Media Exaggerations of Apocalyptic Venezuela Plays into Regime Change Narrative
Gabriel Hetland & Rachael Boothroyd say that the crisis in Venezuela is real, but the international media descriptions of horror stories are far from representative of the real situation on the ground
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
If you review the headlines these days, the news out of Venezuela looks like it could not get any worse. In just the past few days alone–not to mention the last few months–headlines in U.S. and international media outlets have been like this: “Venezuela’s Desperation Grows as the Nation Struggles for Food” says Kansas City Star; “Violence over Food in Venezuela Continues” [reason.com]; “Running Out of Food, Medicine and Patience in Venezuela” says NPR; “Venezuela Is on the Brink, and the ‘Maduro Approach’ Is not Working” says CNBC; “Venezuela Now Faces Imminent Famine” says Forbes magazine; “Venezuela’s Deepening Food Crisis Sees Ransacked Stores, Deadly Riots” says CBC; “Looting and Unrest Continue Roiling Venezuela as Shortages Persist” says the LA Times.
However, a recent article in The Nation magazine titled “How Severe is Venezuela’s Crisis?” presented a slightly different picture of what is happening in Venezuela. And we have the author of that article with us today, Gabriel Hetland.
Hetland is joining us from Albany, New York. He is assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies and sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY.
Thank you so much for joining us, Gabriel.
GABRIEL HETLAND: Thank you, Sharmini. Great to be here.
PERIES: And he’s also being joined by Rachel Boothroyd. She joins us from Bogota, Columbia. She’s a freelance journalist and doctoral candidate in Latin American studies at the University of Liverpool, U.K. She has lived in Venezuela for almost five years and currently works for Venezuelanalysis.com.
Thanks for joining us, Rachel.
RACHEL BOOTHROYD: No problem. Very happy to be here. Thank you.
PERIES: So let me start with you, Gabriel. Now, you just spent a few weeks in Venezuela going around talking to numerous people on various sides of the discussion–and, I should say, people experiencing the crisis, especially the food crisis. But what do you make of the headlines I just read out? And what are people actually saying? What’s the real story?
HETLAND: Yeah, absolutely. The headlines that are coming from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and all the different sources that you cited today are presenting a picture of a total apocalypse, a country that has completely fallen apart, in the words of The New York Times, that is already in a state of total collapse, where the image presented is of sort of generalized hunger, widespread looting, institutions that are falling apart.
And it is true that Venezuela is in the midst of a very severe crisis, which is marked by triple-digit inflation, widespread changes to food consumption patterns, mounting social and political discontent, and a host of other problems. But the mainstream media image that’s been presented does not accord with reality as I saw it for the approximately three and a half weeks I was in Venezuela.
The mainstream has consistently–and possibly deliberately–exaggerated what’s going on in Venezuela to present this really, really horrendous situation which goes above and beyond what’s happening. The situation is definitely a real crisis, but it’s not apocalyptic the way that you’ve seen it in the mainstream media.
PERIES: Why deliberately?
HETLAND: Well, I can’t say that for sure, so I should be careful with that. But I think some of these folks should know better. I think they should be doing a little bit more careful research, to really talk to everyone. When they find something really bad, you end up hearing the same story in outlet, outlet, after outlet, after outlet.
So, recently there’s been stories about people running to trees and trying to grab mangos off the trees. And I’ve heard from friends that that’s appearing all over the place. Everybody’s talking about these sort of mango stories. So you’re seeing a repetition of these sort of apocalyptic narratives that’s happening.
It’s certainly true there’s a lot of difficulty happening in Venezuela. There is real suffering. And this is something that the government hasn’t been quick enough to acknowledge, hasn’t been forthright enough about. But at the same time, the images that are presented in the media over and over and over again in this sort of repetition echo chamber just don’t quite accord with the reality on the ground. They go a little too far in terms of the image that they’re presenting.
