Friday, 3 May 2013

Is Obama's Gitmo Proclamation any more than a P.R. stunt?

     My old dad always told me that, in politics, talk is cheap. You judge people by their actions, not their words. That is why I am not particularly hopeful when it comes to Obama closing Guantanamo Bay prison. This week, at the White House, the President stated the controversial jail was “not necessary to keep America safe.” He went on to explain why he feels it should close: “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts.” At no point did the President cite its gross immorality or its illegality under international law as factors, rather, it is simply a costly public relations nightmare for Washington. Obama appears quite happy to hold people without trial around the world, in less infamous jails. Indeed, in 2009, the Obama administration planned to simply transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a small prison in rural Illinois, far from the eyes of the foreign press.

     Obama's announcement comes in response to a mass hunger strike, now in its third month, which has led to growing international scrutiny of the cruel and unusual conditions at the prison. Increasing numbers of people are questioning why the US has a base there at all.

Back to History Class

     The US intervened in the Cuban War of Independence, forcing the Spanish out, making way for US business interests. They pressurised exhausted Cuba into granting all manner of concessions, including signing a lease to allow the US to use the port as a coaling station. This coaling station evolved into a military base, and, eventually, what we have now. This despite strong protests from the Cuban government.

     Described as the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, inmates are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual torture. “They used dogs on us” says Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, released after six years without charge. “They beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn't allow me to sleep for six days.” Violence is so prevalent that even the guards are not immune. In 2003, Sean Baker, an undercover US National Guardsman playing the role of a prisoner in a training exercise, was beaten so violently he suffered serious brain damage. Before his election, President Obama promised he would do everything in his power to close the unpopular prison. He even signed an order to close it in 2009, which was, after congressional and Republican opposition, dropped.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

     According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 people have been incarcerated at the jail, including at least 21 children like Canadian citizen Omar Khadr. Today, there are still 166 inmates from 23 countries. 86 of them were cleared for release in 2009 but remain interned. Even according to the Obama administration, 92% of the inmates have never been Al-Qaeda operatives. Only 12 are even accused of terrorism. The Bush administration released 532 inmates, Obama, just 72. Those that are charged will be taken to the Orwellian-named “Camp Justice”, to receive a military tribunal.

     Despite his carefully chosen words about freedom and peace, President Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, violated Pakistan and Yemen's national sovereignty with drone attacks, and continued to interfere in Americans' privacy at home. The sad truth is Obama's major achievement in human rights is to make George Bush seem like a civil libertarian. Until the President backs up his rosy words with concrete action, there is little reason to rejoice. The message should be “Guantanamo needs to close, yes, but what about dozens of other detention centres round the world which have brought shame to America?”

     A wise man once said “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Time will tell if we are all being fooled again.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Hugo Chavez, Margaret Thatcher: Two Ideologies, Two Deaths, Two Legacies

By Alan MacLeod

Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher, two great statespeople of our age, representing fundamentally opposing world views, have died. Their deaths have sparked passionate sentiment, for and against. Doubtless, history will remember them as two great figureheads in world politics.

Just as contrasting as their ideologies were, was the reaction to their deaths, from both the media and the public. In a New York Times Obituary, Simon Romero described Chavez as “astute and manipulative”, and accused him of “strutting about like a strongman”. In the UK, the Guardian went on the offensive, claiming “the debate continued as to whether Chavez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not”, seeing as he “assidously fomented class hatred”.

The Times' reaction to Thatcher's death could hardly have been more different: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”. Praise was more muted in Britain, mostly going down the “great and controversial figure” line.

This contrasted with the reactions from the public themselves. Across Venezuela there were mass public scenes of grief, with few openly revelling in the death of the President. There was even a candlelight vigil for Chavez in London. A month later, long-planned street parties erupted in towns and cities that residents claimed Thatcher had destroyed.

The two represent the two primary ideologies of the age: neoliberalism and 21st century socialism. Thatcher's neoliberalism, known by many names, free-market economics, Reaganomics, the Washington Consensus, Neoconservatism, traces its philosophical roots to the work of objectivist philosopher, Ayn Rand. In a 1959 interview Rand gave a summary of her position. “Man's highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness...I challenge the moral code of altruism, the precept that man's moral duty is to live for others.” 

Going further, she stated to a shocked interviewer that, “I consider helping others evil” and that “love should be treated as a business deal.” Her ambitious goal was to revolutionize human relations. Shunned by academia, she found an audience in the business community, where her central messages struck a chord. Thatcher echoed Rand's vision when she insisted that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals”.Their philosophy was summed up in the three words by the movie, Wall Street: greed is good.

