Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela through the fog of, uh, journalism

Aljazeera English is running a column by a Dr. Rolando Tomasini, who is identified as a "consultant specialised on supply chain and purchasing strategy working with leading multinational corporations from different sectors." Titled Venezuela: The end of petro-populism? 02/21/2014, presenting an image not unlike that of the Slate column by ... that I discussed in an earlier post. It makes far-right leader Leopoldo López the hero of the piece, bravely standing against what he makes sounds like a thoroughly militarized and thuggish, dictatorial government.

I certainly can't claim to be any sort of expert on Venezuelan politics, not even an amateur one. But following the news from Venezuela the last couple of weeks has not only increased my interest. It's also made me reflect on how I process news about the country. And on my general framework of concern in evaluating the policies of the US and other government in Latin America.

In the case of this article, here are some of the ways I approached it on first reading:
  • Since I've never heard of this guy Tomasini before, I can't help but wonder in what ways his role as a consultant for unidentified "multinational corporations from different sectors" may influence his perspective. It's become very common in American media to present people with more-or-less direct lobbying interests as neutral experts on issues, and I have no reason to assume that Aljazeera English is completely immune from the practice. It probably would have been appropriate to disclose specifically whether or not Tomasini does work for multinationals with a particular commitment to changing the current government in Caracas or not.
  • I've been aware for a long time of the chavista popular militias, which probably resemble the partisan militias of the Weimar Republic than they do the American National Guard (which I suppose could be technically called popular militias). Conversely, they bear little to the small bands of rightwing fanatics, nuts and criminals who form the fringe Militia Movement in the United States and its various offshoots and cousins. Tomasini spends his first three paragraphs giving a description of them with no meaningful context of why they were organized, i.e., to defend an electoral democracy from attempts at a coup, one of which occurred in 2002 and was momentarily successful.
  • In articles for an audience that has limited knowledge of Venezuelan politics - which presumably includes just about everyone in countries where English is the first language - any article that makes Leopoldo López its hero is suspect to me unless it includes some recognition of two things: (1) López was a civilian activist in favor of the coup of 2002 and the far-right faction currently lead by him and María Corina Machado have been pretty clear in their public statements that they intend to create conditions for a coup; (2) the best known-opposition leader is Henrique Capriles, currently Governor of the Venezuela state of Miranda, who came within 200 thousand votes of beating Nicolás Maduro in last year's Presidential election, and he is actively, publicly, explicitly opposing the pro-coup strategy of López and Machado.
  • Tomasini's account of López' surrender to the police is contradictory on his face. Tomasini claims the Maduro government has made it its mission "to obstruct, intimidate, and attack protesters" with a policy resulting in "the official oppressive response leading to torture, illegal invasion of private property, raiding headquarters of political parties as well as inflicting brutal physical violence against students, women, and youngsters by uniformed members of the government." But here's how he describes López' arrest:

Maduro's response to these protests was also typical of totalitarian regimes. He pointed fingers at opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez. The government blamed Lopez for the death of the three students and all the damages created during the protest. Ironically, days earlier President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello challenged Lopez, on national television, to come forward, threatening him about the consequences he will face upon being arrested.

Lopez surrendered himself to the armed forced in the middle of a monumental march in the capital city. He explained, in a video, that he would come forward, not to accept the government accusation, but rather to present to the government - on behalf of the opposition - a set of concrete demands including: Disarmament of paramilitary groups, a halt to the violent oppression against civilians, and the freedom of detained students and political prisioners. He also invited citizens to join him in a march dressed in white, as happened on February 18, where he was taken out by car and then helicopter under custody.
Without trying to make any larger point about US conduct, it's worth recalling here that Edward Snowden had very good reason not to surrender to US authorities after seeing the torture - and, yes, prolonged isolation and extreme sleep deprivation is torture - to which accused leaker Bradley/Chelsea Manning had been subjected. If López really thought the Maduro government was acting in the manner his admirers like Rolando Tomasini describes, would he have been so willing to turn himself in? I don't pose that as a question with an obvious answer. It's possible that he could have understood it as a very brave gamble. But it's also not obviously consistent, either.

In this Spanish-language interview, Atilio Borón of the Programa Latinoamericano de Educación
a Distancia en Ciencias Sociales
(PLED) discusses the situation in Venezuela from a distinctly left perspective, Desestabilización en Venezuela: Entrevista a Atilio Borón TV Pública argentina 02/22/2014:

I've mentioned in earlier posts some reasons to think that Nicolás Maduro's government may have committed excesses. As Cenk Uygur says in his dramatic way in the video I embedded in an earlier post, that is a bad thing.

But the politics and policy of the situation doesn't begin and end there. As Luis Bruschtein writes, "Todos los golpes antidemocráticos dicen que se producen para defender a la democracia. Y todos deponen a gobiernos elegidos democráticamente para instalar otros de facto" ("All the antidemocratic coups say they are doing it to defend democracy. And they all depose government elected democratically to install others de facto.") (Miami Página/12 22.02.2014) I don't want to see a coup in Venezuela. I don't want the United States backing a coup in Venezuela. I don't admire Leopoldo López or María Corina Machado. I don't want to see US policy toward Venezuela or other government determined by whether US oil multinationals find them convenient or not.

A final point here. I have mentioned indications that Maduro's government has gone over the line of acceptable action in some ways in responding to the protest. And even though the government has not admitted that explicitly, it certainly strikes me that his dismissal of Manuel Bernal, head of the national intelligence service SEBIN on the grounds he violated orders on the night the demonstrations first produced deaths, is a practical admission that something was done wrong. (El titular del Servicio de Inteligencia fue destituido Página/12 18.02.2014) It certainly seems it's something that's worth being part of the conversation in the US about what's going on in Venezuela right now.

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