PERIES: And, Rachel, what would you say? You’ve lived and experienced some of the crisis being described by these newspapers. What is the reality on the ground? What did you observe?
BOOTHROYD: Well, first of all, I agree with Gabriel. I think it’s really important not to downplay the extent of the crisis Venezuelan people are living through at the moment and which has some quite complex roots. And I think this is really important for people who are involved in organizing effective solidarity with the Venezuelan people. Like Gabriel says, there is real suffering in Venezuela at the moment.
That said, over the past six months I think we’ve definitely witnessed what you could call an intensification of the international media’s campaign against the Venezuelan government in particular. And I think that that campaign has been characterized by not just gross misrepresentations of the reality on the ground, but also in a lot of cases it’s been characterized by outright lies.
So we’ve seen claims such as there is no drought in Venezuela, that the water shortage is the government’s fault, violent deaths outnumber violent deaths in Iraq, hamburgers that cost nearly $2,000, that the people are hunting pigeons in the streets because they’re so hungry, and that people are starved to death. And this is just quite simply not true.
I also think–and I agree with Gabriel–we’ve seen examples of deliberate attempts to seek out horror stories in Venezuela by correspondents and journalists who’ve been parachuted into the country, really with not a lot of experience of Venezuela, or even knowledge about the country or even Latin America itself. And they’ve been parachuted in and are deliberately kind of seeking out these horror stories, and then deliberately passing these horror stories off as somehow representative of the wider reality in Venezuela, and that’s not the case. And I actually have seen deliberate examples of this.
PERIES: Rachel, what are the people saying? I mean, a lot of the quotations we see of people that have been interviewed by some of the journalists you’re talking about, they do blame the government for what’s going on–some of them, at least. What were your observations? What are the people saying about this crisis?
BOOTHROYD: Well, I mean, it really depends who you speak to. You know, I don’t think anyone in Venezuela’s going to deny the fact that the country is living through really quite a severe crisis. But I don’t think that everybody has equal access to the international media. So I think, like I was going to say, a lot of these kind of journalists have been parachuted into the country, and they’re not kind of [familiar] with the way Venezuela is organized, and they don’t really make an effort to speak to people who would challenge, maybe, their narrative on the crisis, so that you very rarely see Chavistas interviewed, really, I think, in the mainstream media.
And a reason that has been presented for that is because a lot of Chavistas come from the popular classes, they don’t speak English, etc. And so I think the international media tend to prioritize people who are able to speak English, who generally tend to come from the middle classes.
They are also told–and I’ve seen this over at least three cases in the past two months, where journalists have been sent to Venezuela for maybe a week or two weeks and told to basically seek out civil unrest.
And so I think that this is a deliberate political agenda here, where you’re deliberately seeking out kind of political unrest and speaking to people involved in political unrest, but not really trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on in the country in a contextualized or even historic kind of way.
So like I said, I don’t think anyone would deny the fact that Venezuela is in the middle of a crisis, because–.
PERIES: Alright, Gabriel, let me get you in on this now. You in your article that you wrote in The Nation magazine said that this kind of picture that is being painted by the mainstream media is actually dangerous. Why did you say that?
HETLAND: Yeah. I mean, I think the apocalyptic failed-state narrative is dangerous–without, again, minimizing the real suffering that is happening amongst significant parts of the population, and probably growing parts of the population–but the apocalyptic total-collapse narrative goes hand-in-hand with the regime-change agenda, which is fairly open on the part of the U.S. government. And there’s a lot of cheerleading by The New York Times. The Washington Post has very openly come out with a sort of policy saying, we need a new government, they need foreign intervention.
And the solutions to the problems, which Rachel has sort of hinted at a little bit, are complicated and involve economic policy changes where you have to get masses of the population to trust that the government does have the capacity to get private businesses and state institutions to follow laws, to provide food for people. You have to have people trusting that the government will be able to provide the resources they need.
