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NPR’s Spinnners of Venezuelan Fairy Tales

I was disappointed to learn, upon hearing Gerry Hadden’s most recent dispatch from Venezuela, that NPR is not immune to the widespread journalistic trend of selectively parrotting spin and innuendo, so that news reports become repositories of suggestion rather than facts.

Venezuela in particular has suffered mightily from such irresponsible reporting, as I learned firsthand in Caracas last summer while interviewing high-level U.S. embassy personnel, Venezuelan government ministers, opposition leaders, Bolivarian Circle members, proud escualidos, and legions of civilians from all walks of life.

Hadden provides almost no context, few facts, and little rebuttal to offset the charges his sources level against the Venezuelan government. He presents the opposition’s argument that “Chavez’s attempt to wrest control of the police force [Policia Metropolitana, or PM] from an opposition mayor this month goes to the heart of why they distrust the president… [and] shows that Chavez is a dictator-in-the-making.” Yet Hadden is silent about the PM’s use of force against civilian protests in recent weeks, killing four and wounding dozens, that prompted the takeover. Nor does he find the more than 40 people killed by the PM during civil disturbances following Chavez’s brief ouster worth mentioning.

As for the characterization of Chavez as a dictator, Hadden should have called on one of Chavez’s ministers or supporters to respond to such serious libel, or he might have pointed out that there are no political prisoners in Venezuela, but instead he lets the “dictator” comment stand unchallenged. This is insulting to the billions of people who have lived, died, and “disappeared” under true dictatorships, where people are stripped of due process, freedom of association, and electoral power, and where dissent–which flourishes in Venezuela–is illegal.

Hadden even underscores the opposition’s allegations with his own pejorative interjections that “left-leaning” Chavez “forged close ties with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.” Listeners are left with the impression that Chavez is a Castro-styled communist, which is flat wrong. His government’s relations with Cuba do not make him a communist any more than France’s relations with Iraq make it a totalitarian regime.

Particularly deceptive is Hadden’s allusion to a Chavez law “that allows for the expropriation of private property in some circumstances,” without mentioning what those circumstances are. The Land Reform law provides for expropriation with compensation of idle farmlands, as well as arable lands exceeding 12,350 acres in areas of poor soil (350 acres in areas of rich soil), to be redistributed to landless workers. It is also important to note (though Hadden doesn’t) that in the 1960’s big landowners and ranchers expanded their fences to expropriate most of the state-owned marshlands the government intended for redistribution. Current stats on land concentration are appalling: One percent of farms account for 46% of farmland, one percent of the population owns 60% of arable lands, and 40% of all Venezuelan farmlands lie fallow. As a result, Venezuela is agronomically undiversified and chronically dependent on oil and imports, while the urban population has exploded, causing crime, unemployment, and pollution rates to soar. Even the middle-class Chavez foes I spoke to said the need for land reform is a no-brainer. Does this make them Castro-communists? The mere suggestion is ludicrous.

Hadden would likely respond that he didn’t have enough airtime to discuss the law’s particulars. Fine, but why not couple the word “expropriation” with “idle farmland”–both concise and precise–instead of the buzzwords “private property,” unless he specifically intends to associate Chavez with communistic distribution of wealth?

To reinforce that insinuation, Hadden must have looked long and hard to find a pro-government supporter spewing classical Marxist rhetoric and referring to allies as “comrades.” This is not at all representative; I spoke to dozens of Chavez supporters, and none of them defined their politics in these terms (references to the oligarquia notwithstanding). In fact, the real story is that el proceso, the movement that swept Chavez to power, is the embryonic manifestation of a new political philosophy in which economic and institutional power is dominated by neither the state nor big business interests, but instead is decentralized and directly influenced through public, participatory processes. Like it or not, el proceso is gaining strength and captivating the imaginations of people all across Latin America, especially in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. To define the terms of the Venezuelan debate in traditional free market vs. leftist-Marxist terms, as Hadden does, is as reductive as it is disingenuous.

Hadden is correct to point out that Chavez “led an unsuccessful coup ten years ago,” but, again, the lack of context is outrageous. That particular coup was in direct response to the Perez administration’s bloody crackdown on a civic uprising. At least a thousand civilians were killed. Like the killings mentioned above, we do not have to guess who the parties responsible are (as in the still maddeningly unsolved case of April 11); it is a matter of historical record. So, given that Hadden goes out of his way to vaguely characterize Chavez’s supporters’ street protests as “violent,” why does he consistently fail to mention the civilian deaths suffered at the hands of Chavez’s political foes? This is the journalistic equivalent of a “disappearance.”

I hope for the sake of Mr. Hadden’s conscience that he is as ashamed of his report as I am of NPR for broadcasting it.

BRAD CARLTON wrote the “Letter from Venezuela” series for The Baltimore Chronicle, where this letter originally appeared. He can be reached at: bradcarlton@mail.com

 

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