February 21, 2003

The Full Mugabe

There’s one positive side to this whole Carlos Fernández incarceration hubbub: the foreign press is finally taking the gloves off. After months of not quite knowing how to deal with the crisis, of not being entirely sure whether to treat Chávez like a normal democratic president or an autocrat, the Fernández episode seems to have tipped the scales. It’s the Mugabization of Hugo Chávez in the court of world public opinion. It’s still far from complete, but now it’s definitely on the way.

Consider this remarkable story by Scott Wilson in the Washington Post. I’ve been friends with Scott for a long time and consider him one of the best journalists around – he’s not the kind of observer you can snow under with propaganda, much less recruit him to peddle yours. For a long time, I’ve had the feeling he understands, at a gut level, how dangerous Chávez is. But – and this is really difficult for opposition-minded Venezuelans to understand - Scott doesn’t draw a paycheck to tell the world how his gut is feeling. As a reporter, his code of ethics dictates that he can’t go any further than the facts allow. And for a long time, with Chávez going to lengths to maintain a fiction of democratic legality, the facts remained just too murky to report in Mugabian terms.

But in jailing an important opposition leader, Chávez crossed a kind of red-line, transgressing the first commandment of third world leaders hoping for sympathetic treatment in the foreign papers – thou shalt not indulge in behavior stereotypical of a dictator. And now he’s paying the price. His treatment in the Post is absolutely brutal. I’ve never seen the government take it this hard in a reputable foreign news story before. I think a lot of foreign journalists were, in a sense, waiting for a big stink-up to pounce – and now the stink-up is here, the government's heavy autocratic character is in plain for all to see, and the pouncing has started.


Reuter's is just as harsh as the Post - they played that papaya quote for all its worth - and AP is just scathing – I can’t think of a lead anywhere near as biting as this one in any AP story I've ever read out of Venezuela. In, the Wall Street Journal Marc Lifsher writes of “death-squad-style killings.” The NYT had been behind the curve on this one, but they put out a quite strong editorial condemning the arrest, and they’re flying in David González tonight, and while I only know him superficially, he’s a fantastically talented reporter and can be expected to write some good stuff.

Is it the Full Mugabe yet? Not quite. But the treatment Chávez is getting now is far, far closer to it. My fear is that he’ll use the international media blackout that will come with the start of the war on Iraq for cover – people will be very nervous here the day the war starts. Specifically, it’s easy to foresee that he’ll move against the private TV stations within minutes of the start of the war. Under normal circumstances – and the stories of the last few days bear this out – he’d be pilloried abroad for a stunt like that. But with the green lights streaking over the skies of Baghdad on CNN, who can tell?

February 20, 2003

The price of dissent

What do you call a political leader jailed for his political views? A political prisoner, right?

Just wanted to settle that up front – President Chávez’s endlessly repeated claim that there are no political prisoners in this country is now dead. Last night, the government “arrested” Carlos Fernández, one of the most visible opposition leaders, in a secret police operation that looked more like a kidnapping – a dozen heavily armed men suddenly jumped on him and commandeered his car, as he was leaving a restaurant. There was no district attorney present (as required by Venezuelan law), these guys showed no arrest warrant, they are keeping him incommunicado and they won’t even confirm his whereabouts. So where, exactly, is the borderline between an arrest and a state-sponsored kidnapping?

Carlos Fernández is far from my favorite opposition leader – he’s crass, often radical without a purpose, he’s a terrible public speaker and he played a major role in leading the opposition up the garden path known as the General Strike – a fantastically dumb adventure that did nothing but consolidate Chávez in power. Yet seeing him arrested in this way seems to back up everything he always said about the government: that they haven’t the slightest clue what democracy is all about, that they’ll stop at nothing to consolidate themselves in power, and that they treat the constitution the way your cat treats his litter box.

Watch for the foreign lefties to start justifying his arrest on the grounds that, christ, he’s the leader of the business association, he must be some sort of evil blood-sucking plutocrat, and it’s ok if they go to jail, right? Don’t laugh, it’s the precise corollary to Naomi Klein’s argument on the press in The Guardian the other day.

But beyond that, Fernández is a genuine self-made man, a postwar immigrant from Spain who was penniless on arrival, built up a trucking firm from a single truck into a fairly large company, and rose through the ranks to preside the major business federation here, Fedecamaras. It’s the Venezuelan dream, the dream of tolerance and social mobility Chávez can’t stand because it lays bare the bankruptcy of his vision of Venezuela as an ossified, near-colonial society.

For decades, Venezuela had been well past the political cultural of responding to dissent with jail. Under Chávez, we seem to be regressing.

February 18, 2003


We interrupt this essay series to attack Naomi Klein, of NO LOGO fame, who in a remarkably ill-considered piece in The Guardian supports the Contents Law and obliquely calls for Venezuela’s private broadcasters to be shut down. I’m amazed at the way parts of the antiglobaloization crowd have abandoned what I’d always thought of as baseline liberal values, like freedom of the press.

The facts in her essay are – and as a Venezuelan journalist, I’m ashamed to admit it – mostly right, but the conclusions she draws from them strike me as demential. Her lionization of Andrés Izarra, that insufferably self-pitying chavista martyr, is enough to work up anyone who knows anything about him into a fit of rage. More importantly, though, Klein glosses over a series of key fact in her piece, like the president’s outrageous and repeated attacks on the media, the systematic harassment of Venezuelan journalists, the threats too many of my colleagues keep getting simply for doing their jobs. Reading it, you’d never known about the government’s campaign of constant incitement to violence against anyone who dares question Chávez in the press. If you didn’t know anything else about the situation here – which is doubtlessly the case for most of Klein’s readers in The Guardian – you’d think Venezuela’s media moguls just sort of woke up one day and said “golly gee, it’s so much harder to exploit the working class with this guy in power, let’s topple him!”

It’s shameful.