Rand's effect on the business community was explored in Adam Curtis' excellent documentary trilogy, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Neoliberalism's economic basis is in the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Friedman was close to both Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Often discussed but rarely defined, for World Bank economist John Williamson, its key features are:

  • Fiscal discipline
  • A redirection of public expenditure priorities toward fields offering both high
    economic returns and the potential to improve income distribution, such as primary health care, primary education, and infrastructure
  • Tax reform (to lower marginal rates and broaden the tax base)
  • Interest rate liberalization
  • A competitive exchange rate
  • Trade liberalization
  • Liberalization of inflows of foreign direct investment
  • Privatization
  • Deregulation (to abolish barriers to entry and exit)
  • Secure property rights.

Critics argue that these policies have the effect of transferring control of the economy from institutions which, in theory at least, have the well-being of society as their primary goal to entities only concerned with profits. Under neoliberalism, humans have no inalienable rights, only what they achieve on the markets. Thus, rights enshrined in the United Nations Charter, such as the right to water, to healthcare and an adequate standard of living, are outdated, “a letter to Santa Claus”, in the words of Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the UN.

While Rand is scornful of religion and established morality, many socialists see it as a crucial part of their beliefs. Tony Benn, former candidate for leader of the British Labour Party, Thatcher's bête noir, and vocal supporter of Chavez, states that his socialism comes from the book of Genesis:

Chavez defined his 21st century socialism at the World Social Forum in 2006:

But Chavez was quick to distance the movement from previous failed attempts and from dogmatic ideologies of the past:

Today, more than 360 million Latin Americans live under left-wing governments dubbed the “Pink Tide” in the West. They are not homogeneous, they range from the eco-socialism of Morales in Bolivia, to Ecuador's radical young economist, Correa to the Workers' Party and Lula in Brazil, but basic principles of equality and integration unite them. Critics claim a reliance on state leads to corruption and inefficiency, and that enforced collective action is an attack on the pure liberty of the individual. 

It is not by chance that an anti-neoliberal agenda has developed in Latin America. It was in the "Empire's Workshop" where Thatcher and Friedman's ideas were first implemented. After overthrowing President Allende, a democratic Marxist who had stood for many of the same things Chavez did, dictator General Pinochet invited protégés of Friedman and Hayek to Chile. There, they had free reign to carry out their ideas, thanks to the General's brutal suppression of the population. The result was not dissimilar to the West today: soaring unemployment and poverty, falling industrial production and purchasing power falling to just 40% of what it had been in 1970 (Grandin, Empire's Workshop, p.170), coupled with a rise in wealth and power of a small section at the top of society.

Hayek recommended Chile as a model for Thatcher to follow. She agreed Chile to be an “economic miracle”, but lamented that Britain's “democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent” made “some of the measures” taken “quite unacceptable”. (Grandin, p.172)

Likewise in Venezuela, President Carlos Andres Perez, on instruction from Friedman's students, imposed a sweeping austerity “packet” on Venezuela, privatizing state-owned assets and removing price controls on oil, plunging the population into poverty, to the point where ordinary Caracas residents spent more than 25% of their income on bus fares (Jones, Hugo! p.116). This despite running on an anti-neoliberal ticket, calling the bankers and economists “genocide workers in the pay ofeconomic totalitarianism” during his election campaign.

Desperate Venezuelans began rioting for food, but their protest soon became one against the system itself. The government acted quickly. The military was called in, surrounded the poor quarters of the city, and commenced three days of war against its inhabitants. The L.A. Times' Bart Jones speaks of Red Cross workers being gunned down in the street, “mass graves” being filled with “mutilated corpses”, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of their heads” and children being gunned down as the armies fired indiscriminately into shanty towns (Jones, pp. 121-124). Perhaps 3,000 were killed, a similar number to the Tienanmen Square crackdown, in a country with a population more than 40 times smaller.

So it was not in Seattle, but in Caracas where the first direct protest against neoliberalism occurred, and it was the outrage at the brutal suppression of the people which spurred Chavez onto the political stage. Latin America is ten to twenty years ahead of the West, in economic terms. After decades of brutal neoliberal austerity, an alternative has emerged and fought back. Similar ideas have begun to appear in the West, thanks to the Occupy Movement, which swept America and Europe last year. Those in the West have much to learn from the region, even if it is what not to do.

The Guardian released a piece on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. It showed a 65% increase in British poverty, from 13 to 22% of the population. Inequality, as measured by the GINI index, rose from .253 to .339. The planned destruction of the manufacturing industry led to record high unemployment. The irony of Thatcherism is that her policies have left far more people dependent on the welfare state than previously.

In contrast, even Thatcher's allies at the World Bank admit that Chavez managed a 50% decrease in poverty, and a 65% decrease in extreme poverty. Their figures show too that unemployment fell from 14.5% in 1999 to 7.6% in 2009. Venezuela's inequality has dropped from .487 in 1998 to .392 in 2009. Today, it is the most admired country in Latin America. A similar story is being played out in other Latin American countries.

