Xiomara Garcia Gunderson thinks the US media and many politicians aren’t telling the truth about Venezuela. A middle school math teacher who lives in Salem, Oregon, Garcia Gunderson organized a few friends and family members into a Bolivarian Circle. The sole purpose of this small group is to educate the public on the truth about what’s happening in Venezuela. In addition to this work, Garcia Gunderson works with the education and outreach committee of Venezuela Solidarity (www.venezuelasolidarity.org), a coalition of groups and individuals that oppose US intervention in Venezuela. Garcia Gunderson recently talked with Political Affairs about what Venezuela is really like and the potential for friendship between our countries.
Of Venezuelan origins herself, Garcia Gunderson has lived in the US for about 30 years. Though she has family in Venezuela and visits it often, she only became involved in the solidarity movement after the April 2002 coup against ChÃ¡vez, which was strongly supported by the Bush administration. “I was not actively involved in any movement,”
she said, “until I saw the manipulation in April 11 2002, how CNN manipulated the news.” The US media failed to report the truth, and the Venezuelan media played an active role in promoting and aiding the leaders of the 2002 coup.
Garcia Gunderson described the 2002 events as “primarily a media coup because it was all manipulated and created by the media.” In Venezuela, wealthy families, which opposed the election (in 1998 and
2001) of President ChÃ¡vez and the repeated passage of his policies in the National Assembly, own and control just about all of the major television, radio, and print media. According to Garcia Gunderson, perceptions that President ChÃ¡vez controls the Venezuelan media “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Media watchdogs in Caracas have reported that opposition media personalities, such as columnist Patricia Poleo, daughter of a wealthy newspaper owner, aside from giving full support to the violent and illegal coup in April 2002, may have also provoked terrorist attacks against government officials. In one such incident, government prosecutor Danilo Anderson, appointed to investigate the involvement of police and business officials in the April 2002 coup, was assassinated in November 2004.
Caracas law enforcement officials charged Poleo with playing a role in provoking the assassination, but she escaped responsibility for her actions by fleeing to the US where she was welcomed by the Bush administration. In a bit of media hype, Poleo claims to have “escaped”
Venezuela on a raft in an attempt to identify herself with Cuban exiles who “fled” on rafts to Florida. Of course, once she got here, Poleo boarded first-class flights to Washington and then to Miami where she was greeted by political and business elites in both cities with limousine escorts and champagne cocktails. And this week Poleo was appointed to a lucrative position at South Florida media conglomerate MEGA-TV.
Despite the passage in Venezuela’s National Assembly of a law to promote the social responsibility of the media, the opposition-controlled media still does what it pleases and encourages violence and social disruption. This social responsibility law is regularly given as evidence that the government has tried to crack down on the “free” press in Venezuela. Some human rights groups, short of condemning Venezuela, have described the law as too vague and containing the possibility for abuse. But the promotion of violence and lawlessness and calls for the assassination of the President of the US would never be tolerated in the US, and have always engendered swift responses from law enforcement officials when such irresponsibility has been exhibited. Why can’t Venezuela do the same?
Nevertheless, the opposition-controlled media in Venezuela breaks the law “all the time and there are no consequences,” Garcia Gunderson noted.
For its part, the US media persist regularly in promoting many falsehoods about Venezuela. For example, on just about any Fox News report, one can find references to President ChÃ¡vez as a “strongman”
and other thinly veiled claims that he is a dictator. CNN and others typically reduce the Venezuelan president to a “firebrand” or troublemaker. The truth, however, is that the Venezuelan “government is democratic and constitutional and President ChÃ¡vez has been elected president in multiple elections,” Garcia Gunderson pointed out.
Garcia Gunderson described the Venezuelan government as truly representative. “Venezuela has one of the most progressive Constitutions in the whole continent, if not in the world,” she added.
“This Constitution was done by a consultation with all the regions of the country. Every region of the country sent representatives to work out this constitution.”
In an August 2004 recall referendum sponsored by the wealthy opposition parties, President ChÃ¡vez won 60 percent of the vote, the highest total for any presidential candidate in that country’s history. And even conservative polling companies controlled by the opposition estimate his current approval rating to be about 57 percent, somewhere between 15 and 20 points higher than President Bush’s. Garcia Gunderson said that she does not believe those polls reflect the depth of ChÃ¡vez’s support accurately, however. “Like we say in Venezuela,” she remarked, “those pollsters don’t climb the hills where the poor people live or go to the poor neighborhoods.”
Despite this high level of popularity, these same pollsters dishonestly claim that public opinion is evenly divided for the upcoming December 3rd national elections. Pollsters tied to the opposition hope to give an impression that ChÃ¡vez’s wide lead in the opinion polls is much smaller in order to foster disruption after the election, Garcia Gunderson argued. “They’re going to scream fraud and try to disrupt the country,” she predicted.
