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T. M. Scruggs: Presidential election was as Jimmy Carter said “best in the
world”, but Venezuela needs
independent investigative journalism

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On Sunday night, Hugo Chávez was reelected as president of Venezuela. Now joining us from Berkeley, California, with his thoughts about the election is T. M. Scruggs. He’s a musician, a social activist. He’s an anthromusicologist. His geographical specialty is the musical cultures of the Americas, especially Latin America. He was at the University of Iowa from 1994 to 2009. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Venezuela, and he taught at the University of the Andes, where he researched music and community media. Thanks for joining us, T. M.


JAY: And I should add, T. M.’s also a member of the board of The Real News Network.

So what are your thoughts about the election? I know you spent quite a lot of time in Venezuela. You follow the events there closely. What are your reflections?

SCRUGGS: Well, it’s a little bit like we expected. The polls all along averaged out to showing Hugo Chávez was somewhere between 9 to 12, 13 percent lead all the way through the campaign. And we know what a [incompr.] free, honest, and transparent balloting system there is in Venezuela that is the envy of not just us here in the United States but, really, the world.

JAY: You say “we know.” How do we know?

SCRUGGS: We know from all the observers that have come down there and seen it, from conservative governments in the European Union, Organization of American States, the Carter Center. And Jimmy Carter famously (although you may not have read this in corporate news) six weeks ago said that the elections in Venezuela were the freest in the world. And I myself was there for the last presidential elections, in 2006, and I went around all day in the city where I lived in, Mérida, and talked with everybody, and people were very—there were no complaints about the balloting and the honesty of the elections.

JAY: Now, before the elections, there was a lot of stories in the American media about how the voting machines might not really be so secret and that people might be intimidated to vote, and there was a kind of a creation of an atmosphere, you can say, in many papers, including The New York Times, that one would have thought might have been getting set for the opposition to reject the results. But they didn’t. What’s your take on this?

SCRUGGS: Well, there were two stories they sent out. The more recent one, which came out of Los Angeles Times, actually, was that people were saying that they were afraid to vote, which is baloney. I mean, no one is afraid to vote in Venezuela. And that really was not going to stick from anyone who had basic knowledge of how the elections work in Venezuela.

And then the one before that was there was a disreputable poll that’s run—all the polling agencies are run by conservative businessmen, but there is one that is a little crazy that suddenly decided that the right-wing candidate Capriles Radonski was [incompr.] which would be a 15 to 20 percent sudden flip-flop reversal of what everybody else had been saying. And that was what we were worried about, trying to set up a situation where there would be an expectation not only in Venezuela, but perhaps more importantly outside the country, that it had to be such that Capriles had won, and therefore if Chávez was announced the winner, it could only be from fraud, and that would then excuse people going to the streets with demonstrations that could become violent, and then maybe parts of the military would have to—.

JAY: Okay, but none of that happened.

SCRUGGS: None of that happened. And we kind of could see that there was not an agreement from the powers that be in the U.S. that they wanted that kind of a solution. They knew that Chávez was going to win the balloting. All their sources told them so. And this election, the presidential terms in Venezuela are in six-year terms. So the last one I was at coincided with the United States legislative elections. But this one coincided with national elections, and it was also very close to the election day.

And Venezuela’s not Grenada. If you want to try and score some cheap points by overrunning a small country in 24 hours and it’s all over, then you’re not going to have that option for Venezuela. If you invade Venezuela, it will be a bloody battle, not to mention the fact—.

JAY: Well, I don’t think the—I mean, the thinking or plan people expected, if they expected something, wouldn’t have been an invasion; it would have been some mass opposition rejecting the results and creating this kind of sort of tumultuous situation on the streets.

SCRUGGS: Yes, but who knows how it could escalate if they really wanted to go for it? I was thinking more like a no-fly zone or something. But there was not—that was not in the cards, because the Obama administration did not want any trouble on the foreign policy front, especially considering the unity within Latin America, where people understand—and that governments support the electoral process in Venezuela because they know that they’re free and transparent.

JAY: But it certainly doesn’t stop the American media from calling Hugo Chávez a dictator, and the basic line is, yeah, maybe the elections are fair, in the sense the voting machines work and the votes are legitimate, but what they suggest in the U.S. media is what’s happening is Hugo Chávez using his oil money to, quote-unquote, buy votes amongst the poor, and that in between elections his rule is not democratic, in terms of attitude towards the media and such. I mean, what do you make of those arguments? You’ve spent quite a bit of time there.

