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The Fear of Working Class Power - Liberal journalists and Venezuela

Yet more counter-factual bile is spewing out of the traditional media, and especially the liberal media, on the occasion of Hugo Chavez' death. So I re-publish this article written at the time of the Venezuelan Presidential elections in October 2012:

 

Most journalists work for companies whose purpose is very well described in Patrick Chalmers' article News to Make the Rich Richer. Based on his 11 years' experience as a journalist for Reuters, this article introduces the broader themes of his excellent book Fraudcast News. Ownership, who pays, news sources, editorial ideology, and journalists' fear all contribute to the distorting lens.

The immediate aftermath of another election in Venezuela is a perfect opportunity to count the cost of corporate media mis-reporting. This article will analyse the reporting of some journalists of the supposedly liberal media in the UK. But following Patrick's lead, let's look first at Reuters.

Sure enough, in the lead-up to the Venezuelan Presidential election, which pitched socialist incumbent Hugo Chavez against candidate of the right-wing coalition Henrique Capriles, Reuters followed the meta-narrative of the vast majority of the corporate media. They constantly insisted that the election was closely fought, right up until election day, when Chavez actually won by a whopping 11%. This depiction of a tight race was despite most opinion polls showing Chavez with a double-digit lead. A cursory research would have told a half-decent journalist that the solitary polling organisation that showed Capriles to have a lead, Consultores 21, has an abysmal record in previous elections. In 2004, 2006, and 2009 this poll underestimated Chavez' vote by between 10 and 13 percentage points, well outside the acceptable margin of error. And again this time, Consultores 21 underestimated Chavez' vote by 10%. They are nothing if not consistent. Of course for US media organisations, that makes this poll "respected", "reputable" and "well-regarded" (in the words of the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and the Washington Post respectively). But why are the reporters of Reuters not more sceptical? Patrick Chalmers answers this well. But I believe there is another factor.

In the almost universal disparaging of Bolivarian socialism in the media of the US and UK, one of the most interesting phenomena is the intense involvement of liberal newspapers and news outlets. The Guardian's Rory Carroll is notorious. For him, Venezuela is always on the point of infrastructural collapse, while Chavez is a waning force. His recent headlines included "A strongman's last stand" and "People's hero in final showdown". Chavez was described as "Banquo's ghost". Given the opinion polls cited above, was the apocalyptic tone justified? His reports are also peppered with the kind of factual errors which always chime with the opposition's narrative of an authoritarian populist demagogue. I felt roused to challenge Carroll, using the feeble means of twitter, over his claim that Chavez' election victories were "not always fair". Jimmy Carter, after his long experience of monitoring democratic elections, for which he won a Nobel Prize, said “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” and that Chavez has always won “fairly and squarely”. No response of course came from Carroll, so I ask again. What is it that you know, Rory, that Jimmy Carter doesn't? The overwhelming tone of all of Carroll's pieces is an obsession with the figure of Chavez himself, not the Revolution he has led into being. His post-election piece is headed "Hugo Chavez: a victory of enduring charisma and political mastery". Note how Chavez' voters, the Venezuelan poor, are, according to Carroll, voting for him because of his charm and Machiavellian skills, not because of their empowerment through communal councils, the free health clinics and universities, the new housing, or the massive reductions in poverty.

The Independent newspaper reporter Jim Armitage, however, makes Carroll look like a Chavista sympathiser. Here we have unsupported references to human rights abuses, defamation of oil workers, the casual, and again unsupported, claim of privations, and the cheap and gratuitous reference to Ken Livingstone. If you are astonished by the tone of the unfactual hack piece in the link, it's worth noting that the supposedly liberal Independent has a long history of this kind of coverage.

