July 12, 2008

Caracas Chronicles Readers' Survey

Quico says: For years, I've been wondering what kind of people actually read this blog, what y'all like about it, what y'all hate about it, and how y'all think it could be improved.

Now, you can help me find out, by taking a few minutes to fill out this Caracas Chronicles Readers' Survey!

Great Moments in Headline Writing

Britain's No. 1 quality newspaper website says:

July 10, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Chávez Mafia Ties Exposed!

Quico says: Caracas Chronicles has obtained exclusive reports of an imminent face-to-face meeting between Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez and the head of one of Colombia's most notorious criminal organizations.

After an exhaustive investigation, Caracas Chronicles can now confirm that the Venezuelan government is ready to hold contacts at the very highest levels with a Colombian criminal who has strong links to paramilitary death squads, leads a major drug trafficking operation and has been linked to neo-Nazi movements in the region.

Our sources in Caracas can confirm that Chávez's new Colombian partner has actively conspired to prevent FARC from releasing hostages in the past. He is, moreover, determined to prevent any further hostage releases in the future because, our source says, he does not want peace in Colombia and lacks all respect for human life.

Our confidential source stressed the dangers of collaborating with such a figure, noting that Chávez is unwittingly building bridges with a man who "makes don Vito Corleone look like a rookie." He added that Chávez must tread carefully in enmeshing himself with figures "better suited to running a mafia."

The decision to move ahead with the talks sparked outrage among Chávez's left-wing allies, where his new negotiating partner and the criminal syndicate he leads are roundly denounced as "cowardly, lying, manipulating provocateurs."

The news surfaced on the heels of troubling new reports that the Venezuelan government has agreed to cooperate with an organization led by the world's number 1 terrorist, a genocidal drunkard and head of the notorious Equus asinus crime family that, according to our source, may actually be Beelzebub, the prince of darkness, himself.

UPDATE: Unable to sustain its blanket denials in the face of massive pressure generated by this Caracas Chronicles exclusive, the Venezuelan government is now acknowledging that President Chávez is due to meet this notorious criminal today.

Last thoughts on Hari

Quico says: So I had a fun time picking apart that appalling piece by Johann Hari the other day, and readers seemed to appreciate it, too.

As I thought more about it, though, it struck me that I gave Hari a pass on the single most ludicrous bit in the whole thing: his off-hand mention of the "whiter-skinned, anti-Chávez province of Zulia".

It sent me straight up a wall, but not, as you may think, for the for the lunatic notion that Zulia is somehow a reduct of Venezuelan Aryan extremists. Actually, it's the fact that he called Zulia State a "province" that set me off.

It may seem like a minor thing to get worked up about, but think about it. Would a British journo ever slip up and write something about the Province of Texas? The County of Ontario? The Department of Queensland? The Prefecture of Scotland? The Borough of Catalonia? Couldn't happen!

It's a SNAFU that telegraphs more than just a lazy unfamiliarity with the subject Hari's pretending to enlighten his audience on. What it shows, really, is a form of contempt for his subject. A taken-for-granted assumption that, c'mon, everybody knows you don't really have to bother yourself trying to understand the folkloric inanities of these third world people. Nobody really cares if you get these details right: they're just South Americans.

Scrupulous attention to detail is something you reserve for, y'know, people like you and me. People who live in proper Western Countries rather than some tropical ghetto to be either pitied for its dire poverty or fetishized for its way cool, vaguely retro revolutionariness.

The laziness, in other words, rests on a soft, feathery bed of unrecognized left-wing cultural imperialism. An attitude that dispenses with any sense that third world people's histories, societies and political cultures matter, that you may need to pay sustained attention to such things before you're able to write intelligently about our countries.

It's a longstanding gripe. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, what actually happens in Venezuela doesn't much matter to people like Hari. In this type of writing, countries like ours only masquerade as the subject. They act as screens needed to project a story onto.

Again and again, our countries are reduced to the status of narrative ploy: the alternatively brutalized and heroically resisting Other needed to frame the story about the only actor these people are actually interested in. Our role in the psychodrama that unfurls daily on The Independent's op-ed page is, in the end, only half-a-step above that of movie extras, mere foils for the real villain-star of the show: Uncle Sam.

Nobody expects you to know much about the lives, loves, histories and aspirations of the people inside the buildings Godzilla's smashing. They're incidental; filler needed to move along the narrative arch of the movie. When it comes down to it, you could shoot the film using an entirely different set of extras and you wouldn't even have to redo the script.

