[OPE-L] Why A Book About Hugo Chavez Touched A Nerve

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Oct 31 2006 - 08:31:32 EST

Note reference to Paul Krugman (in "Summing Up" section of Kozloff
article). / In solidarity, Jerry


Why A Book About Hugo Chavez Touched A Nerve at The New York Times

      Monday, Oct 30, 2006

By: Nikolas Kozloff

(Plus a CounterPunch Book review at the end of this article)

A couple of weeks ago, many Americans might have woken up to the fact that
in Venezuela, people are not too pleased with the Bush White House.  For
days, TV pundits barraged viewers with hyperbolic condemnations of
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  The firebrand leader, in a brash
address to the United Nations, had insulted George Bush at the United
Nations by calling him "the devil."

What was missing in the coverage, however, was any sense of why Chavez
would want to malign the White House in the first place.

That's a question that I set out to address in my recently released book,
Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin's
Press).  The book explains how Chavez is a manifestation of growing social
and political discontent against Washington's policies.

The Times Launches Its anti-Chavez Broadside

As a result of Chavez's bombastic performance in New York, I received
plenty of interview requests from the mainstream media.  Though I
certainly wasn't surprised by the irate right wing callers and talk show
hosts on AM radio, I was slightly taken aback by a column by Roger
Lowenstein in the New York Times Business Section ("An Uncertain Threat in
Venezuela," September 17, 2006), in essence a political attack on my book
and not a book review per se. The Times printed my short response ("The
Chavez Factor") in a letter on October 1.

The New York Times sets the tone of public debate about foreign policy
questions, and I believe we shall see articles that mimic Lowenstein's
talking points in the months and years ahead.

Strategy #1: Shift The Focus Onto Domestic Venezuelan Politics and Away
From the U.S.

One of the classic strategies employed by mainstream media is to try to
shift attention away from U.S. destabilization of Venezuela, and to move
the conversation towards Chavez and his domestic record.  When I was
recently interviewed on the Jim Bohannon show, which broadcasts to more
than 300 AM stations through the Westwood One network, Bohannon kept on
trying to discredit Chavez by bringing up the question of the Venezuelan

At least, Bohannon made no secret of his true agenda: at one point during
our exhaustive one hour interview he remarked that the U.S. should be
funding the Venezuelan opposition as Chavez was a dictator.

Historically, the New York Times has been similarly bellicose on
Venezuela.  In April 2002, the paper supported a brief coup d'état against
Chavez, only recanting its position later.  Today, the paper is a bit more
subtle than right wing AM radio and since the coup has provided some
thoughtful coverage of Venezuela.

But, in his piece about my book, Lowenstein employs a strategy that is
similar to Jim Bohannon's.  At one point he implies that I am not a
"friend" of Venezuela.  A "true" friend of Venezuela, Lowenstein argues,
would concentrate not on U.S.-Venezuelan relations but on Chavez's
domestic policies.

Strategy #2: Over Generalize About the Military

What about Lowenstein's claim that Chavez poses a threat to his own
people?  Here, the Times oversimplifies a complex political milieu in an
effort to demonize the Venezuelan president.

Lowenstein first claims that Chavez has militarized the government.
That's a serious overstatement.  While it is true that the Venezuelan
president has tapped military officers for key positions, the country
remains a civilian democracy.  What's more, while I personally have
reservations about Chavez's military regalia and his arming of new
civilian militias, the fact is that the military has done some positive
social good in the country through Plan Bolivar 2000, a civic works

In my book, I talk about my own doubts about Chavez in 2000-2001 when I
was in Venezuela, which had to do precisely with the president's own
military background. But Lowenstein ignores many of the subtleties in the
book, choosing instead to paint me as some kind of raging apologist for
the Chavez regime and everything that it does.

Even beyond these mischaracterizations, one wonders whether Lowenstein's
critique of militarism is consistent throughout Latin America.  Colombia,
which borders Venezuela to the west, has armed itself to the teeth with
U.S. taxpayer money.  Compared to the Venezuelan military, the Colombian
armed forces have been involved in vastly more human rights abuses.  The
Times, much to its discredit, has been largely silent on the issue.

Strategy #3: Over Generalize About the Threat to Democratic Liberties

In a further effort to shift attention away from the U.S. role in
Venezuela, Lowenstein claims that Chavez has anti-democratic tendencies
and has intimidated the media.  Lowenstein says he lived in Venezuela in
the 1970s, but he seems out of touch with reality on the ground in the
country.  The Times is taking on a very complicated and thorny issue here
and oversimplifies.

Time and again during my recent six week trip to Venezuela, I turned into
Globovision, a leading opposition TV station based in Caracas.  Watching
Globovision, I heard commentators make incredibly scurrilous and vitriolic
attacks against the president.  Indeed, Venezuelan media is much more
combative than mainstream TV news in this country.

To his credit, Chavez has not shut down Globovision or opposition
newspapers.  That is remarkable when you consider that the opposition
media exhorted people to come out onto the streets and actually overthrow
the government in April, 2002.

One may easily imagine that the Bush White House would not be so tolerant
were Lowenstein and his colleagues to preach rebellion on the front pages
of the Times.

I had the chance to learn more about the Venezuelan media during my recent
trip to the country.  According to Carlos Correa, the former director of
Provea, a leading human rights organization in Caracas, there was
incredible freedom for the media to express its views.  "In fact," he
said, "there's been some abuse in that both state and private media have
gone too far and said too much."

To be fair however, the media picture was not entirely rosy.

The problem, as Correa explained it, was that after journalists had
reported, some had been physically attacked.  Correa told me that the
government had not been zealous enough in investigating the crimes.
Additionally, opposition journalists did not always have access to
information or to leading politicians (though that's a situation which is
certainly not unique to Venezuela).

Despite these problems, Correa said, only four Venezuelan journalists had
been killed since the April 2002 coup.  One was killed in the violence
during the coup itself.  Another was killed by hit men while pursuing a
story on drug trafficking.  Two others were killed during political
protests, and both were from pro-Chavez newspapers.

That's a far cry from a place like Colombia, where the human rights
situation is appalling and journalists get attacked and killed routinely.
Given the kind of gross human rights violations in Colombia and the
terrible climate faced by many journalists, one would think that the
newspaper of record would run frequent stores on the issue, but the Times
ignores the story.

Strategy #4: Misrepresent the State of The Economy

In yet another attempt to focus attention away from U.S. foreign policy,
Lowenstein says that Chavez has eroded confidence in the economy.  But
contrary to the Times' claims, the economic outlook in Venezuela looks
very promising.

It should be said that Chavez inherited a very unenviable economic
situation when he was elected in 1998; the country in fact was on the road
towards increasing poverty, misery and inequality.  Additionally, Chavez
had to contend with disruptive economic sabotage through the oil lock out
in 2002-3 which resulted in almost $8 billion in losses.

Despite this incredible hardship, investment has actually increased in
recent years.  In 2002, in the midst of political and financial
instability, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) plunged to $800 million, a
drastic decrease from 2001 when FDI was $3.7 billion.

Since then FDI has been up and down, but recent figures indicate that
Venezuela is on the rebound with an FDI of $1.2 billion in 2005, a 4.5%
increase from the previous year.  What's more, the investment bank Bear
Stearns is forecasting that Venezuela will increase FDI in 2006 by a
further 25%.  Despite FDI volatility and investor concern over growing
government control over the economy, all but three oil companies have
agreed to sign joint oil ventures with the state.

Not only is FDI looking up, but the macroeconomic indicators look
positive.  In 2005-6, Venezuela had the fastest economic growth in Latin
America; inflation has been halved; unemployment has been steadily
dropping; incomes of the poor doubled in the past two years, and the
poverty rate has been dropping.

In its effort to discredit Chavez, the Times has vastly oversimplified the
economic picture.

Strategy #5: When All Else Fails, Resort to Cold War Rhetoric

In his column, Lowenstein attempts to tar both the Venezuelan government
and myself through retrograde rhetoric.  For example, he argues that
Chavez is pushing forward a failed socialist agenda and is unhappy with my
supposedly Marxist "new-lefty rhetoric [which] I had thought went out in
the '70s."