But one thing connects Carroll and Armitage. When I wrote that I would analyse their coverage, I meant it in an almost psychoanalytic way. Their patronising of and disregard for the poor majority seems to me to involve the same hysteria that Carroll ascribes to Chavez' voters. They both profess to support a mildly social democratic system of social welfare, as avowedly did Chavez' so soundly beaten rival Capriles. In other words, they think the elite should deign to alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism. What troubles them beyond their being able to deal with it rationally is the idea of the poor majority taking power. For this presumption on the part of the working class, and their vision of a society that goes beyond welfarism to socialist democracy, the poor deserve to be mocked or sidelined or ignored. Why do Carroll and Armitage not celebrate the Bolivarian revolution's reduction of poverty by half, instead of putting it in parenthesis, or treating it as an electoral bribe? What is the mixture of hatred and fear that motivates them to write such shoddy journalistic bile? The fact that the Guardian and Independent commission and print it shows us the dark, inhuman heart of liberalism.

Thousands of Venezuelan pro-government twitter accounts deleted

Around 7,000 Venezuelan Twitter accounts were deleted yesterday, including those of an elected state governor, three cabinet ministers, a radio station, a revolutionary daily newspaper, and the official accounts of ministries and other institutions. They all appear to have been pro-government accounts, and none of them of the opposition.

Twitter has been an effective means of communication for supporters of the Bolivarian revolution, since late President Hugo Chavez opened an account in 2010 and reached 4 million followers, making his the second most popular account globally for a political leader, after Barack Obama's.

This appears to have been a coordinated, politically-motivated attack, but we don't know yet how it happened. Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler has flatly refused to comment.

There are basically three ways it could have occurred. Large-scale coordinated hacking and deletion of accounts by opposition supporters is a possibility. It could also be that a similar campaign of reporting accounts for spam triggered an algorithm in Twitter which automatically blocked the accounts (I'm being generous to Twiiter here!). Thirdly, and less likely in my opinion, it could be something much more sinister involving Twitter and for instance US Intelligence agencies.

As of this afternoon, some 50 accounts have been restored by Twitter, including those of Governor Aristobal Isturiz, which has 332,000 followers, and of Communications Minister Delcy Rodriguez. However most accounts have not been restored, for instance of Minister of the President's Office Wilmer Barrientos and of the Women's Ministry and the Bolivarian University of Venezuela.

It is important to set this attack in social and historical context. After opposition candidate Henrique Capriles came close to winning the Presidential election last April, focus has shifted to the local elections coming on December 8th. Both the Venezuelan opposition and their supporters in the US State Department know that a good showing for the opposition would help build support for a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro in 2016. Dirty tricks to derail the Venezuelan government now abound, principally in the form of economic sabotage, creating shortages in shops which the government is battling to combat. Some commentators therefore think the Twitter attack could be a trial for a much bigger taking-out of Bolivarian social media nearer the elections.

The corporate media at home and abroad play a crucial role in this destabilisation. The UK-based Economist had to print a letter from the Venezuelan Embassy in London refuting two erroneous articles on freedom of the press. The standard line, though, is of economic woes, though all social statistics disprove this absolutely. We can all do a bit to refute media distortions. Only last night I corrected the Bloomberg correspondent in Caracas Nathan Crooks (@nmcrooks), who had spouted an egregious error about the minimum wage. Distortion or carelessness? It's impossible to know, though in response he merely repeated the error. But the media lies about Venezuela, including in so-called liberal newspapers, are so blanket that they come to appear like the truth. Journalists don't expect to get called out, so we should.

The Venezuelan government has officially complained to Twitter, and although a few accounts have been restored, is yet to receive a reply. If Twitter PR Nu Wexler maintains this silence, and thousands of accounts remain suspended, it may be appropriate to observe that in his resume he has been in and out of the revolving doors of Capitol Hill, including time as the Communications Director for the House Budget Committee. I'm not suggesting anything nefarious, merely that he is part of a political elite which regards anything Bolivarian as bad. For that Washington 1%, gross interference in Venezuela's democracy, including its social media, is legitimate.

Venezuela and the politics of Twitter

It's all over mainstream news outlets, and some outlying ones, so it must be true. The Venezuelan government has censored Twitter. Except that, when you look a little closer, this is by no means clearly the case.

The background to this is several days' protests by a segment of the Venezuelan opposition. Those who want the democratically elected President to leave office, not when his term is up in 5 years' time, nor after a possibly successful recall referendum in half that time, but right now, just after his party resoundingly won the latest local elections in Venezuela in December.

Reporting of this "censorship" story is strange to say the least. The proud sources of the story seem to be the correspondents of financial news outlet Bloomberg. They say that Nu Wexler, Twitter's PR man in Washington DC, confirmed in an email that "the (Venezuelan) government was behind the disruption." But they do not quote his email directly, so that the only statement by Mr Wexler in the public domain is one he made on his own network Twitter:

Feb 14

Users blocked in : Follow + receive notifications via SMS of any Twitter account. Send "SEGUIR [usuario]" to 89338 ()

Political satire is obsolete - yet again

It was Tom Lehrer who coined this phrase when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. I was reminded of it twice in recent times (add your own examples). The first was in 2007 when Tony Blair was appointed Middle East Envoy for the "Quartet" (the UN, US, EU and Russia), and charged with "helping mediate Middle East peace negotiations". This was only four years after Blair had almost single-handedly enabled George W. Bush to wage war in Iraq, with the estimated death of one million people.

The second was today, when I heard that one of the leaders of the opposition in Venezuela has been awarded the Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award. Maria Corina Machado has received the prize from the excitingly-named International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a US-based organisation. While the foundation sounds like a doddery academic body of psephologists discussing the benefits of alternative vote over single transferable, in fact this is an institute which receives funding from USAID and celebrated democracy-lovers the US State Department.

So it's time for some faux-naif indignation: can they possibly not know that Machado is one of the people who signed the Carmona Decree during the brief 2002 coup attempt against democratically-elected President Chavez? The decree dissolved democratic institutions, such as the National Assembly and Supreme Court, and suspended constitutional liberties. Can they also not know that she runs a campaign of violent street protests demanding "The Exit" of Chavez' democratically-elected successor Nicolas Maduro, five years before the end of his term? Some of these protesters are so committed to democracy that they have strung wire across public highways to decapitate motorcyclists. Two people have died from this action alone. They have also attacked public transport, health clinics, social housing projects, and a kindergarten, and physically assaulted 169 doctors. And does the IFES really not know that Machado is currently under investigation for allegedly plotting to assassinate the Venezuelan President, saying that it was "time to take out the trash"?

What can we do? Is satire really dead, or can we give it the kiss of life?

POST-SCRIPT September 3 2014

Come on, satirists, shape up! Once again, earnest award-giving institutions have trounced you. GQ Magazine has now made Tony Blair "Philanthropist of the Year", a decision only agreed with by Benyamin Netanyahu. Many thanks to Mark Steel for his concern, which goes some way to redress the situation: "I worry that Tony Blair's award will make him even MORE generous, until there's nothing left for himself. He's just give give give give give."

PPS: November 21 2014

It's getting ridiculous. Now Blair has received the "Global Legacy Award" from Save the Children. It's hard to know where to start with Blair's philanthropy towards children, as an internet search immediately sends you into a world of unspeakable horror. The cluster bombs dropped on Iraq by both US and British forces are one place to begin. I quote very selectively from one Iraq Body Count report:

"Terrifying film of women and children...... showed babies cut in half and children with amputation wounds, apparently caused by American shellfire and cluster bombs. Much of the videotape was too terrible to show on television and the agencies’ Baghdad editors felt able to send only a few minutes of a 21-minute tape that included a father holding out pieces of his baby and screaming “cowards, cowards” into the camera." (Robert Fisk - The Independent, April 2 2003)

"Among the 168 patients I counted, not one was being treated for bullet wounds. All of them, men, women, children, bore the wounds of bomb shrapnel. It peppered their bodies. Blackened the skin. Smashed heads. Tore limbs. “All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs,” Dr Hydar Abbas told Antonowicz. “Most of the people came from the southern and western periphery. The majority of the victims were children who died because they were outside.”" (Anton Antonowicz - Daily Mirror, April 3 2003)

"In the deserted emergency ward, Mohammed Suleiman hysterically looked for his 8-month-old daughter, Rowand, brought in after a bomb her brother unwittingly brought home exploded. “Please look at her face and see how beautiful she is,” he screamed when he found the baby's lifeless body, covered with a blanket, her eyes half open, her nose and mouth bloodied." (Associated Press, April 12 2003)

It turns out that the current CEO of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth, was a policy adviser for, you guessed it, Tony Blair. Is it too much to expect this narrow political class to show, if not a moral compass, a bit of self-awareness?

