NYT gets Venezuela–and Chavez–wrong again!

Jeez. Cataloguing how often the “liberal” (in what parallel universe?) New York Times is out of touch, is like trying to catalogue sunrises and sunsets. Nevertheless, this op-ed by Roger Lowenstein (echoed in the Taipei Times, which doesn’t gate-keep its stories like the NYT does) stands out as a crapaganda hit-piece. I’m gonna dissect the formula for you here, so clean off your eyeglasses and pay attention.

It starts out benignly enough:

Latin America, as the late Venezuelan author Carlos Rangel once wrote, has always had a “love-hate relationship” with the US. The love is expressed in its purest form: imitation. The hate — more akin to resentment — boils down to a frustrated desire to get Washington’s attention.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro pulled it off in the 1960s, torturing the Kennedy brothers with his cigar and his Marxism; and now, in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is giving us a rerun. At least, this is the refrain of Nikolas Kozloff, a British-educated American who has written Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Emerging Challenge to the United States.

Kozloff apparently believes that Americans have much to fear from Venezuela. His admiring study of Chavez, an up-by-the-bootstraps lieutenant colonel who tried and failed to take power in a coup and subsequently succeeded at the ballot box, is peppered with phrases like “in an alarming warning sign for George Bush,” and, “in an ominous development for [US] policy makers.”

Then, it veers off course:

As for Chavez, the author portrays him, convincingly, as a soldier indignant about the moral flabbiness and corrupt ways of the career politicians he replaced. We learn that Chavez’s antipathy toward American culture stems, in some measure, from his partly Indian blood lines. So it is that Chavez, a phrase maker to be sure, has rechristened Columbus Day “Indigenous Resistance Day.” Resistance to what? He is no fan of liberal economics, free trade, cross-border investment, the prescriptions of the IMF nor, indeed, of capitalism itself.

This is all well and good with Kozloff. His analysis is essentially Marxist — he sees trade as a one-way street that helps the rich and hurts the poor. His book is filled with the sort of new-lefty rhetoric I had thought went out in the 1970s. He applauds the Venezuelan president’s idea for an alternative trade association — meaning one not aligned with the US — that, in Chavez’s tedious phraseology, would be a “socially oriented trade bloc rather than one strictly based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization.”

But neither Kozloff nor Chavez can escape the fact that the 1970s are over. Socialism hasn’t worked; it’s kaput. Free-market medicine (which Kozloff refers to by the more sinister-sounding “neo liberalism”) hasn’t always worked, but it’s worked better than anything else.

And in fact, Kozloff’s fantasy of a US threatened by left-wing Latinos is a vestige of a world that was dominated by a Moscow-Washington rivalry — a world that no longer exists. The only way Venezuela could truly stop supplying the US with oil (which trades in a global market) would be to stop selling it to everyone, which isn’t in the cards.

Finally, it rehashes all the tired, alarmist, and just plain factually wrong platitudes the US has come to rely upon when it comes to Chavez’s Venezuela:

The right question to ask is not what the US has to fear from Chavez, but rather what Venezuelans have to fear from Chavez. The answer would seem to be plenty. He has militarized the government, emasculated the country’s courts, intimidated the media, eroded confidence in the economy and hollowed out Venezuela’s once-democratic institutions.

Chavez’s rhetoric has provided a pleasing distraction to the country’s poor, but it has not eradicated poverty. The real riddle of Venezuela today, as it was a generation ago, is why, despite its bountiful oil reserves, its fertile plains and its democratic traditions, it has been persistently unable to make an economic leap similar to that of Chile or of the various success stories in Asia. And writers who serve as cheerleaders for the failed idea of blaming the US are anything but Venezuela’s friends.

Ooooo, them’s fightin’ words! (I’ve underlined the alarmist crapaganda bits, which I’ll get to shortly. I’ve also added italics to the part that actually undermines the author’s own thesis–which he assiduously avoids addressing by terming it a “riddle”, which it is actually not.)

Nik Kozloff would no doubt take issue with Lowenstein’s reading of his work, which is, to say the least, highly subjective and selective–and not terribly close. I happen to own Kozloff’s book myself (I pre-ordered it so that it would land in my mailbox the moment it was released), and it is not a blindly “admiring” study of Chavez at all, as Lowenstein insinuates it is. Rather, it’s evenhanded–and even skeptical, especially when it comes to the early stages of Chavez’s political career. Kozloff doesn’t spare Chavez criticism where it appears due:

I was prompted to write this book about Venezuela owing to my recent involvement with the country. My interest in Hugo Chavez goes back some five years or so. The firebrand politician first piqued my attention while I was pursuing research for my dissertation in Caracas. Watching Chavez deliver speeches on TV from my hotel suite, I was struck by his offhand manner, which stood in stark contrast to many wooden U.S. politicians. Typically, Chavez would deliver his speeches before a great painting of Simon Bolivar, the great hero who fouht for independence against Spain. In seeking to compare himself with Bolivar, Chavez seemed to be pitching himself to the Venezuelan people as a revolutionary fighting against an imperialist power, in this case the United States. Chavez rambled on diverse subjects, such as Venezuelan history and the oil industry, occasionally interrupting his speeches by breaking out a tiny pocket copy of the new constitution. Later I watched Chavez take calls from all over the coutnry on his TV show Alo Presidente; he frequently burst into song or played the xylophone. While I found these presentations entertaining, I wondered whether Chavez was more hot air than the real thing. Traveling around the country, I saw little evidence of serious social transformation, although highway banners proclaiming the so-called Bolivarian Revolution were always in abundand supply. What is more, while I agreed with Chavez’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy, his origins in the army gave me pause. I have a deep and abiding suspicion of authority and men in uniform, and Chavez’s constant harking on military symbolism through parades and regalia struck me as vulgar and crass. Meanwhile, although I had no illusions about the opposition media and their scurrilous attacks against the president, Chavez’s constant attacks on the press and his singling out of individual journalists made me wonder whether he really had dictatorial intentions. That was certainly the concern of some students and faculty I met at the Central University in Caracas. They were on the left, not the right, but were wary of Chavez and his long-term intentions. I had similar ambivalent feelings about the man’s moves to do away with the old, corrupt labor unions. While I was in Caracas, Chavez tried to enforce state-monitored elections within labor unions by putting a referendum measure on the ballot. Since then, a pro-Chavez labor union has grown in importance and seeks to supplant the older confederation which received funding from the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO. The center had in turn been supported by the U.S. State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (U.S. AID), and the U.S. funded National Endowment for Democracy. Though I did not attach much importance to Chavez’s labor policy at the time, clearly it was a first move to assert his control against traditional U.S. influence.

I left Venezuela in August of 2000 and returned to the United Kingdom. Although I continued to pay attention to developments in Venezuela, I put more stock in other social movements in South America, such as the landless tenant movement in Brazil, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores
Rurais Sem Terra (MST), and the indigenous movment in Ecuador. But then, watching the coup d’etat unfold against Chavez in 2002, I was frankly moved by the outpouring of support from the poor people of Caracas. Flowing down from the poor barrios, they surrounded the presidential palace until the coup government was forced to disband. As Chavez quickened the pace of social programs in the wake of the coup, there was no denying that something big was afoot in Venezuela. Intrigued, I started to take a second look at Chavez and wrote a series of reports about Venezuelan developments for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in Washington, D.C. Today Chavez is making near daily headlines and the time seemed right to write a book that would provide readers with information to make sense of and come to their own conclusions about the Venezuelan leader, independent of the U.S. media establishment which assumes that Chavez is a feared enemy of the United States.

Hmmm…the NYT is certainly as “establishment” as it gets in the US media. And it certainly takes the “Chavez is scary/capitalism is good” line a lot. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the Times cheerled blatantly for the very anti-democratic, militaristic band of brigands that unseated Chavez. You don’t suppose Mr. Lowenstein (writing for the NYT) skipped or glossed over that, do you?

And that’s just a snippet of the introduction; the rest of the book follows on similar lines, placing Chavez in the larger context of leftward shifts throughout South America, which his policies in some part may have influenced. But he is by no means the only game in town. Kozloff never suggests that he is any kind of messiah!

In fact, Kozloff’s pieces for Venezuelanalysis alone should lay to rest the notion that he is uncritical. He’s actually gone on record as telling progressives to “get it straight” when it comes to Venezuela! This is “serv[ing] as cheerleader for the failed idea of blaming the US”? Um, how? (And more to the point: How the hell is it a “failed idea” to blame the US for its very evident part in the various antidemocratic episodes in Latin American history–particularly in Venezuela?)

