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Venezuela in the News: Fraud and the Totalitarian Bias

by Thor L. Halvorssen Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003 at 4:18 PM

The Washington Times | January 22, 2003

With every passing day, life for Venezuelans becomes more dangerous. Since his election in 1998, President Hugo Chavezs has presided over the most dramatic decline in the nations fortunes: Analysts predict that in the first quarter of 2003 the economy will contract by 40%; more than one million jobs have been lost; approximately 900,000 people have gone into voluntary exile (most of them middle-class professionals); unemployment is at a staggering 17%; Almost 70% of the countrys industries have gone bankrupt; 70% of Venezuelans live in a state of poverty (up from 60% when Chavez began his rule); and the income of more than 15% of Venezuelans has dropped below the poverty line. As Venezuelan historian Anibal Romero says, "President Chavezs government, literally speaking, is the government of the poor."

Chavezs policies have left the nation in shambles. Stratospheric levels of corruption, collectivist central planning, mismanagement, and incompetence during the greatest oil boom have squandered a historic opportunity to cultivate a stable middle class. But stability is hardly the goal of Lt. Col. Chavez, who uses the nations wealth to fund and supply weapons to the FARC and ELN drug trafficking guerrilla terrorists in Colombia and the ETA Basque terrorist organization in Spain. Chavez has cozy relationships with the strongmen in Cuba, Libya, Iran, and Iraq (Chavez has said that Saddam Hussein is his "brother" and "partner"), and earlier this month he was accused by his personal pilot of funneling $900,000 to Osama Bin Laden. Chavez has publicly described the U.S. military response to Bin Laden as "terrorism" claiming that he saw no difference between the invasion of Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and viewers of CNN, are fed a dramatically different story. Most Americans are unaware of Chavezs radicalism and affection for some of the worlds harshest dictators. There is an enormous divide between what the world is hearing about Venezuela and what is really happening there. Reporters have so controlled the flow of information and disfigured the truth that their coverage of Venezuela is a caricature of the "liberal media bias" conservative critics complain about. What we are seeing in media coverage of Venezuela is not liberal bias, but totalitarian bias. The press has shown little concern either for the fate of Venezuela or journalistic objectivity.

A recent example is Christopher Toothaker of the Associated Press. Toothaker has spent a considerable amount of time in Venezuela, he speaks Spanish, and he has access to government and opposition sources. In a January 4 report, he minimized the importance of the upcoming constitutional referendum, stating that the opposition presented "over 150,000 signatures" to election authorities calling for a vote on whether Chavez should resign. This is a dramatic and deliberate understatement. The Venezuelan Constitution, approved by Chavez himself, provides for a referendum if 10% of the electorate petitions in writing. The opposition presented 2 million 57 thousand signaturessome 15% of the voting rollsa startling error that any fact-checker should catch. The smaller figure appears in dozens of other Associated Press reports, CBS, CNN and even in a story bylined by Ginger Thompson of the New York Times that was carried in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel .

Thompson is no fan of objectivity. On January 3 the opposition organized a march to protest Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators carried flags, posters and signs calling for a peaceful resolution. The protesters were ambushed by members of Chavezs armed militia who dispersed the march with a hail of bullets and rocks. The Chavez police blithely watched the armed thugs shoot at the defenseless crowd. I was there. To our incredulity, we then saw the Chavez police supply the criminals with tear gas grenades. In her Times story Thompson characterizes the violence as a "clash" and a "street fight"moral equivalency at its worst. American readers would never know it was an ambush.


The sympathies of Thompsons colleague, Juan Forero, are revealed by Larry Birns, director of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs (ww.coha.org). In late December, Birns, a refreshingly sincere D.C. activist who acts as a Chavez cheerleader and apologist, told a Venezuelan government official the names of the four reporters he believed were most amicable to the Chavez government. This Times scribe made the top of his list: "He is committed to the revolution," Birns said of Forero. Reuters and the Associated Press were also praised for their "strong support" of Chavez.

The Washington Posts reporting is just as cant-laden as the Timess, and its editorial page is utterly one-sided. Eight days ago, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research penned a column complaining that the Venezuelan and American media are biased against Chavez. He calls the Chavez government, responsible for dozens of political deaths, "one of the least repressive in Latin America." He should travel more.

Spotting errors in Weisbrots article on Venezuela, one might assume, is a matter as simple as reporting the truth. Weisbrot states that "no one has been arrested for political activities." This is nonsense. Some of these arrests are so public that Weisbrot cannot credibly claim ignorance. For instance, Carlos Alfonso Martinez, an outspoken political opponent of Chavez and one of the most respected officers in the armed forces, was arbitrarily arrested on December 30 by the secret police. The act caused public furor both because it was a further indication of government repression and also because Martinez was arrested without a warrant and remains under arrest even though a judge ordered his immediate release. How did this fact slip by the editors at the Post?

Weisbrot has the gall to call the Venezuelan media "shamelessly dishonest" and uses a demonstrably false example to prove his point. His assertion that the Venezuelan media is biased is repeated elsewhere in the American media. In light of this, Americans should know President Chavez has systematically persecuted and maligned the media and this has caused all privately-owned newspapers, radio, and television networks to take a position against his ferocious assault on freedom of the press. Chavez has instigated violent verbal and physical attacks against the owners, editors, and employees of the media. Buildings have been bombed, reporters have been injured and killed, and automobiles, cameras, and other media property have been destroyed by armed members of the Chavez militia. The International Broadcasting Association, Interamerican Press Society, and the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights of the Organization of American States have pleaded in vain with Chavez to protect freedom of the press. The homes of prominent journalists have been raided by the authorities and these journalists have been compelled to testify to the secret police. In Venezuela, there is no freedom of the press. Consider that Venezuelan reporters and camera crews refuse to go on the streets of Caracas without bulletproof vests a "hostile work environment" few Americans can even imagine.

Weisbrot ends his Post column by saying that Chavez is Venezuelas best hope for democracy and social and economic "betterment." And yet Weisbrot does not support the referendum that would let the voters declare whether Chavez rules with the consent of the governed. Chavez told voters in a television broadcast: "Dont waste time. Not even if we suppose that they hold that referendum and get 90% of the votes, I will not leave. Forget it. I will not go." Putting aside Chavezs miserable track record on the economy, does this really sound like the best hope for democracy?

Meanwhile, many members of the U.S. government, business, and diplomatic communities make their decisions based on the "knowledge" they acquire from the media. Venezuelans are suffering unnecessarily because of the arrogance and favoritism of a handful of journalists. It is wicked. Yet what is worse is that, no matter what happens, the media will never be held accountable.
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yet more flak

by LVdown Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003 at 7:12 PM

I am not sure what is happening in Venezuela, nor do I really know anything about Thor Halvorssen aside from his involvment with FIRE ...that and the fact that this reads like Rush Limbaugh drivel.

...which throws into question whatever tidbits of fact it may contain...
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Nice try Mr. Halvorssen, but we don't believe you.

by mediawatcher Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003 at 7:29 PM

An articulate piece of propaganda that attempts to reverse what informed
citizens already know about Venezuela.

- This guy must be a Republican because he is a master at the art of skewing
the truth to suit his own interests. Just as Republican's have recently skewed
Dr. MLK's message to validate war with Iraq and the end of affirmative action
(abominations that MLK would have rallied against), this moron tries to take
the documented excesses of the corporate controlled media in Venezuela
and spin them around to make it seem like they are the victims, when in fact
as it has already been reported, journalists who speak out against the
media-fabricated strikes and corporate-supported stoppages who are under
attack (see Salon, the narco news website, counterpunch, Z net, and other
previous posts on the IMC for better coverage).

- the gunfight last april was between Chavez supporters and detractors, not
Chavez police and a peaceful demonstration, which was the lie that the Washington
Times, Post, NY Times and Univision carried all along to obscure the truth.
If you were there Mr. Thor L. Halvorssen, you probably had an American flag rolled up
and covering your eyes, because several other jounalists who were present beg to
differ, including many women who support Chavez since he made Venezuela's
constitution the first in any Western nation to recognize their domestic labor.

- He also re-asserts the belief that the bewildered herd of urban, light-skinned
protesters represent the whole of Venezuela, when they only represent the 20%
who are the country's privileged urban middle class. Chavez has an 80% approval
amongst the rest of the country who have been neglected by previous governments
and who withstand the racism and neglect of the urban classes.

Overall, this is a half-assed attempt at perpetuating mis-information, but it won't
wash because informed Americans are already aware of how the media has distorted
the Venezuela situation in favor of the corporations that want Chavez out of office.

Thor L. Halvorssen, your checks from the CIA and Morgan Stanley are in the mail.
Too bad your credibility as a journalist is for shit.

Grow some balls and try to think for yourself with your journalism.
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Nice try Mr. Halvorssen, but we don't believe you.

by mediawatcher Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003 at 7:30 PM

An articulate piece of propaganda that attempts to reverse what informed
citizens already know about Venezuela.

- This guy must be a Republican because he is a master at the art of skewing
the truth to suit his own interests. Just as Republican's have recently skewed
Dr. MLK's message to validate war with Iraq and the end of affirmative action
(abominations that MLK would have rallied against), this moron tries to take
the documented excesses of the corporate controlled media in Venezuela
and spin them around to make it seem like they are the victims, when in fact
as it has already been reported, journalists who speak out against the
media-fabricated strikes and corporate-supported stoppages who are under
attack (see Salon, the narco news website, counterpunch, Z net, and other
previous posts on the IMC for better coverage).

- the gunfight last april was between Chavez supporters and detractors, not
Chavez police and a peaceful demonstration, which was the lie that the Washington
Times, Post, NY Times and Univision carried all along to obscure the truth.
If you were there Mr. Thor L. Halvorssen, you probably had an American flag rolled up
and covering your eyes, because several other jounalists who were present beg to
differ, including many women who support Chavez since he made Venezuela's
constitution the first in any Western nation to recognize their domestic labor.

- He also re-asserts the belief that the bewildered herd of urban, light-skinned
protesters represent the whole of Venezuela, when they only represent the 20%
who are the country's privileged urban middle class. Chavez has an 80% approval
amongst the rest of the country who have been neglected by previous governments
and who withstand the racism and neglect of the urban classes.

Overall, this is a half-assed attempt at perpetuating mis-information, but it won't
wash because informed Americans are already aware of how the media has distorted
the Venezuela situation in favor of the corporations that want Chavez out of office.

Thor L. Halvorssen, your checks from the CIA and Morgan Stanley are in the mail.
Too bad your credibility as a journalist is for shit.

Grow some balls and try to think for yourself with your journalism.
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Horror in Venezuela

by Thor L. Halvorssen Friday, Jan. 24, 2003 at 8:56 PM

VENEZUELA IS NOW an abyss where there is no rule of law. A rogue government tortures innocent civilians with impunity while paying lip service to democracy and buying time at the "negotiation" table set up by the Organization of American States. Venezuela's foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, has funded an effective multi-million dollar public relations campaign to smear the opposition as coup-plotters and fascists intent on bringing about violence.

Jesus Soriano has never met Roy Chaderton or Hugo Chavez. Soriano supported President Hugo Chavez's meteoric rise, volunteered during the election campaign, and is now a second-year law student in Caracas. His law-school peers describe the 24-year-old as a cheerful and happy young man.

Soriano, a member of the Chavez party, is part of a national student group called "Ousia," a group that brings together moderates who support the government and opposition members seeking a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.

On December 6, Soriano witnessed the massacre that occurred during a peaceful protest in Altamira, a neighborhood in Caracas where the opposition has a strong presence. The killer was Joao De Gouveia, an outspoken supporter of Chavez who has an unusually close relationship with mayor Freddy Bernal, a Chavez crony. Gouveia randomly began shooting at the crowd. He killed three--including a teenage girl he shot in the head--and injured 28 people. As Gouveia kept shooting, several men raced toward him to stop the killing. Soriano was one of the men who wrestled Gouveia to the ground and prevented further killing. Soriano also protected Gouveia from a potential lynch mob that swarmed around the killer.

Soriano's heroic accomplishments did not cease that day. He became a national figure in Venezuela when he brought a small soccer ball (known in Venezuela as a "futbolito") to a sizable protest march organized against the rule of Lt. Col. Chavez. Soriano and other pro-Chavez partisans made their way towards the march intending to engage the opposition members in dialogue.

That hot afternoon, Soriano kicked the futbolito across the divide at the members of the opposition. They kicked it back. The magical realism of the event is evident in the extraordinary television footage of what occurred next. By the end of the match the anti-Chavez protestors and pro-Chavez partisans were hugging and chanting "Peace! Unity! We are Venezuela! Politicians go away! We are the real Venezuela!" In one particularly moving part of the footage, Soriano and a member of the opposing team trade a baseball hat for a Chavez-party red beret.

In one hour this sharply divided group of strangers accomplished more than the high-level negotiation team that seeks to defuse a potential civil war. Chavez was reportedly furious with the televised soccer match and even angrier that the reconciliation was a product of the efforts of one of his supporters. Soriano was declared an enemy of the revolution.

Last week Soriano organized another soccer match. On Wednesday he visited the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the main university in the capital, to attend a meeting of the student government. Violent clashes erupted as members of the Circulos Bolivarianos, an armed militia sworn to protect the revolution, began throwing rocks and tear gas grenades at the students. The militia identified Soriano and captured him. They then tied his hands and feet, lifted him up, and paraded him through the street like a sacrificial lamb chanting "Judas! Judas!" The entire spectacle was recorded by a cameraman who works for the official government television entity. Soriano was beaten so severely that he was left at the hospital emergency room. At the hospital he was detained by the DISIP, Chavez's secret police, and taken to their headquarters for questioning.

During his interrogation, fingernails in his left hand were torn out. After being further tortured and injected with drugs, the secret police took him into the bowels of the building and placed him in a cell. His cellmate: Joao de Gouveia.

Gouveia has the keys to the cell and comes in and out of the secret police headquarters at will. His only restriction is that he must sleep in the precinct, lest Chavez's police are revealed as allowing a confessed killer to roam free. Soriano's mother (who is also a Chavez supporter) tearfully claimed that Gouveia sodomized Soriano and beat him with such force that Soriano cannot open his eyes.

Soriano was released last Friday afternoon after Roy Chaderton advised Chavez that the case could filter out of Venezuela and could become a "human-interest story" with the potential to derail their PR campaign.

The government denied that Soriano had been mistreated. A thorough medical examination by a civil surgeon reveals that, beyond lacerations, severe bruising, and cracked ribs, Soriano had been repeatedly raped while in custody. His right arm shows that he has been injected. Nails are missing from his left hand. Soriano's internal organs have been crushed to the point that he urinates blood, and he cannot walk without assistance.

Once the medical report was made public, the secret police immediately began saying that Soriano was a member of a "right-wing paramilitary organization." This tactic, engineered by Chaderton, is used frequently to disqualify and discount opponents of the regime. All enemies of the "revolution" are coup plotters and fascists. The government now circulates a photo of Soriano in military fatigues. Carlos Roa, Soriano's attorney, showed me that the picture is a yearbook photo from when he was a schoolboy in military academy.

Although it was obvious that Soriano had been tortured, Iris Varela, a Chavez congressional representative, offered no apologies: "I am glad they did this to him. He deserved it." That such savage treatment is what greets government supporters who seek a peaceful resolution to the current crisis speaks volumes about Chavez's ultimate intentions. Soriano, now recuperating at home, must wonder why he ever supported the Chavez regime.


Thor L. Halvorssen is a human rights and civil liberties activist who grew up in Venezuela. He now lives in Philadelphia.
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