And in order to have the policy changes that can make that happen, you need much less anxiety on the streets. People are really anxious, not only about the food crisis and the sort of medical and general situation of crisis that’s happening, but also about the political situation, the possibility of the opposition taking over legally, or possibly through a military coup (which some opposition leaders have almost sort of invited the military to come in) and say, you want to be on the right side of history? Please intervene. And they’ve very openly called for foreign intervention by the Organization of American States. They’re very cozy with the U.S. government.
So this sort of coverage which suggests that the government has totally fallen apart, the country has totally fallen apart, the only thing that can save it is some sort of foreign intervention, someone saving Venezuela from outside, they go very much hand-in-hand. And I don’t think that’s at all what the country needs right now.
They do need to change. They do need policy change. They need better policies, for sure. But having a sort of crisis in the sort of political and international sphere is going to make that much, much harder to actually happen.
PERIES: Gabriel, we’ve seen this political moment before, where the OAS, the international media, backed by U.S. government policy, all lead to a coup d’Ã©tat, as it did with President Hugo ChÃ¡vez.
One thing we have to keep in mind as well: these conditions might be re-created. We also have a situation where the foreign minister has actually met with the vice president of the United States. What came out of those meetings? Is there any positive strides here?
HETLAND: Yeah. I believe the meeting was with the secretary of state, John Kerry, although I don’t know if Biden has met with them as well. But there have been very high-level diplomatic meetings that have been happening.
PERIES: Yeah. Just to let you know, when the OAS meeting was going on here in Washington, D.C., the foreign minister did meet with vice president Biden–in addition to Kerry, of course.
HETLAND: Ah. OK. I didn’t know about that. So even higher-level meetings than I was aware of in Venezuela. They were publicizing the Kerry meeting. So there’s certainly a lot of conversations going on. That might be a hopeful sign. We haven’t really seen details. It would be hopeful in the sense that the temperature goes down.
It’s interesting that the U.S. didn’t directly sort of support Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the OAS, his move to sort of invoke the Democratic Charter. Everyone thought they were supporting it, and they’ve been supportive of his actions. But it’s not clear if they’re sort of pushing him to go whole hog, possibly because they don’t have the votes in order to do that. The final step of that would be to kick Venezuela out of the OAS.
But the general meetings that are happening at the high level, most people think–again, this is somewhat speculation–most people think that there’s some sort of negotiations going on, in particular around the recall referendum, which the U.S. government has been somewhat disingenuous in terms of saying it has to happen this year. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says Venezuela has to have a recall referendum. What it does say is that there’s a set of steps that if they are met, a recall referendum could occur. The timetable on that is a little bit fuzzy. The opposition themselves have actually delayed considerably, earlier this year, starting that.
So there’s a lot of sort of sword-waving, saber-rattling on the part of the U.S. government.
The recent conversations, we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but if they’re lowering the temperature, I say that would be a good thing. If they’re putting sort of ultimatums on the table, that would certainly be more disturbing.
PERIES: Now, Rachel, the Venezuelan government is dealing with a number of issues. Of course there is a drought going on, which is creating also electricity crisis because they don’t have enough water generating electricity. There is, of course, a currency crisis going on. There is food, medicine shortages, and inflation. Now, the situation is dire for a lot of people, even when you speak to Chavistas. And so what can the Venezuelan government do at this moment, even in the short term, in order to bring the temperature down in terms of some of the concerns that the OAS or the United States may have had?
BOOTHROYD: I think to contribute to kind of an environment of stability in the country, each should keep pursuing kind of its aims in the OAS to foment dialog with the opposition. I think it needs to start looking at maybe some more targeted poverty initiatives. So instead of Mercal sending or selling subsidized food to everyone–there’s been this idea that the government could develop what’s known as a socialist card, which would be given to families in, you could say, vulnerable conditions. And so that would give them actual access to cash to buy food over the counter.
Short-term, I think there needs to be–I think [incompr.] the currency controls are causing a lot of problems. If we look at some economists like Mark Weisbrot, they’ve said that these currency controls need to go.
