Although the left has gained ground throughout Latin America with the recent election of progressive heads of state in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently Uruguay, the White House has singled out populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as the region’s most potentially unstable government and “a threat to democracy.” Since President Bush’s re-election victory last November, his administration has been engaged in an escalating war of words against Venezuela, the fourth largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S.
The Bush administration is widely believed to have played a supporting role in the April 2002 coup against Chavez, later reversed by a popular uprising. Since then, Washington has helped finance groups that organized last August’s failed national recall referendum aimed at forcing the populist president from office. Chavez, who now has won two presidential elections and six referendums, is expected to run for re-election when his current term ends in 2006.
Recent attacks from Washington include charges that Venezuela’s new media law will silence Chavez’s critics and the government’s plan to purchase arms from Russia and patrol planes from Brazil constitutes a regional threat. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Eva Gollinger, an attorney and investigative reporter currently in Caracas, who assesses the Bush administration’s renewed campaign to challenge the government of Hugo Chavez.
Eva Gollinger: In about the second week of January of this year, a campaign was launched in the media — primarily in the United States, actually, in major newspapers such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, the Chicago papers, the Miami Herald of course, you can’t forget that, also the Financial Times and other smaller newspapers around the country — criticizing the Chavez administration but in sort of a different tone as had been done before, because most of the media outlets I named have been very critical of the Venezuelan government over the past few years.
The same arguments that were being put forward in the newspapers were being reiterated, generally after, often times before, by Dept. of State spokespeople. We’ve seen this before back in the 1980s with Nicaragua and when Otto Reich was the (Reagan administration’s) head of the Office for Public Diplomacy, an office which was shut down within a period of two years because it was discovered that the office was engaging in basically a dirty media war and black propaganda tactics by publishing bogus stories and under either false reporter’s names or paying reporters to publish information favorable to the U.S. government and unfavorable to the Sandinistas, which is similar to what we see here in Venezuela. And it seems to be happening at the same time when it’s being discovered that the Bush administration is also financing journalists.
When Condoleezza Rice was being sworn in, or had her confirmation hearings in the Congress, she discussed Venezuela and claimed that Chavez was a negative force for the region, something that the United States couldn’t just sit by and let him continue to do what he’s doing in this area and, basically, he’s a threat to democracy.
Between The Lines: Washington has criticized Hugo Chavez’s regime for purchases of weapons from Brazil and Russia and also has been quite critical of a new media law put in place by the government of Hugo Chavez, which they say restricts freedom of the press. Do you want to give us your brief view on that?
Eva Gollinger: Sure. I’ll briefly mention the “arms race,” that the United States is trying to warn the world about, is another part of the massive political and media campaign.
The Venezuelan government entered into a contract to buy some weapons from Russia, but they have reiterated over and over again that they’re just to replace old weapons that are no longer of any use that the Venezuelan armed forces currently is working with or has in their possession. So, basically it’s just a replacement. There are no MIGS (jet fighters) that are going to be bought, as has been repeated and picked up over and over again in different newspapers in the United States. That’s just an outright falsehood. And there’s no buildup happening here either of any kind of arms. Chavez or his administration are not arming the populace. I mean all of that is basically just made up to stir up some kind of a fear that there’s a threat down here in Venezuela close to the United States or that in some way could put in danger the supply of oil to the United States from Venezuela.
Regarding the media law that was passed actually last year, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, was a law that had been in the works for about three years. Actually, it preceded even the coup in 2002.
Well, I don’t know if any of the listeners have ever been down to Venezuela and seen the private media channels, but it’s like a thousand times worse than Fox Cable News, and we’re talking every channel except the state-owned channel. Not just with political opinions, but in terms of presenting outright lies, lots of violence, there was a lot of soft porn — and sometimes even beyond that — during daytime hours.
So, basically this law, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, is to put some kind of control on sex and violence that can be shown during children’s and family viewing hours. Once again the United States Dept. of State together with U.S. media and Venezuelan private media, have launched this massive campaign saying freedom of speech and expression is being stifled and the government is censoring the media. But that’s absolutely absurd. You turn on any of the channels here and you’ll see that there’s more freedom of expression enjoyed in Venezuela than probably anywhere else in the world. It’s the only place where they can go on television and talk about killing the president, or saying the most derogatory and offensive things on a news hour.
Between The Lines: Eva Gollinger, just to conclude here, with Washington making hostile noises towards the government of Hugo Chavez, what is the concern down there among people in Venezuela and what is being done to counter what the U.S. might have in mind for Hugo Chavez?
Eva Gollinger: Well, placing the public on high alert and denouncing constantly all these types of scare tactics or media campaigns is basically what the government is doing and what those who support this government and don’t support those types of tactics are doing. It’s basically keeping it in the public light. So, the more people know hopefully the less likely it will happen.
At the same time there are fears, because outside the United States most people tend to be more conscious and aware of what the United States is doing in the rest of the world. So people here are very aware of the fact that the U.S. has acted preemptively in Iraq and in other places, and that it could do the same thing here unilaterally as well.
And there are fears, although maybe something pretty far away, of an invasion of some sort, or an intervention, be it through utilizing the United Nations or the Organization of American States. It seems like that would be not very possible at this moment, but then again the Bush administration has shown that it can basically do whatever it wants. And we are talking about the country that supplies the most oil to the United States in this region. So there is a very, very, very high security interest in removing Chavez, because Chavez obviously threatens the steady supply of oil to the United States — at least that’s how they see it — even there’s been no alteration in any kind of oil supply except during the strike that the opposition held at the end of 2002 for 64 days in the oil industry where they sabotaged the refineries, and so Venezuela was unable to comply with a lot of its production contracts.
But, apart from that there hasn’t been a threat or a diminishment of supply. Chavez has said though, and other members of the government have also said that if the United States were to take any kind of an action against Venezuela, then they could certainly count on the fact that the oil supply would not remain as stable.
Read Eva Gollinger’s articles online at http://www.venezuelaanalysis.com
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org . This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 11, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.