RCTV’s licence to broadcast terrestrially was not renewed upon expiry, but it continues to broadcast freely on cable and satellite. The licence was not renewed because the station actively participated in the overthrow of the elected government. Personally I disagree with the decision. But I’m not asking for reporting that adheres to my personal views – just reporting that gives a fair reflection of the facts.

Suppose there’d been a communist coup in the UK during the cold war, in which the Morning Star and Daily Mirror had played an active role. If the coup had then been thwarted, those papers would, at the very least, have been put out of business straightaway (Chavez has not even done this). Such a move would probably not have been described as a “negative” news story for the restored democratic government, except perhaps in Moscow.

In his reporting, the correspondent has either ignored or played down this context, even though it is a defining feature of the story. Clearly this misleads the reader.

and there is high inflation. In the circumstances there have, inevitably, been reports about the government, which might be classified as “negative”.

This is something of a red herring. I have not asked that the Guardian stop reporting the news. The very opposite, actually. If events reflect badly on the Venezuelan government then so be it. That’s not my concern in respect of the Guardian’s reporting.

At the heart of your complaint is the issue of whether news reports need to be impartial. Your view is that they should be “more or less neutral and balanced” and, if I understand your complaint correctly, you do not think that they should contain any opinion.

Not quite true, as I’ve explained above.

Your correspondent is perfectly entitled to opine, overtly, that RCTV’s licence should have been renewed on freedom of speech grounds (irrelevantly, I would have agreed with him). But the factual background needs to be properly represented so that the reader has the basis for their own conclusion, not in such a way that would steer them towards the view of the correspondent. Misrepresentations such as “Chavez closed down a TV station”, as noted above, will plainly have the latter effect.

Therefore, the question of whether the Guardian is obliged to report like the BBC or whether the correspondent considers himself, to use his rather odd term, “a champion of impartiality”, is not of any relevance here. Hence the Open Door article did not properly address my complaint.

You suggest the paper’s approach to reporting events in Venezuela should be the same as the BBC’s. You may be aware that the BBC (like other broadcasters) is regulated by the state and is required to present news with “due impartiality”. Newspapers do not have the same requirement imposed on them. In fact there are few restrictions on the way newspapers present news. As well as a provision about the need for accuracy the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice has this to say: “The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”

I address these points above. Here I would merely add one further observation.

There is a difference between what one is technically allowed to do and what one ought to do. What the British press are allowed to do does not, perhaps, represent the highest standard one might apply to journalism. I think most people would expect the Guardian to exceed that bare minimum standard by some considerable distance. As indeed it does 99.9% of the time.

Newspapers mix factual reporting and their own political views in various different ways. Where the balance is struck is one of the things that distinguishes a quality paper from the others. Of course, the Guardian would be free, in regulatory terms, to descend to the level of a mid-market tabloid if it took that commercial decision. But neither you nor I would view that favourably.

Your correspondent’s reporting may not fall foul of any regulations, but that hardly makes it acceptable by itself. All in all, this is a strange, and rather weak line of defence.

I used the BBC as a direct comparison of how the facts, in respect of the same story, can be given in full, or with a particular slant that serves to misrepresent them. Actually, if I wanted to provide a more general standard for Guardian’s reporting from Caracas to reach, I would simply point to the reporting in the rest of the paper. Actually, the Guardian’s reporting from Venezuela does not meet your own standards, in my view.

I turn now to the article published on January 18 with the headline Cheap and cheerful: Venezuelans cling to right for petrol at 42p a tank. You object to the fact that a quote: “If it gives us nothing else, at least the government lets us have our own petrol this cheap,” is not counterbalanced by information about what the Venezuelan government has done for the poor.

In particular you think the article should have mentioned that the government uses oil revenues to provide free healthcare and education and subsidised food. Those other policies had been reported previously but this story was about the petrol subsidy and it was legitimate to deal with that issue in isolation. The article should not be taken on its own as an indication of a lack of balance or fairness in the Guardian’s overall reporting.

The point about balance across the broader scope of the Guardian’s reporting on Venezuela is a fair one in principle. However, this does not preclude the need for a minimal amount of balance within the article itself. An article that talks about the poor of Venezuela being harmed by a government policy, but does not set this in the context of the poor having been huge net winners under that same government, is obviously an article that misleads the reader.

But in any case, the correspondent has given remarkably little focus in his overall coverage to the 37.4% reduction in poverty caused by a tripling in social spending since 1998. These are things we hear surprisingly little about in the Guardian, given the paper’s long-standing concern for third world development. The fact is that my criticism was raised with the overall scope of the Guardian’s reporting – which I have closely followed - very much in mind.

Chavez’s personality seems to me to be an entirely appropriate subject for discussion.

Again, I’m afraid this is a red herring. Nowhere do I say that Chavez’s personality is off-limits for discussion.

I note you object to phrases like “self-styled revolutionary” and “self-styled revolution” but I’m unclear as to why you say that these are inaccurate descriptions.

I find it strange that you’re unclear about this because I explained my concern in the 19/1/08 email to Harriet Sherwood, to which you refer.

I said:

“Those who know Venezuela describe the Caracas government as the product of a broad and deep grassroots social movement born of the iniquities of Venezuela's history. I would hope to learn something about such phenomena in the Guardian. Instead, one is given the impression that the 'Bolivarian revolution' is simply the transient and unfortunate product of one man's eccentricities.”

It is a matter of fact that the political change occurring in Venezuela is not Chavez’s “self-styled” revolution. It is the result of a set of national circumstances which produced a broad political movement that Chavez happens to be at the head of. To call it Chavez’s “self-styled” revolution – as though it is his simply his personal property, and not the product of the efforts of many thousands of people - reduces and trivialises an entire nation’s politics to the point of caricature.

