The Washington Post vs. Venezuela

Anyone looking to keep up to date with the current talking points for the Venezuelan opposition need only follow the writings of Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post. As deputy editorial page editor, Diehl drafts the un-bylined editorials about President Hugo Chavez.

When Diehl writes a particularly unsubstantiated column, the Post publishes his work on the right-hand side of the opinion page, thus minutely distancing his ravings from the official opinion of the paper.

Over the years, progressive Venezuela watchers have come to regard Jackson Diehl Op-Eds as a sounding board for the urban legends and gossip promoted by Venezuela’s well-connected opposition leaders–sort of a Page Six for anti-Chavez innuendo. His columns have given mainstream credence to the ideas that the democratically elected president is actually a dictator, that a media law banning explicit sex on television is an act of political censorship, and that important literacy and health care programs are nothing more than a cynical attempt to buy votes from Venezuela’s unwashed masses.

The power of a Post editorial is significant, and it is partly due to the work of Mr. Diehl that the storylines above, although easily refuted, have framed the discussion of Venezuela in the U.S. press.

Diehl’s propensity for not letting facts get in the way of an anti-Chavez rant have often drawn the man well-merited and well documented rebuke.

In the lead up to the 2004 recall referendum against Chavez, the Washington think tank Council On Hemispheric Affairs published a paper on the inaccuracies of Diehl’s coverage of Venezuela. “Shame on such a senior Washington Post figure,” COHA wrote, “for dousing Chávez with such flammable fuel which, if ignited, could further seriously undermine the U.S.’ professed intention to consolidate democracy throughout the hemisphere and destroy what little standing this country has today throughout the region.”

In December of last year, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) took Diehl to task for publishing unsubstantiated rumors about President Chavez’s supposed funding of leftist movements in the hemisphere.

In April 2005, the Venezuela Ministry of Information and Communication felt itself compelled to respond to a series of Diehl’s tirades, which painted an “incomplete, cartoonish, and malicious portrait of Venezuelan media and law.”

But for the Venezuelan elite, eager to promote the latest rumor about the president they despise, a visit to Mr. Diehl’s office has become an essential assignation on their U.S. itinerary.

An Election Year Press Strategy

It’s an election year in Venezuela. In other countries, this would be a time for parties and candidates to spend time with hometown crowds, explaining their platform and making optimistic stump speeches. But the Venezuelan opposition long ago abandoned the idea of winning over the hearts and minds of the Venezuelan public (polling results show the most popular opposition candidate unable to break through the 20 per cent popularity mark). Unable to win in an up or down vote, the opposition strategy has been to promote the idea in the international press that the electoral system can’t be trusted.

To this end, the latest storyline involves President Chavez using the courts to intimidate viable opposition candidates. The face of this sordid tale is former Caracas mayor Henrique Capriles Radonski, and the obvious spot to place the story is a Jackson Diehl column. On April 10th, the Washington Post took this storyline for a test run in a piece whose title accuses Chavez of “Locking Up the Vote.” Described by Mr. Diehl, Capriles is “a slim, handsome and fast-talking pol” who just happened to be “in Washington last month to drum up interest in his case.” Diehl doesn’t discuss why a sinister strongmen would let his political prisoner out of the country for a publicity tour.

According to Diehl’s column, Capriles was an “energetic democrat”, the mayor of an affluent Caracas borough during the 2002 coup d’etat against President Chavez. When opposition leaders stormed the Cuban embassy to attack Chavez’s Vice President, whom the crowd believed had sought refuge there, Capriles was at the scene. Here the story gets murky: Capriles backers insist he was there in an unsuccessful attempt to defuse a tense situation, while others claim that he encouraged the mob by keeping his police force at bay. Capriles was eventually charged with not enforcing the law that day and endangering the public, and his trial has gone through a series of appeals.

In Diehl’s analysis, the Chavez administration is simply “toying with” Capriles out of political fear, because:

1)Capriles “is one of the brightest stars in a new generation of Venezuelan politicians,”

2)“He is popular, having won 80 percent of the vote in his district…” and, significantly

3)“Unlike much of the rest of the opposition, he and his First Justice party are unambiguously committed to democracy.”

