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How to turn a government into a pariah



Media Coverage of the Clashes between Protesters and State Security Forces


According to Venezuela’s opposition leaders, the oppositional media, and most international observers, the events of this past week in Venezuela were a perfect example of the Chavez government showing its true nature. The supposed facts of the story resembled to a large extent the supposed facts of what happened in April 2002, when the Chavez government was temporarily deposed by the opposition. That is, according to them, the Chavez government ordered its supporters and its security forces to open fire on opposition demonstrators in order to repress unwanted demonstrations. It illegally arrested hundreds of protestors, including a leader of the opposition, and tortured some of them. According to numerous spokespersons of the opposition, the government’s goal is to silence the opposition, so as to be in a better position to make sure that the recall referendum it is trying to organize will not come to pass.


A typical example of the international coverage included an Associated Press report of February 27, which claimed, “The military had put 50,000 troops and police on the streets for the summit and had warned it would not tolerate opposition protests.” What this report left out is that the government never said that “it would not tolerate opposition protests.” Rather, the government said that the opposition would have complete freedom to protest, except near the G-15 summit meeting place.


The effort to present recent events in such a manner seems to have met with some success. On Thursday, the Washington Post’s editorial declared that Chavez had achieved a “Coup by technicality.” The editorial ended by saying, “If Mr. Chavez continues to deny his people a democratic vote, leaders from those nations must be prepared to invoke the Democracy Charter of the OAS and threaten him with the isolation reserved for autocrats.”


What Happened?


The problem with this picture is that it, just as in the days leading up to and during the April 2002 coup, leaves out an alternate story about what is happening in Venezuela. That is, it leaves out some inconvenient details and presents the story only from the perspective of the opposition.


First of all, just as the AP report quoted above, very few media reports bother to mention that the February 27 confrontation between opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops was deliberate and planned by some people within the opposition. That is, the demonstration had a permit to go up to within one kilometer of where the G-15 summit meeting was taking place, but no further. The previous day the country’s vice-minister for citizen security said the opposition had complete freedom to demonstrate, but not within the one kilometer radius of the summit meeting. Opposition leaders knew that there would be National Guard troops stationed to prevent the further advance of the demonstration. However, most demonstrators appeared to be oblivious to the government’s prohibition to continue marching. Only a small group at the head of the demonstration, including an opposition mayor, was prepared with gas masks and sling shots for the confrontation.


While opposition supporters claim that the National Guard started the confrontation, government supporters claim it was the opposition demonstrators. The fact is, however, (and there is photographic documentation for this) that numerous opposition demonstrators, apparently mostly young activists belonging to Acción Democratica, Primero Justicia, and Bandera Roja, were well prepared for the fight and even sought it out.


There is little doubt that Venezuela’s National Guard ought to learn how to act with more restraint. However, one has to keep two things in mind. First, historically speaking, according to activists who bore the brunt of National Guard confrontations during previous governments, the Guard has improved in terms of how much force it uses to control confrontational demonstrations. Shots fired with live ammunition used to be the standard operating procedure, which is not the case now.


Second, if one makes an international comparison, of demonstrations of this type, where demonstrators deliberately seek a confrontation with state security forces, the battle that took place that on February 27 in Caracas was not much different from what took place in Berlin in 1988, Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2002, etc. That is, state security forces try to disperse the crowds, with tear gas, rubber bullets, and night sticks. It never is a pretty sight and should not happen. However, to argue that such incidents prove that Venezuela is a dictatorship, as the opposition now almost unanimously does, has no bearing in reality. If that were so, then most governments in the world today would have to be called dictatorship.


The next few days, in which opposition leaders urged their followers to take to the streets and to engage in civil disobedience, provided more “evidence” for the opposition of the supposed repressive nature of the Chavez government. The most serious aspects of these confrontations, which mostly involved demonstrators attempting to block major thoroughfares and National Guard or Military Police troops trying to keep these free, were the deaths and accusations of torture.


According to various media reports, a total of seven days of confrontations before things calmed down again, left eleven dead, dozens wounded, and hundreds arrested. All of the deaths were of civilians and the wounded were from all sides, civilians, military, and journalists. There seems to be little doubt that in these confrontations both pro-Chavez and opposition civilians and state security forces loyal to both the opposition and the government fired shots during these confrontations, thus causing the deaths and wounded.


Some of the deaths attracted much attention, such as the killing of José Manuel Vilas, a former oil industry employee and member of the oppositional organization, “Gente del Petroleo” (People of the Oil). Pictures circulated widely in the news media and in the internet, showing Vilas with his back turned to approaching National Guard troops in the Caracas suburb San Antonio. A second picture then shows Vilas lying apparently dead on the ground. The mayor of the town in which the incident took place, who is a member of the opposition, told the press that the autopsy determined that Vilas was shot by a rifle shot that the National Guard typically uses. However, the website aporrea.org says that documents and pictures it obtained of the autopsy tell a different story, which is that Vilas was killed not by bullets, but by small marbles that were shot at him, one of which was extracted from his body.


Another notorious incident that the opposition highlighted was the death of Yorvin Suarez, who was suspected of having been killed either by National Guard troops or Chavistas. As it turns out, though, he was killed in Plaza Altamira, where the bullet wound clearly indicated that the shot came from above, from one of the buildings surrounding the plaza, with a high-powered assault weapon, such as an M16 or HK33.[1] As most people who are familiar with Venezuela know, Plaza Altamira is the center of opposition territory and it is extremely unlikely that pro-government forces would be shooting at protesters from one of the buildings. Much more likely is that someone was placed there to shoot at protesters so as to make it look like the government was repressing the demonstration with gun fire, which is precisely what was achieved. Several other people, including at least two journalists, were shot and wounded with gunfire coming from the buildings surrounding Plaza Altamira.


