‘Washington Doesn’t Like Countries to Have Influence if They Can’t Control Them’ – CounterSpin interviews on Venezuela with Chesa Boudin, Dan Beeton, Laura Carlsen, Mark Weisbrot, Miguel Tinker Salas and Alfredo Lopez

The March 8, 2019 episode of CounterSpin pulled together classic archival interviews on Venezuela and US media. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: International opinion largely opposes Donald Trump’s current and threatened intervention in Venezuela. But that’s not the impression you get from US corporate news media, who appear to be all-in with Trump’s push for the ouster of democratically elected President Nicolás Maduro. (As far as we know, these media still firmly oppose any election-meddling in this country, especially by Donald Trump.)

In reality, 75 percent of the world’s countries reject the US anointing of Juan Guaidó—whom most Venezuelans hadn’t heard of when Trump declared him their leader. And the UN has formally condemned US sanctions on Venezuela, which a special rapporteur compared to a “medieval siege.”

Corporate media’s fealty to the idea that the United States has the right, if not the duty, to overthrow other countries’ leaders to suit our—or some of our—interests doesn’t begin and end with Venezuela. But the history of coverage of the country is especially illustrative of what it looks like when elite media work strenuously to maintain the storyline on an official enemy.

We’ve talked about this many times over the years. We’re going to revisit some of those conversations today. Venezuela and the US press, today on CounterSpin.


Chesa Boudin

Chesa Boudin: “Media in Venezuela, the private media, collaborated with the coup plotters, made possible the propagation of a lie that said Chávez had resigned, when actually he was being held prisoner.”

Janine Jackson: In March 2006, CounterSpin’s Peter Hart spoke with Chesa Boudin, co-author of the book The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions–100 Answers, about a controversial media law from Hugo Chávez that Americans were hearing about. And, first, about what surprised him most on his visit to the country.

Chesa Boudin: I was really surprised to see how similar Venezuela is to the United States, how deeply connected Venezuela and the Venezuelan people are with America and American culture. The most popular sport in Venezuela is baseball—not soccer, as in so much of Latin America. Venezuelans eat American food, and consume American media and movies. And they really feel a very close connection to American people, despite the fact that our government has failed to build a productive relationship with the Venezuelan government.

Peter Hart: Tell us what is the source of the media friction between Chávez and the private media outlets, and what this law is, and what has happened as a result of it.

CB: It’s obviously a very important law in Venezuela. And it’s one of the main things that leads to criticism of the Venezuelan government from international organizations like Human Rights Watch.

To back up a second and explain, Venezuela is a country with a very active, very free and very critical press. Private media stations, in the form of radio, TV and also print media, are really the strength and the backbone of the opposition to the Chávez government.

The coup against Chávez in 2002, which many people think of as a military coup, internationally, Venezuelans call a media coup. The documentary movie The Revolution Will Not Be Televised illustrates very clearly how the media in Venezuela, the private media, collaborated with the coup plotters, made possible the propagation of a lie that said Chávez had resigned, when actually he was being held prisoner. This is just one example.

But I would regularly see headlines with a photo of Chávez and a bullseye over his head, the kind of incitement to violence and destabilization of a political process that would simply not be tolerated in countries that have long-standing traditions of free speech. So I think that that’s an important context to understand.

In that context, again, a lot of Venezuelans look at the media as political parties; they argue—and we talk about this in our book, The Venezuelan Revolution—why it is that Venezuelans who support Chávez argue that the corporate media have actually filled the vacuum left by the failure of the opposition political parties to mount a successful alternative political vision to the Chávez program. So in that context, the private media are often seen as both inciting violence and destabilizing the democracy, and really representing the role of opposition political parties.

So the Chávez administration has had essentially a three-pronged response to the conflict with the media. And I think, two of these prongs I support, one wholeheartedly, one somewhat neutrally. And the third prong, I think, is much more mixed, and I have some criticisms of.

The first one, the one that I think is the most important, the one that I most support, is the administration’s attempt to empower poor communities and poor people to create alternative, community-based media, so there isn’t such a dependence on a few corporate-controlled media outlets. The idea being that free speech doesn’t just require lack of government interference, but also requires actually a diversity of voices. And so to do that, they’ve distributed, I think in 2005, over 128 radio transmitters—not super powerful, not going to reach the whole country, but people in barrios…. I’ve seen them, I’ve been on these radio stations myself, I’ve watched them broadcast from a rooftop radio station in poor barrios above Caracas.

