- In Alerts 2006
- Post 18 May 2006
- Last Updated on 18 May 2006
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In Part 1 of this alert we showed how the mainstream media have been united in depicting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as an extreme, absurd and threatening figure. In essence, the public has been urged to consider Chavez beyond the pale of respectable politics.
As John Pilger has observed, British media attacks “resemble uncannily those of the privately owned Venezuelan television and press, which called for the elected government to be overthrown”. (Pilger, ‘Chávez is a threat because he offers the alternative of a decent society,’ The Guardian, May 13, 2006;
We focused mainly on news reports, skipping many of the more madcap comment pieces. Aleksander Boyd, for example, wrote in the Times of how: “The Venezuelan President aligns himself with dictators, human rights abusers and notorious narcoterrorists.” (Boyd, ‘Guess who's coming to dinner with Red Ken?,’ The Times, May 9, 2006)
No surprise, then, to learn that in thrall to this monster: “Venezuela has ceased to be a real democracy: it now exists instead in the murky twilight world between democracy and dictatorship, where there is still a free press and a nod to holding elections.” (Ibid)
In fact Chavez is one of the world’s most popular heads of state. Boyd has been quoted and heard elsewhere - in The Sun and on BBC Radio 2, for example. Julia Buxton of the University of Bradford responded in a letter to the Times:
“Mr Boyd has been linked to threats of violence against people working and writing on Venezuelan related issues for the past few years. He has also organised disruptive protest actions that have undermined public security and he has published libellous and inflammatory articles on Islam, Middle Eastern and South American politics.” (www.vicuk.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=85&Itemid=29)
It might be argued that media reporting simply reflects a dismal reality - perhaps Chavez +is+ irresponsible. But in fact the current media smear reveals more about power relations in Britain than it does about politics in Venezuela. In 1992, Jeff Cohen of the US media watch site Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) described media coverage afforded to one important Western ally:
"During that whole period when the United States was helping build up the military and economic might of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the issue of his human rights abuses was off the media agenda. There was this classic in the New York Post, a tabloid in New York. After the  crisis began, they had a picture of Saddam Hussein patting the British kid on the head and their banner headline was 'Child Abuser'. That was very important to us [at FAIR] and very ironic, because Amnesty International and other human rights groups had released studies in 1984 and 1985 which showed that Saddam Hussein's regime regularly tortured children to get information about their parents' views. That just didn't get the coverage.
“It shows one of the points FAIR has made constantly: that when a foreign government is in favour with the United States, with the White House, its human rights record is basically off the mainstream media agenda, and when they do something that puts them out of favour with the US government, the foreign government's human rights abuses are, all of a sudden, major news." (Quoted, David Barsamian, Stenographers To Power, Common Courage Press, 1992, p.142)
In a review of press reporting on Iran under the mass murdering Shah - a Western ally installed and armed by Britain and America - William A. Dorman and Ehsan Omad noted:
"We have been unable to find a single example of a news and feature story in the American mainstream press that uses the label ‘dictator‘." (Dorman and Omad, 'Reporting Iran the Shah's Way,' Columbia Journalism Review, January-February 1979)
British media performance is close to identical, as we have documented many times.
Of the hundreds of media reports on Chavez in recent weeks, almost none have depicted events in Venezuela as a fundamentally positive and urgently needed attempt to improve the condition of impoverished people. In a rare exception, John Pilger wrote in the Guardian:
“Mavis Mendez has seen, in her 95 years, a parade of governments preside over the theft of tens of billions of dollars in oil spoils, much of it flown to Miami, together with the steepest descent into poverty ever known in Latin America; from 18% in 1980 to 65% in 1995, three years before Chávez was elected. ‘We didn't matter in a human sense,’ she said. ‘We lived and died without real education and running water, and food we couldn't afford. When we fell ill, the weakest died. In the east of the city, where the mansions are, we were invisible, or we were feared. Now I can read and write my name, and so much more; and whatever the rich and their media say, we have planted the seeds of true democracy, and I am full of joy that I have lived to witness it.’" (Pilger, op. cit)
Almost nothing of this has been reported elsewhere. Do the journalists of our corporate press just not care about people like Mavis Mendez? Does it not matter to them that Chavez is, as Pilger writes, “a threat, especially to the United States... the threat of a good example in a continent where the majority of humanity has long suffered a Washington-designed peonage”? (Ibid)
In all the voluminous coverage, there has been close to zero analysis of why so many Latin Americans living in resource-rich countries have been so poor for so long. The role of the West in this catastrophe has been essentially invisible. Instead, a remarkable leader in the Independent on Sunday observed:
“Mr Chavez is an unabashed admirer of Fidel Castro, which gives his attachment to democracy a temporary and improvised feel. As do the human rights abuses of which the Venezuelan government is guilty.