To his credit, Mr. Diehl has almost conceded a basic and important fact about the vast majority of the Venezuelan opposition. This is a fundamentally anti-democratic movement, whose members have tried every possible illegal means of overthrowing the government, including a U.S.-backed military coup (April 2002) and several oil strikes (one that devastated the economy in 2003). Only after all of these efforts failed did they agree to use the ballot box, attempting to recall the President in August 2004. When they lost overwhelmingly, they refused to accept the results, claming the referendum was somehow stolen despite the certification of international observers from the OAS and the Carter Center. They then gave up on the ballot box again, boycotting the December 2005 national elections, once again despite the certification of international observers, this time from the OAS and the European Union.

So what about points one and two? To be sure, Capriles is popular within his sphere of influence. But as mayor of Caracas’ smallest district, and one of the wealthiest, it’s not as if he was cutting into Chavez’s political base. A shining star of the opposition? Maybe one day, but in this campaign cycle the big cheese of the Justice First party is 36-year old Julio Borges, the unibrowed wunderkind who is actually running against Chavez for president. Any crafty caudillo running a campaign of intimidation would find better results going after the real competition.

In the end, the Venezuelan courts may indeed find Capriles innocent. But the fact is that the charges against him are serious, and involve one of the most complicated and ugly days in modern Venezuelan history. Jackson Diehl judges the case on the basis of an interview with the defendant, because it matches his preconceived thesis.

The same is true for this item:

Now, with a vote on his tenure coming up, the president’s prosecutors are back. First up in court was the election-monitoring group Sumate, which has meticulously documented Chavez’s manipulation of the electoral system. The caudillo ordered up the trial of its top leaders on treason charges during his weekly television show two years ago; Maria Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz have been in and out of court every few months since.

Some corrections: first Sumate is not an election-monitoring group, but as even the rabidly anti-Chavez Miami Herald reports, an opposition group that, with funding from the United States, led the recall effort. Second, Sumate did not “meticulously document Chavez’ manipulation of the electoral system”, but rather tried to discredit the referendum and the international observers by claiming, on the basis of fraudulent exit polls, that it was stolen. It also encouraged a boycott in December on this basis.

Here is what Newsday reported about Maria Corina Machado and her alleged involvement in the military coup:

Asked why she was in the presidential palace hours after the coup, Machado insisted she was only accompanying her mother, who’d wanted to visit her “very good friend” – the wife of coup leader Pedro Carmona.

As for her signature on the decree suspending or dissolving the Supreme Court, National Assembly and Constitution, Machado claimed she innocently put her name and national identity number on a blank paper she assumed was a reception sheet.

It may be that her story is completely true. It may also be true that she had no communications with the U.S. government, which funded her, that could be considered conspiring with a foreign power for the purpose of overthrowing the elected government of Venezuela. On the other hand, she may also have committed a serious crime. As with the Capriles case, this is a matter for the courts to decide.

The themes in a Jackson Diehl column are usually just a template for a laundry list of unsubstantiated asides, and “Locking Up” contains more than its fair share. The most outlandish include:

* The idea that “for years” Chavez “has been nursing along prosecutions of politicians, human rights activists, labor leaders, journalists and election monitors.” The statement is unsupported by the reports of any human rights organization. We have already seen what Diehl means by prosecuting the “election monitor” Maria Corina Machado. No one has been prosecuted in Venezuela under Chavez for political offenses.

* The notion that Chavez “has never enjoyed overwhelming support in Venezuela; his ratings has mostly fluctuated a few points above and below 50 percent.” In fact Chavez has three times won an election with 60 percent of the vote, a figure that holds steady with most current opposition polling.

* The implication that the president is “rooting” for an opposition boycott. Barring an extreme change in public perceptions, Chavez will handily win the presidency this December. It is clearly in the interests of the administration to have this victory be within the context of an open and competitive race.

* The suggestion that Chavez is immersed in “a tidal wave of corruption revelations.” No specifics are given, of course, but perhaps Mr. Diehl is saving the juicy tidbits for an upcoming tell-all column.

While Jackson Diehl fashions himself as the confidant, crusader and voice of Venezuela’s elite, the Chavistas have a country to run. Although the education and health missions have been a remarkable success, Venezuela’s leaders must continue to work on the chronic problems of reducing poverty and combating crime. And yes, there will be prosecutors who bring charges against the participants of the 2002 coup d’etat. Amidst the gossip and innuendo, bringing these cases to the judicial system is crucial to promoting the rule of law. Even in an election year.

ERIC WINGERTER works for the Venezuela Information Office.





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