The Ongoing Campaign to Demonize Venezuela

Canada’s Liberal Party MP Jim Karygiannis is the latest to jump on the “demonize Venezuela” bandwagon. While professing to stand for democracy, Karygiannis’s call “to return democracy to Venezuela” exhibits a blatant disregard for the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans who hold their democracy in high regard. The Liberal MP’s outlandish declarations follow similar propaganda espoused over the past decade by other prominent North Americans such as former assistant secretary of state Otto Reich, former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA director George Tenet. The ongoing campaign to demonize Venezuela’s socialist revolution not only stands in stark contrast to the reality on the ground in that South American nation, but also contradicts the many reports issued by the United Nations and other highly-regarded mainstream organizations.

According to Karygiannis, the Liberal Party’s multicultural critic, “The people of Venezuela are suffering daily at the hands of the Hugo Chávez government, as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. We should maintain solidarity with the Venezuelan people and we must do what we can to help alleviate their suffering.” The Liberal MP also stated, “We have a democracy in crisis and yet the Canadian government hasn’t acted.” He went on to ask, “Why are we not talking about this in Parliament?” And declared that “Canada has to take an effective position … we have to be in the forefront.” In order to achieve this, Karygiannis announced, “I will be calling on the Harper Conservative Government to hold an emergency debate in the House of Commons.”

Karygiannis’s remarks echo the recent attack on Venezuelan democracy made by Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Following Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s election victory in November with 54 percent of the vote, Reich lumped Chávez together with other left-leaning leaders in Latin America and labelled them “a collection of authoritarian strongmen who have found a method of undermining the institutions of a democracy in order to stay in power indefinitely and build totalitarian societies.” Reich concluded by declaring, “Winning an election under those circumstances does not make a ruler a democratically elected president.”

Reich’s comments were just the latest in a long line of attacks made by US public officials. In reference to the alleged threat that Chávez poses to the United States, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002: “We have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chávez, and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about.” And making it abundantly clear that a democratic system in Latin America should be about defending US interests, CIA director George Tenet arrogantly informed a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Chávez “probably doesn’t have the interests of the United States at heart.”

One solution for addressing the problem posed by a democratically-elected Latin American leader who “doesn’t have the interests of the United States at heart” was proposed by television evangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson. In 2005, Robertson stated on his nationally-broadcast television program, “You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. … We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

The flagrantly anti-Venezuela rhetoric also dominates the leading dailies in both the United States and Canada. Following Venezuela’s recent elections, the Wall Street Journal noted, “It’s easier to be a petrodemagogue than a run-of-the-mill dictator.” It then contradicted itself by patronizingly stating, “Democracy means the right not to be pitied for the consequences of your political choices” before declaring Venezuela “a nation of moochers” due to the Chávez government’s expansive social programs. Meanwhile, the New York Times pined that both Venezuela’s democratic institutions and its economy have suffered under the country’s “strongman” leader. The US News & World Report followed suit by pronouncing, “President Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan dictator.” For its part, Canada’s Globe and Mail’s post-election coverage also referred to Chávez as a “strongman” and talked about the re-elected Venezuelan leader’s “renewed ability to do economic damage.”

The degree to which such rhetoric contradicts Venezuelan reality is nothing less than astounding. While Karygiannis is calling on the Harper government “to return democracy to Venezuela,” Jimmy Carter, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his democracy promotion work with the Carter Center and who has monitored numerous Venezuelan elections including the most recent one, has nothing but praise for Venezuela’s hi-tech electoral system. According to Carter, “There’s no doubt in our mind, having monitored very closely the election process, that [Chávez] won fairly and squarely. As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

The Venezuelan people came out in droves to participate in the last election, resulting in an 81 percent turnout, which puts electoral participation in the United States and Canada to shame. And as for the opinion of the Venezuelan people about their own democracy, a region-wide survey conducted by Latin America’s largest polling firm, the Chile-based Latinobarometro, revealed that 84 percent of Venezuelans viewed their democracy positively, by far the highest in Latin America. And with regard to the Venezuelan government’s socialist economic policies, the citizens of only three countries—Uruguay, Chile and Brazil—were more satisfied with the performance of their nation’s economy than were Venezuelans.

That the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans support Chávez and his government’s policies is not surprising given the dramatic improvements experienced by much of the population over the past decade. The provision of high-quality free healthcare to all citizens and subsidized food to the poor has resulted in average caloric intake increasing by 50 percent and infant malnutrition decreasing by 74 percent.  According to the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “We analyze hunger statistics all over the world. There are 800 million people in the world who suffer from hunger, 49 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not one of them is Venezuelan.”

The Chávez government has also made education, including university, free to all Venezuelans. The result, according to UNESCO, is that Venezuela has become an “illiteracy-free” nation and post-secondary enrolments have doubled over the past decade. Meanwhile, in accordance with Venezuela’s new constitution, more than 100,000 poor housewives receive 80 percent of the national minimum wage in recognition that their work in the home and raising children contributes to the social well-being of the nation.

Perhaps the government’s most impressive achievement is the astounding decline in the number of Venezuelans living in poverty, from 55 percent of the population when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to 18 percent in 2011. Furthermore, Venezuela surpassed Chile and Costa Rica in 2008 to become the “most equal” nation in Latin America in terms of wealth distribution. Of course, most of these social gains have been funded by the country’s vast oil wealth which, for the first time, is being used to benefit the Venezuelan people instead of a small domestic elite and foreign corporations.

The anti-Chávez propaganda espoused by the likes of Karygiannis has little to do with the need “to return democracy to Venezuela” in order to “help alleviate their suffering” and more to do with the threat that the Venezuelan socialist example poses to the interests of multinational corporations, particularly oil companies, throughout the region. In other words, Chávez’s greatest sin is not having “the interests of the United States [and Canada] at heart.”

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