Printing presses have been distributed to these communities, so they can have their own community-based newspapers, and they’re given training to learn how to use them. So I think that’s a really important step, both in terms of the government’s ability to respond to the kinds of lies that are printed every day in the corporate media in Venezuela, but also to make sure that it’s not just government propaganda that’s replacing it.

Now, the second major prong of the government response to the media attack has been the  foundation of a propaganda arm of the state. And I think this makes sense in the context of what’s happening in Venezuela, but it’s certainly not something that is as important as the first prong.

So they have a Ministry of Information and Communication, which was founded shortly after the 2002 coup. You have two government TV stations, some of which have excellent programs. It’s not all propaganda, but it’s some really high-quality international news shows, and children’s programming as well. But, obviously, these are pro-government programs for the most part, and Venezuelans know enough to choose where to watch their news, depending on their interests and their perspectives.

You also have the international arm of this effort in the form of Telesur, Venezuelan government-driven, though with cooperation from Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba. Sort of an international Latin American Al Jazeera of sorts—it’s modeled on Al Jazeera; “a people’s CNN,” is the way they talk about it. And that just got off the ground within the last year as well. So then those are the two prongs, and I think, again, in context, they make a lot of sense.

And the third one, which is a bit more controversial, to get to the heart of your question, is this Law on Social Responsibility on TV and Radio Broadcasting. It’s a huge law; there’s lots of different clauses of it. The one that we hear about the most is the defamation clause, the one that threatens journalists with jail time, essentially if they insult government officials, particularly the president or people who work with the president. And I think that’s highly problematic.

I think it’s important to recognize that, to this day, no one is in jail under that law. Amnesty International has no records of political prisoners in Venezuela over the last several years, and going back to before that law was passed. But again, I think that this clause is, particularly because it’s not being enforced, it serves no purpose. It shouldn’t be on the books. There’s no reason that the Chávez administration should give opposition media more…shouldn’t fan the flames, as it were. And it is, I think, a legitimate criticism to say, “Why are we threatening journalists?” even in the context of the role that the corporate media play as a opposition political party.


Dan Beeton

Dan Beeton: “It’s not fair to blame the Venezuelan government for the economically harmful actions of the opposition—intended, of course, to overthrow it.”

Janine Jackson: Given his demonization, US media consumers can be forgiven for not understanding Chávez’s popularity. In 2009, Dan Beeton, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, provided some of the basic and uncontested economic information often missing from US news reports.

Dan Beeton: If you actually look at what the data shows, it shows that there’s been considerable economic and social progress in Venezuela, not over just the last 10 years but even more importantly, since the opposition in Venezuela ceased their extralegal activities in 2002 and 2003 that were intended to destabilize and actually overthrow the government there.

So it’s really more important to look at that time period, since it’s not fair to blame the Venezuelan government for the economically harmful actions of the opposition—intended, of course, to overthrow it. So in this time period, we’ve seen that GDP is nearly double. It’s grown by 94.7 percent in 5 1/4 years, which is 13.5 percent annually. We’ve seen poverty has been cut by more than half, from 50 percent of households to 26 percent in 2008. We’ve seen inequality fall very significantly, according to the Gini index—41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003. Unemployment has fallen by more than half. There’s been considerable progress. That’s not surprising, considering the growth, and considering that social spending has tripled in this time period.

JJ: There’s a construction that we come across in Venezuela coverage that’s perverse, to my view. It’s that Chávez is “buying” popular support with things like access to healthcare, instead of being popularly supported because the government provides these things. It’s like, “People are being bribed by reductions in their poverty level!” The line is that he’s only able to do this because of oil, so it might be surprising, or it was to me, to hear that most of the growth and the current expansion has not been, in fact, in the oil sector. Isn’t that right?

DB: Yeah, that is right. It’s actually been in the non-oil sector. It’s been in areas like finance and insurance, trade and repair services, transport and storage and communications. I mean, of course, Chávez does describe his revolution as a socialist revolution. He uses a lot of that kind of rhetoric, but the reality is also that the private sector has done very well under Chávez.

