New Statesman: defense of Chavez


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Chávez: the defence
Colin Burgon
Published 19 July 2007

Colin Burgon MP - chair of the Labour Friends of Venezuela - responds to last 
week's New Statesman story on the controversial South American leader

Last week's cover story by Alice O'Keeffe, claiming Hugo Chávez had polarised 
Venezuela, was a distorted snapshot, devoid of present or historical context. 
The inference that prior to Chávez, Venezuela was a largely stable generally 
united society is risible. Venezuela is a nation in flux and one of great 
importance to the UK. On this premise, O'Keeffe's imbalance must be challenged.

She presented a country in "cold civil war" mode, one that is led by a 
"power-crazed" Chávez could easily turn "hot". Labelling Chávez as such implies 
a denial of democratic expression by the Venezuelan population.

In fact, Chávez has won three elections - all free, fair and overseen by 
international observers - doubling his vote between the first election in 1998 
and his last one in December 2006. There is a "Chavista" majority in the 
National Assembly because the opposition boycotted the 2005 congressional 
elections following strategic advice from Washington; so the result was a 
foregone conclusion.

The writer then highlighted the increase in the number of Venezuelans fleeing 
the country for the US and the serious levels of violent crime across Venezuela.
On the former point, O'Keeffe makes no reference to the fact that this state of 
affairs is being encouraged by the US through forthcoming changes to immigration
law that will allow Venezuelans privileged entry into the country over people 
from conflict-prone states such as Haiti, Somalia and Iraq.

On the latter point, Venezuela clearly has a problem with crime, but it is not 
new. In the past 15 years it has been a serious, structural issue that has 
escalated and owes much to the illicit flow of weapons and drugs from 
neighbouring Colombia - a nation that receives US and UK military aid, despite 
an appalling human rights record.

O'Keeffe depicts Chávez as polarising any on the "third side". But the Bush 
administration has been fully complicit in the elimination of any neutral 
voices, financing the main opposition parties and, via its National Endowment 
for Democracy, openly and secretly funding civil society, so undermining 
organisations that should be respected as neutral actors.

When predominantly private university students demonstrate over RCTV, no mention
whatsoever is made of pro-government rallies from public-sector students. There 
are also strong indications that the anti-government student rebellion is being 
externally orchestrated. When students were offered the opportunity to speak in 
the National Assembly by the Venezuelan government, an event televised 
nationally, they left behind their notes; it transpired they had been provided 
by a well-known PR agency.

It is this Manichean description of a nation polarised and propelled by a 
demagogue into possible civil war - rather than one finally and democratically 
challenging social injustice - that underpins O'Keeffe's assessment. This view 
becomes transparent if one considers the pre-Chávez social climate, where 
examples of social turmoil that very nearly did bring civil war are evident.

In 1989, President Andrés Pérez implemented free-market reforms under 
instruction from the IMF. This included the privatisation of state companies and
carte blanche to multinationals to sew up Venezuelan resources. Social 
inequality soared, fuel prices rose by 100 per cent and public transport costs 
by 30 per cent.

Ordinary Venezuelans - largely the poor - took to the streets in their 
thousands. Ensuing riots resulted in the deaths of up to 3,000 civilians, mostly
at the hands of the security forces. The government declared a state of 
emergency and placed Caracas under martial law. The repression in the teeming 
barrios was so savage the events are referred to as the Caracazo massacres.

Recent demonstrations against Chávez have been policed without repression or 
brutality. Venezuela is a more stable nation now than probably ever before. 
Facts and context again diminish news value.

In O'Keeffe's analysis, the catalyst for unrest remains the revocation of RCTV's
licence by the official regulatory body. The station had repeatedly violated 
broadcast laws yet now transmits via cable. This was patently not an attack on 
free speech.

In the days before the 2002 coup, RCTV constantly focused on a general strike 
aimed at ousting Chávez. Commentators relentlessly attacked him and the 
government was refused response. Advertising breaks encouraging Venezuelans to 
attend an anti-Chávez demonstration dominated air time, as did blanket coverage 
of the actual event. As was recorded and exposed, when the demonstration ended 
in violence and death, RCTV manipulated video footage to turn the blame on 
Chávez supporters.

A coup was mounted and Chávez abducted - events covered by O'Keeffe in a 
perfunctory single sentence. At this point, the station played a crucial role in
ensuring an information blackout, preventing Venezuelans from being made aware 
that Chávez had been kidnapped and had not "resigned" as was claimed.

Even so, hundreds of thousands of Chávez supporters demanded his return in 
protests that RCTV declined to cover. The then news director, Andrés Izarra, 
explained to National Assembly hearings that he received an order to broadcast: 
"Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters . . . The idea was
to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new 

RCTV chief Marcel Granier and other media magnates then attended the Miraflores 
Palace to support the new dictator, Pedro Carmona, who had dissolved the elected
Supreme Court, National Assembly and Constitution.

Do O'Keeffe and others seriously suggest that such actions by a broadcaster 
would be tolerated were a similar military coup launched in London, Madrid or 
Washington? Of course not, and it is for this reason, above all, that they have 
no credibility.

Where lobbying, sanctions, direct interference, armed coup attempts and threats 
have failed, the pro-US, invariably corporate sponsored, anti-Chávez network 
hopes that international criticism on human rights and freedom may succeed in 
establishing the climate for civil unrest and the replacement of a 
democratically elected government. If it does, O'Keeffe et al may well be 
invited for cocktails in Caracas.

Colin Burgon MP is chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela
Related article: Chávez: From hero to tyrant

Posting archives:
Escaping the Matrix website:
cyberjournal website:

Community Democracy Framework:

Moderator: •••@••.•••  (comments welcome)