Chávez: the defence

Colin Burgon MP - chair of the Labour Friends of Venezuela - responds to last week's New Statesman s

Last week's cover story by Alice O'Keeffe, claiming Hugo Chávez had polarised Venezuela, was a distorted snapshot, devoid of present or historical context. The inference that prior to Chávez, Venezuela was a largely stable generally united society is risible. Venezuela is a nation in flux and one of great importance to the UK. On this premise, O'Keeffe's imbalance must be challenged.

She presented a country in "cold civil war" mode, one that is led by a "power-crazed" Chávez could easily turn "hot". Labelling Chávez as such implies a denial of democratic expression by the Venezuelan population.

In fact, Chávez has won three elections - all free, fair and overseen by international observers - doubling his vote between the first election in 1998 and his last one in December 2006. There is a "Chavista" majority in the National Assembly because the opposition boycotted the 2005 congressional elections following strategic advice from Washington; so the result was a foregone conclusion.

The writer then highlighted the increase in the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country for the US and the serious levels of violent crime across Venezuela. On the former point, O'Keeffe makes no reference to the fact that this state of affairs is being encouraged by the US through forthcoming changes to immigration law that will allow Venezuelans privileged entry into the country over people from conflict-prone states such as Haiti, Somalia and Iraq.

On the latter point, Venezuela clearly has a problem with crime, but it is not new. In the past 15 years it has been a serious, structural issue that has escalated and owes much to the illicit flow of weapons and drugs from neighbouring Colombia - a nation that receives US and UK military aid, despite an appalling human rights record.

O'Keeffe depicts Chávez as polarising any on the "third side". But the Bush administration has been fully complicit in the elimination of any neutral voices, financing the main opposition parties and, via its National Endowment for Democracy, openly and secretly funding civil society, so undermining organisations that should be respected as neutral actors.

When predominantly private university students demonstrate over RCTV, no mention whatsoever is made of pro-government rallies from public-sector students. There are also strong indications that the anti-government student rebellion is being externally orchestrated. When students were offered the opportunity to speak in the National Assembly by the Venezuelan government, an event televised nationally, they left behind their notes; it transpired they had been provided by a well-known PR agency.

It is this Manichean description of a nation polarised and propelled by a demagogue into possible civil war - rather than one finally and democratically challenging social injustice - that underpins O'Keeffe's assessment. This view becomes transparent if one considers the pre-Chávez social climate, where examples of social turmoil that very nearly did bring civil war are evident.

In 1989, President Andrés Pérez implemented free-market reforms under instruction from the IMF. This included the privatisation of state companies and carte blanche to multinationals to sew up Venezuelan resources. Social inequality soared, fuel prices rose by 100 per cent and public transport costs by 30 per cent.

Ordinary Venezuelans - largely the poor - took to the streets in their thousands. Ensuing riots resulted in the deaths of up to 3,000 civilians, mostly at the hands of the security forces. The government declared a state of emergency and placed Caracas under martial law. The repression in the teeming barrios was so savage the events are referred to as the Caracazo massacres.

Recent demonstrations against Chávez have been policed without repression or brutality. Venezuela is a more stable nation now than probably ever before. Facts and context again diminish news value.

In O'Keeffe's analysis, the catalyst for unrest remains the revocation of RCTV's licence by the official regulatory body. The station had repeatedly violated broadcast laws yet now transmits via cable. This was patently not an attack on free speech.

In the days before the 2002 coup, RCTV constantly focused on a general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. Commentators relentlessly attacked him and the government was refused response. Advertising breaks encouraging Venezuelans to attend an anti-Chávez demonstration dominated air time, as did blanket coverage of the actual event. As was recorded and exposed, when the demonstration ended in violence and death, RCTV manipulated video footage to turn the blame on Chávez supporters.

A coup was mounted and Chávez abducted - events covered by O'Keeffe in a perfunctory single sentence. At this point, the station played a crucial role in ensuring an information blackout, preventing Venezuelans from being made aware that Chávez had been kidnapped and had not "resigned" as was claimed.

Even so, hundreds of thousands of Chávez supporters demanded his return in protests that RCTV declined to cover. The then news director, Andrés Izarra, explained to National Assembly hearings that he received an order to broadcast: "Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters . . . The idea was to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country."

RCTV chief Marcel Granier and other media magnates then attended the Miraflores Palace to support the new dictator, Pedro Carmona, who had dissolved the elected Supreme Court, National Assembly and Constitution.

Do O'Keeffe and others seriously suggest that such actions by a broadcaster would be tolerated were a similar military coup launched in London, Madrid or Washington? Of course not, and it is for this reason, above all, that they have no credibility.

Where lobbying, sanctions, direct interference, armed coup attempts and threats have failed, the pro-US, invariably corporate sponsored, anti-Chávez network hopes that international criticism on human rights and freedom may succeed in establishing the climate for civil unrest and the replacement of a democratically elected government. If it does, O'Keeffe et al may well be invited for cocktails in Caracas.

Colin Burgon MP is chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela

Related article: Chávez: From hero to tyrant