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The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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There is a powerfully dangerous and condescending myth circulating about so-called ‘civil society’ in Venezuela, which goes something like this: as Daniel Levine put it on a recent radio program, “there’s just not independent groups as we conceive of civil society” in Venezuela. Focusing above all on the Communal Council phenomenon, Levine portrays these directly democratic institutions not as the radically participatory experiment they claim to be, but instead as little more than a cynical ruse by the late Hugo Chávez and his movement to enforce political objectives from above.

I can trace my interest in moving to Venezuela to this very question of civil society. As a young Ph.D student, I clearly remember reading a number of academic articles which attempted to clumsily impose the pre-established conceptual framework of civil society onto the development of participatory institutions in Venezuela. First with the nascent Bolivarian Circles and later with the Communal Councils formally established in 2006, U.S. academics have held up the template of civil society, scratched their heads as to why it doesn’t fit, and then concluded that since it does not, something must be wrong with Venezuela and not with their own concept. The Circles and the Councils, it was and continues to be argued, are not truly independent of the state, and therefore cannot be civil society “as we conceive.”

Firstly, the concept of civil society as we conceive it emerged and was cemented in struggles against dictatorship in the Southern Cone and against Soviet bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, displacing the far more critical variant associated with Gramsci. This new version privileges autonomy from the state as the criterion, systematically obscuring other crucial forces from which organizations might want to remain autonomous: imperial powers, the capitalist market, etc.

As a result, many accept as nominally ‘independent’ many forces that are nothing of the sort: private economic interests, NGOs with powerful funders, and foreign-backed political parties. Such forces constituted the bulk of the organized Venezuelan opposition, whose ‘civil’ credentials are questioned by few. Some have therefore described the 2002 coup against Chávez (which was reversed after 48 hours) as a “civil society coup,” and rightly so. It was this appropriation of an uncritical concept of civil society more than anything else that led many Venezuelan Chavistas to abandon the language of civil society at the same time that the anti-Chavistas seized upon it: this concept doesn’t describe what we’re doing, so let them have it.

Just ahead of the midnight deadline set out by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ three-judge panel, Argentina’s government submitted a letter (view document here) describing how it would go about paying holders of defaulted bonds. The payments would be for creditors who refused to take part in two previous debt exchanges, including the so-called “vulture fund” plaintiffs in this ongoing case, NML Capital, Ltd. V. Republic of Argentina.

Following the letter’s submission, a number of financial analysts quoted in the major media were unimpressed by Argentina’s latest move. The Wall Street Journal noted that one portfolio manager said “There was some hope they would have a more rational approach to this exercise, but that's definitely not the Argentina way.” Financial analyst Josh Rosner predicted to an AP reporter that "Monday morning is going to be a disaster." He also asked, "What if somebody took that new bond, and the Argentine government defaulted the next day?” Rosner may have momentarily forgotten that the South American government has made timely payments on all the bonds issued in the 2005 and 2010 settlements. The gist of the response in the media was “more shenanigans from Argentina.”

But what was lost in most reactions in the media is that Argentina has made significant concessions to creditors that until recently it had vowed, on principle, not to offer. (The plaintiffs, for their part, have shown no willingness to compromise.) Furthermore, the terms offered to NML would represent a sizeable return on the fund’s original investments in 2008 and would satisfy the requirement under the pari passu clause—which is at the heart of the case— that all bondholders are treated equally. Indeed, to offer a sweeter deal would appear to violate that clause at the expense of bondholders who took part in the 2005 and 2010 exchanges and accepted restructured bonds worth between 25 and 29 cents on the dollar.

Bertha Oliva is the General Coordinator of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained in Honduras. Bertha’s husband was "disappeared" in 1981, a period when death squads were active in Honduras. She founded COFADEH together with other women who lost their loved ones, in order to seek justice and compensation for the families of the hundreds of dissidents that were "disappeared" between 1979 and 1989. Since then Bertha and COFADEH have taken on some of the country’s most emblematic human rights cases and were a strong voice in opposition to the 2009 coup d’Etat and the repression that followed.  We interviewed her in Washington, D.C. on March 15th, shortly after she participated in a hearing on the human rights situation in Honduras at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  During the hearing she said that death squads are targeting social leaders, lawyers, journalists and other groups and called on the IACHR to visit Honduras in the next six months to take stock of the human rights situation ahead of the November general elections (Bertha’s testimony can be viewed here, beginning at 17:40).  