For all this, Thatcher was remarkably successful in shifting the political discourse to the right. Her policies of privileging business led to record corporate profits and increased concentration of media ownership. Socialists like Tony Benn were pushed to one side and Tony Blair became leader of a “New Labour”, largely indistinguishable from the Conservatives. When asked what she thought was her greatest achievement, Thatcher responded “Tony Blair and New Labour”. Benn agreed, ruefully.

The concentration of money has led to the rightward shift of the media, too. The “free-market” has led to independent media bought up or swamped by massive conglomerates. Media outlets are increasingly beholden to corporations for advertising. Today, questioning neoliberalism is heresy, leading to even supposedly left-of-centre newspapers wondering if we should be “worried by the rise of the populist left in Latin America”. It is becoming increasingly hard to hide the successes of countries of Latin America in solving age old problems by bucking the supposed iron rules of neoliberal economics. But the media continues to try. The New York Times bemoans Chavez's “irresponsible handouts”, while the Washington Post insists he remains in power only by “showering the poor with gifts”. What are these gifts? The Telegraph finally enlightens us: “lavishing state funds” on projects like operations to restore sight to the blind and soup kitchens. Such is the aversion to the state in Western intellectual culture that providing even basic food and medicine, in accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are serious transgressions on freedom. 

Despite Thatcher insisting that “there is no alternative”, Latin America is providing a model for a different future. A silent battle for heaven and Earth is being waged. And we all must choose sides. Which one are you on? Choose wisely, because the fate of the 21st century will be decided on which one of these ideologies prevails.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Why was Hugo Chavez so Popular? A look at the Numbers

Reading the newspapers, we see that Hugo Chavez was an authoritarian demagogue. A “would-be dictator”, no less. Why then, did he and his party win 15 of 16 elections and referenda in just 14 years, while maintaining consistently high approval ratings from the Venezuelan public? In short, why was he so popular?

There are a wide range criticisms that one can make about the Chavez administration, although many of them have been debunked in a previous post. This piece, however, will not catalog them. This piece will analyse the policy decisions which have generated sustained support for the Chavez administration, using data from readily-accessible, unimpeachable international sources, such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and Latinobarometro, a Chilean polling organization that is cited frequently in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. This is to make sure there can be no questioning the data's validity. It is also important to note that Venezuelan sources usually show even bigger improvements. Unlike most people who write about Venezuela, I don't want you to just believe me, I want you to check up on me and scrutinise my figures, which is why links to the figures are provided. However, in order to judge the Chavez administration, some context is needed beforehand. 

Venezuela Before Chavez

Despite producing more than $300 billion of oil wealth between 1958 and 1998, the equivalent of 20 Marshall Plans, the majority of Venezuelans were living in shocking slums (McCaughan, M. The Battle of Venezuela, pp. 29-32). By the 1990s, quality of life indicators for ordinary Caracas residents were slightly below Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Between 1970-1997, workers' incomes declined by 50%, while poverty doubled between 1984-1991. There was widespread repression, with the previous 3 presidents all using censors and all suspending constitutional guarantees. The two main political parties, almost indistinguishable in ideologies, shared the oil wealth between them, blocking out any third parties. Just in case, they rigged elections anyway, as 89% of Venezuelans believe.

 The LA Times' Bart Jones commented that Andres Velasquez, the man who came 4th in the 1993 election may have received the most votes (Jones, B. Hugo!, p. 184). Inflation reached 103% and there was considerable repression, like the infamous Caracazo massacre, where Jones describes “mass graves” filled with “mutilated corpses” of all ages, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of the head” and Red Cross workers gunned down in the street (Jones, Hugo!, p.124).


This is the big one. It is often mentioned in passing in the press, but never explored. Let's do so. According to the World Bank, poverty has halved in 10 years, while extreme poverty has dropped by around 2/3. Here they are juxtaposed with Brazil, a country lauded for its achievements in poverty reduction. Given Venezuela's population, that equates to around 9 million people (1/3 of the entire population) pulled out of poverty.

 Both the United Nations Development Project and the World Bank agree that unemployment dropped from over 11% to under 8%.

Child malnutrition has dropped by 2/3. Fully 1.2 million children were malnourished when Chavez came to power.

 Venezuela's GDP per capita has increased, as has GNI per capita. Even taking into account the high inflation, GDP has risen.

In Foreign Affairs, the flagship US political science journal, Bernardo Alvarez shows that DataAnalysis published a report which found a 445% income increase among the poorer classes of Venezuela and a 194% increase for the upper classes, due to the huge economic boom driven by the state. However, these measures only take into account financial improvements. It is to non-financial improvements we now turn.


The Chavez administration has accomplished the task of creating a universal healthcare system from out of the ground. Health expenditures per person have tripled.

As a result, child mortality has continued to drop. The number of public doctors rose 1,100%, from just 1628 for the entire nation in 1998 to 19,571 in 2007. These doctors had given 225 million free consultations by 2007 (Cannon, B. Hugo Chavez andthe Bolivarian Revolution, p. 93). 51,000 forgotten Venezuelans were given operations to restore their sight.


