Interview with Alan MacLeod on Venezuela

Dr Alan MacLeod is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. His is the author of “Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting”, published by Routledge in 2018. You can find the book here (Amazon US) and here (Amazon UK).

East & West: You have written a book about 20 years of “fake news” from Venezuela. What were the most prominent examples before the current crisis?

Alan MacLeod: There have been many fake news stories flooding Venezuela for years. In 2016 it was widely claimed that, thanks to socialism, a hamburger cost $170.

Unfortunately this story was retracted after it was proved completely false and based on a deliberately manipulated exchange rate. Yet the media was still extremely keen to push the story. One outlet retracted the story with the message:

“The story has been killed by Agency France-Presse due to errors in the exchange rate. You may be still be able to buy a burger at somewhat affordable prices, but it doesn’t negate the fact that Venezuela is in a death spiral thanks to socialism.”

In 2015 it was reported across the world that condoms cost $755 dollars in Venezuela. In reality a box of them cost around $8. I interviewed the originator of the story who was completely unrepentant, saying he was happy he could use “cheap tricks” and “sexy tactics” to tell his story about Venezuela.

In 2017 it was widely reported that Venezuelans were breaking into zoos to kill animals for their meat because they were so hungry. But the story was not reported at all in Venezuela. The reason was that it was based on a minor local article that noted some zoo animals had died in suspicious circumstances. It did not mention anything to do with hunger or anything else.

In 2017 an opposition member, Oscar Perez, hijacked an army helicopter and used it to bomb government buildings in central Caracas. He was described as a “patriot” by The Guardian who claimed he may have been a government plant and his attack on Caracas was described as a “protest flight” by the Washington Post.

In 2002 the New York Times supported a coup against Hugo Chavez, the media falsely claiming he ordered a massacre before resigning. In reality it was the opposition who massacred Chavez supporters and kidnapped the President.

E&W: Journalists like to pose as heroes of free speech, freedom and democracy. They often like to pose as opposition forces to the government in their countries. But why, when it comes to coverage of foreign events, one cannot avoid the impression that often the media just ends up presenting the official government line? What’s the reason for this? Why do journalists, people who often possess inquisitive minds, stop questioning their governments when it comes to foreign policy and attitudes towards other countries?

AML: Journalists often think of themselves as adversarial and fiercely independent truth tellers standing up to the powerful. In reality, however, the journalists who rise to the top of the system are those who conform the most to the agenda of the powerful in their societies.

One method this is achieved is through the principle of “objectivity”- which largely means accurately reporting what those in power have to say and not challenging them. When large sections of the elite agree on a subject, such as on Venezuela, this results in complete uniformity of the message and the presentation on the subject.

Journalists who are more independent and take a more critical line towards the coverage are subtly filtered out of the profession; the articles they pitch will not be accepted by publications and their work will be constantly edited and they will receive flak from powerful groups and organizations who will label them “ideological” or “unprofessional.” This constant battle to get anything published leads many to quit the profession in frustration or disgust.

Those who agree with the coverage will find it easy to get published and find work and promotions, ensuring the systematic mirroring of the government line continues.

E&W: Venezuela is in a crisis. So much everyone knows. It has become fashionable to attribute the grave economic situation the country is experiencing, with inflation that could be running above 1 million per cent, to the excesses of Socialism. This argument clearly resonates very well with American audiences, who historically have been vaccinated against the threat of Socialism. But how much is there to this argument? Is Venezuela in dire straits because it was too socialist, too generous in its social spending for the poor?

AML: Generally speaking, political scientists, sociologists and economists have identified four main drivers of the economic malaise the country is in.

Those four are:

1. Government incompetence or corruption, where where some say it is the terrible decisions of a corrupt government or perhaps even the inherent flaws of “socialism” which has twisted the economy completely.

2. the opposition’s economic warfare. Others say that big business groups are using their leverage to strangle the economy and starve Venezuelans into changing their government, like they tried in 2002/3 with the enormous oil/business lockout.

3. the actions of the US in placing sanctions on the economy and encouraging others to do so.

4. the worldwide economic decline and the collapse in oil prices, which has seen countries across Latin America go into deep recessions.

All four of these have merit. And yet it is only the first one that the media concentrate on, giving the coverage a wildly distorted and simplistic “socialism doesn’t work” narrative. Let’s take these points one by one.

First, it is clear that government policies have contributed to the crisis. For example, Venezuela has a very complex multi-tiered exchange rate, where the government will give businesses and groups who promise to import important things like medicine US dollars at an official rate. But those dollars are worth way more on the black market, so very often people just immediately sell them and make huge profits. Another factor affecting the economy are price controls, originally implemented to make sure all could afford key foods and goods. These were popular with the population but the artificially low price means unscrupulous people can simply fill up a truck with cheap food or gasoline and drive to Colombia and sell it for way more. And in a corrupt country like Venezuela, it is not hard to grease a few palms to get dollars or get across border checkpoints. Furthermore, it disincentivizes businesses to produce or import of these key goods.