So it doesn't matter if it's Zulia State or Zulia Province or Zulia County or Zulia Refugee Camp. It's an afterthought. The single-minded obsession with US perfidy allows PSF hackdom to exempt itself from the dreary, time-consuming task of educating itself about the particulars of the places they write about.

The point is simple: George Bush is bad and American empire is awful. Once you've grasped that, why would you bother with esoterica about some godforsaken backwater where you couldn't get proper sushi if your life depended on it?

July 8, 2008

Johann Hari and the Solidarity Journalist's Pose

Quico says: Johann Hari has something to tell you. Something you need to know.

If you are a bit of a lefty, a bit skeptical of mainstream media, the kind of person minded to buy The Independent, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll buy into it. Not so much because of what he'll tell you, but because of how he'll tell it to you.

"Psst, amigo," he'll whisper, "they're lying to you. They're big and powerful and everywhere and they control what you read and they control what you hear on the news and so they control what you think. You can't trust them, you can't trust any of what they say. I'm the one you can trust. I'll give you the real story, the inside scoop that they're desperate to hide from you."

That's the Solidarity Journalist's Pose. There's something seductive about it, no question. Mr. Hari promises to lift you out of the ignorance of the grubby masses, to induct you into a select circle of the unspinnable and the wise. And the stakes are high. "The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries", he tells you, "may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions."

You don't want to be a chump, do you?

You don't want to slow the spread of democracy and freedom to poor countries, do you?

Of course you don't.

So you'll go along, not realizing that the conceit is a kind of intellectual snare. That once you accept his framing, you find it much harder to scrutinize his assertions critically. That he's subtly priming you never to question him on the basis of information you gather elsewhere - lies! That he's trying to get you to pimp out your opinions on Venezuela entirely to him.

It helps him enormously that you grew up far away - in London, say. Or Chicago. Or Sydney. It makes everything much easier that you don't know much about Venezuelan history, or politics, or society - and, to be fair, why should you?

You have no reason to raise an eyebrow when he tells you that the United States installed a dictator in Venezuela in order to control our oil all the way back in 1908. If you were Venezuelan, a statement like that would immediately put you on your guard, make you wonder if the author had the slightest clue about what he was talking about. After all, it's roughly like arguing that foreign agents installed Bill Clinton in power in 1993 in order to control Google.

But, of course, you're not Venezuelan, so Mr. Hari is confident that you won't realize just how bizarre a claim he's making. He understands there's no reason for you to know that oil wasn't produced in Venezuela until 1914. He grasps that his readers have no idea who Cipriano Castro was, much less why he might have needed to get on a boat and go to Paris in 1908 thinking he could trust his second-in-command to run the country while he was away.

He figures he's safe, because you don't know about any of that stuff. So you'll assent.

For the same reason, he's confident that when he tells you that Chávez "increased the share of oil profits taken by the state from a pitiful one per cent to 33 per cent," you won't question him. Just the opposite: you'll shake your head in outrage at the injustice and feel glad that it has now been righted. You won't suspect that he's referring to the royalty rates (i.e., taxes on the gross value of oil lifted, not on company profits) that applied to just a handful of projects in the Faja del Orinoco, but that the normal royalty on the bulk of the oil produced in Venezuela before 2001 was 17%.

And Mr. Hari figures you don't know that even that special, 1% royalty rate for the Faja projects was temporary, designed to offset billions of dollars in capital costs it took to build the massive, high-tech upgraders needed to process the area's extra-heavy, tar-like crude. He's betting you don't realize that while Chávez did raise the normal royalty rate from 17% to 30% in 2001, he simultaneously lowered the oil sector's income tax from 67% to 50%, leaving the overall tax burden on foreign oil companies largely unchanged.

Anybody who follows the Venezuelan oil industry knows that. But Mr. Hari's banking on you not knowing it. And, when you think about it, that's a pretty safe bet.

Mr. Hari knows you want to believe he's one of the good guys, and misleading you for partisan purposes is what bad guys do. So you won't suspect Mr. Hari of using the very tactics he viciously attacks the traditional media for using. Paradoxically, the Solidarity Journalist's Pose doubles back on itself, turning into carte blanche for him to exploit your ignorance to mislead you.

You won't raise an eyebrow when he says Venezuela's media is "uncensored and in total opposition" to Chávez. Because, well, you don't know who Omar Camero is, or who Gustavo Cisneros is, or that Chávez long ago forced their stations to drop their critical coverage with the (in Venezuela, highly credible) threat of refusing to renew their broadcast licenses. He's guessing you don't know that Venezuela's private TV media barons now chum it up with Chávez at Miraflores social events. His claim will strike you as plausible only because you're unaware of the mad proliferation of propagandistic, unquestioningly sycophantic, state funded TV stations Chávez has created. After all, you don't live in Venezuela, there's no reason why acronyms like VTV, ANTV, Vive, Telesur and TVES should mean anything to you.