The political opposition has been in disarray since the coup was thwarted in 2002. Despite their access to large financial resources and control of the major media and many large businesses, opposition parties suffer from a lack of unity and popular support, facts repeatedly demonstrated between 2003 and the present.
For example, in December 2003, opposition parties, with the backing of the Bush administration, promoted what they called a general strike, which was supported by most of the major media, including Poleo’s newspaper. In reality, it was an illegal lockout by managers in major industries, especially the oil industry, that blocked workers from going to work for a couple of weeks. In addition to tremendous damage to the entire economy, the goal of the lockout was to create enough social disruption to either destabilize the Venezuelan government and force President ChÃ¡vez’s resignation or to seriously damage his popularity.
In the end, the workers forced their way into the industries and almost single-handedly restarted the economy. Few of the lockout masterminds were brought to account for the crime, and many left the country disingenuously claiming they were victims of political repression.
After the lockout failed, opposition parties again sought support from the US government. Through the National Endowment for Democracy, tens of millions of US taxpayer dollars have been used to intervene in Venezuelan politics. All of it has gone to opposition parties under the guise of funding civil society groups that claim to “promote democracy.” Most opposition groups that received these funds, however, are less than civil. Some have been involved in violent disruptive behavior such as attacks on the Colombian and Spanish Embassies and violence towards supporters of the government. None of these stories appear in the mainstream media in either Venezuela or the US.
In 2005, opposition groups could not develop a unified, coherent platform to run effective campaigns in the National Assembly elections. Instead, they chose not to run any candidates and pretended to boycott the parliamentary elections purposely in order to give the appearance of a lack of popular support for the parties aligned with ChÃ¡vez. Of course, polls indicated that they again would have been soundly defeated.
So what does the US media tell us about Venezuela and its democratically elected president? Right-leaning media bias in the US has so carefully selected the information it provides about Venezuela that most people in the US probably know precious little other than that it is an oil-producing country whose president recently called Bush the devil.
Given the Bush administration’s record of promoting violence and political discord in Venezuela, why wouldn’t President ChÃ¡vez think badly of Bush? Indeed, personal attacks from the Bush administration and the right-leaning US media on President ChÃ¡vez have been plentiful. The administration has tried to link ChÃ¡vez to the “axis of evil,” to characterize him as a clone of Hitler, and they have claimed he is tied to terrorists and drug dealers.
Despite the open hostility from the Bush administration, according to Garcia Gunderson, who travels frequently to Venezuela and whose family lives there, most Venezuelans distinguish between the bad policies and harsh attitude of the US president and the friendship and common history they share with the people of the United States. “President ChÃ¡vez is always talking about Martin Luther King, Lincoln, and all the ideals that we share, because we have a similar history,” Garcia Gunderson stated.
She pointed to the similarities of the independence movements of both countries and at the economic ties â€“ mainly oil â€“ that bind the two countries. She said that President ChÃ¡vez’s program of providing discounted heating oil to poor and marginalized communities in the US demonstrates “that never before has the connection [between our countries] been so strong, people to people.” Several local and state entities in the US have either made agreements with the Venezuelan government to receive discounted oil shipments or are currently in talks to do so.
In addition to this program, after the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the Bush administration to respond rapidly and adequately to prevent the deaths of over 1,800 people, President ChÃ¡vez immediately offered financial aid to the people affected by the disaster. He also volunteered assistance in petroleum and gasoline products that might be needed in the rescue and recovery operations.
In a surprising and shameful gesture, President Bush declined the offer and proceeded to continue to botch recovery and reconstruction projects.
With Bush’s unrelenting and irresponsible antagonism, it is easy to see why President ChÃ¡vez, his political supporters, and millions of ordinary Venezuelans would be seriously concerned about additional interference in the upcoming December 3rd elections. ChÃ¡vez’s opponent has earned the suspicion of Venezuelan voters because he has sought and won public support from Venezuela’s elites and the Bush administration.
Garcia Gunderson said she believes ChÃ¡vez will win by a large margin.
“He has to be overwhelmingly elected by at least the same percent he got in the referendum so that they can once more prove to the international community that he is the president that the people in Venezuela want to elect,” she added. She expressed frustration that it will take a fourth election to prove this but believes it will be accomplished.
The role of the solidarity movement and organizations like Venezuela Solidarity is to promote the basic idea that the people of a country like Venezuela have the right to elect whom they want, Garcia Gunderson concluded. Venezuela has “the right to self-determination,”
she stated emphatically, “without having somebody always pointing the finger and saying this is what you should do.” She compared the current interference in Venezuela by the Bush administration to that of the Nixon administration in Chile in 1973. After President Salvador Allende was elected in Chile in 1970, Henry Kissinger said that the US government couldn’t let those “irresponsible people” choose their own president and proceeded to order assistance to the military coup plotters.
People in the US need not agree with ChÃ¡vez’s policies in order to support the basic notion that the people of Venezuela should be able to choose their own government without interference. It is nothing more than what we expect from other countries every other November.
–Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at [email protected]