by Ted Morgan
In speaking of media reporting leading up to the Gulf War of 1991, Noam Chomsky declared that the United States “went to war in the manner of a totalitarian state.” Mass media coverage so totally reinforced George H.W. Bush administration claims that the American public was not aware that there were real grounds for believing that war could be avoided.
So it is, in fact, whenever the US government decides to wage war or engage in some form of overt imperial intervention in other nations –Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, Iraq, among many others. Well-orchestrated government propaganda creates the pretext for intervention, leaders of both political parties fall in line, and the mass media parrot their proclamations. It is only later on, when evidence begins to undermine propaganda claims, that dissenting views begin to emerge in mainstream political discourse.
In his systematic analysis of media coverage of the Vietnam War, Daniel Hallin demonstrated how national media totally failed to question American policy in Indochina until “credible” government officials themselves began to question the party line. As a rule, such critics focus on poor analysis or failing strategies, in what Hallin has labeled the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” None challenge the belief that the United States had good, even noble, intentions when it intervenes; such views are consigned to what Hallin called the “sphere of deviance,” reserved for views “unworthy of being heard.”
In two senses, then, mass media coverage is totalitarian-like: by failing to challenge government propaganda in the lead up to war, and by failing to challenge the myth that however it may fall short, the US means well when it intervenes elsewhere in the world. In these ways, media coverage falls in what Hallin called the “sphere of consensus,” essentially behaving as cheerleaders for US foreign policy. To be sure, Americans canseek out sources that provide critical perspectives left out of mainstream media, but mainstream discourse typically dismisses these as “ideological,” and most Americans seem ignorant of, or primed to write off, these sources. As William Gamson has noted, the mass media are “the major site in which contests over meaning must succeed politically.”
So it is that we find ourselves in the midst of another US intervention, what the Council on Foreign Relations would call a legitimate economic war against the nation of Venezuela. At least at this writing, the US has not intervened militarily. Yet, the patterns are the same; the mass media from Fox News on the right to the New York Times on the left side of mainstream discourse echo the dominant script in explaining conditions in Venezuela and the reasons for the well-meaning US actions. Along with numerous other critics writing in independent media, the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR: www.fair.org) has published scores of articles documenting systematic distortions on Venezuela across the full range of mass media going back to the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998 –all in “lock-step” with US propaganda.
Briefly, the contemporary story line goes something like this: Venezuela is a failed socialist state, due entirely to the corrupt practices of the dictatorial President, Nicolás Maduro. While usurping power and crushing political opposition, Maduro’s policies have bankrupted Venezuela’s economy leading to debilitating shortages in food and medicine. The Venezuelan people are increasingly desperate. Even US-backed efforts to bring “humanitarian aid” to the people of Venezuela have been rebuffed by Maduro’s military. A potential way out of this morass is offered by the possible return of the legitimate “interim president,” Juan Guaidó.
As with all propaganda, there are truths in this story: Maduro has concentrated power in his military-backed government, and there has been significant mismanagement of Venezuela’s state-owned oil producer, PDVSA, along with corruption on the part of government officials. Food and medicine shortages have grown drastically, and many Venezuelans have fled the country.
Yet, as Jacques Ellul wrote in his classic work, Propaganda, “Propaganda by its very nature is an enterprise for perverting the significance of events and of insinuating false intentions.” The Big Lie, in short, resides in “intentions and interpretations.” What is systematically left out of the dominant story –and virtually all mass media coverage — is the role the United States has played in seeking to replace the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro with a regime friendly to US economic and strategic interests. The US has long provided support and training for oppositional movements within Venezuela; it has lent support to coup efforts and even assassination attempts; and it has undermined, isolated, and eventually strangled the Venezuelan economy through sanctions and financial embargo.
Not only do US actions greatly exacerbate the suffering of the Venezuelan people, but, as with related efforts to destabilize (or crush) uncooperative leftist regimes in Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, they push the target government in the direction of increasing authoritarianism, thereby providing some apparent credibility to US propaganda claims.
Crucially but predictably invisible in mainstream media is the way these actions reveal and conform to the long-standing elite intention of maintaining US hegemony in Latin America. Indeed, leaving US economic warfare out of the story reinforces perceptions that, in seeking an end to the Bolivarian revolution, US intentions are good. It conveniently obscures three central objectives of US intervention: 1) gaining control over the production and distribution of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves –the largest in the world, 2) reasserting US hegemony over Latin America, and 3) preventing patterns of economic development that fail to conform to the neoliberal path demanded by the US and global capital — a persistent objective of US foreign policy. One can expect a US-backed regime to forcefully introduce the kind of disastrous neoliberal policies that have been so devastating for the Chilean people in the years following the 1973 US coup there.
By placing the immediate crisis in the context of longer-term US engagement in Venezuela, and Latin America generally, we not only find the totalitarian-like media traits confirmed, but we can perceive the fundamental imperatives of US foreign policy and how these lie beyond what Noam Chomsky has called the “boundaries of legitimate discourse.”
Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution: A Threat to US Hegemony in Latin America
From 1958 to 1998, the so-called Punto-Fijo era, Venezuela enjoyed a formal democracy, ruled by a two-party power-sharing agreement that excluded participation by other political parties. Buoyed by oil exports, the economy prospered for more than two decades, although poverty was widespread, particularly among the non-white population. The economic downturn of the 80s and 90s, accompanied by IMF-mandated government austerity measures, led to a drastic reduction in living standards, increasing inequality and popular discontent, and significant government repression. A 1989 government massacre of thousands of civilian protesters in Caracas (known as the “Caracazo”) was a catalyst for Hugo Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution,” named after the 19th century Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar.
The charismatic Chavez was elected President in 1998, promising a “new republic” with a new constitution, aimed at improving the lives of the poor and working classes while simultaneously empowering them through the establishment of local grass-roots councils. Media critics and some historians have denounced the undemocratic aspects of Chavez’ efforts to shift control of the police, courts and newly-scripted state media into conformity with government policy, yet, as Alan MacLeod has observed in his carefully documented account, left unsaid is that Chavez ushered in a “radical experiment in a much deeper, meaningful and participatory democracy.” Reviewing US and UK mass media accounts and citing Venezuelan opinion polls administered by anti-chavista organizations, MacLeod commented, “presenting the Punto Fijo period as a democratic era and Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution” as a regression into tyranny would be completely contrary to the empirical evidence. However, as well shall see, the media portrayed the country in exactly this fashion.”
During Chavez’ first four years as President, the state-owned oil company (PDVSA) was controlled by forces hostile to the government. During those years, the company managers used the control of oil to destabilize and even overthrow the government in a 2002 coup that lasted less than 48 hours. With funding from the so-called National Endowment for Democracy created by the Reagan administration, the US supported the coup. Interestingly, in its one day in power the coup engaged in precisely the kind of actions it and others had accused Chavez of carrying out. The coup was widely characterized in the US media as a popular uprising, yet a massive popular protest terminated the coup and returned Chavez to office. Still, while the coup held power, the New York Times editorialized,
With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chavez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to respected business leader, Pedro Carmona…. Rightly, [Mr. Chavez’] removal was a purely Venezuelan affair.
In the aftermath of the coup and a damaging opposition-organized general strike, Chavez took control of the state-owned oil company: he won an opposition-sought recall vote in 2004 and a landslide re-election in 2006.
The “Bolivarian Revolution”, while flawed, did indeed produce enormous improvements in the lives of millions of Venezuelans. In a 2009 economic study of ten years of the Chavez administration, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the Venezuelan economy had almost doubled in the years following the failed coup, and that the private sector had grown faster than the public sector. During that expansion, household poverty had been cut by more than half, and extreme poverty had declined by 72%. Inequality fell substantially, infant mortality fell by more than a third, higher education enrollments more than doubled, and unemployment declined from 11.3% to 7.8%. At 31.4%, inflation was “about where it was ten years ago.” The study noted that, like most countries, Venezuela’s faced the challenge of the world economic recession that followed the crash of 2007.
Chavez often railed against “Yankee imperialism” while pursuing an economic and political path antithetical to US (and global capital’s) neoliberal global requirements. Before Chavez, Venezuela cooperated with US demands that it overproduce oil to undermine OPEC and keep oil prices low. Chavez cut oil production which drove the price of oil (and profits from Venezuelan oil exports) sky-high. Even more significantly, in direct defiance of US domination of its Latin American “back yard,” Chavez used oil-generated revenues to provide assistance to other left-leaning governments or political parties in Latin America. Along with global and local conditions, these helped bring to power governments that were either leftist or pursued independence from the US hegemon.
Hugo Chavez died of cancer in 2103. His Vice-President Nicolás Maduro was narrowly elected President over the right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles. Alone in the world, the United States rejected the outcome and supported Capriles’ demands for a 100% audit of the election –an audit that confirmed the outcome. US media reports on the election revealed an “overwhelming tendency to describe the elections as unfair or unclean.”
The Maduro years coincided with sharply declining government revenue triggered initially by plummeting global oil prices compounded by the imposition and escalation of US economic sanctions and efforts to deprive Venezuela of revenue generation opportunities. The heavily indebted government sought to sustain the Bolivarian program by creating money instead of bowing to neoliberal austerity demands (thereby triggering hyperinflation), while shoring up its rule with increasing authoritarianism and human rights violations (while also facing increasing violence by opposition forces).
The US Congress passed the so-called “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014” enabling President Obama in early 2015 to declare that Venezuela was “an extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. Declaring a “state of emergency,” Obama issued sanctions against alleged Venezuelan human rights violators.
The Propaganda Model in 2019
The Trump administration escalated the long-standing economic war against Venezuelan Chavismo. In 2017, through sanctions and US Treasury warnings to international financial institutions, the administration sought to compound Venezuela’s economic distress by cutting off access to global financial credit –helping, in Venezuelan economist (and Maduro critic) Fernando Rodriguez’ account, to “precipitate the collapse in oil output” (see Chart, below, demonstrating plummeting oil production after sanctions were imposed, compared to Colombia’s non-sanctioned production). Unable to export oil for revenue, Venezuela was virtually unable to import much-needed goods like food and medicine.
In January 2019, the administration again escalated the economic war. First by “recognizing” the (unelected) leader of the Maduro-opposing Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guiadó as the legitimate “interim president” of Venezuela. As an early member of the militant opposition group, Popular Will, Guaidó and others had been quietly groomed for regime change activities with funding from a key US organization, the so-called National Endowment for Democracy. In conjunction with Guiadó’s emergence, a new round of right-wing anti-Maduro protests erupted, along with clashes between pro- and anti-Maduro forces. On Jan. 25, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed the notorious Elliott Abrams as the administration’s special envoy for Venezuela; Abrams’ suggestions that “all options are on the table” raises the specter of US military intervention.
Days later, the US imposed a crippling new round of sanctions against the Venezuelan oil producer PDVSA, blocking its access to $7 billion in assets and restricting Venezuela’s access to gold deposits it could sell to raise desperately needed revenue. In a 2000-word story in the British Independent, former UN rapporteur and human rights expert, Alfred de Zayas was featured denouncing the “illegal” sanctions for weighing most heavily on the poorest Venezuelans. As “economic warfare,” de Zayas noted, “Modern day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable to medieval sieges of towns…. [They] attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees.” De Zayas likened the US sanctions to those the US imposed on Chile –designed in Richard Nixon’s words to make Chile “scream” — prior to the US overthrow of President Allende in 1973.
Finally, as the devastating impact of sanctions was becoming more visible, the Trump administration and Juan Guaidó announced that $20 million in “humanitarian aid” would be provided to help alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Ignored by most of the US media, both the United Nations and the Red Cross warned the US not to engage in this “politicized” public relations stunt, since humanitarian aid is by definition disassociated from a particular political agenda.
Maduro rejected the aid for what it was, a publicity stunt designed to lure Venezuelans and particularly military personnel away from Maduro and gain support for Guaidó. Particularly during February, headlines about “Maduro blocking critical humanitarian aid to Venezuela” were widely reinforced by a deluge of media images of anti-Maduro protests (vs. rare footage of pro-Maduro rallies), aid vehicles being rebuffed by Venezuelan military at the Colombia-Venezuela border, and the widely displayed image –originally tweeted by Mike Pompeo — of a fuel tanker and cargo containers blocking access to the bridge between Colombia and Venezuela. The Canadian Broadcast Company later acknowledged that it had fallen for Pompeo’s lie. Instead the blockade preceded the alleged aid shipments; the recently constructed bridge had not yet been opened because of increasing Venezuelan concern about the security of its Colombian border. Stymied in its “humanitarian aid” stunt, the Trump administration provided an additional $56 million in support of Guaidó, turned control of Venezuelan accounts in any US banks over to Guaidó, and urged Latin American allies to shift control of assets from Maduro to Guaidó.
