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Greg Wilpert: Methodology of report is questionable

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, today in Toronto. And today on June 13, the World Justice Project released the Rule of Law Index, the World Justice Project apparently funded mostly by the Gates Foundation. And they assess countries around the world based on the government accountability, transparency, and such, all the things they say make up the rule of law. And a lot of the news reports spent time on Venezuela and how it was depicted in the report. Here’s a few quotes from the report. First of all, it says Venezuela was rated the worst performer in the world in terms of accountability and effective checks on executive power. Corruption appears to be widespread, ranking 54th. Crime and violence are common, ranking 64th. Government institutions, according to this report, are non-transparent. And the criminal justice system is ineffective and subject to political influence. And it goes on. The country also displays serious flaws in guaranteeing respect for fundamental rights, in particular freedom of opinion and expression and the right to privacy. Now joining us from New York City to talk about this report and rights in Venezuela is Gregory Wilpert. He is the founder of the website Thanks for joining us, Greg.


JAY: So what do you make of this, make of the report? Do you think this is a fair assessment of the state of things in Venezuela?

WILPERT: Yes. It’s a pretty damning report. There’s a couple of issues, though, that I would look at. One is exactly the methodology. I actually went through the methodology of this report, and it seems to be very thorough and very carefully done. However, a large portion of it is based on expert interviews. I think almost over half of the factors that they analyzed were the result of expert interviews. And that is always a problematic issue, especially with regard to Venezuela, because what you have in Venezuela, I think, is a situation where the old elites were basically kicked out of office completely in Venezuela, and if you do expert interviews, almost all of the experts belong to, in one way or another, are affiliated with these elites in Venezuela. And so it is very problematic. They’re–tend to be–have a very strong bias against the government. The other thing is a large portion of the report or the analysis was done on the basis of opinion polls, which I think is perfectly legitimate. However, I would point out that there are other opinion polls which actually contradict these results, the most significant one being the Latinobarometro, which is an analysis that is done throughout Latin America every year and receives funding from the World Bank. I mean, this is a serious effort to study public opinion with regard to politics and these exact–almost the same issues, actually, and in that one, Venezuela does very well every year. So it’ll be interesting to compare and contrast why this difference.

JAY: The report focuses a lot on this issue of the right to express public opinion and fundamental rights. And in terms of media, there’s been a lot of attention on television. I mean, to what extent is opposition television still active or thrive? I know when I was in Venezuela a few years ago most of the television in fact seemed to be opposition television. What is the state of that now?

WILPERT: Things aren’t quite as one-sided or as lopsided as they were five or six years ago, when indeed most of the television stations were very, very anti-Chavez. Now there are two or three major television stations which are more balanced in terms of their coverage. Of course, there was this controversial issue where, you know, a vehemently anti-Chavez station did not have its license renewed and therefore is off the air, but there is still a major 24-hour news channel that is very anti-Chavez and is constantly and continues to be very anti-Chavez, and they’re still on the air. And so the reason I say things are more balanced is because the state of course has its own TV channels, and so it tries to counteract them. But people who are affiliated with the opposition really have no problem getting onto television, either on the 24-hour news channel or on one of the other private channels which don’t have that much news coverage but certainly give the opposition equal time with the government. And so, therefore, I think one cannot say that there’s any problem with freedom of expression in Venezuela.

JAY: What do you make of the other issues in the report? They zero in on lack of accountability in government, and particularly lack of limits on executive power.

WILPERT: Yeah. The one with the lack of limits on executive power is probably the most serious issue, which [incompr.] that is certainly true because all of the branches of government are controlled by Chavez supporters. And of course that has resulted in the accusation over and over again that there is no separation of powers. Now, the thing is, I wouldn’t say that Chavez directly controls or even indirectly controls these other branches of government. However, it’s true that they do not exercise a thorough control of the executive, because they are constituted by his supporters. Now, the big question, I think, though, is: how did that come about? Whose fault is it that, you know, Venezuela is in such a situation where there is no effective check on the executive? And I would say that the opposition bears at least as much responsibility for this as Chavez. And you have to look, basically, at what happened, how this came about. And one of the main ways it came about is that in 2005 the opposition boycotted legislative elections and its legislature. So, as a result, actually, the legislature had a complete free hand in naming the other branches of government, which is its responsibility, because it consisted entirely of Chavez supporters. And so of course they put the legislature, the pro-Chavez legislature put pro-Chavez people in the other branches of government, whether it’s the electoral council, the Supreme Court, or what’s known as–the prosecutorial power is what I actually call it, or the moral power, which is the attorney general’s office, which is independent, actually. This would not have happened if the opposition had participated, because they would have been able to prevent a two-thirds majority in those 2005 elections. Things are going to change, though, because now the opposition has prevented–in the last legislative elections, it does have over a third of the seats, and therefore it can prevent a two-thirds–or it has prevented a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. So the next time it comes around to name positions for these other branches in the government, the government or the Chavez forces will have to compromise with the opposition in order to name people to those positions.

JAY: One of the other charges is the use of political influence in the criminal justice system. Is there legitimate issues there?

WILPERT: Yes, absolutely. The criminal justice system is in terrible shape. It continues to be in terrible shape. It was that way before Chavez got elected. He had promised to fix it, and, unfortunately, that is one of the main areas that Chavez has not made hardly any progress at all. It continues to be a highly politicized criminal justice system, and that is, I think, a serious problem. And it’s also–it has something to do with the fact that the prison system is completely overcrowded and the courts are completely underfunded, and therefore also very susceptible still to corruption.

JAY: And what about the issue of government transparency, accountability? I mean, I guess this partly speaks to what you were talking about before, that–the other branches of government. But there was supposed to be this sort of new process developed, people’s councils, sort of part of the Bolivarian process or Bolivarian revolution. Do they actually have any power in terms of holding government accountable? I know there’s–in the barrios themselves there’s been a lot of critique about how money gets spent in the barrios.

WILPERT: Yeah, that’s–I mean, as far as the transparency issue’s concerned, I think that’s something one would have to compare with other countries. As far as I can tell, one can generally find out how money is being spent. I mean, I’ve been doing research on Venezuela for a long time, and generally we can track down most of the expenditures. But it is, of course, an issue that there is this lack of control by the other branches of government, so when the executive decides not to disclose something, there’s nobody who really pushes or forces them to disclose the numbers, and that’s certainly an issue. As far as corruption in general is concerned, that, like I said before, is certainly also an ongoing problem that also cannot be resolved as long as there’s no effective control on the [crosstalk]

JAY: I mean, all this is comparable, but they’re rating Venezuela as the worst in Latin America on many of these issues. But I have to say, from what I know of Venezuela, I find this a little bit remarkable in the sense that are there journalists that you know of, do we know of journalists who have either been arrested or killed in Venezuela?

WILPERT: No. I mean, those aspects–like I said, freedom of press and freedom of opinion and all of that is absolutely absurd to say that Venezuela’s one of the worst or the worst. Actually, I would say you can make the opposite argument that it’s one of the best, given the fact that Venezuela has a government of a very strong left tendency, where there’s still–I mean, it’s one of the most leftist governments in Latin America. And still the opposition has, really, as far as I can tell, complete freedom to say whatever it wants, and you just need to open up any newspaper in Venezuela. And one of the main commentators, for example, Teodoro Petkoff, is constantly lambasting the president and calling him all kinds of names that people would have–if you saw the news reports, you’d think he’d be in jail a long time ago, but he’s not. He’s completely free to say whatever he wants, and many other journalists like this as well. Marta Colomina is somebody who has a prime time radio program. Every morning she’s blasting the president in ways that you would never hear in the United States, and certainly not in a country such as Colombia.

JAY: Yeah, I have to say I find it odd. When you compare it to, say, even a country like Mexico, where dozens of journalists have been killed, and other countries in Latin America, just on that one score it seems a kind of–very bizarre to put Venezuela after that–not to say there aren’t a lot of serious issues that it does raise about Venezuela. Any final thoughts, Greg?

WILPERT: Yeah. I think these kinds of things are very subjective, and that’s why they’re based, I think, to a large extent on the expert interviews, which I said is a very questionable methodology in the case of Venezuela. With other issues, where you can do more opinion surveys and quantitative measures, that might be more valid. But I think in those kinds of issues about freedom of the press or whatever, that’s–I think it just doesn’t work to do this kind of research.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Greg.

WILPERT: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.