Reality is too big for a nutshell

There’s a video out, produced by the Venezuelan opposition, titled “What’s going on in Venezuela in a nutshell.” They’re pushing it hard on social media, which is how I came to see it.

Well, parts of it. I simply couldn’t make it through. I find the clip very emotionally manipulative, with soaring music over images of anti-government protesters, which is dialed back for scenes of street fighting and screams. Add to this the fact that the voice-over declares the current government, democratically elected in 2013, “illegitimate”, and I watched less than half the movie.

The main message in what I watched was that the murder rate is extreme, the government corrupt, that the government is (alone) responsible for the “social and economic crisis”, that opposition members are being killed, some of them quite recently, and tortured, that “government controls the air waves”, and that “Venezuelans have enough”.

Now, I have to admit I am biased in this discussion. I am in favor or nationalization of certain industries, notably those that extract natural resources. I am in favor of social spending on education, housing, and health care. I am in favor of pushing back against the Washington Consensus. And when the Bush government endorses a coup d’etat against a sitting president, I am inclined to assume that this president might be doing something right.

This is not helped by the fact that I find it rather hard to get an unbiased picture of Venezuela: on the one hand I get main stream media, and right-wing reporting/editorializing that styles the Chavists as Stalin reincarnated, on the other hand I get alternative media, and left-wing reporting/editorializing according to which Venezuela is completely free and on the road to lasting prosperity. That’s one of the reasons I attempted to watch the video in the first place: to maybe get information that helps me in balancing two loads of propaganda.

Instead, I got a very narrow interpretation of the situation. What’s conveniently left out of the nutshell, for instance, is that in 80s and 90s Venezuela was in the shitter, economically speaking:

Between 1984 and 1995 the percentage of people living below the poverty line jumped from 36 percent to 66 percent, while the number of people suffering from extreme poverty tripled, from 11 percent to 36 percent.

with inflation higher than now:

[…]inflation skyrocketed to reach peaks of 84% in 1989 and 99% in 1996.

and that the “illegitimate” Chavist governments managed to reduce the after-effects of these crises quite a bit:

[…]poverty in Venezuela has declined during the CHAVEZ administration, dropping from nearly 50% in 1999 to about 27% in 2011[…]

This is the CIA World Factbook, for crying out loud! Not exactly known as a left-wing organization.

The nutshell also doesn’t have space for the fact that a lot of economic harm was done by the 2002/2003 Oil Lockout when the management of the state owned oil company tried to topple the government by sabotaging oil production.

It excludes the role the media has played ever since Chavez was elected:

After the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan press “failed miserably in their duty to provide information that their fellow citizens needed to navigate the storms of Venezuelan politics under Chavez. Instead, media owners and their editors used the news – print and broadcast – to spearhead an opposition movement against Chavez.” The programme of Bolivarian Missions was (until 2005) “virtually invisible in the mainstream press”. Encouraged by verbal attacks by Chavez and other officials, editors “began routinely winking at copy containing unfounded speculation, rumor, and unchecked facts.” This contributed to a polarization such that for a time reporters were regularly attacked in the street by Chavez supporters with bottles and sticks. According to a political reporter for El Nacional speaking in 2005, “the common attitude has been that we can leave aside ethics and the rules of journalism”. Alonso Moleiro said that “Reporters bought the argument that you have to put journalistic standards aside, that if we don’t get rid of Chavez, we will have communism and Fidelismo.”

most notably in supporting the 2002 attempted coup d’etat against the Chavez government, a coup d’etat that, as I mentioned above, the US government at the time explicitly condoned:

Mainstream Venezuelan media outlets such as El Universal, El Nacional, El Nuevo País, Globovisión, Televen, CMT and RCTV supported the coup. At the same time, only the anti-Chávez point of view was reflected in the news reports of international media agencies and organizations.