In 2016 an economic team from the Union of South American Nations, many of them leftists, presented the government with a report saying they needed to lift the controls and float the exchange rates as well as a host of other measures. But they refused to do any of it, leading one commentator to call it “the most astonishingly static government Latin America has seen for many years.”

The second factor, the opposition’s economic war, is barely discussed in the media, and when it is brought up it is usually only as an accusation by a government official and subsequently ridiculed. However, it is beyond doubt that the opposition and the Venezuelan elites are trying to crash the economy.

At the peace talks chaired by the Pope, the opposition officially recognized the “economic war” (meaning the hoarding or stopping production of key products) as a key source of the crisis and pledged to end it. They haven’t. Private monopolistic companies are continually found to be squeezing the economy dry by hoarding, especially foods and medicines.

Furthermore, Julio Borges, an opposition leader, has been touring the world’s banks, threatening them not to lend to the country, thus driving it into a financial hole. The opposition largely controls the supply of goods into and around the country. The largest private company, Polar, controls around half of the bread production in Venezuela. The CEO of Polar is Lorenzo Mendoza, an opposition leader who declared he would run for president against Maduro in 2018 (but later withdrew)

And unsurprisingly, it is very often the products Polar have monopolistic control over that are most short in Venezuela. Yet this basic adding of two and two together and the highly relevant information that the opposition controls the supply of exactly the products that have shortages, has, to my knowledge, never been mentioned across the entirety of the mainstream media.

The third factor, the US’ role, is barely discussed with regards to the crisis. When US sanctions on Venezuela are discussed in the media, it is usually to praise them or to claim they haven’t gone far enough.

This is flatly rejected by the United Nations, whose General Assembly and Human Rights Council said they were “disproportionately affecting the poor and the most vulnerable classes”. Again almost completely unreported in the press is that the United Nations has formally condemned the US sanctions, calling on all member states to break them and even discussing reparations the US should pay to Venezuela. One American special UN rapporteur described the sanctions as akin to a medieval siege and even declared the Trump administration as guilty of “crimes against humanity”. No mainstream national US news source has even mentioned this incredibly relevant fact.

The worldwide economic decline is felt worst of all in developing countries who generally produce only one or a few primary products to sell to the outside world. Venezuela is no exception, and has been hit particularly hard by the crisis.

Since 2008, oil prices dropped from over $160 a barrel to just $30 in 2016. When you rely on oil for over 90% of your export income, that is an enormous problem.

This Latin America-wide slump has been used by the right to come to power, sometimes in highly questionable circumstances, for example in coups in Brazil and Honduras and a constitutional coup in Paraguay. The right is ascendant and one by one the empire has struck back, picking off leftist governments. This means many of Venezuela’s key allies have gone and have been replaced with hostile states, meaning absolutely no support is coming from there.

Therefore all four of these factors have mixed together to create a perfect storm that Venezuela is suffering through. Yet three of these factors are consciously omitted in order to bolster the “socialism doesn’t work” and the “something must be done” framings of the country, used to attack progressive movements at home and subtly prime the population for regime change or an invasion.

On the topic of socialism: we have to ask whether Venezuela is really socialist or not. Venezuela’s state expenditure as a percentage of GDP- a common definition of socialism- remains quite low, far lower than Italy or almost every major European state, and even lower than the United States. Therefore, by that definition the US is more socialist than Venezuela has ever been! Venezuela’s economic problems are not unique to socialism and are, in no small part, a result of an all-out American economic war.

E&W: Guiado has been recognized as the legitimate interim President by the USA and most of its European allies. They claim this is in conformity to the Constitution of Venezuela. How sound is the legal ground for this unusual step?

AML: Guaido’s strategy is based around Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Article 233 states that if the President “abandons his position” or becomes “permanently unavailable to serve” as President then he can be removed and new elections can be called. However, Maduro has clearly not abandoned his position or become permanently unavailable. Furthermore, even in this situation the protocol is not to give the presidency to the leader of the National Assembly anyway, so Guaido’s case is clearly not robust.

The opposition has actually used Article 233 of the Constitution before to attempt to remove the President. In 2001 it put together a team of psychiatrists who claimed Hugo Chavez was insane, and therefore disqualified from office.

It is interesting that the opposition are now using this Constitution, because they campaigned strongly against its adoption in 1999 and when they removed Chavez via a coup in 2002 they immediately suspended it, along with firing every elected official in the country.

E&W: Some EU politicians have accused the Italian government of being under Putin’s malign influence for not aligning with the US and other EU member states in recognizing Guiado as the legitimate President. How relevant is the narrative of a Russian hold on Venezuela?

AML: Russia has maintained and developed a cordial relationship with Venezuela over the past twenty years, generally supporting the Venezuelan government in the United Nations, for example. However, it remains a minor trading partner with the Latin American nation and exerts distinctly minimal power over the country, especially in comparison to the US.

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