In addition, it should be noted that Tony Blair has never been described, in news coverage, as a “self-styled humanitarian interventionist”, nor George Bush as a “self-styled regime-changer”. I would suggest that these are insidiously pejorative turns of phrase that infantilise and diminish the person concerned. There is a certain cheapness about the use of this sort of language.

With regard to the point about dwindling support the correspondent refers to the referendum, which Chavez lost, unexpectedly, in December.

In my email to Harriet Sherwood, I cited “a recent Latinobarómetro poll [which] gave the Venezuelan government an approval rating of 66%, ranking the country 1st in Latin America, where the average was 39%.”

Surely it is not being argued that the term “dwindling support”, on its own, suggests anything resembling an approval rating of 66%, and number one popularity in the region?

The government lost a referendum on a set of specific proposals (I’m glad it did, incidentally). It did not lose a popularity contest or a general election. Plainly the term “dwindling support” leads the reader away from the true picture of the government’s support.

As I indicated earlier, news stories do not have to be impartial and they may contain comment. What is crucial is that the facts (including the facts underlying any opinion) are accurate. It is also important that readers are able to distinguish between fact and opinion in stories. My assessment of the Guardian’s coverage of Venezuela is that, where the articles contained comment, readers were unlikely to have had trouble identifying it.

With regard to your complaint about the January 11, 2007 article, it seems to me that “dogmatic anti-globalist” and “US-bashing” are statements of fact rather than opinion.

George Bush is never described, in the Guardian’s news coverage, as a “dogmatic anti-Islamist” or as the “Iran-bashing” US President, for obvious reasons. Again, these are insidiously pejorative turns of phrase that infantilise and diminish the person concerned in a manner that is inappropriate in the context of broadsheet news reporting.

I don’t agree with you that the question posed by the correspondent is rhetorical. [continue reading to see the question I was referring to, which appeared in the January article linked to above]

I have to say that I find this astonishing.

The article compares the President Ortega of Nicaragua with Chavez, two presidents “separated by 1,314 miles, a late flight and an ideological time warp”. Chavez is “a social democrat turned US-bashing communist revolutionary” while Nicaragua’s Ortega is “a US-bashing communist revolutionary turned social democrat”. Chavez has "tightened his grip on power", "accelerating radicalisation on the principles of Trotsky's permanent revolution", moving to "clip his allies' dwindling autonomy". "Turning to look into the camera he saluted and said "Hello, Fidel", probably correctly assuming that his mentor, the ailing Cuban leader, was watching."

The question the correspondent then raises is this: “Whether Venezuela is moving ahead towards an innovative leftwing economic model, or moving backwards towards Cuban-style authoritarianism, is a question for ordinary Venezuelans to answer”.

If this is not rhetorical, then please let me know which part of the article suggests that “Venezuela is moving ahead towards an innovative leftwing economic model” and not in any way “backwards towards Cuban-style authoritarianism”.

It seems strange to take the line that the correspondent is not obliged to be a “champion of impartiality” and then to deny the most unambiguous examples of his introducing opinion into his news reporting. It does rather seem like trying to have things both ways.

In relation to the December 10 article, about Venezuela’s adjustment of its time zone, I cannot see that there is a problem with the tone.

I think the concern here is fairly straightforward. One article portrays the policy as (again) the product of one man’s quixotic eccentricities. The other [cited in my complaint] to gives a sensible, rounded explanation of why the measure was introduced. One informs, the other trivialises.

As far as your complaint that it was wrong to call Chavez a “self-described communist” is concerned, the correspondent’s position is that he did not claim you would find the evidence for this in a transcript of the president’s inaugural speech and his email to you of January 12 does not appear to suggest this.

The allegation was made in an article about the January 2007 inauguration speech. When I asked for a quote the correspondent said, “fish around and you’ll find a transcript”. It seemed reasonable to assume that he was referring to a transcript of the speech that his article was about. However, this is beside the point. The fact remains that, to this day, I have seen no direct quote of Chavez calling himself a communist, after two requests to the correspondent, and email to the foreign editor, and now a complaint to the reader’s editor. It is a claim that contradicts what is known about Chavez’s politics, it is something that Chavez has apparently never said about himself before or since, and it is used as the basis for the rhetoric the correspondent employs in a highly opinionated and critical article. It seems reasonable enough to expect the claim to be supported, so I would therefore repeat my request for the precise quote to be given.

The correspondent maintains that he heard Chavez describe himself as a communist in the run up to the election. His explanation for ceasing to use this description is that Chavez has not used it since.

Please confirm my understanding of the response here.

Chavez did not renounce his “self-declared” communism, to the correspondent’s knowledge. The correspondent simply did not hear Chavez explicitly describe himself as a communist in the period between January and September 2007.

It is on this basis [nothing happening] that we have gone from communism being Chavez’s defining political characteristic to his not being a communist at all, in the space of 8 months.

Please let me know if my understanding of this correct.

I have not dealt here with your complaints about the correspondent’s coverage of Colombia set out in your email to me of March 3 as this concerns a different allegation. If, after reading this response, you still wish to pursue it please let me know.

My concern was the overall nature of the correspondent’s reporting, and I have supported my concerns with a range of evidence. In bringing the Colombia/Ecuador/Venezuela story to your attention, I sought to add to the evidence supporting my complaint. I should therefore like it to be seen as part of that complaint.[no response to this, two months on. Nor to any of the above points].

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Guardian coverage of Venezuela: time for a change

The following is an email sent to the International Editor of the Guardian.