Voter turnout in the 2012 elections was over 80%, higher than any US election in history. Under Chavez, nearly two and a half times as many people vote as in the 1990s. (1998 turnout: 6.3million, 2012 turnout: 14.8million). Jimmy Carter and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Carter Center recently stated “the election processin Venezuela is the best in the world.” The European Union Election Observation Mission agreed, saying “the system developed in Venezuela is probably the most advanced in the world to date”. Canadian NGO, the foundation for Democratic Change gave the Venezuelan election 78/100 (very satisfactory). It gave the 2012 US Presidential elections 54.5/100(unsatisfactory). One year pre-Chavez, only 11% of Venezuelans claimed elections were clean. By 2006, 2/3 believed they were.

Venezuela has by far the largest number of political parties in Latin America, and their confidence in them is the joint-highest in the region. This is in contrast to a 1990 poll which found only 4% approval of parties. (Buxton, J. Case Studies in Latin American PoliticalEconomy, p. 177)

In 2002, 80% of Venezuelans believed  that “my vote influences policy.”

In 2009, Venezuelans were asked to rate their democracy, on a scale of 1-10, by far the most popular answer was 10. In fact, Venezuelans believe there is about as much freedom of speech in Venezuela as the Spanish do in Spain.

Women's Rights

Venezuela was an uber-machismo society (think Mad Men). The new Constitution was written with gender neutral words. Housewives' work is officially recognised as work and housewives get paid by the government to work. The women's bank was set up to provide loans to women. There has been a 300% increase in the amount of female representatives in parliament. Venezuelan women enjoy the third longest paid maternity leave in the world, after Norway and Canada. It is a long way from a feminist's dream. But it has considerably improved.


Venezuela's economy has more than tripled in size since Chavez took office. Venezuela's stock market is the highest-performing in the world.

Venezuelans are among the most optimistic about their economy in Latin America. Contrary to what you might have heard, Venezuelan inflation has plummeted since Chavez took office- down from 103% one year pre-Chavez to just 18.6% this year.

This despite a large increase in spending power in ordinary Venezuelans. How are they doing this? They must be racking up huge debts, right? Wrong again.


Thanks to MissionRobinson, more than 1.5 million forgotten Venezuelans have learned to read and write for the first time (Jones, B. Hugo!, p. 8). Despite its modest population, Venezuela has the 5th largest student body in the world, having tripled to 2 million in 2010 (7% of population) (S Brouwer, Revolutionary Doctors, p. 147) University education is free in public universities. Nearly half a million street children are now in school and dropout rates are very low.


According to the GINI index, in 1998, Venezuela was the most unequal country in the most unequal region in the world. In contrast to the USA where inequality is rising, inequality has dropped from 0.49 to 0.39 and is now the lowest in Latin America.


Venezuela has taken the lead in integrating Latin America. Organizations like the Bank of the SouthCELAC, Unasur and ALBA have been formed to help integrate Latin American nations. CELAC is an anti-imperialist union of co-operation which includes all the countries of the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Canada, who were not invited. The President of Bolivia stated that CELAC's purpose is

"a weapon against imperialism. It is necessary to create a regional body that excludes the United States and Canada. ...Where there are U.S. military bases that do not respect democracy, where there is a political empire with his blackmailers, with its constraints, there is no development for that country, and especially there is no social peace and, therefore, it is the best time for prime ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean to gestate this great new organization without the United States to free our peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean."

Venezuela is, by a considerable margin, the most admired country in Latin America. In 1996, it was only the 6th.

Most of these highly accessible facts are easily available online, in English. Yet almost none of them have appeared in the US media. The question is why? That is a question that would require an essay in itself.

For all the achievements, serious and pressing problems persist in the police force, with violent crime and drugs, with unemployment, housing, public services and general infrastructure. With Chavez's death, it is now up to whomever succeeds him to deal with these persistent problems. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

Venezuela: Busting Some Media Myths

“In the war of ideas, it's often more effective to destroy their brand than build up ours.”- James K. Glassman, Under-secretary for Public Diplomacy, US State Dept.

Welcome to political mythbusters! I'm a PhD student studying media and Venezuela. Following the death of Hugo Chavez, it has saddened me to see so many ignorant comments left on the internet. It is also clear that Venezuela is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. I'm going to do my best to clear up some myths about the country.

Criticisms of the Chavez administration fall into three categories: false and hypocritical, real but hypocritical, and real and moral. What I've found is that, with astonishing consistency, the accusations hurled at the government fall into the first two categories. 

I don't want you to just believe me. I have given you links so you can scrutinize my argument fully. Check up on me. Am I making this stuff up or exaggerating? Every effort has been made to use unimpeachable sources of primary data, such as the World Bank, the United Nations and highly reputable polling organizations like Pew and Latinobarmetro, which is a Chilean polling organization whose work features regularly in the Economist, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I'm simply going to compare the reports from these organizations with the media's reporting on the country. 