SCRUGGS: Sure. Well, [incompr.] ludicrous. You know, I do my research on the media, and you don’t have to just take my word for it. You can go online, go to that site called the Paperboy, for example, where you can get newspapers from around the world. And if you read Spanish or you can just figure it out from headlines, look up all the major newspapers in Venezuela: every single one of them is right-wing.

And the same goes for the four major television stations. And one of them is an active political participant. It’s like the Fox News, you know, that they kind of—even creates demonstrations, doesn’t just report on them. It’s called Globovisión. And these people were also involved in the 2002 coup that took place and overthrew the Constitution and so on for about 47 hours, before enough people took the streets to reverse it.

There is government media, but these are like community stations that have a limited kind of local appeal. And then there are the state stations.

And the fact is—and this is something that is something yet to be done by progressive forces in Venezuela, and that is really to get their act together within media and investigative journalism. There is not a good single national newspaper that has fearless investigative journalism and will report things whether it implicates a local pro-Chávez elected or appointed official or not. There is the Correo del Orinoco, which you can get online, but it’s too triumphalist and hews closely to whatever the government is saying. And the same for the TV stations.

The main one that has the news does not have crews. They go around to different cities and investigate people. They’ve gotten better in the last two, three years. But to go ahead and show where someone is not fulfilling their promises, even if they are a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela—.

And that kind of investigative reporting, when I was there, something had already started that’s even worse now, and that is that there are laws that declare land that is not agriculturally appropriate land, that has not been tilled for many years, can be expropriated and given to small communal groups that then begin to farm, a lot of landless peasants and people who go into the cities because they can’t make a living off land, whereas this is good land. The government gives them some basic support so they can get farms going. Well, the local landowners around there have been murdering these people and probably using some Colombian paramilitaries across the border—or not, but they have been murdering them, and it’s been going on for years. And there will be a report of—another person was killed in the state of Lara, say. But who is this person? There’s no photo. No one goes there, no one interviews them. That’s the kind of really responsible journalism that the progressive forces need to start to develop inside Venezuela to become more of a credible force for a lot of the people who are voting for the opposition candidate because they see the Chávez government just becoming too ingrown and ossified.

JAY: Right. I think that’s—people don’t get that, that much of the opposition is actually—it’s not all right-wing in the opposition; a lot of it actually supports a lot of the policies of Chávez, but they don’t think they’re being executed the way they’d like to see. In fact, Capriles had to actually run his campaign with that kind of position, although people—a lot of people didn’t think he was very genuine about it, I guess.

SCRUGGS: Ridiculous, because they had a primary run by the government electoral system—that’s how much they trust it—and he won the primary. But within those candidates, he is like the Paul Ryan of the conservative coalition. And then to see him get up, just lie in the teeth about how, yes, these social programs that have provided medical care and education and so on are really good. I support them. I will just do them more efficiently. This would be as if Obama had come to power [incompr.] use expressions that they like to use about Chávez in 2000 and instead of concocting what he did, had a Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care program, and then now, in the reelection, we would be hearing Romney and Paul Ryan saying, yes, [single-payer] health care is great, but it’s just not run efficiently enough.

JAY: Right.

SCRUGGS: I mean, they were lying in the teeth. And in the same way, those programs have been around long enough [inaud.] palpable and so material. And people have personal experiences on how their lives change from those programs, that no candidate can come out and be honest about how they plan to privatize and destroy them. Even in 2006, the candidate from the right wing, Manuel Rosales, I was at his campaign rallies. He used to start in the first two minutes by saying, don’t worry, we are going to keep the missions—these are these various social programs. They’re always called [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, it sounds a bit like the debate we just saw, where Romney said, don’t worry, we’re going to insure you with preexisting conditions and so on.

SCRUGGS: It just goes to show you that if you push for something that improves the lives of the people, once they see that it really works, they will defend it. And the right wing knows that they will defend it. And then they can’t even openly talk about destroying it.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, T. M.

SCRUGGS: Pleasure.

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


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T. M. Scruggs is an ethnomusicologist whose geographical specialty is Latin America and the Caribbean. He taught at the University of Iowa from 1994 to 2009, as well as universities in Nicaragua and Venezuela. He now lives in Berkeley, California.