Venezuela's revolution: Western media lies exposed

By Shua Garfield

“Chavez makes a new power grab” screamed an August 6 Wall Street Journal headline. The following day, in an article titled “The autocrat of Caracas”, the London Economist claimed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was “violat[ing] the constitution”. An editorial in the August 9 Los Angeles Times described Chavez’s “latest power grab” as an “attack on democracy”. On August 14, Miami Herald syndicated columnist Andres Oppenheimer opined that Chavez was “violating the most basic democratic rules”.

These denunciations mainly revolved around 26 new laws signed by Chavez on July 31. As has become typical of corporate media commentary on the Venezuelan revolution, the frenzy surrounding these laws is based on half-truths, distortions and outright lies.

After Chavez was re-elected president in December 2006 with 64% of the vote in an election marked by a record turnout, the National Assembly granted him the power to decree laws for an 18-month period in 11 areas. These included: transforming state institutions to increase efficiency and transparency and allow greater citizen participation; reduction of corruption; more equitable distribution of wealth, health care and education; modernisation of the financial system; upgrading of science and technology; reform of public health, prisons, migration and the judiciary; development of infrastructure; security and defence; and increasing state control over the energy sector. The 26 new laws were decreed on the final day that this “enabling law” was in effect.

Changes include an increased emphasis on education within the military, including in national and international human rights laws, and the creation of a Bolivarian National Militia to replace the defunct National Reserve. New laws relating to food security improve access to credit for small and medium producers, allow greater state intervention in land-use planning and detail fines, property confiscation and prison sentences for those found guilty of illegal price-gouging, speculation in food, food smuggling, disruption of production or destruction or theft of food reserves. These measures are designed to avoid a repeat of the food shortages that Venezuela suffered in late 2007. To ensure that increased control over agricultural planning involves increased democracy, the laws call for the creation of local, national, and regional agrarian assemblies.

One of the laws causing most alarm among Venezuelan capitalists and the corporate media allows the expropriation, during times of crisis, of businesses that produce or supply essential goods. The aim is to avoid a repeat of the severe shortages of food, medicine, soap and other necessities that afflicted many Venezuelans during the December 2002-January 2003 shutdown of industry led by the pro-capitalist opposition in an attempt to overthrow the government.

Also among the 26 laws is the nationalisation of Venezuela’s third largest bank. According to Chavez, the purpose is “to invest in socialist development”. Another law allows the president to appoint regional officials with separate budgets, to ensure that social programs are implemented without obstruction or corruption from state and local governments.

‘Dictatorial’ and ‘unconstitutional’?

The new laws bring the number decreed during the past 18 months to 67. These include laws on monetary conversion, price controls and nationalisation of steel, cement, oil, banking and electricity. The corporate media have attempted to portray the limited ability to issue decrees as “dictatorial”. However, Venezuelan citizens can initiate a referendum to rescind any of the laws by collecting the signatures of only 5% of registered voters.

Some opposition politicians claim that the laws are “unconstitutional”, a claim repeated in the Economist, New York Times and Miami Herald. The charge relates to the fact that some of the laws were among proposed constitutional reforms defeated in a December 2 referendum. However, after this defeat, the laws were rewritten to conform with the 1999 constitution.

Creation of a national militia has been presented as a sinister step towards tyranny. In an August 6 Wall Street Journal article, Venezuelan opposition politician Luis Miquilena is quoted as saying: “Their object is to intimidate the armed forces and the people ... Those militia are at [Chavez’s] personal command.” However, the militia will be trained by the armed forces. Why the armed forces would train a body to intimidate them is unclear. Furthermore, aside from “training, preparing and organising the public for the defence of the country” (important in light of increasing US military threats), the militia will assist community projects at the request of communal councils — new organs of local participatory democratic government — thereby enhancing grassroots power.

Exaggerating the opposition

The last time Chavez had the power to pass laws by decree, in 2001, he issued 49 laws introducing land reform, reversing plans to privatise the state-owned oil company PDVSA and redirecting oil revenues to social programs and development. These enraged landowners and businesspeople, who launched a coup in April 2002, and a two-month shutdown of the oil industry at the end of that year. Both of these moves backfired. An uprising against the coup restored Chavez to the presidency and ended capitalist control over the military and government. The defeat of the 2002-2003 bosses’ strike, through the mobilisation of workers and soldiers to restart the oil industry, began the progressive erosion of capitalist control over the economy.

The political weakening of Venezuelan capitalists since 2002 has left them unable to mount the same level of resistance to the recent laws as they did to the laws of 2001. A protest in Caracas on August 6 mobilised only 1000 people, while an August 9 protest brought out 3000. The small sizes of these rallies did not stop the Los Angeles Times from claiming: “Venezuelans are continuing to beat back Chavez’s efforts to strip away their constitutional and civil rights — they took to the streets again this week”. The corporate media typically report any anti-Chavez mobilisation, no matter how small, while ignoring pro-revolution mobilisations that are often much larger. These included a 300,000-strong rally in Caracas on May 1, which, in part, celebrated a decree that increased the minimum wage by 30%, making Venezuela’s minimum wage the highest in Latin America.

Barring of candidates

Corporate media have also highlighted an August 5 ruling by the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice barring 272 candidates from contesting municipal and regional elections to be held in November. The reporting has portrayed Chavez as attempting to hold onto power at all costs. Oppenheimer’s August 14 column claimed that nearly 90% of the banned candidates were supporters of the opposition and approvingly cited Leopoldo Lopez — mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao and one of the banned candidates — comparing this to bannings of opposition candidates in Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe. Both CNN.com and Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady have repeated the claim that the majority of banned candidates were oppositionists.

The “blacklist”, as it has been described by the Los Angeles Times, consists of people either convicted of, or currently under investigation for, embezzlement or other corruption. The law allowing those under investigation for corruption to be barred from standing in elections was passed by the National Assembly in 2001 and supported at the time by oppositionists who now oppose it. An August 12 report by the Venezuela Information Office points out that 52% of those banned belong to political parties that support the government.

Outright lies

Perhaps aware that distortions may not be enough, some media have resorted to unsubstantiated allegations and outright lies. For example, the August 7 Economist claimed: “The government often obliges state employees to attend political rallies, and regularly sacks those who show signs of political dissent”, without any pretence of attempting to substantiate the charge.

The wildest accusations come from O’Grady’s August 11 column in the Wall Street Journal, in which she wrote of an “expanding collection of political prisoners”, Chavez’s “sinister methods of neutralizing opponents” and a government “trying to annihilate its political competition”. The “political prisoners” claim was backed by only two examples. One is Ivan Simonovis, who was the director of the Caracas police during the April 2002 coup and is alleged to have coordinated a police attack on both pro- and anti-government demonstrators in which 19 people were killed.

The other “political prisoner” O’Grady mentioned is former National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Humberto Quintero. Quintero took part in kidnapping Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) negotiator Rodrigo Granda on December 13, 2004, while Granda was in Caracas negotiating the release of hostages held by the FARC. The kidnappers transported Granda to the Colombian border and turned him over to Colombian authorities, ending negotiations that had showed promise of leading to hostage releases. The Colombian defence minister, Jorge Alberto Uribe, admitted funding the operation.

O’Grady painted a picture of grave economic crisis, describing recent food shortages and Venezuela’s relatively high inflation rate. She claimed that “private-sector investment and employment are shrinking”. The reality for most ordinary Venezuelans is different. By July, food scarcity had dropped to less than half the level in January, according to an August 20 article by Tamara Pearson on venezuelanalysis.com. The current inflation rate of 32.2%, while higher than in 2007, is still significantly lower than under the two presidents who preceded Chavez: 59.4% and 49.3%. The new laws, by increasing control over the production, distribution and pricing of food, and improving industrial infrastructure, are a serious attempt to prevent food crises and control inflation.

Economic gains

O’Grady’s capitalist-centric focus on “private-sector investment and employment” ignores the rapidly expanding public sector, and she is therefore able to avoid mentioning that nearly every sector of the Venezuelan economy is growing at an impressive rate. Thanks to these gains, and the commitment of the government to ensure that ordinary people benefit from them, the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 48.6% to 37.1% between 2002 and 2006, according to the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean. A recent report by Venezuela’s National Nutrition Institute found that between 1998 and 2007, the proportion of children suffering malnutrition dropped from 21% to 4%. This is in large part due to subsidised food and free medical care provided by government social programs.

Furthermore, total employment grew by 26% between 1998 and the first half of 2007, according to an April 9 article by political economist Steve Brouwer published on the Venezuelanotes website. Over this time, Brouwer estimates that the real income of the poorest 80% of the population increased 60-100%.

This is not the first time that the Venezuelan revolution has come under attack from the corporate media, and it won’t be the last. A revolution that takes political and economic power from the capitalists and puts it in the hands of ordinary working people is an intolerable threat to those who act as mouthpieces for, and benefit from, the capitalist system. They will use lies and much more to undermine it.