If Lowenstein had actually gone to Venezuela and spoken with the
beneficiaries of Chavez's social programs, he'd be able to recognize the
fallacy of his argument.

During a recent trip to the country I was able to observe some of the
successes of the Chavez regime.  In Catia, a poor district of Caracas, I
toured a so-called "Endogenous Center of Development," where women had set
up a flourishing textile cooperative.  The women were proud of their new
red T-shirts, which displayed a profile of the revolutionary hero Che

Contrary to Lowenstein's claims however, the economy does not follow a
strictly socialist model.  Venezuela is open to thriving foreign
investment and its people are voracious consumers of imported Scotch
Whiskey as reported by the Times itself on August 20.

It would be fairer to say that Venezuela is pursuing a nationalist course
based on poverty relief for the neediest.  In this sense Chavez's economic
approach is more akin to FDR's New Deal, a not so subtle difference lost
on the likes of Lowenstein.

Summing Up: The Times' Belief System

Lowenstein's discrediting of Chavez is not surprising in light of the
overall economic philosophy at the Times.  For years, the paper has been
touting the so-called virtues of free trade and hemispheric integration,
tendencies which Chavez has successfully challenged through anti-poverty
programs and promotion of a regional initiative called Bolivarian
Alternative of The Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA).  Chavez's
own trade initiative is a challenge to Washington, which has long pushed
its own corporately friendly FTAA or Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The issue of the Times' historic support for free trade was analyzed in a
thorough 2001 report by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting (FAIR).  Though the Times reported on the contentious FTAA
summit at Quebec in 2001 which drew thousands of anti-globalization
protesters, the paper "tended to focus more on the politicking and
'challenges' that Bush must navigate to seal the deal than on the
particulars of what might happen if he succeeds."

As I point out in my book, Chavez was critical of the FTAA in Quebec, and
his antipathy towards the agreement only increased with time.  In this
sense Chavez shared some common ground with anti-globalization protesters,
who were also vilified by the Times.  According to FAIR, Times columnists
Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman led the charge in seeking to discredit
FTAA critics and the anti-globalization movement.  Friedman in fact went
as far to say that protesters were "choking the only route out of poverty
for the world's poor."

Krugman agreed with Friedman, remarking that "many of the people inside
that chain-link fence [hemispheric politicians supporting the FTAA] are
sincerely trying to help the world's poor.  And the people outside the
fence, whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor
even poorer."

In a telling aside, FAIR remarked: "Perhaps the most startling thing about
these editorials was their failure to acknowledge that the 'world's poor'
have in fact themselves been taking to the streets to protest

Fast forward now from 2001 to 2006, and it's not surprising that the Times
would carry on the torch and seek to criticize Chavez.  The fact that the
Venezuelan leader has been able to successfully resist some of the tenets
of "neo-liberal" economics, in line with the thrust of the earlier
anti-globalization movement, is disagreeable to the paper of record.

Chavez will most certainly win the December 2006 presidential election.
The question is now just a matter of how wide the margin shall be.  George
Bush and whomever his successor may be will almost certainly try to
further destabilize Venezuela in future.

In light of Lowenstein's piece, it seems likely that the mainstream media
will take its cue from the Times, over generalizing and misrepresenting
the truth on Venezuela until the public starts to become obsessed with
Hugo Chavez.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil,
Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin's Press)


Book Review - CounterPunch

The Politics of Hugo Chavez

The General Who Called Out the Devil

By Ron Jacobs

The reaction of most mainstream US politicians to Hugo Chavez's recent
rhetorical flourish during his speech at the United Nations where he
called George Bush the devil certainly showed the world how much of a
threat the Washington powermongers consider his Bolivarian revolution to
be. From the liberal Nancy Pelosi of California to the far-right, Chavez's
comparison provoked a virtual flood of angry criticism. Interestingly
enough, the White House did not issue a denial, leaving it open to
speculation as to whether or not Chavez's characterization of Mr. Bush was
more accurate than previously acknowledged. At any rate, the point I'm
trying to make here is that Hugo Chavez does not really seem to care what
the politicians in Washington and their backers in the boardrooms of the
US think about him. Furthermore, by adopting this attitude and expressing
it at forums like the UN, Mr. Chavez has vocalized the sentiments of
millions of people the world over.