Let's get myth-busting!

The Accusation: Chavez led a coup. 

It is often remarked that Chavez led a coup in 1992. Two examples are this New York Times article and this Washington Post article. Conveniently, the context of the coup is left out. Here is it.

Despite producing more the $300 billion of oil wealth between 1958-1998, the equivalent of 20 Marshall Plans, the majority of Venezuelans were living in shocking slums.(McCaughan, The battle of Venezuela, pp.29-32) By the 1990s, quality of life indicators for ordinary Caracas residents were below Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Between 1970 and 1997, workers' incomes declined by 50%, while poverty doubled between 1984 and 1991. President Carlos Andres Perez, on orders from the IMF, increased oil prices for Venezuelans. This led to increases in transport costs, to the point where Caracas residents were spending, on average, 25% of their entire wages on bus fares (Jones, B. Hugo!, p.116). Food riots broke out and Perez sent the army in. 3 days of terror ensued. The LA Times' Bart Jones speaks of Red Cross workers being gunned down in the street, “mass graves” being filled with “mutilated corpses”, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of their heads” and children being gunned down as the armies fired indiscriminately into shanty towns (Jones, Hugo! pp. 121-124). Much of the army leadership was deeply shocked at this. They began to gather around a young Colonel called Hugo Chavez and conspired to rebel against the President. The rebellion of 1992 failed, and Chavez was sentenced to what amounted to a life sentence, yet, the rebellion was so popular with the public that the new president, Rafael Caldera was pressured into releasing Chavez just 2 years later. After getting out he immediately began to organize for a Presidential election.

Myth: Partially confirmed

Myth: The Venezuelan economy is a shambles.

In this Guardian article, the author wonder how long the Venezuelan economy can totter on. Figures from the World Bank, hardly a Chavez ally, show a different story. Venezuela's GDP has more than tripled under Chavez.

Net national income has also nearly tripled.

Meanwhile, both the United Nations Development Project and the World Bank agree that unemployment has dropped from over 11% to under 8%.

When asked themselves, Venezuelans have the highest confidence in their economy of any Latin American country in 2007 and it remains high today, despite the pro-cyclical economic measures taken by the government during the financial crisis. 

 And Venezuela's external debt has dropped precipitously.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's stock market is the best-performing  in the world. You may have heard stupid Chavez is causing massive inflation, but the data shows something different. One year before Chavez took office, inflation was an eye-watering 103%. It is now in the teens. In fact, the high-point inflation under Chavez was lower than the lowest inflation under the previous 2 presidents, Caldera and Perez.

Myth Busted

 Myth: Chavez is a dictator

 This one is so ubiquitous I won't give examples. Voter turnout in Venezuela in the October 2012 election was above 80%, higher than any election in US history. Under Chavez, voter turnout in Venezuelan elections has increased by 135% (1998 turnout: 6.3million, 2012 turnout: 14.8 million). That means almost two and a half times as many people vote nowadays than in the 1990s. The number of registered voters has risen by over 70% under Chavez. Jimmy Carter and the Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Carter Center recently stated “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” The European Union Election Observation Mission agreed, saying “the system developed in Venezuela is probably the most advanced in the world .” Canadian NGO, the Foundation for Democratic Change, gave the2012 Venezuelan election 78/100 (very satisfactory). It gave the 2012 US election 54.5/100 (unsatisfactory). The number of polling stations has increased by 38% in 10 years. In 1997, one year pre-Chavez, only 11% of Venezuelans believed elections were clean. By 2006, 2/3 believed they were.

In 2005, Latin Americans were asked to rate their country's democracy from 1-10. Venezuelans rated their democracy the best in Latin America. By 2010, thanks to the democratic wave that swept the continent, much to the chagrin of the United States government, it had been caught up by a few countries, but still posted a good score of 7.1- among the highest in the region.

 Venezuela has by far the most political parties in Latin America, and confidence in them is the joint-highest in the region.

 In 2002, 80% of Venezuelans believe their vote influences policy- one of the highest in the continent.

In 2009, Venezuelans were asked to rate their democracy from 1-10. By far the highest answer was 10.

So how does Chavez do it? It must be because...

 Myth: Chavez Controls the Media

 There appears to be an authoritarian dictator crushing freedom of the press in Venezuela. We read about it all the time. How many free outlets can be left? None, according to Congressman Connie Mack. But, as Mark Weisbrot has shown in an extensive study, the Venezuelan state owns only about 5% of all media outlets. Both  Le MondeDiplo and the virulently anti-Chavez BBC agree on the 5% figure. For comparison, state-owned media accounts for 40 and 37% of British and French TV. 9 out of the top 10 selling newspapers in Venezuela are strongly anti-Chavez. J.M.H. Salas reports that they regularly assault him with words like “sambo", "thick-lipped", "monkey” and “ape” (Chavez is the first-non white President). In contrast to what we read, Venezuelans believe there's about as much freedom of speech as there is in Spain. The private media organized, publicized and participated in the coup attempt of 2002, but were not sanctioned afterwards. They continue their all out attack to this day.  