JJ: Well, “dictator for life,” people will have heard; cut extreme poverty by half and also slashed public debt—those aren’t facts that tend to follow Chávez’s name around in the US media coverage. And you’ve talked about how the data that you look at in this report are the data, the kinds of things that are generally looked at, so this means reporters are actually consciously overlooking certain numbers, then, to arrive at the conclusions that they do.

DB: Yeah, I think that’s right. You know, I’ll give you an example: The Economist just published an article entitled “Ten Mostly Wasted Years,” which was about their assessment of the 10 years of the Chávez government. It didn’t cite a single economic statistic or social indicator. I don’t want to attribute any motivations to what anybody’s doing, but it seems to me almost like they wrote the article before looking at any data, or possibly could have written it years ago, before actually bothering to see what the situation would be like today.


Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen: “There’s this line coming out of Washington, and echoed by the mainstream press, that is promoting a military so-called solution to the conflict.”

Janine Jackson: In August 2010, the Venezuela story was about neighbor and US ally Colombia’s charge that Venezuela was aiding the Colombian guerrilla group known as the FARC. Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, talked with CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall about US media’s grasp of this regional story.

Laura Carlsen: I’ve been appalled by the press on this issue, but not surprised, because whenever it comes to Venezuela, there’s this bias and this lack of journalistic rigor that characterizes the articles about the region, about Colombia and Venezuela tensions in particular.

In this case, first of all, there was no effort really made to determine whether or not these proofs were really proofs, whether they were true or not. And, moreover, it’s very difficult to know exactly what these proofs were proving. And there was no real analysis of, what does it mean if there’s supposedly an ELN leader drinking a beer on a Venezuelan beach? What does that really prove?

Instead of analyzing these things, or taking it at least in a neutral stance, the Washington Post editorial ended up jumping directly to the conclusion that Chávez is the head of a terrorist alliance. There’s no substantiation to that, and it’s an extremely inflammatory statement. So what we’ve seen is a progression from unsubstantiated and unanalyzed so-called evidence, going straight toward these blanket statements that are accepted not only as consensus opinions, but also as news itself.

And, on the other hand, we do not see the mainstream press reporting on peace efforts. Immediately after this happened, the FARC, which are the main guerrilla group in Colombia, came out with a statement calling for a political solution, that UNASUR and other countries in the region stated that they were going to be working toward a peace accord—which President Uribe rejected—within the region, that would finally put an end to the conflict in Colombia. Yet we did not receive the kind of information that there are initiatives towards peace talks in Colombia—again, because there’s this line coming out of Washington, and echoed by the mainstream press, that is promoting a military so-called solution to the conflict.


Mark Weisbrot

Mark Weisbrot: “If you have oil, and you’re not doing what Washington wants, you’re bound to run into some kind of trouble.”

Janine Jackson: Hugo Chávez died in 2013. But that didn’t mean US media didn’t have him to kick around anymore. We spoke with Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Mark Weisbrot: So what is it about him that they really hated so much? I think he criticized the United States; he didn’t criticize the people in the United States, of course, but he criticized US foreign policy very strongly. And he wanted to be independent, and he wanted South America to be independent. And he won that battle. That was really his unforgivable sin.

If you look at the battle over the last 14 years since Chávez was in office, there’s no doubt that the United States lost most of its influence in South America, and in Latin America, too, to a certain extent, the whole region. And that’s huge. It’s a huge change, and he had a huge role in it. And that, I think, was kind of unforgivable for a lot of people. Most of the media really support the US having a lot of power in the world, whether it’s used for good or evil.

JJ: There are few that say that Venezuela is free of problems. But it seems clear sometimes that the criticisms we’re hearing really aren’t about those. And sometimes there’s a crass kind of realpolitik, as when NBC’s Brian Williams says, “All this matters a lot to the US since Venezuela sits on top of a lot of oil. And that’s how this now gets interesting for the United States.”

I mean, I suppose in some ways it might improve coverage if that understanding of US interests, as being self-interested, and not so much about democracy or human rights, maybe if that perspective informed coverage generally, it would make it make more sense.

MW: I think it was Alan Greenspan who caused a little bit of a stir by saying the United States would never have invaded Iraq if it wasn’t for the oil. It is not so much the oil itself, because, as you can see, the government of Venezuela has always continued to sell the oil to the United States. It’s really that any country with that much oil—and it’s the largest reserves in the world—is going to have an influence, it’s going to be independent, it’s going to have its own foreign policy, if it wants to.