Now, on to Lowenstein’s crapaganda. Point for point, let us dissect:

“…militarized the government”: I believe that what Mr. Lowenstein is referring to here is Plan Bolivar, an interim emergency measure that came early in Chavez’s presidency. Its purpose was to have the military deliver economic relief to the poorest of the many poor in Venezuela. This is not a militarization of government, but rather a government mobilization of the military in the interest of social justice! In other words: Chavez has subordinated the military to the needs of the people, not the other way around. Heaven forfend!

“…emasculated the courts”: Totally false. The courts of Venezuela, as Gregory Wilpert points out, have always been troubled, and often downright corrupt–that is, emasculated by the oligarchy. By cracking down on corruption across the board, Chavez has begun to clean up the courts. The problem is sufficiently entrenched, however, that he will have to take harsher measures–and so risk criticism for it from the corrupt elites, as well as ignorant US observers, who would all no doubt like to see it “emasculated” in their own favor.

“…intimidated the media”: Another howler. What Lowenstein never mentions (but Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain do) is that the Venezuelan media was in fact heavily censored by the government–before Chavez. After, total press freedom has been the norm, often to a fault. Even a cursory glance at the mainstream commercial press and broadcasters reveals an anti-Chavez bias that is so blatant and constant that it makes laughable any suggestion that Chavez has muzzled a Chihuahua–never mind those slavering pit-bulls. What Chavez is trying to do, according to Latin America scholar/analyst Justin Delacour, is institute a libel law–similar to those prevalent in North America and most of Europe–which obliges the media to be fair and truthful in its reporting. Is that so terrible? Only if you have a “do as we say, not as we do” attitude toward Latin America.

“…eroded confidence in the economy”: This has got to be a joke. The only ones not confident in Chavez’s handling of the economy are the local oligarchs and the foreign oil companies. Lowenstein doesn’t seem to think them worth a mention, even though they are the source for all the false assertions he has repeated. Oil Wars, however, has documented loads of good reasons (here, here and here) for being highly distrustful of Lowenstein’s glib analysis. The Oil Wars bloggers have also faithfully documented Chavez’s successful efforts at tax collection (often of back taxes going way back!), which no doubt enraged those rich enough to be well able to pay. So too, no doubt, did Chavez’s insistence that foreign oil companies become junior partners to the state oil company, PDVSA, instead of continually robbing Venezuela under the old “concession” system, and that they pay much higher royalties on the oil they extract. Yet those same measures have, in fact, boosted local confidence in Chavez’s handling of the economy, and even increased foreign investment, to boot! In fact, the only time that this was not the case was during the oil lockout of late 2002, when the oligarchy deliberately trashed the national oil industry (and a good part of the economy) in a second failed attempt to oust Chavez. What happened was that Chavez fired the corrupt PDVSA executives who had been moving toward privatization, and the bloated managerial class who had been absconding with oil monies–and brought the state agency back under governmental control, where it legally belonged. Since they were all in legal dereliction of duty for being off the job for months on end, Chavez was well within his rights to do so–and the Venezuelan economy soon rebounded after PDVSA was freed from the predators’ clutches. Plus there’s the social investment (another “failed idea”!) that improved the lot of virtually every Venezuelan. If this is “eroding confidence in the economy”, I’d hate to see what “building” it means to Mr. Lowenstein!

“…hollowed out Venezuela’s once-democratic institutions”: Biggest, brownest and smelliest steaming pile in the bunch. Chavez’s style
has been, if anything, hyper-democratic. He’s transformed Venezuela from a false democracy to a real one; from an unrepresentative one, to a participatory one. Everything, from the writing and ratification of the Bolivarian constitution to the term limits of the president himself, has been subject to popular vote. (How many? Well, I’ve lost count. That ought to tell you something!)

Chavez has actually bested the US Founding Founders, but no one’s paying attention to that. No, better to listen to the false stories of a tyranny that’s never happened! It’s a lot easier than actually doing one’s homework and seeing that the real danger Chavez represents is not to Venezuela (which has only benefited!), but to the fraudulent global capitalist model (which is really kaput).

Roger Lowenstein really needs to go back to Venezuela and take a closer look. Or at least, learn how to google. He’s just embarrassed himself and the NYT big-time.

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