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Transcript of Girish Gupta, Reuters Venezuela reporter, on the BBC radio


Since I took the time to transcribe this recent “chat” Reuters’ Girish Gupta had with the BBC, I thought I may as well post it here with some comments.

You’ll notice there is no mention in this Gupta-BBC discussion of the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez in which numerous opposition leaders who are very prominent today either participated in directly (Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez) or supported (Julio Borges, Maria Corina Machado, Henry Ramos). The coup was applauded by the Bush administration and – even more enthusiastically – by the New York Times editorial board. The strategy then, as now, is to hope violence can provide cover for a military coup. Opposition leaders like Julio Borges and Marialbert Barrios often make very thinly veiled appeals for the military to step in again.  No polls show that Venezuelans want another coup. They show exactly the opposite. That would partly explain why the opposition does not get the poorest Venezuelans to turn out for protests, but the international press ignores that. It is also not obvious that vandalizing public property, including hospitals in poor neighborhoods, does anything to alleviate their suffering or that it would entice them to join in.

There is also no mention in this BBC “chat” with Gupta of recent polls by Datanalisis – an opposition aligned pollster whose president regularly blasts the government in the pages of one of Venezuela’s largest newspapers – that President Nicholas Maduro’s approval rating has been on the rise since the start of the year. In the past, Reuters has been very keen to point to Datanalisis polls, Maduro’s approval rating in particular. In March it was at 24% according to Datanalisis, about the level Datanalisis reported when Maduro’s allies won 41% of the vote during National Assembly elections held at the end of 2015.  Maduro’s approval rating is higher than that of the presidents of Chile, Brazil and Mexico. That’s one quick indication of how distorted and one-sided Gupta’s report is. Madoro’s approval rating has recovered in part because the government’s food distribution program (CLAP) – and other direct subsidies Gupta never mentions – have shielded the poorest people from some of the impact of the recession. On Twitter, I jokingly fantasized about the BBC reporter saying something like “And now for a radically different perspective we turn to Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas in Caracas”.

The BBC wouldn’t, so I asked Rachael for her comments

My transcription of the Gupta-BBC chat follows. I could not resist interspersing a few comments and photos Rachael helped me with:

BBC: But we are getting more reporters now of protests in Venezuela lets speak now to Girsh Gupta who is Venezuela reporter with Reuters in Caracas. Girish am I right that you have been out and about on the streets looking at what is happening right now

GUPTA: I have I have seen the kind of hangover from yesterday there have been a lot of lootings going on it was pretty wild on the streets two people did die yesterday, three including a nation l guard sergeant Today people are starting to gather but it is not looking like the same immense momentum they had yesterday and of course they had in 2014 And this is the big question with protests. Will they be sustained or will it just be the odd day of huge protests and violence and which one is going to push this country forward.

BBC: Is there a sense that the lack of people coming out today could be in response to the three people dying yesterday?

GUPTA: I think that is one factor. I’ve been here for about six years now. I’ve covered protests before and people are extremely, extremely angry in this country. Imagine they are only 10-20 dollars per month. They are not eating properly. Literally people’s clothes are falling off they are so thin. I am not exaggerating. I am not cherry-picking a few poor people. It is like that everywhere. There are queues at supermarkets all over the country of hundreds or thousands of people looking for real basic foodstuffs. So people are extremely angry. However, if you are that hungry and you are spending all your time standing in supermarket lines and if people are dying on the streets, then do you really want to go out and protest?

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[[[It is worth looking over these photos that Rachael Boothroyd took of the opposition protest above and this video here and contrasting it with what Gupta describes.

Rachael commented on Gupta’s remarks about the queues as follows: “The queues and problems with scarcities are nothing like they were in 2016. Supermarkets are now full with goods. The problem now is that they are expensive in comparison to wages. But there is another reason that the massive queues that we saw last year have significantly subsided, and that is because the government has also changed its policy. Subsidised food is now channeled through the CLAPs (Local Food Production and Provision Committees) directly through to communities and no longer through government stores. This also partially explains why support for the government has rallied. Girish’s description of the current situation looks like it was lifted from something he wrote last year!”]]]

BBC: I guess you are also just trying to survive aren’t you? That’s the bottom line.

GUPTA: Exactly. People need to eat. They need to do their own things and get one with their own lives. Yes it is incredibly difficult here and many people do want a change even people who did support Hugo Chavez. You still see lots of people who still wear the red tee shirt and do worship, and that’s not too strong a word, Hugo Chavez. However, even they are saying they are not happy with the success of Nicholas Maduro because of all these problems with inflation soaring and shortages of everything. However, they need to get on with their own lives. They need to eat.