“Most sinister of all, perhaps, is Mr Chavez's use of anti-US sentiment to create an external threat in the classic gambit of the tyrant. As we reported recently, he has formed a militia of ordinary Venezuelan citizens to mobilise against the threat of an ‘invasion’ by unspecified enemies. That is not the sane or balanced action of a committed democrat.” (Leader, ‘Why Hugo Chavez is no hero,’ Independent on Sunday, May 14, 2006)
Can it be that the media ingénues at the Independent on Sunday are completely unaware of the reality of Latin American politics?
Killing Hope - Of Jackals And Economic Hit Men
In his book, Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man, John Perkins describes the role he played in the West’s devastation of the Third World for profit, Latin America very much included. Perkins compares himself to the slave traders of colonial times:
“I had been the heir of those slavers who had marched into African jungles and hauled men and women off to waiting ships. Mine had been a more modern approach, subtler - I never had to see the dying bodies, smell the rotting flesh, or hear the screams of agony.” (Perkins, Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man, Ebury Press, 2005, p.148; www.johnperkins.org)
In January 1971, Perkins was hired by American big business to forecast economic growth in Third World countries. These forecasts were used to justify massive international loans, which funded engineering and construction projects, so funnelling money back to US corporations while enriching a small Third World elite.
Perkins explains that his real task - rarely discussed but always understood in high government and business circles - was to deliberately exaggerate growth forecasts in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The goal was for these countries to +fail+ to achieve their inflated targets and so be unable to repay their loans. The point being, as Perkins writes, that Third World leaders would then “become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty“. As a result, American interests “can draw on them whenever we desire — to satisfy our political, economic, or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering and construction companies become fabulously wealthy”. (Ibid, p.xi)
The “needs” include military bases, votes at the UN, cheap access to oil and other human and natural resources. Perkins describes this as a non-military means for achieving “the most subtle and effective form of imperialism the world has ever known”. (Ibid, p.139)
Bankrupt debtor countries have thus been forced to spend much of their national wealth simply on repaying these debts even as their people sicken and die from malnutrition and poverty. For example, international banks dominated by Washington loaned Ecuador billions of dollars from the 1970s onwards so that it could hire engineering and construction firms to improve life for the rich. In the space of thirty years, poverty grew from 50 to 60 per cent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 per cent, public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion, and the share of national resources allocated to the poor fell from 20 per cent to 6 per cent.
Today, Ecuador is required to devote nearly 50 per cent of its national budget to debt repayment - leaving almost no resources for millions of citizens classified as “dangerously impoverished”. Out of every $100 worth of oil pumped from the Amazon, less than $3 goes to Ecuadorian people dying from lack of food and potable water.
Perkins is clear that, waiting in the wings should the economic hit men (EHMs) fail, are the real hit men - “the jackals”. He writes of Jaime Roldós, president of Ecuador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama, who both died in plane crashes:
“Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire. We EHMs failed to bring Roldós and Torrijos around, and the other type of hit men, the CIA-sanctioned jackals who were always right behind us, stepped in.” (Ibid, p.ix)
Perkins writes of Roldós‘s death in May 1981:
“It had all the markings of a CIA-orchestrated assassination. I understood that it had been executed so blatantly in order to send a message. The new Reagan administration, complete with its fast-draw Hollywood cowboy image, was the ideal vehicle for delivering such a message. The jackals were back, and they wanted Omar Torrijos and everyone else who might consider joining an anti-corporate crusade to know it.” (Ibid, p.158)
Torrijos was killed just two months later. This is the likely fate that awaits Chavez, Morales, and other Third World leaders currently being ridiculed by the British press.