I was going to make a joke speculating about Blair's next honour (the Bram Stoker Award for Services to Blood Transfusion?) But for my own sanity, I feel I must stop updating this catalogue of atrocity and abject moral blindness.

 

Marina Silva - darling of the liberals, menace to the poor

The first round of the Brazilian presidential election is today, and there is a new, supposedly independent, candidate to take on the Workers' Party's domination of the post for the last 12 years. Ex-Workers Party (PT) minister Marina Silva is running in opposition to PT incumbent Dilma Rousseff, and has the unusual benefit of support from right-wing periodicals such as the Economist, and the panting enthusiasm of liberal organs such as the Guardian. The latter derives from her mixed-race, working-class origins, and her avowed commitment to the environmental preservation of the Amazon region in which she was born. My doubts about her seem increasingly  to be shared by Brazilian voters, who have cooled towards her since she was jettisoned into candidacy by the death of the leader of her Brazilian Socialist Party in a plane crash. She stands a chance of winning however in the second round. Before leftists and supporters of the Brazilian poor attach themselves to Marina's coat-tails, it may be worth mentioning a few points that are unlikely to appear in liberal journals.

1. Her manifesto is widely described as "business-friendly" by right-wing papers, more so than her opponent Rousseff's. This is notable in a context where the supposedly left-of-centre Workers' Party has hardly been hostile to big business.

2. Her proposed spending plan is modelled on the last budget of the government of President Lula's right-wing predecessor Fernando-Henrique Cardoso. It is effectively an "austerity budget", and it is difficult to see how this cannot harm Brazil's millions in poverty.

3. Her foreign policy aims to re-orientate Brazil back to the US and Europe, in other words the imperial nations of the past. One of the successes of Brazil in the last 12 years has been its role in building the BRICS economies as an alternative pole, and in a Latin American context its support for regional initiatives such as Mercosur, and its defence of the major target of US attack, Venezuela. Marina Silva's position on this is emphatically rightist. Obama and Merkel must be salivating at the prospect of her winning.

4. She left Lula's government and then his party over what she considered its failure to protect the environment, but Beto Albuquerque, her vice-presidential candidate on the ticket, is close to the same agri-business that the PT government capitulated to, and has his campaign largely financed by them.

5. She is a social conservative as a result of her evangelical Christianity, with a position against abortion and gay marriage.

6. Her independence from the political system is exaggerated. The Brazilian Socialist Party, under whose banner she runs, is a well-established party with 6 state governors, 3 senators, 34 federal deputies and the mayors of 3 state capitals.

7. Similarly, in her early days in the PT, her tendency within the party was the very mainstream Articulação, on the right of the PT.

8. I refute the argument that candidates in any election stand apart from the traditional distinction between left and right. When people say Marina Silva has cross-class and -political appeal, this is because she is trying to triangulate a position that satisfies all, a situation which cannot hold. For instance, if you support the environment, that it is a left-wing position, and if you support big agri-business (the "ruralistas" the PT has been much criticised for making alliances with), that is right-wing. You cannot do both.

9. Neither working-class nor female Presidents of Brazil are new. Lula was a Sao Paulo metal-worker and trade unionist from the poor north-east, and Dilma is a bourgeois-origin ex-guerilla fighter against the dictatorship.

10. Marina's possible second round victory relies on right wingers who have voted for PSDB candidate Aécio Neves in the first round switching to her, What effect will this have on policies for the benefit of Brazil's poor?

I have many criticisms of the Workers Party in national government since 2003, but hope that Brazilians are not seduced by the media hype, and vote with their eyes open. Recent polls suggest they will.

Who will win Brazil's second round?

Now that Marina Silva's "independent" campaign has ended in her rejection by the voters, we need to analyse what this means for the deciding round between the Workers' Party's (PT) incumbent Dilma Rousseff and her right-wing opponent Aécio Neves. Silva herself has not declared her preference, but indications are that she might favour Neves, which is further support for my argument with progressive friends who were naively backing her in the first round.