In the run up to the coup, the private media had supported the anti-government demonstrations. The 11 April edition of El Nacional was headlined “The Final Battle Will Be in Miraflores”. In March RCTV had given blanket coverage to anti-government demonstrations whilst not covering pro-Chávez ones altogether. On 11 April, the anti-government march, the message “remove Chávez”, and the call to redirect the march to the presidential palace in Miraflores, were “widely announced, promoted, and covered by privately owned television channels, and whose explicit support for the opposition became evident.”

Honestly, I don’t have a good idea how to regulate media. Media is very influential in shaping politics, something that we know at least since the Spanish-American war yet it is not included in the “powers” that democratic systems attempt to balance. Advertisement-financed media will necessarily have a tendency towards self-censorship since they are at risk of their funding drying up otherwise. Privately-owned media will necessarily have a tendency of supporting the economic elite since this is who owns them.
So I understand attempts at regulating media ownership, at financing robust public media, and yes, even at withdrawing licenses of media that attack the government and support non-democratic means of affecting political change. It’s a failing of mine, and my wife – who sees clearer in such things than I do – makes a powerful argument that restricting freedom of the press is always wrong, no matter what they print/broadcast.

Having written this, the “the government controls all the airwaves” rhetoric still strikes me as incorrect:

In fact, state TV had about 5.9 percent of the audience that watches television in Venezuela in 2009-2010. These data were gathered by AGB Panamericana de Venezuela Medición S.A., a local affiliate of Nielsen Media Research International, and are probably as reliable as Nielsen ratings in the United States.
According to CONATEL data, only about 14 percent of radio is publicly owned; and since there is more strongly anti-government radio in Venezuela than TV, the opposition almost certainly has more advantage in radio than in other media.

And yes, Reporters without Frontiers ranks Venezuela as 117th out of 179 but it also ranks it higher than countries such as India, Singapore, Honduras (another country where the US condoned a coup d’etat), the Philippines, Colombia (an important US ally in South America), Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Egypt…none of which is as persistently painted as oppressing freedom of the press as Venezuela. Also, one mustn’t forget that RsF implicitly includes violence in this ranking since they count the number of journalists and bloggers killed. Given the high murder rate of Venezuela, this probably has an effect.

And about this murder rate, and how much of it fits into a nutshell:

Between 1986 and 1996 the number of homicides per 10,000 inhabitants jumped from 13.4 to 56, an increade of 418 percent, with most of the victims being young males (San Juan, 1997: 232–233). Countless streets in the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods were closed and privatized; increasingly, bars and electric fences surrounded houses and buildings in these areas. The threat represented by the “dangerous class” came to occupy a central place in the media – along with demands that drastic measures be taken, including the death penalty or direct execution by the police.

What also goes unmentioned is that among the dead on February 12th was a government activist, because apparently not all Venezuelans have enough but instead there are pro-government demonstrations as well. And the nutshell is also not big enough to note that the economic paradise of pre-Chavez days lead to the Caracazo riots that were put down heavy-handedly:

Pérez suspended civil rights and imposed martial law. The military’s suppression of the rebellion resulted in, by the government’s own admission, 300 deaths; and others estimate the toll at more than 1000.

Let’s not forget that back then, that was labeled a “legitimate” government, not as nowadays:

Media outlets in the United States, and in other parts of the world, have consistently suggested that Hugo Chávez is a “dictator” or is “headed in that direction” in spite of the fact that he and his party have won numerous national elections certified by international observers, and confirmed by independent international polling companies.

Not only was Chavez elected and re-elected but he also won the 2004 Recall Referendum. These facts are difficult to complain away, and so when asked, a FB poster claimed that the current government is illegitimate because Maduro were Colombian. Well, according to Wikipedia he was born in Venezuela.

The Venezuelan government seems to become more and more repressive. The Chavist policies seem not to have repaired the damage of the neo-liberal years, or seem to have done damage of their own. But you might notice that this post, which fails to give the full picture, if only because I don’t have it, doesn’t fit into a nutshell. Political/social/economic situations very rarely do.

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