Venezuela is a topic on which our media has failed us. A dramatic claim, yes, but something which has become abundantly clear in recent weeks. The country is currently in financial and social crisis after an oil price crash, five years of Nicolás Maduro’s administration, US sanctions and a contested election last year. From the discord, opposition leader Juan Guaidó has emerged and proclaimed himself President after claiming last year’s elections were corrupt. The United States and its allies have been quick to jump to the defence of Guaidó, by recognising him as the President over Maduro. The situation in Venezuela is complex; to deny that there are issues within the country at large, and within Maduro’s party, would be farcical.
But what is also farcical is Western media coverage of Venezuela. It has led to a Western Hemisphere-wide boogy-manning of Maduro as a dictator, despot, and thus public enemy number one to the free and democratic world. The result: a global press machine in support of regime change, and the implicit message that the US is free to do as it wishes with Latin America.
To illustrate the point, these are the top headline results on Google for ‘Venezuela’ as of the time of writing:
‘Venezuela owes China and Russia billions as presidential fight rages’, say CNBC.
CNN runs with: ‘The transformation of Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s self-declared president’.
Over here, BBC News writes, ‘Venezuela crisis: Juan Guaidó backed by Lima Group’ and ‘Venezuela crisis: Why Russia has so much to lose’.
Similarly, the Guardian has run with ‘A slow-motion catastrophe’: on the road in Venezuela, 20 years after Chávez’s rise’.
Alongside this, there is also a significant emphasis on Maduro’s blocking of foreign aid from the US.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
The view of the press appears to be that Venezuela is a failed state in need of regime change. Starting with the latter issue, a common trope in the current discussions around Venezuela is the perception of Maduro as a manic despot who is voluntarily starving his subjects as he clings for power. Key to this has been Maduro’s decision to prevent United States supplies from entering the country.
Publications such as the Washington Post have been quick to emphasise the need for aid: ‘Venezuela is submerged in a humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of people have fled the country in recent years after hyperinflation made the prices of staple goods soar. Those who are left are dealing with dangerous shortages of medicine, food and other necessities.’ The issue with this is the positioning of this action by the US as a humanitarian mission full of good intentions. As a result, there is an implication that Maduro is merely biting the hand that feeds.
Last year, Donald Trump bit back at the re-election of Maduro by imposing even greater oil sanctions on Venezuela. This crippled the state’s economy and froze various economic assets, which in turn has led to many of the current economic issues which Venezuela faces right now. Given its reliance on oil trade, these sanctions have hurt more than just the state oil firms which Maduro relies on. Francisco Rodrígues, a Torino Capital economist, said: ‘I’m afraid that if these sanctions are implemented in their current form, we’re looking at starvation.’
The United States’ sending of food and other supplies is as cynical as it gets, and this is not just the opinion of international socialists and Venezuela itself. The United Nations and Red Cross have both warned the Trump administration against politicising this humanitarian aid, as the only people who lose are those who need help. This is an attempt to undermine Venezuelan efforts to fix an economic crash which the US has, itself, worsened immeasurably. If the US really wanted to help the people of Venezuela, the sanctions would be lifted.
Such a strategy is typical of US-Latin American intervention: destabilise, place a sticking plaster on a gaping wound it created, then insert a new leader due. Historical precedent does not support the case for America as a benevolent force in South America: CIA and military involvement in the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), Brazilian Coup (1964) Argentinean Coup (1976), Chilean Coup (1973) and many others are all black marks on the trustworthiness of the US. What is also untrustworthy, in this respect, is the press’ coverage of these incidents. Adam Johnson, co-presenter of current affairs podcast Citations Needed, pointed out that of the twelve American-backed Latin American coups, the New York Times has supported ten of them.
Claims regarding the supposed undemocratic nature of Venezuela are also paper-thin. The 2018 general election saw Maduro re-elected with 67% of the vote on a turnout of 46%. This landslide victory on a small turnout appears to be the root of much of this criticism. Maduro’s decision to call an election was met with calls to boycott the vote by opposition politicians, likely accounting for at least some of the reduced turnout. Snap elections are inherently undemocratic—especially when they are called in order to solidify the power of a ruling party. They are opportunistic and usually called in bad faith.
However, there is one issue which many news outlets appear to be willfully ignoring: they are holding Venezuela to a stricter criterion on account of ideological differences (and, arguably, Southern Hemisphere bias) than they would to a Western nation. Where else was a snap election called in order for the ruling party to solidify a mandate to push through legislation? Our own Theresa May pulled the same stunt in 2017. The difference, of course, is that it backfired due to the unpopularity of said legislation and the party in general.
Here’s another one: which country has had two separate enquiries into voter fraud in the last four years? The Conservative Party’s Craig Mackinlay was in 2017 charged with election expenses fraud just days before the aforementioned snap election; the vote leave campaign has faced similar investigations; and there have been rumblings of a possible investigation into double voting in previous years here in the UK. This is in contrast to Venezuela, where former US President Jimmy Carter, who is hardly a known socialism-lover, described its election system in 2012 as the ‘best in the world’ in an interview about his work on the Carter Centre foundation.
Where else was a snap election called in order for the ruling party to solidify a mandate to push through legislation? Our own Theresa May pulled the same stunt in 2017
Another media myth has been this idea of the Chavistas ruining what used to be the ‘richest country in Latin America’, and depriving it of this precious status. What is often left out of such an analysis, typical of US broadcast media (Fox, MSNBC, CNNand others), is who this wealth actually benefitted. The social programmes which the Chavistas brought in bumped up literacy, slashed poverty and by all standards improved the country for the poorest in the country. Furthermore, Chavismo is something which, in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, academic Michael McCarthy pointed out as a popular concept and set of programmes beyond Chavez himself. An idea which the Venezuelan opposition seem to ignore.
One of the headlines at the beginning of this article from the Guardian referred to a ‘slow motion disaster’ in the 20 years since Chávez’ election. Such a headline implies that today’s situation was in some way inevitable. This fatalistic approach is something which, as media consumers, we should look at critically: could it be that socialist states in Latin America break down because of external pressure? What exactly makes Juan Guaidó more qualified to be President than Nicolás Maduro? Why is it that Guaidó’s ‘international support’ comes from largely NATO and US-supporting nations?
Asking such questions can go a long way to a more nuanced discussion around Venezuela. At the time of writing, the state’s future is unclear and if the US ramps up its sanctions further—people will starve, and they will die. While it has become a cliché in recent years, read beyond the mainstream press for a more holistic and factual view of the issue.