Why does it matter? Has the PT itself not evolved into a hopelessly compromised Blairite neo-liberal party, so that the election does not make much difference? As I argued in my previous article, whether Brazil turns its back on leftist governments in Latin America such as the US State Department's bugbear Venezuela is very important for the region's poorest inhabitants. And Washington and Brussels will be taking a keen interest in whether "their" candidate Neves could begin to reverse the independence of Latin America achieved in the last 15 years. The election is also important for Brazil's own poor.

A striking aspect of the first round of voting in the Brazilian presidential elections was the geographical split between left and right, red in the poorer north and north-east and blue in the richer south and south-east. A danger to the progress made in Brazil in eradicating poverty in the last 12 years is the attitude and electoral heft of the middle-class in those southern areas. The "bolsa familia" which provides a basic income to the poorest families is resented by this middle-class, and frequently dismissed as the "bolsa-esmola", or beggar's benefit.

After Neves' impressive showing in the first round (33.6% vs Dilma's 41.6%), the question remains whether his surge has already peaked, having taken votes from Marina Silva as her campaign sank. The right hopes not, and all progressives should hope that the mere 30% of Silva's voters that Dilma needs in the second round will migrate to her. The first opinion poll is tomorrow (Thursday)...

Brazil: how does the left continue to be re-elected?

As expected, the Presidential election result was the closest since the end of the dicatorship (Dilma Rousseff 51.64%, Aécio Neves 48.36%). What does it mean for the leftist governments in the rest of Latin America, and for democratic progressive projects in general?

First of all, we need to understand a little of the history of the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT), so Ill sketch it very briefly. As a new party formed under the US-backed dictatorship, the PT was always committed to parliamentary or liberal democracy. These very limited democratic credentials were however enriched by direct, devolved democracy where the Workers Party had local power, principally in the form of the Participatory Budget, a parallel democratic system for the distribution and spending of local government money on capital projects. In a country rife with corruption, where half of state budgets never reached their intended destination, this was vital grassroots control, and made inroads into Brazil's clientelist system ("vote for me, I tarmac your road" - not roads in general in the municipality, but the one outside your door!). After losing three elections to neo-liberal, right-wing opposition, the PT conducted a semi-secret internal coup in the late 1990s, where the people around presidential candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva jettisoned the more radical policies, arriving in government in 2003 with a policy to pay off the external debt rather than cancel it. The PT now had no commitment to extending participatory democracy, its unique radical feature, on a national scale. The results of playing the neo-liberal economic game were impressive, with strong economic growth able to weather the storms of the global recession of 2008. Socialist, grassroots empowerment was replaced by welfarism - the Bolsa Familia (Family Benefit) for the poorest seemingly making the Workers Party impregnable in the north and north-east.

It also enabled the party to reach out beyond its traditional base of the organised working class, which only gave them a chance of 25-30% of the electorate, to the poorest sectors - those who traditionally often "sold" their vote for $10, a T-shirt or a pair of glasses. Through this reaching down to, and providing for, the poorer and less organised, the PT could win a landslide majority. Partly because of welfare, the poorest now vote repeatedly for a Workers Party President. This is presented starkly in the extraordinary geographical split in the 2014 election results: red in the poor north and north-east, and blue in the richer south. Actually, a first glance at the map does not reflect how extreme the division was: Dilma won no less than 79% of the votes in impoverished Maranhão, and 70% in somewhat richer Bahia, while Aécio won landslides of 65% in Santa Catarina and 64% in São Paulo state. There was also a huge division between richer urban and poorer rural areas within states. There were only three states (out of 27) where Dilma gained a higher percentage in the state capital than in the state as a whole (Espirito Santo, Rondônia, and São Paulo). In other words, people in the countryside voted more left, and people in the cities more right (the stats are here). So much for the Workers Party's roots in the industrial proletariat! (Lula was a metal-worker trade union leader). A barometer of Aécio Neves' defeat was his loss in his home state of Minas Gerais, where he was previously a two-term governor, but while he only took 47.6% in the state as a whole, he took 64% in state capital Belo Horizonte. 