And that’s the real problem for Washington. They don’t like countries to have regional influence if they can’t control them. And, obviously, if you look at our wars—Iraq, the threatened war with Iran—these are, you know, one was a dictatorship, one is more of a theocracy. And Venezuela is a democracy, but it really doesn’t matter. If you have oil, and you’re not doing what Washington wants, you’re bound to run into some kind of trouble. And I think that’s the thing: Chávez could have been the most perfect, diplomatic politician, and done everything right in a diplomatic sense, and he would have been treated the same way by the US State Department.


Miguel Tinker Salas

Miguel Tinker Salas: “What these protests have really exposed is the fact that there are fundamental differences over democracy within the opposition.”

Janine Jackson: It’s hard to really see what’s happening on the ground in Venezuela when US media cover protests selectively, and use the term “civil society” as a synonym for the country’s elites. Venezuelan historian and Pomona College professor Miguel Tinker Salas joined CounterSpin from Venezuela in March 2014, as opposition demonstrations were winding down. Steve Rendall had a simple question.

Steve Rendall: How do you see the makeup of the opposition?

Miguel Tinker Salas: The reality is that we’re not facing a national rebellion. Most of the opposition has been centered in 18 different municipalities and states like Táchira, Mérida, some in Carabobo, and in the eastern part of Caracas. I’m in western Caracas, and I’ve walked the entire city streets, and it’s calm and peaceful.

So these are pockets of resistance, in neighborhoods, because the interesting phenomena here is what the protesters did was, they barricaded themselves behind their own neighborhoods. It was an odd form of protest, because essentially they barricaded upper- and middle-class neighborhoods, and essentially prevented commerce and transfer of people and daily activity, as if that was going to precipitate a counterrevolution against the government of Nicolás Maduro. That hasn’t happened.

SR: So what is it that the protesters really want?

MTS: Well, they want to overthrow the government. I mean, the problem with the protesters is that there’s been a democratic process in this country for the last 15 years; the pro-government forces and the popular forces and the left coalition have won 18 out of 19 elections. And given the electoral cycle this year, it’s interesting, there are no elections this year. So they’re uncomfortable with democracy. In December of 2013, the government actually won 70 percent of the municipalities.

So the opposition, in many ways, is uncomfortable with democracy, they don’t want to see the process unfold, and they’ve instead decided to use real problems the country has, no doubt about it—56 percent inflation, crime, shortages of food—in many parts because of hoarding, but also because of contraband trade; over 30 percent of Venezuela’s products are actually taken out as contraband to Colombia, which is a billion-dollar industry, through the states of Táchira and Zulia.

So they are real demands, but they’ve taken and manipulated those demands, and their aim has been to oust a democratically elected government, and that has not happened. And the business sector recognizes it, because they’ve joined the government in peace negotiations and dialogues and trying to find solutions to the economic problems.

But the political opposition faces a Tea Party scenario, where there’s a faction within the right conservative forces that doesn’t want to negotiate with the government. So that, in essence, to be a leader of the opposition, you have to out-right the more radical elements in your own organization. They want to be able to be the leaders of the opposition, but they actually have a problem, because if they want to win over the larger population, they can’t do that with the obstinate position that they’ve taken. So they find themselves in a contradiction. And what these protests have really exposed is the fact that there are fundamental differences over democracy within the opposition.

SR: We’ve had just a torrent of pro-opposition propaganda in the US, all cheering for the elites to prevail over a democratic government largely elected by the poor. Now the demonstrations are ramping down, does this mean that democracy won? Where do you see things going?

MTS: I think that part of this whole strategy has been precisely the fact that there was an active campaign done internationally to actually create conditions, within the media and elsewhere, and create the popular perception that there was national chaos, a national revolt, that the masses were protesting. When, in fact, it’s the opposite. A Colombian commentator said, “Venezuela is an odd country. It’s the only country where the rich protest and the poor celebrate.” Which gives you insight into what’s going on here. And even the New York Times has had to admit that most of the protests are relegated to rich and upper-class neighborhoods.

