Thursday, August 10, 2017

Venezuela: Lies, Damned lies and the Media

“… the newspaper that started to tell the truth now exists to prevent the truth being told.”
(G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, 1908)

Hard to imagine a better example of Chesterton’s barb than the unremitting assault on the current Venezuelan government by much if not all of the Western media. Like parrots, they repeat the critical howls of politicians and pundits whose opinions they might otherwise view with scepticism, among them Donald Trump and Michel Temer, the unelected president of Brazil. Even Pope Francis has come out against Venezuelan President Maduro’s “regime”, but then the Catholic Church has a track record in these matters. It also sided with the Chilean military in the coup against Salvador Allende’s government in 1973.
    No one can credibly dispute that Venezuela is in a mess. Reasons to criticise the ineptness of the Venezuelan administration are not hard to find; though the same could be said of plenty of others - including the ones currently residing in the White House and Downing Street, neither of whom won the popular vote in their respective elections.  Nevertheless, Venezuela is a functioning democracy with an elected president whose term ends in 2018.  Should Maduro stand again,  he can be democratically defenestrated, and there has been no suggestion that the next election will not take place on time.
    Why, therefore, the calls for regime change? Whence the hostility of the international media? Why, above all, is the Venezuelan government being tasked with acts of violence for which the Opposition is largely if not entirely responsible? It is the latter that has been setting fire to public buildings, attacking medical centres, erecting street barricades, destroying or blocking access to polling stations, using molotov cocktails and roadside bombs against police and security personnel, and horrifically burning alive the odd “Chavista” in broad daylight - aggressions that have been caught on camera - mostly by passers-by. 
    Such outrages would be termed ‘acts of terrorism’ in the countries now calling for Maduro’s head; and the perpetrators would be in gaol.   Over 3,000 arrests followed the 2011 riots in England with nearly 1,300 receiving gaol sentences. Politicians and media alike called them “criminals”.  Their more vicious and deadly Venezuelan counterparts, on the other hand, receive billing as heroic “political prisoners” confronting a repressive regime. Notable among these heroes are Opposition leaders Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, both currently under house arrest for fomenting street violence - the former having already been tried and convicted in 2015 of responsibility for inciting riots that led to over 40 fatalities.
    Among the most egregious and disappointing purveyors of disinformation on Venezuela is the BBC.  On 29th July, BBC News broadcast a truly virtuoso piece of misrepresentation in which most of the interviewees were juveniles wearing masks, though viewers were also treated to a  smorgasbord of anti-government slogans from Opposition activist María Corina Machado who was a signatory to the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and has worked tirelessly ever since to overthrow his successor - including appealing for US intervention.  BBC Newsnight on August 7th, treated viewers to an interview with Juan Andrés Mejía who was introduced as the leader of “Popular Will”  a Venezuelan political party supposedly “of the left”.  Sr Mejía - a Member of the Venezuelan National Assembly - recited the standard  Opposition line, accusing the Maduro government of murdering and torturing hundreds of civilians, a charge for which no one, anywhere, at any time has been able to offer the least shred of evidence for the simple reason that it’s untrue.
    What the BBC failed to mention is that Mejía’s constituency in Caracas is the wealthiest in the country, that his party was founded not by him but by Leopoldo López, that its raison-d’être was and remains to organise “La Salida” which, in plain English, means toppling the government, and that it is a member of MUD - the Opposition coalition.  In place of host Evan Davis’s usual forensic interrogation, Newsnight’s Venezuelan guest received a green light to pile lie upon falsehood with no other restraint than the time allotted for the interview. 
    On the following morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme - scraping the barrel for Venezuelan pundits - came up with Gabriela Montero, a classical pianist and composer who lives in Barcelona but happens to have been born in Venezuela.  A safe choice, She dutifully trotted out a handful of Opposition clichés of the kind available for a pittance on the newsstands or free of charge over the airwaves and on the Web. Not once has the BBC bothered to interview what are known in Latin America as “el pueblo”, the people - trades unionists, rural workers, the disabled, indigenous peoples  - who make up the bulk of the population and who are all represented in the recently-elected Constituent Assembly.
    Domestically, the assault on Venezuela’s government and the “Bolivarian Revolution” comes from the traditional masters of the country and its economy - the wealthy elite whose younger members have been busy over recent months erecting street barricades and causing mayhem while the elders ramp up the political rhetoric and employ their control of key business sectors to generate shortages of essential goods, notably in the working-class areas of the main cities. Shortages are useful to the Opposition because they are seen as a means of weakening support for the regime. Getting the poorer classes to vote or to act against their own interests is a prime tactic of the neoliberal right. Governments invariably take the blame for popular misfortunes regardless of how they are caused or who may be responsible.
    Venezuela has become a target of international concern for two main reasons.
First, it has the world’s largest oil reserves - currently estimated at 300 billion barrels. Despite the impact of fossil fuels on the global climate, oil deposits of this magnitude give the country a strategic value similar to that of the Middle East. Successive US administrations have therefore looked askance at the efforts of  a ”left-wing regime” under Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro to strengthen economic and political ties beyond the western hemisphere.  Evidence of those efforts is a surge in Chinese support for the Venezuelan economy in the form of both loans and investment. As recently as June this year, planning minister Ricardo Menendez revealed that high-level discussions were underway to increase further Chinese involvement in Venezuelan agriculture, industry and technological development.
    Second, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution - were it to succeed - might offer an example that another world is possible and thereby contaminate the opinions of voters in Latin America and beyond. Hence why a push is underway by the local elite in tacit alliance with Western governments and the international media to keep not only Venezuela but Latin-America as a whole within the neoliberal fold.  Last year, a  congressional coup in Brazil removed left-wing President Dilma Roussef from office and installed a right-wing replacement - with no election in prospect. There have been coups against left-wing presidents in Paraguay in 2008 and Honduras in 2009; and a probably fraudulent election in Mexico in 2006 that kept left-wing radical, Andés Manuel López Obrador,  from getting the keys to Los Pinos - the presidential residence. In Chile the left is constrained by a constitution framed in the 1970s under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet  that makes changes virtually impossible.
    Only Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela remain as hold-outs for the left - of which the latter is by far the most significant for the West. The country is suffering a major assault not just on the Maduro administration but on a political project - the Bolivarian Revolution - that for the first time in Venezuela’s history has given the poor access to health care, education and the prospect of dignified participation in the nation’s economic life. That assault is being orchestrated by the wealthiest sections of Venezuelan society with the overt backing of the United States , the European Union and much of Latin America. Should it succeed, it will be a triumph not for democracy but for neoliberal capitalism, and for government by the one percent. Such is the context of calls from Tories and from UK media for Jeremy Corbyn to condemn President Maduro. Corbyn is right to resist them. Venezuela’s struggle is also ours.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Truth, Lies and the Venezuelan Election

