The Corporate Media Has a Horizontal Learning Curve on Venezuela

Hugo Chavez has been called a dictator so often in the corporate press – in articles not simply op-eds – that Oliver Stone was compelled to make a film (“South of the Border”) to refute that constantly repeated lie.  

Perhaps Stone should make another one. The “left leaning” UK Independent, like many other outlets, just ran a glowing review of a book entitled "The Dictator's Learning Curve"
The book (and the reviewer) say Hugo Chavez is a dictator who has learned to use "democratic forms" to cover his tracks while "draining [democracy] of substance."

The reviewer claims
"Ostensibly to identify fraud, Chávez demands the names of three million people who had voted for a presidential recall [in 2004]. Once the list is in the government's hands, the state fires managers, doctors, and nurses who had voted for the recall."

Presumably the reviewer is referring to 3 million people who signed a petition in 2004 asking for a recall referendum. The internationally monitored recall vote took place after the Supreme Court – supposedly under the thumb of Chavez according to critics – ruled that enough valid signatures had been collected. The referendum took place with voters casting secret ballots.
Putting aside that important distinction between gathering signatures for a petition and voting in an election, what about the claim that public sector workers are intimidated into voting for Chavez?
The claim is greatly undermined by the fact that, throughout Chavez's time in office, his opponents have had control of numerous state and local governments. For example, 7 of Venezuela’s 23 states are presently run by governors who oppose Chavez. [1] It is a very funny kind of "dictatorship" that allows that to happen, and it is one factor that has limited the Chavez government’s ability to prevent outright sabotage by some public sector workers – never mind control how they vote as the reviewer claims.
The Caracas Metropolitan Police, in one of the most extreme examples, openly sided with the perpetrators of the 2002 coup that deposed Chavez for 2 days.  US Embassy cables released by Wikileaks revealed how US officials (five years after the 2004 recall vote) read daily reports in Venezuelan newspapers about provocative protests led by doctors and nurses. According to US officials, the protests had “paralyzed hospitals across Venezuela”. The Chavez government has deployed “missions” as a way to deliver essential services to the poor while bypassing a public sector which is unafraid of defying Chavez in far more aggressive ways than signing a recall petition.
In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch mentioned (in passing) the existence of some political discrimination by private firms against Chavista employees but didn't bother to explore the issue. That wasn’t at all surprising given HRW's extremely heavy reliance on opposition sources.
Chavez's most powerful opponents are actually better placed than the national government to engage in politically motivated reprisals against employees. In 2004, the year of the alleged reprisals against public sector workers over the recall petition, 1.4 million people were employed in Venezuela's public sector, but 8.5 million (about six times as many) were employed in the private sector.
Of course, if a Chavista employee deliberately attempts to sabotage his or her employers’ firm, then it would be unfair to accuse the boss of “political discrimination” for firing the employee. Nevertheless, the Chavez government is often accused of political discrimination for firing managers who engaged in sabotage during a management led shutdown of Venezuela’s oil industry that went on for three months. Venezuela’s GDP contracted by 27% in the first four months of 2003 as a result of the shutdown.
Getting fired would be among the less serious concerns of workers who inflicted that kind of damage in the USA or Canada, especially in a strike aimed at bringing down the government and that involved acts of sabotage. In October of 2005, teachers in British Columbia (BC) had a two week strike declared illegal by the courts. Union leaders faced the possibility of jail terms. The BC Supreme Court froze the union’s assets, imposed a $500 million fine, banned strike pay and even the use of union offices to support the strike.
It is a measure of how “drained of substance” public debate is in rich western countries that the Chavez government has been so easily and relentlessly lied about.
[1] Those seven states run by opposition governors are Carabobo (although, the main Chavista candidate would likely have won if another dissident Chavista hadn't split the vote), Lara (Henri Falcon won overwhelmingly on the PSUV ticket, but then left the party to join the opposition), Miranda (the state governed by opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski), Monagas (another state governed by someone who left the PSUV recently), Nueva Esparta, Tachira and Zulia.
It is unclear if the governor of Amazonas is pro or anti Chavez.

Thanks to Greg Wilpert for help with this.

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