Q:  On various occasions you’ve said that what you’re seeing today in Honduras is reminiscent of the difficult times you experienced in the ‘80s and I’d like you to elaborate on that.

In the ‘80s we had armed forces that were excessively empowered. Today Honduras is extremely similar, with military officers exercising control over many of the country’s institutions.  The military is now in the streets playing a security role – often substituting for the work of the police forces of the country. 

In the ‘80s we also witnessed the practice of forced disappearances and assassinations. In that era it was clear that they were killing social leaders, political opponents, but they also assassinated people who had no ties to dissident groups in order to generate confusion in public opinion and try to disqualify our denunciations of the killings of family members who were political opponents. 

Today they assassinate young people in a more atrocious fashion than in the ‘80s and we’re seeing a marked pattern of assassinations of women and youth.  And within this mass of people that are assassinated there are political opponents.  We refuse to dismiss these assassinations as simply a result of the extreme violence that we’re experiencing, as they try to tell the country.  We say that it is a product of impunity and Honduras’ historical debt for failing to resolve cases perpetrated by state agents…

In the ‘80s the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant.  Today it’s the same.  New bases have opened as a result of an anti-drug cooperation agreement signed between Honduras and the U.S.

In the ‘80s it was clear that political opponents were being eliminated.  Today they’re also eliminating those who claim land rights, as exemplified in the Bajo Aguán.  More than 98 land rights activists have been assassinated.  The campesino sector in the Bajo Aguán has been psychologically and emotionally tortured on top of the physical torture that certain campesino leaders have been subjected to. 

Associated Press reporters Alberto Arce and Katherine Corcoran have written a follow up article to Arce’s investigative feature last week on the continuation of death squad activity by the Honduran police. The new article, which appeared in the New York Times and various other media over the weekend, suggests that U.S. State Department officials may have deceived members of Congress in order to illegally fund Honduran police units even though some police – under the command of National Police Director General Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla - may be involved in death squads.

The article begins:

The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don't operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and "social cleansing."

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the "Tiger," who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.

Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.

"Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general," he said.

Congress has already withheld some funding ($30 million) to the Honduran police under the Leahy Law over concerns about Bonilla's alleged past death squad involvement, but the State Department has continued with some other funding and just announced a new $16.3 million commitment to the Honduran police during a visit to Honduras by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield last weekend. AP noted that “Some of the U.S. money will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla.”

The Organization of American States (OAS) is set to take up proposed reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today at 11:00am EDT (live feed here). While arguments against the reforms have received column space in major U.S. media outlets, little attention has been granted to some of the criticisms laid out by the Ecuadorean government, which has been leading the effort for IACHR reform.

In a presentation [Spanish PDF here; English PDF here] to OAS members in Guayaquil on March 11, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa pointed out that Ecuador is one of seven countries to have “subscribed in absolute terms” to all of the Inter-American human rights instruments, noting that:

Here, torture is not allowed, there is no death penalty, we have not invaded anyone at all, no drone and selectively killing terrorism suspects without trials, along with "collateral damage" as family, neighbors, etc. In Ecuador, as in all true State of Law, we pursue crime, not people, but precisely because it is already a real State of Law, and no one can be above the Law, which disturbs the supremacy powers.

Correa noted that only 24 of 34 states have ratified the “fundamental document” of the American Convention on Human Rights – the “San Jose Pact” that led to the creation of two bodies, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Consequently, he states, only for those 24 countries are the organizations’ decisions binding.

The strong asymmetry between countries attached to the Convention versus those who finance and manage, has come to a completely perverting tool that was initially developed for the benefit of each and every American. Instead of this, some countries plan to intervene in other countries, while judges hide behind immunity by not being under the jurisdiction of the system and especially of the Court.

Correa pointed out a number of contradictions within the Inter-American system, such as that the Inter-American Commission is based in “a country that is not a part of the Inter-American Human Rights System, and that has ratified none of the inter-American human rights instruments” – the United States.

An important new investigative report from the Associated Press’ Alberto Arce describes the apparent ongoing activities of death squads within the Honduran police, reporting that:

In the last three years, the AP has learned, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula. The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the 18th street gang.

The AP report also describes a now-infamous and disturbing video (posted here) that appears to show the extrajudicial, cold-blooded murders of two young men in city streets “by masked gunmen with AK-47s who pulled up in a large SUV” – consistent with the police death squad modus operandi as described in the article.

Arce writes that “Even the country's top police chief has been charged with being complicit,” going on to summarize charges against Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, now the National Chief of Police, for involvement in extrajudicial killings and disappearances back in 2002. Arce notes that “Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past. The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report.”

A confidential 2003 State Department cable made available by Wikileaks reveals that State Department officials wanted Bonilla (then a fugitive) arrested at the time, and also were concerned with “extra-judicial killings of youth” – in which Bonilla was implicated:

¶12. (C) In his meeting with Minister of Public Security Oscar Alvarez, [Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan] Fisk urged Alvarez to take action against corrupt police, to send a strong signal about impunity by arresting fugitive policeman Juan Carlos "Tiger" Bonilla, and to act carefully against whistle-blowers, such as ex-Chief of Police Internal Affairs Maria Luisa Borjas. He also encouraged Alvarez to address the problem of extra-judicial killings of youth and trafficking in persons.

On Saturday March 16th, a weekly newspaper from Spain, Cambio16, published an interview with jailed former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. Videla is serving two life sentences, another 50-year sentence, and continues to stand trial, for crimes against humanity, kidnapping, torture, and the unlawful appropriation of babies (that were taken from female prisoners who gave birth in captivity before they were murdered). These were crimes that he and fellow junta leaders committed following the 1976 coup d’état that they directed and that was responsible for the kidnapping, torture and deaths of an estimated 30,000 Argentines. 

When his interviewer, Ricardo Angoso, whom Página/12 points out is a stated opponent of the Kirchner government and far-right journalist, asked him what he would say to his “comrades” also serving time in prison for similar convictions, he stated:

I want to remind each one of them, especially the younger ones, who today on average fall between the ages of 58-68, and are still physically capable of combat, that in the case that this unjust imprisonment and slandering of the republic’s basic values continues, you reserve the duty of arming yourselves again in defense of the republic’s basic institutions, which are today being trampled upon by the Kirchner regime, led by president Cristina and her henchmen.*

According to Página/12, Videla also accuses the current government of wanting to turn towards a “failed communism of the Cuban sort.” He then declares that “it will again be the security and armed forces who, along with the people –from which they [the security and armed forces] originate- will impede it”. 

On Tuesday, the results of the British Referendum on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands came in. According to the BBC, out of the 1,517 votes cast in the referendum, representing 90 percent of eligible voters on the island, all but three of them voted for having the islands remain territory of the U.K. As the British government must have realized before holding the poll, this is not surprising. Despite the relative proximity of the islands to the Argentine mainland, their inhabitants of the island have very few ties to Argentina:  they are descendants of British colonizers, they speak English and maintain British traditions and citizenship. 

An episode that aired Wednesday of the Russia Today TV program “Crosstalk” focused on the question of sovereignty and self-determination of the islands and featured an Argentine researcher, an analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a British historian who sided with Argentina’s legal claim for sovereignty on the islands.

Among the highlights from the episode is a discussion over whether the claim for the islands is an imperial project of the U.K. or whether the claim is legally legitimate.  Luke Coffey, a “Margaret Thatcher Fellow” at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, argues [9:40] that the islands are in no way a British colonial project, while British historian, Richard Gott, disagrees [10:07]:  “I’m afraid it’s just not true. The British seized the islands in 1833 and subsequently settled it…”  

As Gott and British journalist Richard Norton-Taylor both point out, Britain has always been aware that its claims to the islands may not have been very strong. Norton-Taylor writes

The dispute over sovereignty has been going on for centuries, and Britain has never been really confident over its claim to the islands. In 1829, the Duke of Wellington observed: "I have perused the papers respecting the Falkland Islands. It is not clear to me that we have ever possessed the sovereignty of all these islands.”

This post was amended March 14, 2013 to reflect a correction by The Guardian.

The papal conclave announced today that the new pope will be Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. “Pope Francis,” as he will be named, will be the first Latin American pope. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – who has clashed with Bergoglio in the past over gay marriage and other issues – quickly issued a congratulatory message.

Even though he was reportedly the runner-up to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the last papal succession in 2005, Bergoglio was considered a dark horse candidate this time around. But the move could in part reflect recognition on the Roman Catholic Church’s part that it has been losing more and more of its flock in recent years to Protestant Evangelicalism and other denominations. The son of Italian parents, Bergoglio would seem to personify the link between Rome and Latin America. As National Catholic Reporter noted:

Bergoglio is a candidates [sic] who brings together the first world and the developing world in his own person. He's a Latin American with Italian roots, who studied in Germany. As a Jesuit he's a member of a truly international religious community, and his ties to Comunione e Liberazione make him part of another global network.

Much foreign media attention has focused much on Bergoglio’s austere lifestyle, but his selection could lead to further scrutiny of past wrongdoing by the Catholic Church just when pedophilia and sex abuse scandals have done significant damage to the Catholic Church’s image and membership. As the Irish Times wrote of Bergoglio:

his elevation to the papacy could lead to renewed scrutiny of the Argentinian church’s role in the country’s Dirty War, when it offered support to the military junta in its brutal campaign of murder of left-wing dissidents.

Jake Johnston wrote a great piece about Chávez's legacy in Haiti on the Haiti Reconstruction and Relief Watch blog.  He writes:

Last week, after the passing of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Haiti declared three days of national mourning. President Martelly stated that Chávez was a “great friend of Haiti who never missed an opportunity to express his solidarity with the Haitian people in their most difficult times.” It’s not the first time Martelly had such kind words for the Venezuelan president. Last year, Martelly told the press that it was Venezuelan aid that was “the most important in Haiti right now in terms of impact, direct impact." In February, Martelly attended the 11th summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas, a regional political organization spearheaded by Venezuela, and announced that Haiti was debating joining the group as a full member. While most of the coverage around Chávez’s legacy in Haiti and the greater Caribbean has focused on the Petrocaribe initiative, which provides subsidized fuel to the region, Chávez developed close ties to the Haitian people well before Petrocaribe. Following the earthquake of 2010, Chávez, in cancelling Haiti’s debt to Venezuela, declared, “Haiti has no debt with Venezuela -- on the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti." As Chávez was quick to point out, it was Haiti that provided a vital safe-haven for Latin American independence hero Símon Bolívar before he went on to liberate much of South America from Spanish rule. 

Opposition to 2004 Coup

In 2004, following the U.S.-backed coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Chávez was one of only a few voices in the region condemning what had taken place and refusing to recognize the coup government. Chávez told the Organization of American States that, “The President of Haiti is called Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and he was elected by the people." He formally extended an offer of asylum to Aristide in March of 2004. Perhaps the solidarity was in part due to the fact that just two years previously Chávez had been temporarily ousted in a coup, and similar actors were involved in both the Venezuelan and Haitian coups. As detailed in a 2004 investigation by Mother Jones, the International Republican Institute was active in both organizing and training those involved in the 2004 coup in Haiti as well as opposition factions before the 2002 coup in Venezuela, and its point man in Haiti at the time – Stanley Lucas, now an advisor to Martelly – had been in Venezuela some seven times prior to the coup.  Senior Bush administration officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich also actively supported both theVenezuelan and Haitian coups.

Click here to read the complete post.

U.S. media coverage of the passing of President Hugo Chávez has focused a great deal on the tributes and condolences of leaders of so-called “axis of evil” countries like Iran and Belarus. It has mostly ignored the eulogies coming from the governments of nearly every country of the Western Hemisphere, with the notable exceptions of the U.S. and Canada that didn’t even bother offering condolences.  And there’s been hardly any mention of Western European governments’ reactions to Chavez’s death, though they’ve tended to be warmer than those of their North American partners.  For instance, Spain’s rightwing government offered “sincere condolences” to Chávez’s family, noted that the Venezuelan leader had had “a great influence in IberoAmerica” and sent the country’s crown prince to the funeral in Caracas last Friday.

French president François Hollande went a step further in his statement on March 6th, offering his “saddest condolences to the Venezuelan people” on the passing of a leader who “profoundly marked the history of his country.” 

The statement went on to say that “the late President expressed, beyond his temperament and orientations that not everyone shared, an undeniable will to struggle for justice and development.”

The French government sent its Minister of Overseas France (Outre-mers), Victorin Lurel, to Caracas for the funeral.  Following the funeral, Lurel, who is from the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe, made a powerful statement to the press:

the people [of Venezuela] are proud of what's been accomplished during the 14 years of [Chávez’s] presidency. All things being equal, Chávez is de Gaulle plus Léon Blum.  De Gaulle because he fundamentally changed the institutions and Léon Blum, that is the (1930s) Popular Front, because he struggled against injustices.

The funeral for Venezuelan president, Hugo Rafaél Chávez Frías, was held the morning of Friday March 8th, at the Military Academy in Caracas, Venezuela. 55 countries sent delegations to the funeral. 33 of them were headed by presidents or heads of government. In a strong show of unity and support, every single one of Latin America’s presidents, and most of the Caribbean’s heads of state were present at Chávez’s funeral (though the presidents of Brazil and Argentina left early). 

This is a turnout with few precedents. The death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 brought together a total of 19 heads of state. The funeral of President Ronald Reagan in 2004 gathered 36 former and current heads of state. The death of Hugo Chávez brought together at least 38 former and current heads of state.

The governments of Spain, France, Portugal, Lebanon, Finland, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Australia, Syria, Greece, Ukraine, Croatia, Jordan, Slovenia, Turkey, Gambia, China, and Russia sent fairly high level delegations to represent their governments at the funeral. Spain’s royal heir, the prince of Asturias, attended, as did the General Secretary of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza, the Reverend Jesse Jackson –who spoke at the funeral, actor Sean Penn, and the much celebrated Venezuelan orchestra director Gustavo Dudamel, who missed one of his shows at the Los Angeles Philharmonic to direct the Simón Bolívar Symphonic Orchestra at the funeral.

Though much of the major media has ignored this international show of recognition for the government of Hugo Chávez, these responses to his death are a clear affirmation of respect and acknowledgement for his legacy, from Latin America and around the world.

In an article by William Neuman, the New York Times reports that “Venezuela had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Mr. Chávez held office, according to World Bank data.”

According to the latest IMF data, which is the same as World Bank data but includes 2012, Venezuela ranks 15th out of 33 countries in Latin America and Caribbean in GDP growth for 1999-2012.  Countries that grew slower than Venezuela during this period include Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and 10 other countries. 

On February 27, the office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) launched an audit of the lending arm’s $30 million investment in Tegucigalpa-based Corporación Dinant, which produces palm oil and food products. The audit comes in response to widespread claims of violence, intimidation, and illegal evictions carried out by Dinant’s private security guards in Honduras’ Bajo Aguán valley, the center of the country's ongoing land struggle. In offering its resources and reputation to the company, the World Bank and its member countries are complicit in the deaths of countless innocent farmers.

The COA’s review began just two days after the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries urged the Honduran government “to properly investigate and prosecute crimes committed by private security guards and to ensure that victims receive effective remedies.” A delegation from the Working Group was in the country from February 18 to 22, when it met with government officials and representatives of civil society and the private sector, including security firms. The delegates voiced their particular concern about the “alleged involvement of private security companies hired by landowners in widespread human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence against representatives of peasant associations in the Bajo Aguán region.” Dinant is the largest single landholder in the region.

An appointed panel of unnamed experts is currently convened in Washington, D.C., to review both the IFC’s adherence to its social and environmental policies and the role Dinant has played in the abuses. Many human rights observers consider the company’s owner, Miguel Facussé, to be one of the country’s most powerful men and hold him responsible for the killings of dozens of campesinos.

The audit had been a long time coming. On November 19, 2010, the human rights organization Rights Action wrote a letter to the World Bank’s then-president Robert Zoellick demanding that the financial institution suspend its funding to Honduras. The group cited the “context of grave human rights abuses and lack of independence of the justice system” as grounds to withhold funding, and characterized support for Dinant as “a case of gross negligence of the World Bank's human rights and due diligence obligations.” In the letter, Rights Action also noted that “at least 19 farmers in this region have been killed in the context of conflicts with biofuel industry interests.” (In a new report released two weeks ago, the same group declared that 88 farmers and their supporters have been killed in Bajo Aguán since January 2010, most of them in targeted assassinations.)

On Tuesday, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez passed away after 14 years in office. Below is a series of graphs that illustrate the economic and social changes that have taken place in Venezuela during this time period.

1. Growth (Average Annual Percent)
GDP PerCap

Source: Banco Central de Venezuela

This graph shows overall GDP growth as well as per-capita growth in the pre-Chávez (1986-1999) era and the Chávez presidency.

From 1999-2003, the government did not control the state oil company; in fact, it was controlled by his opponents, who used it to try to overthrow the government, including the devastating oil strike of 2002--2003.  For that reason, a better measure of economic growth under the Chávez government would start after it got control over the state oil company, and therefore the economy.

Above you can see this growth both measured from 2004, and for the 1999-2012 period. We use 2004 because to start with 2003, a depressed year due to the oil strike, would exaggerate GDP growth during this period; by 2004, the economy had caught up with its pre-strike level of output. Growth after the government got control of the state oil company was much faster.  

2. Public vs. Private Growth – 1999-2012 (Average Annual Percent)
Private Public
Source: Banco Central de Venezuela

This graph shows the growth of the private sector versus the public sector during the Chávez years.

3. Inflation: Pre-Chávez vs. Chávez Years
Source: Banco Central de Venezuela

Inflation in Venezuela, consumer price index.

4. Unemployment Rate: Before and After Oil Strike
Source: Banco Central de Venezuela, INEC

After the oil strike (and the deep recession that it caused) ended in 2003, unemployment dropped drastically, following many years of increases before Chávez was elected. In 1999, when Chávez took office, unemployment was 14.5 percent; for 2011 it was 7.8 percent.

Yesterday afternoon Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez passed away, after a long battle with cancer. The announcement by Vice President Nicolás Maduro came just minutes after Chávez’s death and elicited an immediate wave of obituary pieces by pundits who described Chávez as “divisive”, “authoritarian”, “antagonistic” and “anti-American”, many of them eager to rush the “transition” in the hopes that Chávez’s political project would soon fall apart. 

In stark contrast with these predictable characterizations and demonization of Chávez in the major media is the response that Chávez’s death has elicited from his peers, fellow presidents from throughout the Americas. Tributes, messages of solidarity and heartfelt condolences came in from Central and South America, reaffirming support for the ideals of regional unity and independence promoted by Hugo Chávez during his 14 years as president of Venezuela. Very few media outlets noted the outpouring of sympathy from Latin American leaders.

“He is more alive than ever, and will keep being the inspiration for all people fighting for liberation,” were the words of president of Bolivia, Evo Morales.  With his voice cracking and struggling to speak, Morales said that he was “hurt, devastated,” by the death of his “compañero and brother.” And repeatedly referred to the liberation of South America forged by Chávez saying that, “the best way to remember him is with unity, unity.”

