Comment is free, and so is bullshit

“We had a deadly weapon: the media.”

–Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez, on the coup of April 11, 2002

As Hugo Chavez’s mandate widens, and his Bolivarian Revolution deepens, we’re bound to see more rubbish about him in the English-language media. There’s even a predictable twist to the latest: an attempt to appeal to leftist egalitarianism, as espoused by most readers of the UK Guardian. But it relies on “facts” from sources which are notably removed not only from the Left, but from reality altogether. The piece’s author, Francisco Rodriguez, uncritically repeats the wildest accusations of rightists with all the usual axes to grind. He tosses out a shamelessly self-referential nugget of dummy data, which he published at Foreign Policy, a rightist Washington propaganda website:

There is a broad gap, however, between what the government says it is doing for the poor and what is actually going on. Did you know that the percentage of underweight and underheight babies has actually increased in Venezuela during Chávez’s administration? That, once you take out social security – which, in Venezuela, benefits mostly the middle and upper classes who work in the formal sector – the fraction of social spending in the government budget has actually decreased? That, despite the government’s claim of having eradicated illiteracy, its own Household Surveys revealed more than one million illiterates in Venezuela at the close of 2005, barely down from pre-Chávez levels?

Ugh. If you’re going to cite bad analysis, at least cite someone else’s bad analysis, Professor!

Then Rodriguez goes a step further: likening Chavez to two other leaders who could not be more different from him in all ways except maybe one.

Yes, Chávez just won reelection by a wide margin. So did Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1995 and Carlos Menem in Argentina that same year. They won not because their policies were pro-poor, but because they produced very high rates of economic growth. In the case of Menem and Fujimori, the growth came from huge capital inflows generated by the support that the World Bank, IMF, and financial markets gave to their economic reforms. In the case of Chávez, it has come from a five-fold expansion of oil revenues, which has allowed his government to enjoy double-digit growth for the last three years.

So…if Chavez’s growth rates came not from foreign lenders such as the IMF, the World Bank, and other assorted multinational jackals, but from endogenous sources–the sale and taxation of Venezuelan oil–why make such an absurd comparison, Professor Rodriguez? Is it to suggest, ever so subtly, that Chavez, like Menem and Fujimori, is nothing but a self-glorifying authoritarian brute whose re-election is a sinister augury of crackdowns to come?

It must be. Get a load of the next paragraph:

But there is a dark side to chavismo which should not be discounted. If you believe the government’s claim that it has respected freedom of speech and other political liberties, I suggest you take a minute to look up the case of Angel Pedreañez, a 20 year old soldier who was burned alive in a Maracaibo fort prison. According to his family’s attorney, this was in retaliation for having signed the petition to hold the recall referendum against Chávez. Francisco Usón, a former Chávez finance minister, is currently under 5 years imprisonment for insulting the Armed Forces when he said that the soldier’s death could not have come about, as the government claimed, from smoking in his cell.

Well, Professor, I took your advice–up to a point. I looked up this case, but not on the blog you linked. Caracas Chronicles is not what I’d consider a reliable source for news from Venezuela; it might be more accurate (and for me, charitable) to call it a tar pit. That is, if you stumble into it unaware of its true nature, you get stuck in a slew of noxious goo.

I went to instead. There, I did a search, inputting only the name of the deceased soldier. A great deal of interesting stuff came up, most of it sourced to the independent, privately owned Maracaibo daily, Panorama. None of it is as sensational, or as indicative of governmental repression, as the professor would have us believe. But the story of a tragic accident, as this death was finally ruled, certainly got bent out of shape by a media eager to lay blame where none belonged. The very first page I clicked has this preface, which Aporrea’s editors felt some need to append to the sad story:

Regarding the events at Fort Mara, we consider it to be in the highest national interest that the respective investigations come to their conclusions. On this page we wish to express our sadness to the family and friends of the soldier Pedreáñez. We hope that his suffering will not be exploited by the yellow journalists who abound in our country.

Translation mine.

Obviously, this plea for common decency went unheeded. Both the rightists who frequent CC, and Professor Rodriguez who refers us to them as if they were any kind of objective source, are parroting the Venezuelan commercial media’s usual spin: Chavez is responsible for this! This is murder! This is persecution!