Over a two-month period, FAIR published 15 distinct articles documenting the mass media’s pervasive support of administration propaganda. Entirely absent from these media accounts, except when voiced by the widely denigrated Maduro, were any critiques suggesting US objectives deviate from bringing democracy and humanitarian aid to the allegedly oppressed people of Venezuela. Fox News “reports” were far more virulent, repeatedly attacking Democratic presidential candidates by equating their alleged “socialist” goals with the “failed socialism” of Venezuela. [An age-old tactic, echoed in Britain where the Daily Express and Daily Mail attacked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for pursuing the Venezuela model for Britain.] Yet the more liberal and Trump-critical outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and The New Yorker consistently supported US policies and the dominant story line, only occasionally expressing concerns that more militant action might re-ignite anti-Americanism in the region. All the media remain cheerleaders for US hegemony in Latin America.
The Restoration of US Hegemony over Latin America:
In July 2018, economist Mark Weisbrot, who has written widely about Venezuela outside the boundaries of mainstream media discourse, penned a hypothetical letter that resigning State Department official, Thomas Shannon, might have given to Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Concerned that heavy-handed US intervention would trigger a Latin American backlash against the US, the letter reveals the “other side” of the mainstream debate from Trump’s bellicose threats. It also articulates the central US concern for hegemony and details US efforts to this end in nations like Haiti, Honduras, and Brazil.
Bemoaning insufficient attention given to Latin America – an “unpleasant, unintended consequence of that fateful war [against Iraq] that destabilized the Middle East” — Weisbrot-as-Shannon noted that “in the first decade of this century left governments came to govern the majority of Latin America,” including Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Chile. He continued, “These left governments were following more or less the same foreign policy, which the more outspoken among them labeled ‘anti-imperialist.’ I don’t have to tell you what that means to us.”
However, Weisbrot-as-Shannon continued,
“in large part [as] a result of our work over the last twenty years [work that included a military coup in Honduras, “parliamentary coups” in Brazil and Paraguay, and the strangulation of Venezuela’s economy], Latin America is now ours….” [I]n the countries that have most of the population of the region –including Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia — we have governments that are solidly aligned with us, to a degree not seen for decades.”
He went on to observe that “thanks to our years of patient public diplomacy, the media have ignored the impact of our financial embargo, much as it ignored our years of previous intervention.”
Conclusion: What Can the Left Do?
News coverage in March 2019 largely revolved around two damaging electrical blackouts in Venezuela, the fate of Juan Guaidó’s return to Venezuela, and reports of Russian and Chinese support for Maduro amid speculation about the potential for civil war and/or some form of US military intervention. Meanwhile, in an opinioncolumn, Francisco Rodriguez and Jeffrey Sachs urged compromise in Venezuela, noting that “sanctions will cost Venezuela’s economy $11 billion in lost oil revenue in the next year, which is equal to 94 percent of what the country spent last year in goods imports.” As they put it, the message to Venezuelans of US support for Guaidó is stark: “Change regime or starve.” A subsequent effort by Guaidó to foment an April uprising and lure the military to desert Maduro –exposed as a “fake corporate news story” by FAIR– was an abject failure, leading the New York Times to opine, “No one said regime change was going to be easy.”
In these desperate times for Venezuelans, the American left finds itself once again largely outside the boundaries of what passes for legitimate discourse in the United States. It is true that some of the more progressive members of Congress –Tulsi Gabbard, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders — have expressed varying degrees of criticisms of US intervention in Venezuela. It is also true that their critiques have been largely ignored by the more liberal media while being viciously attacked by Fox News and others.
Gabriel Hetland, of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), suggests that the left “should be guided by three principles: non-interventionism, self-determination, and solidarity with the oppressed.” This, she argues, requires persistent opposition to US interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs, support for free and fair elections and strengthening of the popular grass-roots institutions (both of which, she notes, have suffered under Maduro), and standing in solidarity with the oppressed subordinate classes. Anticipating a potential new government taking power at some point, she observes that “a critical task will be to prevent the exclusion and demonization of Chavistas, Chavismo and the Left in general,” noting that the “dangers of this occurring are very real.” Finally, she notes, “it means working to transform US politics,” which, one might add, requires ending the hegemony of US and global capital’s regime of neoliberalism.
Ted Morgan is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and a long-time Lehigh Valley activist. His most recent book is What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.