So here we have two expressions of the "two Brazils": rural/urban, and north/south. There is a further split down the nation as campaigned on by Dilma with the support of the hugely popular Lula. Impressively, the PT constantly emphasised that there were two models of society in contention. Compare the dismal campaign to be run by the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband next year - exactly the same model, perhaps a little bit nicer, a conflict between managers of the same system. In some ways, during their campaign, Dilma and Lula sounded more radical than they were in government.

The 50/50 voting split between poor and middle-class should concern those of us who support the successes of the Latin American left in the last 15 years. Evo Morales in Bolivia won a landslide 60% two weeks previously, but Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela only won by a measly 1.5% in April 2013.  As Michael Albert writes so thoughtfully about the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, before the recent high inflation and shortages, why were the electoral victories not more like 80%, capturing the votes of many middle-class as well as inhabitants of the favela? In the UK as well as Brazil, there is much disaffection among the reasonably waged that the poor are receiving "something-for-nothing" via social security. Among the Brazilian middle-class, the Bolsa Familia is known derisively as the bolsa-esmola, the beggars' benefit. This is where the lack of socially-transformative direct democracy in the PT's adminstrations may be damaging, the absence of a community empowerment which is not purely economic, and is not merely passive, something which could potentially involve the lower-middle and middle class. Looking at Venezuela, Chavez' governments made central the development of parallel, devolved democracy, without which, with the economic problems that Venezuela now faces, the government of Nicolas Maduro would be heading for certain defeat. But coming back to Michael Albert's critique, how is that playing out? In the favelas, communal councils are still growing and in many places thriving, but the real test of them is whether they draw people in in wealthier, opposition-backing areas, and whether the cadres of the Bolivarian revolution have any real enthusiasm for trying to roll that out.

Having fought with an anti-neo-liberal banner, and won, Dilma Rousseff has started to make conciliatory noises towards the middle class. Exactly how this develops is crucial for the future of progressive government in Latin America.

 

Reports of the Death of the Latin American Left Were Exaggerated

On 27 September 2014, the Economist's anonymised Latin American op-ed "Bello" heralded "a turning of the political tide in South America after a dozen or more years of leftist hegemony." The writer was encouraged by the possiblity of defeat for Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and considered likely the victory of right-wing candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou in Uruguay. Two months on, and Bello's crystal ball clearly needed some serious polishing. Rousseff won for the Brazilian Workers' Party a fourth consecutive term in office, and yesterday in Uruguay Tabare Vasquez won an unprecedented third term for the leftist Broad Front by a massive 13%.

"Bello" had already conceded that Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism in Bolivia was going to win (he did by a landslide 61%), but in the usual knee-jerk way of rightist commentators the writer describes Morales as an "autocratic socialist of Amerindian descent". Dodgy, these indigenous people who come up through the social movements! They just don't respect democracy in the way that the white-skinned oligarchy who ruled previously do, that same oligarchy that has consistently supported the fascist coup d'etats which stain Latin American history. In this manner, yet another Anglophone commentator echoes the endemic racism of the Latin American elite. A feature of nearly all reports on Latin American elections in the right-wing press, and much of the liberal press, is just how much they are bad losers. "Bello" of course recycles this, ascribing Morales' victory partly to his "grip on the media". In fact, in Brazil and Uruguay a very dominant conservative media campaigned virulently for the right-wing candidates. To their credit, the voters ignored them.

I must say that I am rather tired of friends repeating opinions to me which they have gleaned from the pages of the Economist in particular, so let me attempt to characterise this periodical. It is far from being serious advice about business risks and prospects around the world. For details of the magazine's absurd errors in reporting Venezuela, see here, here, and here. If I were investing in South America, I would buy a subscription to the estimable Latin American Weekly Report, which has given accurate data for the last 47 years. Instead, we might describe the Economist as a readable mass-circulation magazine pitched at lower and middle managers, who wish to impress their bosses with their knowledge of world affairs. It represents not serious investment advice for the elite, but rather the ideology of that elite, enabling ambitious businesspeople a way of talking about the world  which will not challenge the dominant ideology of the boardroom. On Latin America it is frequently wrong, jettisoning facts and reasoned argument for dreams as wish-fulfilment. It is, to quote the outstanding venezuelanalysis, "the neoliberal ideologue's favourite rag."

 

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