BBC: Girish, let’s just take a moment to hear how bad life has got for people in this country.

Cuts to BBC Report that says: “Demonstrators called it the mother of all protests, but as the political drama plays out some of the facts and figures concerning everyday life have themselves become increasingly striking. Despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, since the collapse in oil prices the country has suffered from escalating inflation, the International Monetary Fund now predicting that Venezuela is on track to see inflation rise to over 2000% this year. [Torino Capital has proven way more accurate in its projections for Venezuela than the IMF and it projects 355% inflation this year and a very small GDP contraction, -0.5%] Shortage of basic goods has become a daily reality from most of the country’s 32 million population. According to a recent poll, 80% say they are struggling to afford food for their families, 70% missing meals on a daily basis simply to get by. Staples like milk and bread have become increasingly scarce and people can que for hours outside government controlled stores now only open on certain days of the week with no guarantee there will be food left to purchase. And as food runs out the black market is thriving and prices are skyrocketing. A pack of eggs costing $1.49 in North America can sell for over $150. A pound of milk costing just $7.24 can sell for over $703. That’s more than one fifth of an average minimum wage salary. The country is also facing a dire hospital crisis with its medical federation reporting that hospitals now have less than 5% of the medicines that they need. Venezuela’s future is unclear, but its daily reality remains stark.

[[[Rachael, who buys eggs in Caracas, explained the slight of hand that is deployed in this discussion. To depict the minimum wage as miniscule the black market exchange rate (BMR) is used. To depict the price of goods as astronomically high, the most heavily subsidized exchange rate is used. To get a real sense of how expensive things are for locals you have to pick an exchange rate and use it for both prices and wages. The “integrated minimum wage” I refer to below is the minimum wage plus government supplied food tickets.

Most highly subsidized exchange rate of 10:

pack of 15 Eggs – 500USD

Integrated minimum wage (NMW) – US$14,000 a month (!!)

SIMADI exchange rate – around 720:

pack of 15 Eggs – approx 7 USD

NMW – approx $195 USD a month

BMR – 4500

pack of 15 Eggs – 1.11 USD

NMW – 31 USD ]]]

BBC: Girish, does that chime with what you are seeing and reporting on a daily basis?

GUPTA: Exactly. Exactly that.  And even the comparative figures that are given for prices there – yes they are very interesting and they sound astounding but is actually even worse than that in a way because there is so…I think there are three different exchange rates now. There is the black market exchange rate. And one thing that makes me realize just how mad the economy is. If you save up $1000 in local currency when Nicholas Maduro came to power which was four years ago now when Hugo Chavez died you now have less than $5 in the bank.

[[[Gupta’s calculation is way off and his example is very clumsily made. People who save in US dollars would make a killing since 2013 because of Venezuela’s black market exchange rate. In that situation precious few people who could save at all would do so in local currency. However, suppose somebody put away 1000 Bolivar Fuertes (BFs), the local currency, at the start of 2013. For simplicity, assume they earned zero interest. By the end of 2016, because of Venezuela’s very high inflation, the purchasing power would fall by a factor of about 36. Therefore by the end of 2016 the 1000 BFs would have the same purchasing power as about 28 BFs did (not 5 as Gupta says) at the start of 2013.]]]

BBC: Wow. Yesterday we know that there were some people out supporting the government.  Is that likely to happen today? Is that happening right now?

GUPTA: So what always happens whenever…. I have covered so many marches in this country over the years, a few too many,  what you always get the opposition announce something huge and the government announce something to counter it. During Hugo Chavez’s time, the opposition marches were huge. They were like rock concerts and of course Hugo Chavez was the star [HE MEANT TO SAY PRO-GOVERNMENT MARCHES. I’M SURE HE DIDN”T MEAN TO SAY HUGO CHVEZ WAS THE STAR OF OPPOSITION MARCHES]. Now that’s not the case anymore. The chavista marches – the chavistas are the followers of Chavez and Maduro now – are incredibly small compared to the opposition marches.  We’re talking hundreds of people, maybe a couple of thousands. A lot of them, or pretty much all of them are government workers who have been asked or told to go to these things.

[The Chavista march on Wednesday was huge. Even an opposition website the international media loves, Caracas Chronicles, grudgingly conceded that. See the photo below. That is not “hundreds” or a “couple thousands” that Gupta describes. The government would certainly struggle to win an election at the moment, but (as mentioned above) even with the level of support it has according to an opposition-aligned pollster, it should be easily be able to put hundreds of thousands into the streets without paying them.]

BBC: Girish It is good to speak to Girush Gupta who is Venezuela reporter for Reuters in Caracas

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