            On Sunday, July 30th, Venezuela held elections for delegates to a new Constituent Assembly - called by President Nicolas Maduro in an effort to break the political deadlock between the executive and legislature, to engage the country’s opposing forces in dialogue, and to calm the street violence. The effort has been widely trashed in the Western media  and  has met with scepticism even by those that proudly proclaim their objectivity like The Guardian and the New York Times . The BBC  joined the action with a truly virtuoso piece of misrepresentation by BBC Mundo journalist Vladimir Hernández in which most of the interviewees were juveniles wearing masks, though he also slavishly lapped up for our delection a  smorgasbord of anti-government slogans from  María Corina Machado who was a signatory to the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and has worked tirelessly since to overthrow the Bolivarian government - including appealling for US intervention.  Even The Guardian’s Paul Mason, a notable drummer for the left, readily drops Maduro into the “dictator” basket with the casual confidence a papal nuncio.
            Spanish-language media have been notably enthusiastic about damning the Maduro government and attributing street violence - even a roadside bomb  against  a patrol of Venezuela’s National Guard - as government savagery, an accusation beyond absurdity and a tacit defence of terrorism. But then terrorism nowadays seems to be in the eye of the beholder - a multi-definitional item in the encyclopaedia of alternative reality.
            Meanwhile, the US State Department condemns the Maduro government and dismisses the constituent assembly for “undermining democracy”. State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, has gone on to assure the world that the United States will take action against Maduro with the aim of bringing an end to the “regime” and restoring liberty to the Venezuelan people.  Doubtless this is a noble ambition. Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq - countries now descended into violent chaos  - offer examples of the US’s unimpeachable record of helping to bring freedom and democracy to benighted peoples. Surely only unconscionable cynics could maintain that US concern for Venezuela is anything other than honourable, or motivated by that country’s enormous reserves of oil and strategic minerals. For the world’s great superpower, democracy always trumps business as the number one concern as we can plainly see in the US's excellent relationship with Saudi Arabia - one of the world’s great  exemplars of democratic freedoms.
            Maybe a few facts about the recent electoral exercise in Venezuela could help shed light on the reasons for such widespread alarm. Opposition claims that a mere 12% of the electorate voted on Sunday are offered without a shred of supporting evidence and are contradicted not just by the government but by local media. More credibly, the official percentage is not the nearly 100%nonsense routinely put out  by dicators, but 41.5%, equivalent to just over 8 million ballots. Smartmatic, the UK company responsible for the electronic voting system employed in the recent election, has claimed that the results were tampered with and that voter turn-out was at least one million less than the total announced by CNE, the country's electoral commission. This has been widely reported in the Western media. What has not been reported is that the company withdrew its key personnel immediately after the vote, closed its office, and fled to London before  broadcasting its accusation of fraud, having failed even to discuss the matter or to verify the vote tally with CNE.  Eldiario, the on-line news medium based in Valencia, is one of the few European sources to offer a different view via an interview with an on-the-spot observer of the electoral process.
            As points of comparison, in the presidential elections of 2012, Hugo Chavez received 8.2 million votes, while in 2013 Maduro got 7.5 million. The number of votes in the 2015 congressional election, won by the Opposition and proclaimed as 100% legitimate by all and sundry, was a whopping 5.6 million.
            The queues depicted in this video show people of all social backgrounds (not just the white elite interviewed in the BBC’s disreputable report) patiently waiting to vote in Sunday’s election - many of them having travelled some distance to the voting station, because opposition thugs had sabotaged their local station during the previous night. Without such acts of sabotage and the constant threat of opposition violence,  voting numbers would almost certainly have been significantly higher.
            It’s a fair bet that none of the 8 million Venezuelan voters who turned out on Sunday were demanding to be rescued by the United States - or anyone else.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Ermita de Llutxent

    Taizé - my usual room at the Ermita - is now part of a bathroom with double showers and all the necessaries of modernity.  Fifty years ago bathrooms were rudimentary. We showered in the garden, hauling water in buckets from one of the underground cisterns, pouring the cold water over each other and drying ourselves in the early morning sun. Free as nature made us, we bathed naked as mankind must have done before the fall.

    Named after the Community of Brothers in the village of Taizé, the room reflected the austerity of the order - whitewashed walls, a bed, a small wooden desk, a chair and a lamp.  And like them,  it offered spirituality and peace to whoever rested there, a sense that simplicity  and an unceasing openness to truth are the keys not to happiness,  which is a paltry, evanescent  thing, but to leading a productive and faithful life - faithful to the best that human beings can be, which is to serve humanity and to do what we can to safeguard our fragile world.