One of my deepest reasons for respecting Chavez was his way of speaking sin pelos en la lengua – without hairs on his tongue – directly, clearly, unafraid of admitting to problems, challenges, and his own humanity, right down to his toilet needs. He said the hard things, he stood up to the media attacks with sincere and pointed questions rather than abuse. He was known for talking a lot because there was a lot to be done and it had to be discussed in depth, not superficially. That is what we need to do too, especially right now.
As the right wing and the rich, conservative, boring white men elites make some painful gains in Latin America, and as Venezuela’s sifrinos (brats, or privileged conservative kids) call for coups and burn medicine facilities, the English language mass media has suddenly been uncovering an apocalypse of dying babies, caused of course, by socialism.
Over the last week or so we’ve seen Dying Infants and No Medicine: Inside Venezuela’s Failing Hospitals from the New York Times, Radical tourists have been deluded pimps for Venezuela from the Guardian, In Venezuela, God Does Not Provide from the New York Times, Congratulations to Bolivarian Socialism: Venezuela Is Now the Country with no Coke from Forbes (which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing really, but the article of course blames the “idiot economic policy” of Chavismo), ‘We are like a bomb’: food riots show Venezuela crisis has gone beyond politics from the Guardian, and more.
The articles blame it all on Chavismo, socialism and Maduro, without bothering to reference any context or to recognise that the rightwing have some power and therefore a level of responsibility in Venezuela now. Nor do they care to admit that like all countries, Venezuela’s economic situation has structural, economic and historical causes. There’s also the minor detail that things were consistently improving in Venezuela, right up until the time when Chavez got sick and the right wing went on the offensive.
Then there are oil prices, what I see as some serious mistakes by Maduro, the role of the grassroots and workers (which of course the media is utterly oblivious to), and more. And the likes of Nick Casey working for the New York Times, going around finding dislocated sad stories, without noticing anything else, and without being aware of the politics behind the drama: for instance, that the hospital he wrote about as falling apart is actually run by the right wing.
Not to mention that the media’s manufactured apocalypse claims to show that socialism doesn’t work, but increasingly disgusting, genocidal global inequality doesn’t seem to show that capitalism doesn’t work.
Those in solidarity with Venezuela, who also need it for hope and inspiration, may feel tempted to counter all this by recalling the gains of the revolution, by noting the wonderful things that are still blooming despite it all, by reiterating the role of imperialism and by saying things like “Venezuelans aren’t going hungry.” And while most of that is fair enough and useful, it’s not the whole truth. Some Venezuelans are going hungry (but not starving). The majority of people in Venezuela have spent around three years now stressing on a daily basis about obtaining a variety of basic foods. It’s important to recognise that, in order not to deny the suffering of the very people the left is meant to be in solidarity with.
The best way to counter the media war on Venezuela is to do what they don’t do: offer in depth, contextualised, critical coverage that helps people who aren’t there to understand what is going on and to learn from an extremely complex and difficult situation that a revolution under attack is facing. Many on the left feel it’s not their place to “judge” the government and grassroots, which makes sense, yet to not talk about the problems also means contributing to a distorted picture. We can grow out of mistakes and failures but only if we understand them – and that sort of criticism is something that many in Venezuela, doing the hard work, are actually craving.
The point of this isn’t to say that people on the left lack discussion about the situation in Venezuela, or that the response is always denial, because it isn’t. Rather, I want to emphasise the political importance of a critical understanding over a romanticised one of the revolution. And the importance of this in any public response to attacks.
To do otherwise is to lose touch with people and their reality and needs. Without a complete understanding of the reality, it is hard to defend it properly. A critical analysis is necessary to learning, and to being the trusted and respected authority on the situation. Otherwise, that space is ceded to others, and in the absence of holistic information, rumours spread and people make up their own truths, or stop reading or listening altogether.
And in this analysis, the views of foreign academics who can really dissect the forces at play, are important, but not enough. No amount of books completely prepares people for the intricacies of organising a communal council, for the real life obstacles to making a commune work, for the psychology of insecurity, for the complex institutional funding networks, for the many layers and sides of bureaucracy. Those who have been fighting this hard fight in Venezuela for fifteen years or more should have more of a platform in the media, and in left forums, and should be taken much more seriously. Though many don’t have PhDs, their experience on the ground, their 15 years or more of elevated political consciousness and having daily political arguments in trains, on the streets, and in pubs, means their political acumen is vast. They are the ones in a position to point out if they are hungry or not, as well as tell us what the situation really is.
Venezuelan alternative media activist Jessica Pernia said she feels angry at both the private media coverage and the way some on the left are responding to it, though she focused her comments to me on the media situation inside of Venezuela.
“On the one hand we have a media platform consumed by war propaganda, and on the other side, the media is consumed by administration propaganda – a kind of ferocious wolf and innocent and naïve red riding hood.”
It’s a choice, she elaborated, between the “cocaine media” of NTN24, CNN, or Spain’s ABC, and Venezuela’s public media which depicts “a country of delightful things”. The private media has “very specialised technology, that makes it almost impossible to counter their lies and answer back”.
“It makes you angry,” Pernia said, adding that she would like to see a “committed and critically informative option”. The lack of this, she argued, causes people to be disinterested in media altogether.
“And imagine, the best option, lately, is Globovision,” she says.
The television channel, which once supported the 2002 coup, has changed a lot over the last few years, especially with new management. “Apparently neutral, their programs host a range of critical intellectuals that build bridges between the government and the opposition parties,” Pernia said.
Talking about the grassroots needing to make better political decisions, she stressed, “I think that everything can be reversed, even though sometimes the defeats hit us flat in the face. I’m also certain of the huge amount of effort by organisations, collectives, and maybe competent institutions”.
Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist on Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison.