Rohter Strikes Out Yet Again on South of the Border

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Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Monday, 02 August 2010 13:48

“Pajama people are boring me to pieces
They make me feel like I am wasting my time.”

-- Frank Zappa, “Po-jama People

Now comes Larry Rohter of the New York Times, with a 3,000-word, hyper-ventilating yet boring diatribe excoriating Oliver Stone and especially me, and defending his previous 1,658-word attempt in the Times to discredit our film, South of the Border. Rother writes with the old-fashioned arrogance of someone who has spend most of his journalistic career in the pre-Internet age, when it was not so easy to find out when someone is flat wrong, or blowing smoke, with just the click of a mouse on a hyperlink.

Today, you can click here and here. That takes care of at least 80 percent of Rohter’s “argument.”

As for the rest: if you scrape away the insults (there are quite a lot of them, Rohter is an angry man!) and the 1950s McCarthyite rhetoric (“loyal stenographers” of [insert official enemy here])—well, there isn’t a lot of substance there.

But wait: hold the Joomla!! I have discovered an “egregious error and specious claim;” in fact it makes Rohter’s latest response “so riddled with errors, misrepresentations, fabrications and fraudulent statistics as to be useless except as an example of over-the-top propaganda.”

Rohter claims that Francisco Rodriguez “teaches at Wesleyan University,” but that is NOT TRUE! Rodriguez has not taught there for at least a year! And if Rohter “can’t get even the simplest details correct, why should any filmgoer or scholar believe any of his other assertions?” And “more importantly,” Rodriguez’s place of employment is a “fundamental building block” of one of his “larger and more important arguments.”

Ha ha ha, just kidding! I was imitating Larry (link). However the analogy is not perfect, I admit. In this case Rohter actually did make a factual error—something that he was unable to find in our film, despite laborious effort. Also, Rohter actually did write this false statement—whereas most of the things for which he criticizes us, we did not say or write.

For example, there is that five-second sound bite that Larry is still clutching to, like debris in an ocean storm, in which an oil analyst on TV says that the United States “imports more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation.” Congrats to Larry for finding another data set that supports his case that Venezuela was the only the second-largest, not the largest OPEC supplier of oil to the United States at the time. This is a very big improvement over his original article, in which he used data from 2004-2010 to try to make the same point about this statement that was made in 2002. (I call this the “time machine” strategy). And much better than his second attempt, in which he simply read the numbers wrong off the tables that we supplied him from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

So now we get to argue about whether poor Phil Flynn, the nearly anonymous oil industry analyst who never wanted to be dragged into this debate, was thinking about refined products such as heating oil and gasoline when he made that innocent statement on TV in April 2002—or whether he meant to include only crude petroleum. Personally I wouldn’t see anything wrong with him including refined products, but by now the intelligent reader can see how irrelevant this argument is to—well, anything.

You can watch the whole twenty-second clip here and decide for yourself. I can tell you that at various screenings of the film, I have yet to find a single person who even remembers hearing that five-seconds about oil imports, because the main point that Flynn is making in the clip is a different one. When I have asked people if they remember a statement about U.S. oil imports from Venezuela, the one they remember from the film is from George Tenet, then CIA director, who says that “Obviously, Venezuela is important because they're the third largest supplier of petroleum [to the U.S.]” (He is including all suppliers, not just OPEC suppliers as above).

I don’t want to give Rohter any ideas, but I bet he could find a definition and/or a time period under which Venezuela would place fourth. Then he would have even further evidence that we attempted to “snooker viewers” and “inflate Venezuela’s declining global importance as an oil producer.” And with help from the CIA, no less! What a great conspiracy theory that would make! And it would destroy another “fundamental building block” of one of our “larger and more important arguments.”

OK, let’s get to the larger and more important arguments—for the first time Rohter now challenges the film’s assertion that there is compelling evidence that the U.S. government was involved in the April 2002 coup in Venezuela. First he misquotes me, saying that I referred to a “State Department study in which State acknowledged its “involvement” in the coup.” Of course, I said no such thing; I have been writing about this particular document for years and have never said that, because it is false.

Rohter continues: “Specifically, he [Weisbrot] pointed to this passage from the State Department’s internal investigation of the U.S. role in the coup: “NED (the National Endowment for Democracy), Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.”

Rohter then accuses me of “quoting selectively,” because in the rest of the passage it says that the State Department “found no evidence that this support directly contributed, or was intended to contribute, to that event.”

Well, of course it didn’t find any such evidence! It’s the State Department investigating itself, after all. Just because you pay people who carry out a coup against a government that you don’t want, and you support the coup in other ways, doesn’t mean that you wanted the people that you paid to do what they did. Of course, in the film we also presented four other pieces of evidence that point to U.S. involvement in the coup, which I explained in detail to Rohter and sent to him in this document.

Together, they make a compelling case—for a normal person who doesn’t just take the State Department’s statement of innocence as absolute truth—that the United States government was involved in the coup. So there is nothing wrong or misleading in presenting the State Department’s admission that they provided support to the people who were involved in the coup, as one piece of evidence that the U.S. government was involved in the coup.

Scott Wilson, who was foreign editor at the Washington Post when we interviewed him for the film and reported from Caracas at the time of the coup, appears in the film describing some of the evidence of U.S. involvement in the coup. He also said:

“I think that there was U.S. was involvement, yes.” [Video here].

But Rohter is a man with a mission. He falsifies my statements to him a second time, writing:

“[Weisbrot] suggests a nebulous standard that, if applied in other situations, would work something like this:  if I teach a course in finance, and a year after the conclusion of that course one of my former students robs a bank, I am somehow “involved” in the robbery.  This is not just ridiculous, it’s also dishonest.”

Here is what I actually explained to Rohter about this on June 21, and there are at least three witnesses to this part of our conversation; I am including the relevant documentation below, which I sent to him immediately after we talked:

1)  The CIA had advance knowledge of the coup, as shown in these documents; they even had some idea of how it would happen:

Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt” Date: April 6, 2002

“Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month… To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA…[April 8:, 2002] “Disgruntled military officers are planning a coup…”

2)  ARI FLEISCHER (White House spokesman) claimed Chavez’s departure was not the result of a coup, despite this advance knowledge:

“We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. The Venezuelan military and the police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations. (…) The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed.”

The combination of (1) and (2) makes a very compelling case of involvement. To take an analogy: Imagine that you tell me that you are going to kill someone, and then you do so. But then, when questioned by the prosecutor, I say that the killing was actually self-defense—despite my knowledge of the plan. That is a form of involvement.

In other words, the CIA documents show that Bush administration officials had advance knowledge of the coup, and even how it would unfold. But when it happened they pretended that it was not a coup at all, trying to convince the world that Chavez had "resigned" because of popular anger over his alleged orders to shoot demonstrators in the streets. This by itself was an important form of involvement by the Bush administration in the coup. It also helped to provide international legitimacy for the overthrow of Venezuela's democratically elected government.

Personally, I don’t see how Rohter could have gotten my statements so completely wrong. I not only went over this with him patiently and in detail, I sent him a link to a written copy of what I told him about the coup. Can’t spoon-feed him any more than that.

Rohter also misquotes the film again in this piece, despite the fact that he was given a written transcript of the film. He writes:

“A second leg of this same argument is that Chavez incurred the wrath of the United States and the oil industry because under him “the government got control of the oil industry for the first time,” a phrase Stone repeats more than once in the film.  This too is false. Venezuela nationalized the oil industry in 1976...”

This is a really silly mistake on Rohter’s part.

The following sentence is the only reference in the film to anything resembling “the government got control of the oil industry”:

“After the government got control of the oil industry, the economy doubled in size over the next six years, with poverty reduced by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent.”
This is true.  (And kind of important, actually!  It helps explain why Chavez has been re-elected twice, each time by a larger margin.) It refers to the fact that the Chavez government did not control the oil industry until after the last oil strike of December 2002-February 2003 was defeated. This is kind of obvious to anyone who knows the recent history of Venezuela; because the Chavez government did not control the national oil company (PDVSA) for the first four years of his presidency, its managers led several oil strikes to try and topple the elected government. It is very clear in the film that this is to what the sentence refers.