Now, I think it’s important to protect the inner popular classes if these currency controls did go and you do free up (kind of) currency. Obviously, the fallout from that could be kind of increased poverty. And so I think that’s where these kind of targeted poverty initiatives come in.
The government has started to import food from Trinidad and Tobago. That’s kind of a short-term initiative, because the long-term solution is also obviously invest in national production. But that’s been something that no government today has really managed to get to grips with in order to kind of decrease Venezuela’s oil dependency.
Other problems that you’ve mentioned, such as water rationing and electricity, that’s been caused by droughts and El Niño, which has been–and exacerbated by El Niño. But there has been rain in Venezuela. We’ve gone into rainy season. And now the water rationing has been reduced. So those kind of problems are being slowly phased out.
There’s been initiatives by social movements [incompr.] suggest [incompr.] renewable energy. Well, obviously it’s kind of difficult at the moment, because the government does have kind of limited–is limited in its economic ability to–.
Let me go to you, Gabriel. Let me ask you, in terms of the observations you made of the different kinds of crises that the government is now having to deal with, largely one of them is, obviously, the price of oil. And the president has said that that situation might be correcting itself very soon. But what can the government do at this point that’s within its means to address some of the problems it’s facing to alleviate the crisis that people are feeling?
HETLAND: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a crucial question. I think the really key thing–and here I’m going to agree with Rachel, and also Mark Weisbrot–is to devalue the currency. I think there needs to be a totally free float of the bolivar against the dollar, which would eliminate an incredible incentive for corruption. Right now there’s about a 100-time gap between the official currency, which is pegged at 10 to 1 to the dollar, and the black market rate, which has gotten up past 1000 to the dollar. So that creates these huge incentives for businesses and state officials to take money that the state provides them at the lower rate of 10 to 1 and use that: instead of importing food and medicine and industrial inputs as they’re supposed to, they just simply turn around and use it to enrich themselves at the higher black market rate.
So there’s a second official rate, which is called the DICOM, and that has risen from 200 to 1 up to 600 to 1. So the idea of freeing the Bolivar would be allowing it to go up to whatever the market says it should be.
There will be some disruption, and I think Rachel is right to point out the need to protect the poorest. And I think the socialist credit card idea is a really good way of doing that because it goes directly to consumers rather than to products which can be bought up by the so-called bachaqueros, or black marketeers at the street level who buy products.
So sort of raising the currency is one of the solutions. Providing the direct subsidies to consumers is another solution.
And then I think it really also has to have much more sort of horizontal links between organized communities and the government itself. From Chavista activists I’ve talked to, the government is increasingly detached from popular movements, increasingly detached from the popular sectors. And that’s a real problem. People I spoke to said that the government is living the same way they were three years ago. They don’t realize the urgency of the situation on the ground. So reestablishing those links and really making it such that popular sectors have a lot more control over decision-making in some of these practices, along with the more sort of technical policy changes, I think are absolutely essential to making this happen.
I think on an international level, anything that the government–and activists in particular–in other countries can do to really try to lessen the sort of offensive campaign against the Venezuelan government, both in the media and also through the U.S. government, are absolutely necessary. President Maduro regularly talks about economic war, and the opposition completely dismisses the idea. And it’s certainly not the case that all of the problems are the result of an economic war right now, but it’s absolutely the case that the U.S. sanctions, which are very narrow but exist against the Venezuelan government, have an effect in terms of investors and banks not being willing to do business with Venezuela.
I’ve also heard from people with inside knowledge that there’s been direct pressure from the U.S. government to bankers in the U.S. and Europe to not loan to Venezuela. So that increases the shortage of dollars.
So anything that people can do to sort of expose what the U.S. is trying to do and try to stop it, saying, this is not helpful, this is not helping the situation on the ground, I think would be very useful.
PERIES: Gabriel Hetland, Rachel Boothroyd, thank you so much for joining us.
BOOTHROYD: Thanks very much for having me.
HETLAND: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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