John Dinges on Venezuela


Posted to on August 9, 2005


Dear John Dinges,


I stumbled across your CJR article on the Venezuelan press through a rave review on Marc Cooper's blog. Since Marc, who apparently is an old friend of yours from Allende's Chile, has staked out "The God that Failed" territory with Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens recently, I fully expected your article to be 100 percent crapola. As it turns out, it is only half-crapola. Congratulations.


To begin with, I must commend you for a bravura centrist performance. By staking out a position between the "extremism" on both sides in Venezuela, you remain true to the NPR ethos that you must have absorbed in your tenure there as managing editor. It is the same sort of centrism that was on display in their coverage of the war in Iraq and that led Scott Sherman to make these observations in a long article in the Nation Magazine on NPR three months ago:


Since 9/11 NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, has devoted a number of his columns at to the network's coverage of the Bush Administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's perhaps too early for a definitive assessment of NPR's reporting on these subjects, but what's clear is that quite a few listeners are dissatisfied with the coverage of George W. Bush and his foreign policy. Consider a recent missive from Richard Steinman, a research scientist at Columbia University. On the weekend of March 19, 2005, Steinman turned on his radio, looking for coverage of the demonstrations that marked the second anniversary of the Iraq War. In a subsequent letter to Dvorkin, Steinman recounted NPR's programming choices that weekend: "a 'patriotic,' feel-good West Point piece; sports fans' feelings toward a baseball player (yes, steroids); more feel-good filler about an Iraqi-American painter and her use of color; Bantu Refugees Adjust to New Lives in America. Quote from the story: 'we give the government of America the high five'; Army Chefs Battle for Best-Dish Honors; a singing physics professor."


Although I will give you credit for acknowledging Chavez's popularity among the poor and for distancing yourself from the kind of hysteria in liberal circles in the USA that no doubt led to Cooper's characterization of him as a "Frankenstein," I do believe that the section of your article that deals with Teodor Petkoff to be both tendentious and propagandistic.


Let me cite it in its entirety:


Teodoro Petkoff may be the closest thing to a genuinely independent journalist in Venezuela. It helps that he owns his own newspaper, Tal Cual, a thin afternoon daily that combines brainy, fact-laden editorials with bitingly humorous news reports. He is an acerbic critic of the government, but he condemned the military coup and keeps the opposition at arms length. Petkoff describes himself as a one-time revolutionary who learned to appreciate democracy and to reject all forms of militarism and totalitarianism. He is a man of the left who wants the Chavez experiment to succeed, and while he applauds its attention to the poor he faults the government for not using its oil profits for long-term investment and job creation. He sees Chavez as a military man with an authoritarian streak and an indelible suspicion of a free press. “He has one foot in democracy, one foot in authoritarianism. But he is going to maintain that ambiguity, that unstable equilibrium. He is not going to become a dictator,” Petkoff predicted.


Petkoff is optimistic about the future of both democracy and the media. More than devotion to journalistic principle, it is the prospect of six more years of Chavez, plus the fear of sanctions under the new press laws, that have put the media owners on a more balanced path, he says.




Let us perform an exegesis on this ungainly clot of prose that might pass muster in the Columbia Journalism School but not among the more critical minded. You state that Petkoff faults the government for eschewing "long-term investment and job creation." Don't you think that you owe it to your readers to put this into some kind of context? We are not dealing with some sort of disinterested Keynesianism here. Petkoff has a history as a finance minister in the government that preceded Chavez's. In an April 19, 1996 report, The Financial Times made it clear that Petkoff was like Argentina's Menem or any other of the politicians ramming neoliberalism down the throat of the poor:


Far from having qualms about his new job, the socialist minister assures foreign investors about Venezuela's commitment to implement market-oriented reform and to seek an agreement with the IMF. Mr Michel Camdessus, IMF managing director, said yesterday he was 'optimistic' the IMF and Venezuela would be able to reach an agreement on a loan package soon. 'I hope we will see in the next few days a conclusion of the negotiations,' he said.


When Petkoff was finance minister, he had a chance to demonstrate his commitment to Venezuelans about the benefits of "long-term investment." In a Jun 13 1996 InterPress article by Humberto Marquez, we learn:


Venezuela is trying to attract investment in oil and petroleum derivatives, mining, tourism, telecommunications and construction. And it is seeking buyers for shares in enterprises to be privatised, including aluminum, steel, telephones, electricity, tourism and transport.


The Agenda, whose stringent adjustment of the buying power of Venezuelans - four out of five of whom are poor - began to go into effect in April, with the aim of taming inflation and restoring fiscal balance based mainly on higher revenues.


The government instrumented a sixfold rise in fuel prices - the oil sector is a State monopoly - and its second 70 percent devaluation in four months. And it freed up the currency, prices, rates on public services and interest rates, while parliament was asked to raise sales taxes from 12.4 to 16.5 percent.


So beneath all of Petkoff's lofty phrases about "democracy" and "investment," we discover a track record that led to the class polarization that swept Chavez into power and that keeps him there now.


Finally, on the question of Chavez's alleged human rights violations, I think it is useful to remember the state of affairs that existed in Venezuela in the period that Petkoff waxes nostalgic for:


Between October 1994 and September 1995, security forces killed 126 people, 46 in extra judicial executions, and 28 while they were in police or military custody. Authoritarianism and repression are growing. Of 13,941 arbitrary detentions, 94 per cent occurred during anti crime operations mainly in poor neighbourhoods. Amnesty International has detailed many examples of miscarriages of justice and claims that the main perpetrators of human rights violations are agents of the state. It is not that the country is lawless. On the contrary. There is, for example, a Vagrancy Act in operation which allows the police to arrest and detain without charge, and for up to three months, anyone considered "vagrant". As the local police stations cannot cope with so many detainees it has become common practice to "sell" them to the bigger prisons where the most horrible and horrifying abuse is meted out to them. It is hardly surprising, that AIDS has become rampant within the prison system; hardly surprising that up to four prisoners die each day in captivity. (The Irish Times, October 17, 1996)


Yours truly,


Louis Proyect