But it’s clear that Venezuela’s image internationally has been part of that campaign, to try to isolate, to tarnish it and to create conditions that make it seem like the country’s either in a Ukraine-like crisis or a Syrian-style civil war, which is nothing further from the truth.


Alfredo Lopez

Alfredo Lopez: “When you put together a society that challenges the fundamental precepts of American capitalist society, the government of the United States declares you an enemy.”

Janine Jackson: In early 2015, the Obama White House declared Venezuela a threat to the United States’ national security, paving the way for debilitating economic sanctions. CounterSpin spoke about Venezuela’s real threat to US power with activist and author Alfredo Lopez of May First/People Link.

Alfredo Lopez: First of all, the United States doesn’t like progressive governments, and never has in that region. United States, for foreign policy purposes, still considers Latin America to be its backyard. Given that fact, you need to do your gardening according to the United States design. And when you put together a society that challenges the fundamental precepts of American capitalist society, the government of the United States declares you an enemy. I mean, that’s one reason.

Now, a number of governments do that right now in Latin America, Janine. But Venezuela is a very special case. It is a highly developed country. It is a cosmopolitan country—several highly developed cities, a very advanced education system. And so that is a problem for the United States, because of the possibility of Venezuela taking leadership, as it already has, of Latin America, and challenging the American leadership.

It also has the option of developing a full-fledged, progressive and possibly socialist society, because of the diversity of its capabilities, because of its development.

And then the third thing is oil. Venezuela is one of the major petroleum producers in the world. United States is still oil-dependent. The world is still petroleum-dependent, and that means Venezuela has a lot of clout within the traditional capitalist markets.

So it’s a real problem for the United States to have a government that’s denouncing it is an imperialist force.

JJ: Well, the Miami Herald headline said that Maduro was looking to fight “US imperialism,” which it put in quotation marks, both because he had used the phrase, but also to indicate that that’s an absurd concept. Listeners may have heard—I know it aired on Democracy Now!—the recent press conference in which State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said any accusations that the US was supporting destabilization or coup efforts in Venezuela were “ludicrous.” And Psaki said that the US, as a matter of longstanding policy, “does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.” Which made at least one reporter present say, “Whoa there.”

But one can imagine a person, as you’re just saying, a person who reads the news, watches the news, and still has no awareness of the US’s recent role in some non-constitutional transitions.

AL: Media experts like Jen Psaki, who’s a master of media manipulation, can actually get away with saying stuff like that, with the collaboration of a lot of this mainstream media. The United States foreign policy—particularly in Latin America, but in many other parts of the world, for the last 20 to 30 years—has been consistent destabilization of other governments. That’s the policy: When it feels that another government is problematic or hostile to US interests, it seeks to destabilize them.

JJ: The US media give Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, and now Maduro and the whole Bolivarian project, such “official enemy” treatment that it’s hard not to laugh. But one thing that that does is leave little to no room for thoughtful criticism, to acknowledge the problems that for sure do exist in Venezuela. Where do we, where can we have that conversation?

AL: That is a difficult conversation to have because of US attack. And that is absolutely right, that is perhaps the major victim of all of this. Support for the Venezuelan/Bolivarian project, as you call it, Janine—and I am certainly, and I’ve always been a supporter of it—doesn’t mean a totally blind or uncritical kind of support. Bolivarian revolutionary government has made, in my opinion, several key strategic errors.

It is difficult for us to imagine a just world. But if we could, in a just world, what would be the reaction to this? The reaction to a government that’s democratically elected, that has a record of having improved a country in a fundamental way, improvements that are more vast than any other country in recent history. The improvements of life in Venezuela for poor and lower-income, working class people, are absolutely stunning. They’re almost miraculous.

So what do we do in a just world? Well, a just world gets together with them and says, “Look, you’re having problems here, here with your economy. We’re going to support you with that. You guys really need to talk about this internally. You need to have a discussion about what you’re going to do. And we want to join that discussion.” That’s the world’s reaction, is to support the discussion, just like a family, just like friends. If one of your friends is having problems and you feel that they, he or she should be changing, you don’t walk in with a gun and blow their head off! You have a conversation with them; you try to support them as best you can.


JJ: That was Alfredo Lopez, and before him Miguel Tinker Salas, Mark Weisbrot, Laura Carlsen, Dan Beeton and Chesa Boudin.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.