Yet, his words matter little when compared to his actions to subvert the
neoliberal/neoconservative agenda of Washington and its cohorts. It is
these actions that strike at the heart of the Empire and which have drawn
the true wrath of those whom interests they attack. The latest example of
this is the stalemated campaign between Guatemala--Washington's choice for
a temporary Security Council seat at the UN-- and Venezuela. Whether one
is discussing Chavez's campaign to reinvigorate OPEC or his land reform
actions in the Venezuelan countryside, revolution that Chavez has named
after the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar has angered Washington,
Wall Street and many a rich landowner. In addition, Chavez has frustrated
many corporate hacks used to buying of Third World politicians.

It is this revolution that author Nikolas Kozloff explores in his recently
released book, Hugo Chavez, Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the US. A
somewhat frequent visitor to the nation as a grad student and researcher,
Kozloff intertwines personal observations and experiences in Venezuela
with an intelligent analysis of the meaning of Chavismo to the poor and
indigenous people of Venezuela and other countries of Latin America.
Something of an anti-authoritarian leftist, Kozloff is at first hesitant
to give Chavez much credit for the popular movement against the neoliberal
governments that ruled Venezuela prior to Chavez. However, as he
investigates the changes and as the movement takes root, he writes quite
positively about the changes in the Venezuelan political and economic
landscape. Never, however, does the prose become a sycophantic apology for
anything Chavez.

Kozloff traces the life of Chavez from an impoverished rural region of
Venezuela into the military, jail and into electoral politics. While
relating Chavez's political development, the author reminds the reader
that Chavez's background is not that different from many Venezuelans. It
is, however, quite different from the circumstances of those that ruled
the country until Chavez's election in 1992. As one reads the book, it
becomes clear that Chavez has not forgotten his roots and, as he has
developed politically, has discovered some of the fundamental reasons for
the poverty he and so many of his countrymen and women live(d) in.
Naturally, as his understanding developed, Chavez's politics turned
leftward. Also, quite naturally, as his politics turned left, the
opposition to the man and the movement he represents has become more vocal
and willing to consider extralegal means to rid themselves of him.

One of those attempts was made in 2002, when various members of
Venezuela's elite took over the seat of power on April 11. The coup lasted
barely twenty-four hours. Soldiers loyal to Chavez refused to follow the
orders of those officers who were involved in the coup and took back the
Presidential Palace while hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters
rallied in the streets. Kozloff's description of this event and the oil
"strike" led by sectors of the oil industry wanting to hold on to industry
agreements that opposed to using oil profits for Chavez's plans to help
the poor (and not share said profits with foreign companies and their
Venezuelan accomplices) provide a clarity to events that have never been
adequately explained in the US mainstream press.

Acknowledging Chavez's growing role in world politics, Kozloff examines
his government's foreign aid programs that emphasize barter instead of
cash and tend towards highlighting the solidarity of those nations and
peoples taken advantage of by the US-led neoliberal campaign. In a chapter
titled "The Chavez-Morales Axis," Venezuela's campaign to include the
indigenous populations of the Americas in the Bolivarian revolution
championed by Chavez and Morales is described. According to Kozloff, much
of Chavez's interest in the plight of the indigenous stems from his mixed
heritage and the consequent empathic understanding he derives from his
experiences related to that heritage.

Kozloff's book, which was recently received the wrath of a reviewer in the
New York Times Business Section because of its leftist slant, is a
worthwhile survey of the current political situation in Venezuela and its
relations with the rest of the Americas. The supposedly leftist slant is
not a detraction, even for those skeptical individuals who would approach
this book with negative preconceptions regarding Mr. Chavez. Indeed, this
particular take is the appropriate viewfinder from which his government
should be examined. The book's one drawback is its brevity, although it is
also that aspect that makes it a good introduction to the politics and the
personality that make Hugo Chavez and his supporters the force for change
that they are.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather
Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill
Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's new collection on music, art and
sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

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