"I voted for Chavez for President, but not now. Because they told me that if the reform passes, they’re going to take my son, because he will belong to the state," said Gladys Castro last week, a Colombian immigrant who has lived in Venezuela for 16 years, and cleans houses for a living.
Gladys is not the only one to believe the false rumors she’s heard. Thousands of Venezuelans, many of them Chavez supporters, have bought the exaggerations and lies about Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform that have been circulating across the country for months. Just a few weeks ago, however, the disinformation campaign ratcheted up various notches as opposition groups and anti-reform coalitions placed large ads in major Venezuelan papers.
The most scandalous was an anonymous two-page spread in the country’s largest circulation newspaper, Últimas Noticias, which claimed about the Constitutional Reform:
"If you are a Mother, YOU LOSE! Because you will lose your house, your family and your children (children will belong to the state)."
The illegal ad, which was caught and suspended by the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) after a few days in the press, has received relatively high-profile attention in the Venezuelan press, and even Chavez joked about it last Friday on the nightly pro-Chavez talk show, La Hojilla. What appears to have gone completely ignored, however, is the fact that the ad itself was placed by an organization which has at its core, dozens of subsidiaries of the largest US corporations working in Venezuela.
Disinformation & Propaganda
The scare tactic against Venezuelan mothers isn’t the only piece of misinformation in the anonymous advertisement. Under the title, "Who wins and who loses," it goes on to tell readers that under the new reform, they will lose their right to religion; that 9.5 million people will lose their job; that small, large or cooperative businesspeople will lose their "store, home, business, taxi or cooperative"; that urban, rural and mountain militias are going to replace the National Armed Forces; that students will lose their right to decide what they want to study; that campesinos are going to lose out because they won’t be owners of their own land; and that the value of the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is going to drop along with the value of Venezuelan homes, cars, farm lands (finca), and educational studies.
Comments in the ad refer to specific reformed articles in the Constitution, as if providing a reference for readers to verify the claim. Of course, briefly examining the article in reference verifies that each claim is either completely false, or a ridiculous exaggeration and manipulation of the reform. Article 112, for instance, which the advertisement says will take Venezuelan children from their families, in actuality discusses economic development and production.
Last week, after a barrage of illegal propaganda on the part of both the pro and anti reform camps, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) began to crack down, following through with their promise to regulate the propaganda. In an announcement last week, Tibisay Lucena, President of the CNE made specific reference to the "Who wins and who loses" piece, pointing out its illegality because of the falsities and its anonymity. Although published as an anonymous article, Lucena announced that according to the official tax number (RIF) published with the article, the advertisement was actually placed by the Cámara de Industriales del estado Carabobo (The Carabobo State Chamber of Industry).
The Carabobo State Chamber of Industry (CIEC)
The CIEC is a 71 year-old organization, headquartered in the Carabobo state capital of Valencia, which groups together more than 250 businesses in the region. Among those are dozens of subsidiaries which compose literally a who’s who list of some of the largest and most powerful US corporations, including (among others): Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Bridgestone Firestone, Goodyear, Alcoa, Shell, Pfizer, Dupont, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Novartis, Unilever, Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, Citibank, Colgate Palmolive, DHL and Owens Illinois.
Without a doubt, the region carries important weight with heavy US interests. The new US Ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, even said so when he visited Carabobo a few weeks ago on his first official trip within Venezuela.
"Valencia is a very important industrial center with a presence of American companies that create thousands of jobs and that also run social programs that benefit both their surrounding communities and their employees," said Ambassador Duddy.
According to an article on the US embassy website, during his stay in Valencia, Duddy met the board of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the board of Fedecámaras in Carabobo, and with a number of the above mentioned subsidiaries, including GM, Chrysler, and Ford. He also spent time with the CIEC board, and in particular, then CIEC President Ernesto Vogeler, who also happens to be Chief Executive Officer for Protinal/Proagro, a subsidiary for the Ag Processing, Inc. (AGP), an Omaha-based AG coop.
In a normal state of affairs, this would all seem completely normal: The foreign ambassador meeting with his country’s major subsidiaries, and the president of the chamber of industry to which they belong. However, we should briefly remember the role that US businesses have played across Latin America, whether we are talking about the United Fruit Company’s destabilization attacks against Guatemala’s democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in the 1950s, or Anaconda Copper’s support of the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in the 1970s. Alcoa, GM, Citibank and most of the above-mentioned companies know how to throw their weight around, be it by technically legal, or more subversive means.
Of course, it makes sense why US corporations based in Venezuela would be against the reform. Various articles, if applied, could potentially cut in on potential profits, such as the reform of article 301. Under the 1999 Constitution this article stated:
"Foreign people, businesses, and organisms can not be given more beneficial concessions than those established for national entities."
However, under the reform, the last sentence was cut:
"Foreign investment is subject to the same conditions as national investment."
One can thus infer that national investment may be given more favorable conditions than foreign investment.
Article 115 protects new forms of social and collective property, which anti-reform proponents fear may be used to expropriate private property.
On top of this, the Venezuelan government recently passed new rules on the growing automobile industry in Venezuela, which may have US automobile giants, GM, Chrysler, and Ford nervous about their the foreseeable future in Venezuela. Although car sales in Venezuela have jumped by nearly 300% over the last three years, in an attempt to push for more domestic production, the Venezuelan government has passed new laws regulating the automobile industry, according to an early November article in the Venezuelan daily El Nacional. Among them, the requirement of an "import license" in order to sell foreign cars, the mandate to install natural gas inputs in all vehicles produced after 2007, and the importation of only unassembled motors after 2010, in order to use to use nationally produced motor parts.
Protests in Valencia
According to reports, in Valencia last week, full color CIEC fliers against the reform were passed out during opposition student marches. According to today’s major papers, violent protests in Valencia yesterday left one dead, various wounded, and at least 15 detained.
It would be irresponsible to make accusations without evidence, but it is important to be conscious of where our information is coming from, if it is verifiable, and who are the interests involved. This is the case now, only a few days before Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform Referendum. Hopefully the Venezuelan people will be able to decipher fact from fiction and make their own educated decision whether to vote "sí" or "no" next Sunday.
Like Gladys Castro, who has reconsidered her staunch position against the reform. As she said last week, when she realized that the rumors she has been hearing are false, "Well, I’m going to read [the reform], think some more, and maybe I will vote for it after all." She’s probably not the only one.