 It is agreed by all serious commentators (eg. Greg Wilpert, Tariq Ali and Bart Jones) that there are no political prisoners in Venezuela. In fact, Jones goes further, stating that the Venezuelan media is “arguably the freest in the world” (Jones, Hugo! P425). Professor Margarita Lopez Maya, fellow of Columbia and Oxford Univiersity, states that "I don't think in any part of the world you could hear the things the media says about the President, his cabinet, his minister, the governors, the's obscene."

This was not always the case in Venezuela. 

President Carlos Andres Perez (1989-93) imposed martial law in Venezuela and ordered the terrible "Caracazo" massacre, killing perhaps 3000. Perez put official state censors in every newsroom in the country. (Jones, Hugo! p163).

Rafael Caldera (1993-1999), the President before Chavez, suspended the constitutional rights of Venezuelans, such as safeguards on arrests, and suspended the law. Caldera arrested 150 political prisoners and continued state censorship. Things reached an absurd level when an astrologer was arrested for predicting the octogenarian's death on an occult television show. 

During the coup of 2002, which ousted Chavez, Pedro Carmona reigned for 47 hours. He suspended the consitution, fired state representatives, liquidated the judiciary, and claimed he could rule by decree. He even changed the name of the country. He told Venezuelans to prepare lists of Chavez supporters and hand them into police. 

Pro-Chavez community channels were raided. Radio CatiaLibre 93.5FM was raided and destroyed by the police. The DJ was arrested at gunpoint while on air and tortured. (McCaughan, M. The Battle of Venezuela, p.102).

TV Caricuao was raided by police while the private TV station Venevision gleefully filmed Caricuao's staff being beaten with clubs. Radio Perola was searched. As no one was there, the police went to the staff's houses. Its director, Nicolas Rivero, was arrested and "brutally tortured", in his words (McCaughan, p103). On that day, more than 100 Chavez supporters were arrested and more than 100 murdered. 

Interestingly, that year, the Inter-American Press Society gave its highest honour to the press of Venezuela, for "not caving into government harrassment...for fulfilling its duty to inform in times of crisis...journalists risking their lives, facing danger and intimidation from the government". You might assume they were giving it to Nicolas Rivero, but, in fact, in this Orwellian world, they were giving it to Venevision, who aided the torture of journalists. 

Recently, the newspaper, Ultimas Noticias (for the record, a neutral newspaper) did a study of media bias in the 2012 elections. They found that private stations such as Globovision gave more than 10 times as much positive press to Chavez's opponent, Capriles, than to Chavez, while Televen gave 90% of its coverage to Capriles. (Figures including Chavez's Cadenas, where he interrupts normal scheduling to address the nation). The only TV channel which had a pro-Chavez bias was the only state-owned TV station, VTV, which gave about 2.5 times as much coverage to Chavez than Capriles. In total, there was a 60/40 bias in favour of Capriles. However, this small study did not include the vast array of private TV stations, only four, including the only government one. 

 Myth: Busted

Myth: There are Terrible Human Rights Violations in Venezuela

One trip to Human Rights Watch will convince you that Venezuela is a dictatorship where human rights are constantly curtailed. With reports entitled "A Decade Under Chavez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela", it would be hard to come to any other conclusion. The trouble is that the reports "do not meet even the minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility", according to more than 100 Latin American professors and experts from prestigious institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Duke, California, UConn, London School of Economics, NYU and 100 others. They call the reports "grossly flawed" and "undermine the credibility of an important human rights organization". The evidence in these reports is almost laughably weak. For instance, in the HRW report, it claims Chavez is denying healthcare to non-Chavista Venezuelans. What is the source for this? One woman's account that her 98 year old grandmother was denied medical treatment because she was anti-Chavez. This is then extrapolated across the entire country as if this hearsay proves anything. 

Missing in the West's portrayal of human rights in Venezuela is discussion of United Nations recognized human rights such as the Right to Health, the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, the Right to Education and the Rights to Food and Water, that were being denied to literally tens of millions of Venezuelans before Chavez. Why? Because the Rand-loving free-marketeers of the US elite reject these rights as "a letter to Santa Claus". If you're poor, you don't deserve food or water. 

Myth: Busted

 Myth: There are big food/power shortages in Venezuela

 Type "Venezuela food shortage" into the New York Times database search and you are greeted by literally hundreds of sombre articles detailing the "food shortage". A similar story is told if you try "Venezuela blackouts". But actually, Venezuela has doubled the amount of cereals it produces in just a few years, with yields per acre rising by 1/3, while Fedeagro and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization agree that there have been sharp rises in production of milk, eggs and pork.