José Mujica, President of Uruguay, expressed the profound pain that Chávez’s death caused him:

“Death is always felt, but when it is the death of a great fighter, one that I once defined as the most generous governor that I have ever met, the pain is on another dimension… Its magnitude is bigger than the loss.”

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s announced today that President Hugo Chávez had died at 4:25pm. According to Venezuela’s constitution [PDF], new presidential elections are supposed to be held within 30 days.

The news could present an opportunity for an improvement in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, but that is unlikely. Earlier in the day, Maduro announced that the Venezuelan government would expel the U.S. military attaché for unsanctioned meetings with certain Venezuelan military officers. While this is of course a significant development in U.S.-Venezuela relations that marks yet further deterioration, unfortunately it seems safe to say that most U.S. media outlets will not provide the crucial context necessary in order to understand current relations and why they are so tense.

Maduro mentioned the April 2002 coup d’etat in his press conference today. Declassified C.I.A. and other government documents reveal the U.S. role in that coup against Hugo Chávez. As Scott Wilson, former foreign editor at the Washington Post has explained:

Yes, the United States was hosting people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S.-sponsored NGOs in training some of the people that were involved in the coup. And in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the United States government said that it was a resignation, not a coup, effectively recognizing the government that took office very briefly until President Chavez returned.

I think that there was U.S. involvement, yes.

(Video clip here. This information has however never been reported this fully in the pages of the Washington Post itself.)

The L.A. Times ran a very nice and uncommon report by correspondent Vincent Bevins about media bias in Brazil on Sunday.  The article notes that most of the major media is still controlled by the same handful of rich families who supported the military coup against the left government of João Goulart in 1964. These publications and TV outlets:

have been critical of the [Workers] party, despite a public approval rating for President Dilma Rousseff as high as 78%. Not a single major news outlet supports her, with some newspapers and magazines particularly harsh in their criticism.

“It's an extremely unique situation now in Brazil to have such a popular government and no major media outlet that supports it or presents a left-of-center viewpoint," says Laurindo Leal Filho, a media specialist at the University of Sao Paulo...

“Brazilian society was based on slavery for over 300 years, and has almost always been run by the same social strata," Leal Filho says. "Some parts of the upper class have learned to live with other parts of society that were previously excluded … but the media still reflect the values of the old-school elite, with very, very few exceptions."

Of course the same could be said – more strongly – about the media in all of the countries that now have left governments in South America:  certainly Bolivia (perhaps the worst media), Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela. We can also include Paraguay, where the major media helped depose the social democratic President Fernando Lugo last year.  All of these governments have had their battles with the media, and all (except Paraguay) have increased government media as a counter-weight, with varying degrees of success.  Venezuela has created a number of state TV stations, but they only have about 5.4 percent of the TV audience, so the opposition still has a media advantage there too.

Jonathan Schwarz, editor of, wrote a brilliant takedown last week of Sean Wilentz, historian and friend of Hillary Clinton who was angered by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States.  Wilentz’s long diatribe against Stone and Kuznick’s book (also a 10-part film series on Showtime) in the New York Review of Books isn’t much worth reading.  He never really challenges the main thesis of Stone and Kunzick that, with his generally unprovable and superficial objections, he is trying to undermine: that the United States is really an empire, and that empire has been, and remains today, the driving force of U.S. foreign policy; and that actual “national security” concerns have only rarely had anything substantial to do with our wars and assaults on other peoples, including involvement in dictatorships, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, and even genocide. (Stone and Kuznick’s response is here.)

But Schwarz’s response is a very nice read. He nails it when he says that if Cold War liberals like Wilentz were right,

“U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.”

A couple of billion people or so throughout the world understand how that turned out. But Schwarz hammers it home because it is apparently not so clear among some intellectuals and journalists here in the heart of the “free world.”

