The mainstream American press has been creating a lot of buzz about the “crisis” in Venezuela recently, accusing the government of violent repression. This isn’t the first time that liberal news outlets like the NY Times have joined right-wing outfits in demonizing Venezuela. Two years ago, the Times bashed price controls on food in Venezuela, blaming them for widespread food shortages. This was blatant distortion, of course – the UN recently praised Venezuela as one of 18 countries who halved the number of people in hunger in the past 20 years. Similarly, the distorted discourse surrounding Venezuela’s current “crisis” ignores basic history and facts.
What Do the Protesters Want?
As BBC makes clear, the main grievance of the protesters, especially the students, is the high crime rate in Venezuela (5th highest in the world). While this is a legitimate complaint, the protesters have also demanded that the newly elected President Maduro step down. In 2013, Maduro won an election (albeit narrowly) fairly and cleanly, according to the Carter Center, a reputed election watchdog. Seven months later, Maduro’s Socialist Party won local elections by 7 percentage points. Given that a majority of Venezuelans support Maduro and his party, demands for the President to be removed are fundamentally undemocratic.
To undermine the current government, the media has also maligned Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. It’s important to understand Venezuela’s recent history to make sense of current issues.
Wasn’t Chavez a Dictator Who Impoverished His People?
You’d think he was if you believed the Washington Post, CNN, or NPR. Of course, the exact opposite isn’t wholly true – Chavez’s Venezuela wasn’t a bastion of democracy and civil liberties. Regardless, under Chavez, Venezuela has been transformed from an outright plutocracy (rule of the rich) to a more genuine democracy. Before Chavez redistributed land in 2002, 5% of the population owned 80% of the land (the most valuable asset in developing countries). Now, according to the UN, Venezuela has the lowest income inequality in Latin America, a region becoming increasingly unequal.
This hasn’t made the economy “less stable” or “left it in worse shape.” At the same time that Chavez halved the percentage of people extreme poverty, increased the number of physicians twelve-fold, and doubled college enrollment rates, he’s also increased the average growth rate and decreased the average inflation rate from the preceding decade. That’s why he enjoys popular support; when Chavez won re-elections in 2012 by a solid margin of 11%, it was considered a disappointingly “tight race.” Just to put that in context, when Obama shellacked McCain in 2008, he won by a margin of 7%. Unsurprisingly, a poll taken after Chavez’s death showed that 71% of Venezuelans agreed that “now the most important thing is to continue President Chavez’s project.”
Why Does the US Government Feel Threatened By Chavez’s Venezuela?
Chavez had nationalized property held by U.S.-based multinational companies like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Cargill. It’s obvious, but important to note, that such multinationals have significant power to sway government policy. Moreover, when he redistributed land to 180,000 previously landless peasants and Venezuelan elites resisted by killing 120 peasants (1999-2002), Chavez was almost overthrown in 2002. Though the perpetrators of the coup dissolved the government, suspended the Constitution, and raided the homes of Chavez’s supporters, the US government called it “a change of government [not a coup]” that was a “result of the message of the Venezuelan people.” Meanwhile, American media outlets either praised the coup, like their Venezuelan counterparts, or lied about the US’ role in aiding the rebels.
A mass uprising re-installed Chavez as President in 47 hours, and American covert actions had failed in an unprecedented manner. The idea that Latin America is supposed to be the US’ backyard has existed since the early 1900s (with the Roosevelt Corollary), and it still dominates the way American policymakers think. Plainly, a Venezuela of the people defies longstanding American power in the region.
How Is the Media Misreporting Events in Venezuela?
US news outlets have made it seem as if Maduro has clamped down on anti-government voices in the media and the streets. In fact, there are many pro-opposition TV stations and media outlets that freely operate in Venezuela. Fully 70% of TV stations and most of the Venezuelan press is privately owned and unafraid to criticize the government.
While the government has in some cases used excessive force against protesters, as Human Rights Watch points out, most of the 37 casualties (that are never explained in the mainstream media) in Venezuela have been due to violent protests, not state repression (4 have been killed by the National Guard). Protesters have erected barricades on busy highways, blocking access to hospitals, and the international community (UNASUR and Mercosur) has rightly condemned these violations.
It’s shameful that our President has instead condemned the Venezuelan government, while others press for sanctions in the face of international opposition. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, for imperialist powers rarely concede control easily. With the US “backyard” rapidly receding away from the hegemonic mansion, it’s in our best interests to recognize and accept this trend quickly; if we care about democracy, we might even like it.