At the same time, the United Nations Development Programme shows that child malnutrition has dropped by 2/3 in ten years and that Venezuelans eat about 25% more food than they did under the old regime.

It's a strange food shortage indeed where, across the board, people are eating more. So what are the food shortages? We can find out a lot from this anti-Chavez blogger's post. As you can see, he shows that the "food shortages" mean the two most popular brands of mayonnaise are gone, but there are visibly dozens of other jars of mayonnaise left. Likewise, there is no white sugar, only brown and panela sugar. And only one brand of powdered milk, too!

Similarly, the rabidly anti-Chavez World Bank shows that electricity production has increased a remarkable 50% in 14 years.

   The reason for this is the government instituted price-controls and gave people jobs, increasing their purchasing power. This meant for the first time in their lives, ordinary people can afford things like electricity and dairy produce. I'd like to invite you to think about the mindset behind a media that thinks there is no shortage of electricity when the poor majority have none at all but they and their friends in gated communities had all they wanted. We can find few examples of hang-wringing articles from journalists before Chavez was elected. Because of price controls, Venezuelans can afford food and electricity, leading to occasional brown outs or blackouts or shortages at peak times. Rich Venezuelans having to settle for a local brand of mayo because an average Jose has bought the last jar of Kraft constitutes a "food shortage", but not when literally millions of children were chronically malnourished. 

The ideology behind this is monstrous. Evidently, poor people aren't human beings and therefore don't deserve food or energy. Clutching copies of Rand and Friedman, they insist the market should determine who gets basic services, not the representatives of the people, and even setting up soup kitchens for the homeless is trapping them in a "dependency culture". It's not that there are no food shortages, but the problem has gone from “I am starving to death” to “out of milk, again?!”.

Myth: Busted

 Myth: Venezuela is the most dangerous place in the world

In the New York Times, we read that crime culture is so omnipresent that "not even the dead can rest in peace". Putting aside this orgy of literary necrophilia, there can be no doubt that violent crime is high in Venezuela. But it is also a fact that across Latin America, murders are common. It is also a fact that the Venezuelan murder rate is not the highest in the region. 

The United Nations has shown that homicides have been falling for the last 4 years and that the Venezuelan murder rate is less than half of Honduras'And, of course, murder is hardly a common crime in any country. Those claiming crime was the country's primary problem jumped from a negligible 0.6% of respondents to 65% by 2010. And yet, at the same time, those claiming that they or their family were actually victims of crime has dropped from 49% in 1998 to 28% in 2010. 

Even as crime is seemingly falling, people's perception of crime has skyrocketed 10750%! How to explain this? The media. The next chart shows the amount of stories appearing in the New York Times each year which include the words "Venezuela" and "crime". The lines correlate remarkably closely.  

There has been a massive, concerted, sustained, and, ultimately, successful, campaign by both Venezuelan and Western media to drive the population into hysteria about crime in the country. And yet, for all of it, Venezuelans are less concerned about crime than most South Americans. In fact, out of the 6 South American countries Pew Global asked, Venezuelans came in only 5th in their fear of crime. 

  Myth: Busted

 Myth: Hugo Chavez is anti-semitic 

You can read all about the massive anti-Semitism in Venezuela in stories with lurid titles like "Why Hugo Chavez Hates Jews". The American Spectator claims it is "standard populist hatemongering" Almost the entire case for this comes from a quote where Chavez claimed "the descendants who crucified Christ" have taken over the world. The trouble is, it is fabricated. The actual speech and its context, still not published in the US media, goes like this:

"The world has enough for everybody but it turned out that a few minorities--the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Bolivar from here and also those who in a certain way crucified him in Santa Marta, there in Colombia--they took possession of the riches of the world, a minority took possession of the planet's gold, the silver, the minerals, the water, the good lands, the oil, and they have concentrated all the riches in the hands of a few; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world."

A long list of traitors. Why have they taken out the context and the Bolivar part? Duh, because you can't slander people for anti-Semitism otherwise. Unmentioned in all this is that "the people who crucified Christ" were Romans, not Jews. So Chavez gave a speech where he mentioned a load of horrible people and did not include Jews. Therefore he is anti-Semitic. It is a standard tactic of both the US and Israel to label their enemies as "anti-Semites". A New York Times search for "Nicaragua anti-Semitism" will throw up a slew of articles like "So are the Sandinistas anti-Semitic? Of course they are" from the 1980s, when the left-wing Sandinistas were in charge, but almost nothing before or after. If only the Sandinistas could be like the US-trained fascist death squads who took over the country, by being totally not anti-Semitic. What Chavez certainly is is a vocal critic of US and Israeli government policy. But seeing as he's not Jewish he can't be a self-hating Jew.

Myth: Busted

 Myth: Hugo Chavez is an Isolated, Unpopular Leader, Loved only by dictators

 Most of the reports of this come from the time when Chavez went on a whistle-stop tour of the oil-producing countries. The day after he met Saddam Hussein and Ahmadinejad  he actually met a dictator with a far worse human rights record. That person was US-favorite, the King of Saudi Arabia.