Mr. Hari will tell you there is no evidence that Chávez ever funded FARC, but he doesn't mention that nobody (at least nobody sane) is alleging that, because what the files on Reyes's computers detailed was an ongoing negotiation over a future loan for $300 million, not a fait accompli. He'll leave you with a strong impression that all this stuff about jungle laptops is an evident farce. Certainly, you won't learn of the Interpol forensic report on Raul Reyes's computer files from Mr. Hari.

In fact, there's a lot that's interesting about Chávez's relationship with FARC that you won't learn from his piece.

You won't learn of Rodríguez Chacín's heartfelt exhortation to FARC to "maintain their strength" (who is this Rodríguez Chacín fellow anyway?) You won't learn that Chávez ascribes to FARC "a bolivarian project that is respected here". Or that Venezuelan National Guardsmen have recently been arrested in Colombia trying to deliver ammo to FARC. Or that FARC maintains what amounts to a diplomatic mission in Caracas, and that its one-time "ambassador" went as far as to get naturalized Venezuelan and even registered to vote in Venezuelan elections. Or that their highest-profile Colombian political supporter essentially lives in a five-star hotel in Caracas, at the Venezuelan government's expense, and is Chávez's point-woman for FARC relations. Or that Venezuelan state media resolutely refuses to refer to FARC's hostages as "hostages", preferring FARC's own bizarre euphemism ("retenidos", or "retained persons") instead.

But since he didn't tell you any of that, you'll be minded to agree with Mr. Hari that this stuff about Chávez supporting FARC is just a crazy lie, a vile slander, another one of those "propaganda fictions" threatening the spread of democracy and freedom to poor countries.

You've been ensnared by the Solidarity Journalist Pose. You will assent. You will dismiss anyone who tries to rebut Mr. Hari's arguments as obviously - transparently - carrying water for the corporate elite.

The next time you go to a party, you will buttonhole anyone who expresses skepticism about Chávez. You'll try to "set them straight." You will explain to them that the US has been trying to get at Venezuela's oil since 1908, and ask them if they were even aware that, before Chávez, taxes on foreign oil companies were just 1%. You'll note, in grave tones, how absurd it is that Chávez is accused of authoritarianism even though all the media are uncensored and deeply hostile to him. And you'll denounce allegations that Chávez has a soft-spot for FARC as an outrageous slur.

You'll launch into this little rant with a furrowed brow. Perhaps you'll raise your voice. Certainly you'll deliver it with the missionary intensity of one sure he's fighting the good fight. If you are exceptionally unlucky, you'll unleash your spiel at a party I'm at. Otherwise, it's likely you'll leave with that warm feeling inside, that certainty that you are on the right side of history and that, in time, the truth - Mr. Hari's truth - is bound to impose itself.

And you'll sleep well.

July 7, 2008

Forget Ingrid - Gladys has been rescued!

Juan Cristobal says: - These past few days we've all been enthralled by the story of Ingrid Betancourt and her cinematic rescue. But you don't have to go as far as Colombia to find heartrending stories of people overcoming enormous odds and finding freedom after nearly all hope had been lost.

Last Monday night, Gladys Aguilar was walking on the side of the road in rural Zulia state when she fell three meters down into an open manhole. She spent three days down there, with broken bones, getting progressively weaker and shouting for help until, miraculously, someone walking by heard her cries for help and rescued her. Now she's telling her story.

Notice how the manhole was still open when reporters went back with the camera crew. It wouldn't be Venezuela if it wasn't.

Ingrid Betancourt was held hostage by the FARC and nearly lost her life. Gladys was held hostage by the inefficiency and corruption of the Venezuelan State, and she almost lost hers.

Let's see if this prompts Chávez to announce Misión Saknussemm: a massive drive to cover the country's deathtrap manholes. Don't hold your breath.

López Maya's Parting Shot

Quico says: In 2004, the pro-Chávez National Assembly asked sane-lefty sociologist Margarita López Maya to give a keynote address on the key challenges facing Venezuelan society after Chavez won the Presidential Recall Referendum. This week, ahead of a sabatical that will take her out of the country, Lopez Maya produces a progress report on the 8-point agenda (in Spanish) she identified back then.

Well worth a read.