2) The Media & America's Hostility to Venezuela

The role of the media in Venezuelan politics cannot be overstated. There are five privately owned television stations, all unabashedly anti-Chávez, and their "news" programs are overtly biased with mis- and disinformation. The major newspapers are also anti-Chávez. There is one state run TV station which is overtly pro-Chávez (and a new one getting started), but I have no evidence that it disseminates false information. Our own mainstream media, having proven themselves to be not much more than government mouthpieces, carry anti-Chávez reports as well, and so the American public is getting a very one-sided and often inaccurate look at the situation in Venezuela.

Of course, my own perception and political leaning is an integral, necessary part of this story. I will try to describe it here, at the beginning, so that I can add opinions where I'm tempted to, and not be restricted entirely to unbiased reporting. At any rate, for the most part, I will be trying to simply tell what I learned and provide readers what benefits there might be from my "notes" taken at talks and events I attended during an eight day Global Exchange tour to Venezuela in April of this year (2004).

Up until October 2003, I was completely ignorant of the politics in Venezuela, and of the U.S. government's relationship with that country, when I happened across an internet article: Terror Close to Home: In oil-rich Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends bad actors from the Mideast, Colombia, and Cuba. That article sent up the proverbial red flag, prompting concerns that my own country was looking to put another country on the "Axis of Evil" list and provide yet another target for invasion. I needed to find out why it was necessary to demonize Venezuela's president.

I found the answer immediately of course: Venezuela is sitting on top of our oil. Since that time, I have come to realize that it's not quite that simple, and I've decided there's a list of reasons why Washington must not only demonize the leader, but assure the failure of Mr. Chávez' "Bolivarian Revolution." Aside from the fact that Venezuela is the fifth largest oil producing country in the world and the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States (source), there are other issues of "neoliberalism", or rampant capitalism, such as:

1) Maintaining a supply of exploitable, cheap labor;
2) Collecting billions of dollars from interest on loans to third world countries;
3) Preventing an example to America's own lower class citizens of lower class people gaining power; and
4) Avoiding a success story for socialism

My admiration for and support of the Bolivarian Revolutionaries - the people who are known as Chavistas - in their goal of a true democracy and a system where everyone benefits from and participates in an equitable society, is without reservation.

On the other hand, even though my political preferences lean to socialist ideas, and I am something of a dreamer, I'm not easily taken by hero or savior stories, as they seem to be more legend than reality, dreams that don't stand up to the light of day where ideals hit the wall of reality. In my skeptical, jaded view, I suspect the basis for the current Venezuelan "revolution" - the stories of Simón Bolivár - are painted with a wide heroic brush, excluding virtually all ugliness or failures. But perhaps a major factor in my reserve toward championing Chávez in Venezuela is my deeply ingrained suspicion of power in politics. I tend to agree with author Frank Herbert that power doesn't corrupt - it attracts the corruptible. And so, in trying to follow the story of our relationship with Venezuela's very tense political situation, I keep having the need to find out what "The Opposition" (aka "Golpistas" - from the Spanish word for "coup") are objecting to in their newest President, their new government and their new Constitution, and whether their objections are founded.

It would take an even more jaded person than myself to not be infected upon meeting the Chavistas by their hope and their adoration of President Chávez. It is also very easy to romanticize what he has done for the people, and perhaps due to a desire to see a successful story of people resisting the trap of neoliberalism and coming to power from under decades of colonial class oppression, easy to assume their view and fail to see any legitimacy in the complaints of the opposing side. (Particularly when the opposing side happens to be a wealthy elite class who has refused since colonial days to share either wealth or power with the people they exploit.)

At this writing (May 25, 2004), Mr. Chávez' Defense Minister has just announced a plan where citizens would essentially be spies for the military. According to an AP release today in the Miami Herald...
Gen. Jorge García Carneiro said the goal was to create "a substitute military service" to help the armed forces "get much deeper into intelligence." Civilians "will help us get information when they detect something abnormal in their community," García Carneiro said.   source
The government has just recently arrested upwards of 100 supposed Colombian paramilitary men who are claimed to have been involved with the Opposition, hired by wealthy Venezuelan businessman Carlos Cisneros to stage another coup, and so it is reasonable to expect some government reaction. However, creating an atmosphere where civilians are spying on each other is absolutely the wrong one. This is very disturbing news, reminiscent of Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, and the police state trends of John Ashcroft (T.I.P.S.) It also makes some of the Opposition's otherwise seemingly outrageous claims look a little less outrageous, and lays the state wide open to claims of human rights abuses (something of which the Opposition already accuses Chávez). I will watch for confirmation of the report and for further developments. And I will be very sorry if Mr. Chávez disappoints the masses to whom he has given so much hope by leading them deeper into civil strife and closer to fascism. If that happens, I do think that we (Washington, in our names) can share some of the blame for helping to destabilize the country and fuel the Opposition's immediate and continued attempts to oust Chávez even at the expense of their country's economic viability.
Note December 4, 2004: Another blow has just been dealt to the freedoms of the people of Venezuela to wit: article 148 of the Partial Penal Code Reform bill just approved by the National Assembly makes it a criminal offense to "offend" or "disrespect" "by spoken, written word or any other means" the President and other government officials. This is definitely a bad turn. 
Further note December 7, 2004: Fellow tour participant Bob Goodsell wrote to Eric Wingerter at Venezuela Info about this article and received the following reply:

"As far as I can tell, the new language does not create any new crimes. What it does is adjust the sentencing guidelines associated with the crime. At this point, it is unclear to me exactly what constitutes an "insult" under the law and whether this law has been used in the past. I'll try to find that out. I share your concerns. I'm making some calls and trying to learn more. I'll touch base when find out more details."
Further Note December 12, 2004: The Miami Herald is reporting that what has happened is the penalties for violation of the Code have been increased - and rather drastically. The report says (Herald link no longer viable - report available here):

Under the old penal code, the maximum sentence for libel was 18 months in prison. The new code increased the maximum to four years in prison. Sentences for slander -- statements that impugn "the honor, the reputation, the respect" of a person -- were lengthened from eight days to up to one year. There are no exceptions when the speech is directed at public officials.
A bad law made worse.
After considering whether to provide an introductory section on Hugo Chávez Frias' rise to the presidency of Venezuela and the coup that unseated him for two days, I decided much of that story will be brought into view by relating the information from people who talked to us, particularly the professors of history. For a very good account of what happened, there is a report by Eamon Martin in, of all places, the April 18-24, 2002, edition of the Asheville (North Carolina) Global Report [Now defunct]. I recommend you read it now if you are unfamiliar with the coup. It is concise and yet thorough, including information about U.S. financial and military involvement in the attempt to overthrow Chávez. The one item left unresolved in the article, because it was written so soon afer the events, is the question of who fired the shots that killed innocent civilians. For that answer (Opposition snipers opened fire on Chavistas and Opposition TV cropped video footage to make it appear as though the Chavistas were killing innocent Opposition marchers) and for good visual impact and a clear view of what was taking place at the scene of the coup, I don't think you could do better than the eyewitness Irish documentary " The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (now free on YouTube, plus interview with the filmmakers). To get a sense of the idea of the Bolivarian Revolution from the point of view of a Marxist, have a look at this article by Alan Woods, who was in Caracas for the Second Conference of International Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution (more about that later): Encounters with Hugo Chávez (more about this article later, too, with some criticism).

I have also left out the account of two young Chavista men who were eye-witnesses to the sniper attacks at Llaguno Bridge on April 11, 2002, not because I feel that their stories were unimportant, but because I didn't take notes. I feel that they are not out of danger as long as the Opposition continues to be so determined to overthrow the government, and while one was willing to be vocal and aggressive in his condemnation of the Opposition, the other had been greatly shaken by his experiences which underlined the reality that his political views were not merely his right, but could also be his death sentence.

At this juncture, Venezuela is politically and socially deeply polarized. Periodic violent outburts occur as a result of the palpable tension between the Chavistas, who represent the Movimiento Quinta Republica party (MVR - Fifth Movement) founded by Hugo Chávez, overwhelmingly comprised of the poor people of indigenous and African slave mix, millions of whom live in the barrios of Caracas, and the Golpistas, a somewhat disorganized group of various political parties made up of what was, until Chávez was elected by popular vote in 1998, the ruling class of wealthy Spanish descent elites and most of what remains of Venezuela's middle class.

Barrio scene: Bob Goodsell photo

The current structure of Venezuela's political system is described adequately, I think, by the U.S. State Department at its website: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/1859.htm.  [Note 2/4/2015: this link is no longer current, so I'm substituting a Library of Congress page:  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+ve0008)]

Unlike the typical United States citizen, most Venezuelans are highly involved in the country's politics as a matter of daily life. Even the poorest people know their Constitution and are politically savvy. In fact, a common item to be carried at least to rallies - of which there are many (the Venezuelan people seem to take to the streets with great frequency) - is a small blue book, a copy of their Constitution.
Photo courtesy Venezuelanalysis.com

The possibility of a future where the majority of Venezuelan citizens, who comprise the poor lower class, have educational and economic opportunities and basic health care rests on the success of their "Bolivarian Revolution" and their ability to keep, if not Chávez, at least the MVR party at the head of the government. Of this, they are acutely aware. The Opposition, out of fear of losing what they have, but perhaps more out of a sense of entitlement and the unthinkable situation of having the "peasants" ruling the country, are as determined to overturn the situation as the Chavistas are in keeping the ground they have gained. At times, their objection to Hugo Chávez seems to be more a personal objection than a political one, as he himself is of mixed Venezuelan indigenous and African slave heritage. The more I uncover, the more it seems from my perspective that Chávez may be inching toward the authoritarian stance the Opposition falsely accuse him of exercising, as a reaction to their attempts to oust him from power. It appears to me that he had been willing to work with them at the beginning of his term but has been forced to become harsher in both his rhetoric and his actions under the constant barrage of their attempts to remove him from office.