That the facts of the case are eventually revealed has become irrelevant to oppositional Venezuelan public opinion because the main newspapers and television channels ignore these factual details immediately after they have spread the false impression. There are more incidents like this, in which the press immediately blamed the government side, but upon closer examination, it turns out that it was most likely opposition protesters who caused the deaths and injuries. Other important omissions of the mainstream private media include the arrests of several heavily armed Metropolitan Police officers (under control of the oppositional greater Caracas Mayor), who infiltrated the February 27 opposition demonstration and the paying off of protestors in order to conduct violent confrontations with the National Guard.[2]


The media’s complicity in spreading false impressions of what happened has become quite common in Venezuela. For example, last year’s murder of three soldiers and one of their girlfriends was blamed on the government immediately after it happened. International media, while not blaming the government, certainly suggested the strong possibility. However, about nine months later, confessions revealed that the murderers were part of the opposition. Practically none of the national or international media bothered to report the final findings in this case.


Torture?


Despite the distortions and one-sided reporting of the national and international media, which create the impression that the Chavez government is an authoritarian dictatorship, there are some disturbing reports of torture that supposedly occurred at the hands of state security forces in the past week. Such incidents must be investigated thoroughly and government officials, such as the Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, have promised they would be. Torture, especially at the hands of the investigative police DISIP (more or less equivalent in function to the U.S. FBI) and of local police forces, has a long history in Venezuela, as a brief glance at Amnesty International’s annual reports on Venezuela shows, and which has apparently not gone away with the Chavez government. The Chavez government should immediately prosecute any such occurrences, should they prove to be true. Human rights organizations, both national and international, also ought to keep serious pressure on the government to make good on its promise that the Chavez government is the first Venezuelan government in history in which state-sponsored human rights violations do not occur.


Unfortunately, Venezuela’s political culture will probably make it near impossible to resolve such serious accusations. It has been said, for example, that the only one to ever be convicted of corruption in Venezuelan history is a Chinese national (in the RECADI[3] case), even though it is well known that the proportion of corrupt Venezuelan public officials is very high. The Venezuelan justice system seems extremely reluctant to convict anyone of corruption, no matter on what side of the political fence. The fact that judges in Venezuela have always been very dependent upon their political benefactors is an extremely important factor in the judicial system’s inability to prosecute politically explosive cases.


Complicating things further is that the opposition is using these accusations as proof that the Chavez government is a dictatorship. In Venezuelan political culture, any admission that torture did take place would constitute proof that the government is a dictatorship. As a result, there is a tremendous effort on the part of government spokespersons to deny the possibility that such incidents did take place.


While it does not make a difference to those who suffer from human rights abuses, it does makes a difference for determining the nature of a government, whether that government employs torture as a matter of policy or whether incidents of torture are isolated incidents of state agencies that are still pursuing practices that the government has not been able to abolish for some reason. The types of torture that have supposedly occurred would indicate that it is the latter. That is, they seem to be random instances where the government could not possibly gain anything from pursuing such a policy.


On Generating a Public Opinion Matrix


The combined result of the foregoing is the creation of what in Spanish is known as a public opinion matrix (matriz de opinión), one that bears some resemblance to the “Matrix” in the film trilogy of the same name. That is, a reality is created purely through the media which contributes to a perception of that reality, regardless of what is behind the perceptions. Since the situation in Venezuela tends to be quite complicated and difficult to follow, international observers of the Venezuelan situation have only the international media to rely on, which provides superficial and generally one-sided reports of what has been happening. The result is the perception of a reality that can be quite different from what is actually happening on the ground.


The problem is not so much that national and international journalists deliberately want to present a false image of what is taking place. Rather, the problem is deeper, in the sense that the journalists themselves have become so conditioned to the opposition discourse, which the media repeat ad nauseam, that it becomes second nature for journalists to forget to mention details such as the fact that the February 27 confrontation with the national guard involved demonstrators who deliberately attempted to break a security barrier. Coverage like this would never happen in reports about anti-IMF protests in Washington DC, where the security barrier around the IMF meeting area is taken for granted. In Venezuela, what national and international media have come to take for granted instead is that the government is repressive. Therefore, a demonstration’s clash with state security forces must, logically, be the consequence of government repression, not opposition intent to break a security barrier. Similarly, the omission that opposition demonstrators were armed and firing shots at National Guard troops is more or less automatically assumed to be government propaganda.


It is thus completely unnecessary for there to be an intention on the part of journalists to distort the news. The distortion occurs all by itself, due to the biases that are already promoted by the private mass media. In other words, there is a vicious cycle at work, in which biased reporting generates more biased reporting. Since the media actively contribute to the atmosphere of intolerance and confrontation in Venezuela, a way must be found to break this cycle. The Chavez government’s unfortunate strategy has been to simply counter-act the private media’s bias with counter-programming of its own. It is doubtful that this will have much effect beyond the country’s government supporters because among those who oppose the government, it is automatically taken for granted that the state media cannot be trusted.


Rather, what Venezuela (and, by extension the international community) needs, in order to break the cycle of biased reporting is truly independent media. That is, Venezuela needs a pluralism and diversity of media that is independent both of large private corporations and of the state. Community media is one solution. The democratization of the existing media outlets would be another.








[1] El Mundo, March 4, 2004, page 24.



[2] The paying off of protestors to engage the National Guard in violent confrontations was initially reported by the state media and was later confirmed to a VenezuelAnalysis correspondent Jonah Gindin, when he witnessed the arrest of eight Molotov cocktail makers in Plaza Altamira, who confessed to the Chacao police that they were paid to make and throw Molotov Cocktails at National Guard troops.



[3] RECADI was an institution in charge of currency controls during the 1980’s, which became synonymous with Venezuelan corruption.

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