 The picture elicited almost no response in the US media whatsoever. Chavez has taken a lead in reinvigorating the OPEC cartel, and his visits were laying the groundwork for an agreed reduction in oil drilling, in order to stabilize prices. If you want to do deals with other oil producing nations, you're going to have to meet a lot of dictators. 

 Chavez was the first President of the Pink Tide, who see themselves as left-leaning, anti-imperialist politicians. Chavez's opponent in the 2012 election race claimed he wasn't a US stooge, but a follower of the popular socialist ex-President of Brazil, Lula. Lula rejected this, openly backing Chavez, saying
"A victory for Chávez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America … this victory will strike another blow against imperialism." President Correa of Ecuador has called Chavez “a guiding light” (Jones, p.420), while the President of Bolivia has called him "an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation...he will always be present in all regions of the world and all social sectors. He will always be with us, accompanying us." If you're wondering who is this "empire" the presidents are talking about, it is the USA. 

Chavez is certainly a polarizing figure in Latin America. So while Chile's public doesn't like him, Argentina's have a more positive opinion.  However, when asked which country they admired the most, Latin Americans chose Venezuela by a considerable margin.

 You may have heard that Chavez drew laughs at the UN after comparing Bush to the devil. What you probably don't know is that Chavez received one of the longest standing ovations in United Nations history for his speech. His speech laid out the problems the world was facing, what his government was doing to stop them, and proposing that oil producers and consumers come together to combat climate change. A US diplomat claimed that the applause was for the “sheer entertainment factor”. I'll leave it to you to judge whether seasoned diplomats give standing ovations to comedians. Chavez's biographer, Tariq Ali, tells the story that senior African and Asian diplomats came to Chavez thanking him for “saying the things we can't."

Myth: Busted

 Myth: Chavez is militaristic and threatening the USA

 This myth comes from the fact that the Venezuelan military was buying new AK 103 and 104 rifles, a modern variant of the AK-47, from Russia. To this day, the Venezuelan army's main rifle is an obsolete weapon from the late 1940's, a gun which was replaced in the late 1980's by European armies. Clearly it has to be replaced. There's no chance the Americans would supply it so where else would they get it? What does it matter that it's from Russia? Because the US did not ok it, that is the point. Missing from all this is the fact that Venezuela was also buying planes from Brazil, guns from Belgium and ships from Spain, countries that the US isn't trying to demonize. The use of the incorrect term “AK-47” is meant to connote images of terrorism or Soviet militaristic authoritarianism. But actually, Venezuelan military spending fell under Chavez.

As you can see, Venezuela spends less than half the money Colombia does on defence and has had a 40% decrease in military spending, compared with GDP. For a sane look at the Venezuelan military, try Wilpert, G. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, ch. 5

Myth: Busted

Bonus Myth: The People are worse off under Chavez

 Chavez instituted a national healthcare system which had performed 225 million consultations by 2007 alone. (Cannon, B. Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, p. 93) The number of public doctors has increased by 1200%, from 1628 to 19571 by 2007. 50,000 Venezuelans were given free operations to restore their sight. Between 1 and 1.5 million were taught to read for the first time (Jones, p. 8). Health expenditure per person has tripled.

Accorrding to the Gini coefficient, Venezuela went from the most unequal country in Latin America to the most equal.

The numbers corroborated by this BBC article. Foreign Affairs, the flagship US political science journal, reports that, according to a DataAnalysis report, the Venezuelan poorer classes enjoyed a 445% income increase and a 194% income increase for the upper classes, due to the huge economic boom driven by the state. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, between 2002 and 2007, there was a 65% increase in the numbers of Venezuelans agreeing that the government has a positive effect on their lives, one of the highest increases in the world. 

Myth: Busted 

So there you have it. Either there is a huge conspiracy involving the United Nations, World Bank, the majority of Latin American studies professors, heads of state all over the world and polling organizations, or the media is lying to you, like they lied to you about Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy, and the elections, and everything else. Pretty juicy, either way. As a student of Latin America, I think Venezuela is one of the most vibrant democracies on Earth, yet the media is representing it as a hellhole. Why is this? Many have asked. Below is a small selection of media critiques on Venezuela.

 Some say it can be explained with Chomsky and Hermann's Propaganda ModelRemember the hysteria when Obama might have been introducing a state-run option for healthcare? “He is a Kenyan-Islamofascist-Antichrist-Commie!” Well, imagine what the media would be like if he'd done all the things mentioned here. Venezuela is certainly not an ideal society by any means, but it saddens me to see so many derogatory remarks made about someone who spearheaded change which the majority wanted. It also clouds real debate over his failings, as people like me are forced to spend their time correcting and replying to nonsense accusations. The media did not hate and fear Chavez because of his failings, of which there were many, but because of his achievements in bringing about progressive change.