2 May 2018 — FAIR
Janine Jackson interviewed Joe Emersberger on Venezuela for the April 27, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Perhaps believing he doesn’t have enough of a megaphone as senator, CNN gave Marco Rubio an online column this week in which to level claims that Venezuela has become “a danger to its neighbors and our own national security.” “The regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro threatens US interests,” Rubio states; the country is a state sponsor of drug-trafficking, it harbors terrorists and it has “attacked the regional democratic order,” including by allying itself with “enemies” of the US, such as Cuba and Russia.
As you scroll through this nuance-free fulmination, a video starts playing: CNN‘s got an exclusive look at one of Venezuela’s public hospitals and the “catastrophic conditions stalking patients from the moment they step inside.” If CNN offers audiences any affecting images of suffering Venezuelans alongside any other possible responses besides Rubio’s brazen call to “hasten Maduro’s exit from power,” well, they defied detection.
Joe Emersberger writes often about Venezuela and other places for, among others, Telesur English, Counterpunch, ZNet and FAIR.org. His most recent piece for FAIR is called “Western Media Shorthand on Venezuela Conveys and Conceals So Much.” He joins us now by phone from Windsor, Ontario. Welcome to CounterSpin, Joe Emersberger.
Joe Emersberger: Thank you very much for having me on.
JJ: For your most recent piece for FAIR, you interrogate this April 18 article about Venezuela from Reuters, not because you see the presumptions and omissions of that article as unique, but, I think, because they illustrate some broader points about corporate media coverage of Venezuela. What were some of the elements of that piece that rankled, and what would you have folks question about US coverage of Venezuela?
JE: The main point to make clear is that people should understand that it is a democracy. And actually Reuters is not even close to being the worst outlet, but their coverage is, as I mentioned in the piece, very biased. For instance, one really lazy talking point that they throw in the article is just that the most popular two opposition candidates are barred from running. So again, without even telling people explicitly, you know, “Venezuela’s a dictatorship,” they’re already putting that in people’s heads. Anyone who reads the article is, “Oh my gosh, they just decide who can run, and they’re just outlawing the two most popular candidates.”
But there’s a whole slew of things that they aren’t telling us. No. 1, those two politicians were both involved in a coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez in April 2002. It ousted him for two days. He was kidnapped, and he was eventually restored to office because there was a massive street uprising, and also a loyalist sector of the military succeeded in reversing the coup. But for two days, they had a dictatorship.
And these two guys didn’t just applaud it from the sidelines; they were, like many prominent opposition leaders, out in front of the cameras, openly participating, for example, in the arrest of a government minister. There are YouTube clips all over the place now, because they wanted to be out in the open and say, “Look, we contributed to this,” because the assumption was that a coup would stick; they would prevail, and they’d say, “We defeated the dictator.” In fact, the New York Times famously said that this was a great victory for democracy, because the would-be dictator Chávez had been overthrown.
So this all unraveled then, and then these two guys avoided prison; [Henrique] Capriles served a few months a few years later, took them a few years, but he did do a few months for his role in the coup. And [Leopoldo] Lopez didn’t do any time at all, because Chávez allowed an amnesty for most of the participants, but he did end up getting thrown in jail in 2014, way after, supporting a few other efforts to violently overthrow the government.
So basically, these guys, if they were in any other country, like the United States, Canada, any one who pulls this kind of thing…. They wouldn’t be walking the streets anymore, never mind running for office. I gave the example in the piece of the leader of the Catalan province in Spain, Carles Puigdemont, who organized a referendum on independence for Catalunya. His government was disbanded, he had to flee from Spain, and he was arrested very recently, a few weeks ago, in Germany, on behalf of the Spanish government. So there you have an example: somebody that didn’t participate in a violent overthrow of a government, he just organized a referendum that the federal government didn’t want, and look how they came down on him, basically aping Donald Trump’s policy toward Venezuela, saying it’s a dictatorship and needs to be punished, it needs to have its economy sanctioned and so on.
So there’s a whole backstory there that if people are aware of, obviously, they’re not going to just take the fact that these two guys have been disqualified as evidence of “Venezuela’s a dictatorship,” because obviously you’d say, “Wait a second, what these guys did, if it happened here, I don’t think we’d be letting them run for office; I don’t think they’d be free, out of prison, never mind running for office.” But again, with the way the media reports things, it just briefly mentions something and just omits a whole backstory that’s so important to understand what’s going on.
JJ: And along with that recent—because it’s not that long ago—political history (if you applied a single standard in any way, to make sense of it for people), another thing that is absent from US coverage is any sense of the US role, you know? What you get is the idea that the US is looking on, concerned, and concerned especially about—judging from media coverage—just the humanitarian situation. There’s long lines, there’s hardships, there’s desperate hospitals, and to the extent that media explain that, it’s, “Well, you know, Chávez messed up. You know, mismanagement and corruption.” What’s missing there?
JE: Chávez took office in 1999. Basically the story is, poverty began to go down in his first few years, and then there was this coup. And then right after that, after the coup failed, they tried an oil strike—basically a shutdown of the oil industry, that was still dominated by Chávez’s opponents—and that caused a major contraction in the economy. But that was defeated as well. And then basically starting from 2003 on, you had a rapid recovery and a drastic poverty reduction. Poverty fell by 50 percent, extreme poverty by two-thirds, something in that neighborhood.
That’s what allowed the Chavistas, the followers of Hugo Chávez, until 2013 when he passed away, they racked up a tremendous record of electoral victories. So one is because they achieved things, and second was because the opposition had so thoroughly discredited itself by going to such extreme, scorched-earth tactics, to try to prevent it all from happening.