Of course we all know that oil was nationalized in Venezuela in 1976. (Thanks for the heads-up, Larry!) Note that Rohter invents the phrase “for the first time,” which does not appear in the film, in order to make it look like we were pretending that Chavez nationalized the oil industry.

OK, enough of Rohter’s slop. Well, not quite enough; he still maintains that we misrepresented the 1998 election in Venezuela, with this very brief description from Bart Jones, who covered the race for The Associated Press:

Bart Jones: “By 1997, Chávez decides to run for president. His main opponent is a 6’1” blonde former Miss Universe. The contest becomes known as the beauty and the beast.”

Well, that was exactly true when Chavez decided to run; it was also true for most of the race. What exactly is misrepresented here? Rohter tells us that this is like pretending that “George Bush’s main opponent in the 2000 election was not Al Gore but Ralph Nader.” Well, not exactly: Nader didn’t start out at the head of the pack and maintain first or second position until three months before election day. This is a completely ridiculous criticism. What is he thinking?

Now Rohter cites the Carter Center report, as if that adds anything to the facts that we already know:

The leading candidate, according to latest polls, was Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez, a 44-year-old charismatic populist who was the most fervent in his commitment to make drastic changes in the political system. His major challenger was Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale graduate who also promised to change the existing political structure.'

However, the same report says:

"Four days before the election, both of the old political parties renounced their endorsed candidates and shifted support to Salas, in an attempt to prevent a Chavez victory. This was the situation when we arrived." [emphasis added]

The Carter Center report thus has no relevance to question of whether Bart Jones’s statement was accurate. It was accurate.

In his interview with me, Rohter also asked about my debate with Francisco Rodriguez, and I did the best I could to explain it to someone who, as you can see, has a bit of trouble focusing on details. I sent him links to the actual debate, which you can find here and here and here. But it was apparently a bit too dry for him, so he resorts to “proof by authority,” citing some statement that Rodriguez made about me. However I would challenge Rohter to find an economist (other than Rodriguez) who actually believes that Rodriguez won that debate, and is willing to try and explain that belief in writing. If Larry can do that, I will buy him dinner at his favorite Brazilian restaurant in New York.

Well, my apologies for having to bore the reader with all this just to show that Rohter still hasn’t come up with a single instance of factual inaccuracy or misrepresentation in the film. Of course he is not the only journalist to make a bunch of mistakes in his review of South of the Border. There is a contest on the web where you can vote for the dumbest mistake made in a review of the film.

Rohter is winning by a large margin, and if you click here you can see there is quite a bit of competition. Of course, I don’t think people are choosing his mistakes because they are the dumbest. He doesn’t get the presidents mixed up, and knows the difference between Central and South America. In fact he is probably the most knowledgeable of all the reviewers. I think he is winning because a lot of people who voted could see that his mistakes were the most deliberate.

As noted previously, Rohter defended the military coup against the democratically elected government of Venezuela in 2002. He was also quite disliked by the Workers Party of Brazil (where he reported from for about eight years), and much of Brazil’s intelligentsia, especially after he wrote an article claiming that Lula was a drunk, which was “criticized for its lack of facts and of reliable sources.” And you can imagine how he reported on Nicaragua in the mid-eighties, when Washington was financing a murderous attempt to overthrow the elected government there. He is a veteran of Cold War reporting, and harbors a deep hatred for the Latin American left, so naturally he doesn’t appreciate this film.

Still, I would like to thank him for making all this effort to discredit the film, and for failing so miserably. Oliver Stone, Tariq Ali, and I all took care to make sure that the film was accurate. If this is the best that someone with Rother’s motivation and decades of journalistic experience in the region can do—well, then maybe we did our job.