Actually, this incident is nothing of the sort. From the mouth of the dead man himself, to (of all things!) the opposition-slanted Maracaibo daily La Verdad, here’s what really happened:

“There was a group of comrades who wanted to get out of the cell, and as a means of pressure, they decided to set the air mattresses on fire. That was how the fire got started and we got burned.” Those were the first words spoken by Ángel Ciro Pedreáñez Mendoza over what took place on March 30 at Fort Mara.


When the mattresses were placed one on top of the other in a pile, the soldiers set them on fire with the sole intention of getting their superiors’ attention and being moved from that cell to another place with better conditions.

Again, translation mine. Quite the contrast from Rodriguez’s version, no?

The article also notes that the eight soldiers in the cell were “under disciplinary custody for various reasons”. Curiously, though, it notes absolutely nothing political at all to do with the incident; very strange for an oppositionist paper not to mention something like that! Usually, such a publication would lose no time in exploiting a tragedy to political ends if they felt they could do so. Yet this one didn’t–why?

Meanwhile, regarding the “persecution” of Francisco Usón, I found an interesting item at Venezuelanalysis:

[C]ontrary to popular opposition opinion that Chavez controls all branches of government and that such changes in the penal code are part of Chavez’s master plan to impose a dictatorship in Venezuela, Chavez himself objected to some of the penal code changes and now the Attorney General is challenging practically the entire penal code reform in the country’s Supreme Court, on the basis that it is unconstitutional, largely with the same arguments opposition legislators have used.

The example of the enforcement of this law mentioned at the hearing was that of General Francisco Usón, who was convicted for more than five years for "insulting the military" after speaking about an incident in a Venezuelan military prison where prisoners died in a fire, which may have been intentionally set by military personal. His case, while horrific, was tried in a military court under a law that far pre-dates the Chávez administration, rather than the updated civilian criminal code. And this is similar to US law, where military officers also lack many rights of free speech.

Oh dear. That doesn’t bolster the professor’s anti-Chavez case at all, does it? (Do read the whole thing; it goes a long way toward refuting him on numerous points.)

But wait, it gets crazier. From twisted exploitation of a tragedy, Rodriguez’s hit-piece veers off into the realm of pure hallucination:

Indeed, what is most worrying about Chávez’s repression
is how systematic it has become. The government has built a detailed list – the Maisanta database – that documents the political leanings of 12.4 million Venezuelan registered voters. The list is routinely used to deny opposition supporters access to public jobs and government social programs. Last week, the government confirmed that it will not renew the concession of RCTV, the nation’s oldest TV station, which is closely associated with the opposition. During his inauguration, President Chávez promised to abolish more than 200 mayoralties, thus “paving the way for one communal city where municipalities and mayors will not be needed, only communal power.” Chávez’s intolerance of dissent is so high that he has even ordered the nation’s Communist Party to disband itself, in order to become a member of the government’s “Unified Socialist Party.”

The link he gives leads us to Now, if Caracas Chronicles is a tar pit, that place is a snake pit. Its author has noteworthy Pinochetist sympathies (and, I strongly suspect, psychopathic tendencies.) But for some reason, both Francisco Rodriguez and Marc Cooper (who, for shame, used to work for Salvador Allende!) see fit to cite this one-man electronic lunatic asylum as a legitimate source of democratic oppositionist viewpoints. Que pasa?

By the way, if you haven’t already guessed, the Tascon list is also not as sinister as it’s been painted. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of where it originated and how it was used and/or abused, but here’s a list of stories on it you can peruse at leisure. You’ll notice the authors are by no means monolithic in their opinions and analyses, but they at least strive to get the facts right.

Which is more than one can say for the young professor. Just like the coup plotters of ’02, he’s got no problem exploiting the media as a weapon against someone he opposes. Only this time, it’s a leftist, not a rightist, media outlet he’s exploiting, hoping to twist the minds of impressionable readers. And since anyone can post to the Guardian’s comment pages, it’s just ripe for that kind of blatant propaganda. May no one fall into the tar pit, the snake pit–or the bullshit.

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