When you get into Maduro taking over, there’s no denying that he’s made some significant blunders with the economy. At the same time, though, a year and a half into his government, there’s this major collapse in oil prices (which he’s obviously not responsible for) that hit the economy extremely hard. And then on top of that, though, you have, starting with Obama, the United States ratcheting up the pressure on the economy. It was under Obama that Venezuela was officially declared an “extraordinary threat” to the national security of United States, which is ludicrous. And with that, they began sanctioning officials; there was the way Obama targeted Venezuela’s economy, he had more plausible deniability, because he could say, “Well, I’m just going after officials, you know, I’m not really targeting the whole economy.” But the practical impact of that was to make people wary of dealing with Venezuela.
Foreign Policy (1/12/18)
By 2017, Francisco Rodríguez—he’s an economist with Torino Capital, and he’s actually the economic advisor to the major opposition candidate right now, Henri Falcón—what Rodríguez pointed out in an article recently was that in 2017, even though Venezuela’s oil revenues went up, still its imports decreased by 30 percent. And the reason for that is because, unlike a normal country that can roll over its government bonds when it’s mature, Venezuela is stuck with the cost of both principal and interest. It can’t just issue new bonds to pay off the principal. So it’s stuck with billions of dollars in extra debt in order to avoid default. So that has a huge impact on the economy.
And with what Trump did in August, is basically he took away any plausible deniability from that, by formally outlawing any ability of Venezuela to use the US financial system, basically, and that’s where all their foreign currency–denominated bonds are based. They’re all governed by New York law. So that basically took all deniability away that they were targeting the entire economy.
And on top of that, Trump’s sanctions also made it illegal for Citgo, which is a US-based company but owned by Venezuela’s government, to send any profits and dividends back to Venezuela. So that cost them roughly $1 billion, it’s going to cost about $1 billion every year.
There is a huge impact there of US policy that—and yes, you’re totally right—does not play into this. They’ll focus on the horrible deprivation and the hardships and that, but they won’t say that, “Hey, by the way, our policy is costing these guys billions of dollars a year. So that’s billions of dollars of making imports of food and medicine more expensive.”
JJ: Usually the problem is these sanctions and this policy are not mentioned at all in coverage of Venezuelan deprivation. Then you have Marco Rubio talking about them as a tool and saying, “The goal is to maximize the pain felt by corrupt, oppressive and illegitimate government officials in Venezuela who are undermining democracy and human rights, as well as those actors who are keeping them in power.” Which, first of all, does that mean the people who elected those officials? Are they “actors keeping them in power,” in this sense? But in other words, this idea of sanctions as being a smart weapon, as though you can simply target who you want to target, even if that were acceptable, but as if you could do that without hurting the whole country.
Joe Emersberger: “They’ll focus on the horrible deprivation and the hardships and that, but they won’t say that, ‘Hey, by the way, our policy is costing these guys billions of dollars a year.’”
JE: I would not support sanctions, I don’t think anyone really could support sanctions like this, even against Israel, or even against Saudi Arabia, for that matter. I mean, these are sanctions directly aimed at the civilian population. You know, when people talk about sanctions, for example, against Israel, for the most part, that would just involve cutting off aid, support, military aid, things that are just subsidy given to them, but not directly cutting off their economy from any kind of normal trade.
So with Venezuela, even the sanctions, not only do they prevent them from using the US financial system, but also trips them up even for a long time; this was happening before Trump. It’s been tripping them up in terms of just being able to pay for normal things, just being able to process normal payments that aren’t even illegal. Because now, all sorts of banks and institutions are under pressure ,and they’re worried, “OK, we better check, double-check, make sure we’re not on the wrong side of the law,” in dealing with Venezuela.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, it doesn’t seem to take much to find the hypocrisy here; you bump into it each way you turn: Oh, the US doesn’t support governments that are involved in “drug trafficking”? Come on, how much disbelief are we meant to suspend? And yet this kind of Bizarro World conversation is the conversation of the news media that most people are exposed to. In a sense, we sacrifice debate; we might want to have a conversation about Chávez that’s nuanced, but you can’t talk about whether Chávez had problems when you’re in a media context that says he had horns, you know? And so I just wonder: Are media, are mainstream or corporate media, ever going to be the place for that conversation?
JE: Yeah, I can’t see it, not without tremendous pressure from regular people just to reform media and the political system in general. And it seems like foreign policy is especially difficult, because if you’re, let’s say, a grassroots movement in Canada or the United States, for understandable reasons, you’re going to want to focus on issues that people are most in touch with in their daily lives, which will tend to be domestic issues, right? I mean, foreign policy will seem to be, like, well, you’re talking about something, but what about here, you know?
But we are responsible when our governments do harm to other people, you know; we are responsible for that, too. In perhaps not so obvious ways, it also closes us off to forming connections with other peoples around the world, too, that would be very positive. It’s very difficult, because foreign policy, it seems like it’s harder for people to challenge, because it’s not something they can just…. In their daily lives, they come across things, facts, that refute what they might say about things at home; but when it comes to things that are happening in other countries, that takes a bit more work, it’s more difficult.
JJ: Absolutely. And more reason just to talk to one another, I guess, around the media as well.
JE: Precisely, yeah.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Joe Emersberger. His piece, “Western Media Shorthand on Venezuela Conveys and Conceals So Much,” can be found on FAIR.org. Joe Emersberger, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JE: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much for having me on.
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