Cold War liberalism was a curse during the Cold War, and remains so today.  It is the dominant framework in discussions about Latin America today, and not just on the right – which conjures up fantasies about left-leaning Latin American countries supporting terrorist camps with Iran – but also among the liberal foreign policy establishment that occupies most of the media space.  In 2009 almost all of these liberals, including journalists, editors, and prominent human rights groups, looked the other way when Washington helped the coup-installed government of Honduras legitimize itself.  Most of them even pretended that the Obama administration was trying to help restore democracy, when there was a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  The deposed, democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya eventually told the world that the Obama administration was actually behind the coup, and there is every reason to believe him, given all the circumstantial evidence.  But don’t expect any investigations or even investigative reporting to shed more light on what the Obama administration actually did to support the coup.

The good news is that Washington today is mostly limited to preying upon weakest, poorest countries in this region, like Honduras and Haiti.  Most of the rest of the region, for the past 15 years, has finally been free to elect their own governments without a U.S. veto.  But we can’t thank Cold War liberals like Sean Wilentz – who felt compelled to raise questions about Obama’s relations with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign – for that progress.  This positive change is due to the fact that their friends have lost power in the hemisphere and the world. 

On Friday, February 22, Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio’s The Current aired a nearly half-hour story about the Honduras government’s plans to create private, so-called “charter cities.” The show’s featured guest was Honduras president Pepe Lobo’s chief of staff, Octavio Sánchez. For some background, just days after the 2009 coup, Sánchez penned an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he argued that democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya’s exile at gunpoint was constitutional. More recently, Sánchez has worked feverishly to make the same case for charter cities.

Sánchez’s pitch was briefly contested with a sound bite from Keane Bhatt, creator of the blog Manufacturing Contempt. Bhatt called the plan “social engineering at the behest of an international group of investors,” a point on which he elaborated in an article in the current print edition of the NACLA Report on the Americas. Also, later in the show Rights Action’s co-director Grahame Russell debated the merits of the proposed private cities with Carlo Dade, a professor at the University of Ottawa who endorses the concept.

As has been examined elsewhere, the charter cities concept is attributed to NYU economics professor Paul Romer, who envisions it as a path toward a rules-based, law-abiding society. In practice, though, the idea would take advantage of Honduras’ institutional breakdown to invite private corporations to build new cities on already-inhabited land, and to establish lax legal systems and tax codes to further attract foreign capital for low-cost production. Critics, such as economics professor and former Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention William K. Black, say the charter cities would lead to greater inequality. “Oligarchs . . . see this as yet another way to increase their wealth at the expense of other folks,” Black explained on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas earlier this month.

Last September, Romer unexpectedly removed himself from the project after the Honduras government signed its first agreement with a group of private investors, a process which Romer claims should have first been approved by the transparency commission of which he was an appointed member (though the body was never formalized due to challenges in the Supreme Court). The NYU professor considered this an unforgivable affront and divorced himself from his nearly realized utopia.

A new op-ed in the Guardian by Ricardo Hausmann portrays a dystopian fictional Venezuela, one in which the Venezuelan government has run the economy into the ground despite abundant oil wealth, but yet its charismatic president continues to be re-elected through some sort of sinister trickery.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s the same tired story repeated in the U.S. and U.K. media almost every day, but in this case Hausmann was apparently given free rein to present his own set of “facts.” It isn’t surprising that Hausmann would write something so divorced from reality; he went to elaborate lengths to invent a conspiracy theory about supposed fraud in Venezuela’s 2004 recall referendum by relying on fake exit polls. An independent panel of statisticians selected by the Carter Center determined that Hausmann and his colleague Roberto Rigobón had in fact found no evidence of fraud. [PDF]

But let’s get back to Hausmann’s latest Guardian piece, starting with the economy. Hausmann writes, "Since 1999, the year [Chávez] took over the presidency, Venezuela has had the lowest average GDP growth rate and the highest inflation of any Latin American country except Haiti."

The source for this “lowest average GDP growth rate” to which Hausmann links is a highly opinionated BBC article which in turn quotes a colleague of Hausmann’s from the Center for International Development at Harvard University who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. Had Hausmann consulted official government data, or growth numbers for the region from the IMF, he would have found a very different set of facts.

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