The last fifty years have seen a vast bloodbath as Washington has funnelled money, weapons and supplies to client dictators and right-wing death squads battling independent nationalism across Latin America. Britain’s only left-wing daily newspaper, the Morning Star - with a tiny circulation of between 13,000-14,000 - is a lone voice describing some of these horrors. Dr Francisco Dominguez, head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University, writes:
“Military dictatorship, death squads, torture, assassination, economic blockade, economic genocide, military intervention, wanton repression, corruption and every other means intrinsic to capitalist and imperialist ‘management techniques’ has been utilised to secure the profits of primarily US multinationals and the wealth of the privileged few. Mass unemployment and mass poverty are just two extra means with which to obtain compliance with the economic and political pillage of the continent.” (Dominguez, ‘Latin America takes centre stage,’ Morning Star, November 22, 2005)
John Pilger adds:
"In the US media in the 1980s, the ‘threat’ of tiny Nicaragua was seriously debated until it was crushed. Venezuela is clearly being ‘softened up’ for something similar. A US army publication, Doctrine for Asymmetric War against Venezuela, describes Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution as the ‘largest threat since the Soviet Union and Communism‘." (Pilger, op., cit)
Who benefits? The answer is provided by Professor William Domhoff of the University of California at Santa Cruz in his study ‘Wealth, Income, and Power In the United States’. Domhoff reports that as of 2001, the top 1% of US households owned 33.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% had 51%, indicating that just 20% of the people owned 84%, leaving only 16% of the wealth for the bottom 80%. In terms of financial wealth, the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 39.7%.
In terms of types of financial wealth, the top 1 percent of households have 44.1% of all privately held stock, 58.0% of financial securities, and 57.3% of business equity. The top 10% have 85% to 90% of stock, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Domhoff comments:
“Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.” (G. William Domhoff, ‘Wealth, Income, and Power In The United States,’ February 2006; http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html)
These fabulously wealthy elites own politics, they own the media, they control what the American people know, see and think. In Britain, the top 5% of the British population own 45% of the nation's wealth - they also run politics, the economy and the media in their own interests.
Naturally, then, elite journalists reflexively declare that the United States and Britain are passionately intent on bringing democracy to the world. A recent BBC radio talk show asked: “Are 100 British soldiers' lives too high a price to pay for democracy in Iraq?” (BBC Radio Five Live)
This, despite the fact that the income ratio of the one-fifth of the world’s population in the wealthiest countries to the one-fifth in the poorest countries went from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1995.
Despite achieving bestseller status by word of mouth, Perkins’ account has been all but ignored by the mainstream British press since its publication last year, receiving mentions in just four articles. In one of these, a Sunday Times reviewer wrote:
“One measure of the success of an author is whether his book passes the ‘laugh out loud’ test. John Perkins’s had me in stitches. The problem is, it is not meant to.” (David Charters, ‘A miss not a hit,’ Sunday Times, March 5, 2006)
Cynically ignoring the issues and evidence, Charters dismissed the book as “ridiculous”: “If it was not so laughable, it could be depressing.” The book has received similar treatment in the US press.
We should be under no illusions. The corporate media oppose Chavez because the corporate system is viscerally opposed to policies that are unleashing democratic hopes in Venezuela. It takes a moment’s thought to understand that greater democracy, equality, justice and popular empowerment are +not+ in the interests of a system built on exploitation. As John Perkins comments of the media:
“Things are not as they appear... Our media is part of the corporatocracy. The officers and directors who control nearly all our communications outlets know their places; they are taught throughout life that one of their most important jobs is to perpetuate, strengthen, and expand the system they have inherited. They are very efficient at doing so, and when opposed, they can be ruthless.” (Perkins, op. cit, p.221)
As long as we support this corporate media system - as long as we hand over our money for its product, for its phoney ’balance’ and subliminal smears - it will continue to subordinate the welfare of millions of human beings to corporate greed.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jonathan Charles at the BBC
Write to Stephen Castle at the Independent on Sunday
Write to Jonathan Steele at the Guardian
Write to Kim Sengupta at the Independent
Write to Daniel Howden at the Independent
Write to Richard Beeston at the Times
Write to Jim Gray, editor of Channel 4 News
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC news