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Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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Some press reports have noted Venezuela’s economic growth lately, in looking at Chávez’s track record in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election.  For example, the Associated Press wrote that “the economies of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Argentina all have expanded more rapidly than Venezuela’s since Chávez took office in 1999, recording average growth between 3 and 5 percent a year.”

It is important to have a reasonable base of comparison. It is not reasonable, for example, to include the years 1999-2003 in looking at the Chávez government’s growth record.  During these years, the government did not have control over the national oil industry; even worse, it was controlled by people who, according to the prominent Venezuelan opposition journalist Teodoro Petkoff, had a strategy of “military takeover.”  Not only the military coup of 2002, but the management-led oil strike of 2002-2003 was devastating to the economy, inflicting a loss of about 29 percent of GDP.

For an analogy, imagine that in the U.S. the Federal Reserve were controlled by people who were trying to destroy the economy so as to topple the government. Clearly it would not be reasonable to hold the executive branch responsible for the resulting state of the economy.

However, for economists it would also not be fair to measure growth in Venezuela from 2003, since that would be measuring from the bottom of a deep recession.

A reasonable comparison would be to use 2004, since by that year the economy had recovered to its pre-recession GDP.  By that measure, as seen in the table below, Venezuela has had decent growth.  If compared to the countries cited by AP, Venezuela’s growth is significantly better than Brazil and slightly higher than Chile.  Argentina and Peru are the outliers during this period, the fastest growing economies in the region.  Mexico is the outlier at the low end, the worst performing economy in the region.

Of course the better measure would be per capita GDP growth, and Venezuela would do somewhat worse there by comparison because it has higher population growth than some of its neighbors. But the press doesn’t use that figure, and the point of this exercise is just to show that if we are going to evaluate economic performance under Chávez, it’s really not fair to include the 1999-2003 years.

For Venezuelans, another relevant comparison might be to the pre-
Chávez years.  From 1980-1998, Venezuela was the worst-performing economy in South America, in a period during which the region suffered its worst long-term growth failure in a century.  Per capita income actually fell by 14 percent, and inflation was much higher (33 percent annually) than during the Chávez years (22 percent average).



Last week, my colleague and fellow-blogger Jake Johnston, wrote a blog post on the attacks to freedom of the press in Chile, pointing out that media reports and U.S. based human rights organizations often focus on attacks on the press in countries that have elected left leaders, but somehow fail to report on attacks on freedom of the press in other countries.

One would think that the media and human rights organizations would pay specific attention to possible attacks on freedom of the press in countries that have recently suffered breakdowns of the democratic process, particularly in cases where  coup d’états have occurred, such as in Honduras three years ago, or more recently, Paraguay.

Hondurans continue to endure the harsh repercussions caused by the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009 that include widespread political repression, political assassinations and attacks on freedom of the press -not limited to the assassination of journalists- 25 of them since the coup to be exact.

So, after the parody of political impeachment, or the “parliamentary coup”, as others have called the ouster of President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay this past June, reporters and human rights organizations should have been more aware of incidents that could result in censorship and attacks on freedom of the press. Nonetheless, when workers at TV Pública, a state-owned public TV channel, denounced political persecution by the new Franco government after 27 of them were fired for having criticized the coup in June, U.S. media and human rights organizations did not seem to have taken notice. Nor did they take notice two weeks ago when the Union of Journalists of Paraguay (SPP) denounced threats, aggression and intimidation against two reporters, by President Franco and his brother and senator César Franco. In the run up to the April elections that are supposed to restore legitimacy to the government in Paraguay, the French organization Reporters Without Borders, which has noticed the attacks to freedom of the press in Paraguay since the coup, says that the climate is worsening and that pluralism in the press is likely to deteriorate.

The egregious attacks on freedom of the press in Honduras following its coup three years ago should make clear the need for international monitoring by the media and human rights organizations anytime that the breakdown of democracy becomes an issue. Let’s just hope that the situation in Paraguay improves, but in the case that it doesn’t, let’s hope that attention from the press and human rights organizations does. 

It didn’t receive much attention in the international media, but an important report on the May 11 DEA-related shooting incident in Ahuas, Honduras, which killed four people and injured several others, was released at the end of August. Its conclusions and recommendations are consistent with many in the report that CEPR released, also in August (co-authored with experts from the human rights organization Rights Action): the U.S. DEA appears to have taken a lead -- not merely a “supportive” role -- in the operation; the “official” story presented by Honduran and U.S. officials has several important inconsistencies; and that the U.S. government should conduct its own, independent investigation of the incident (a thorough investigation, to be made public, looking at all the evidence – as opposed to the internal DEA investigation which does not seem to have gone anywhere). Notably, the report departs sharply from the conclusions reached by the official Honduran investigation, as recently reported to the Associated Press.

But the report’s significance lies not merely in its conclusions, but its source: is by the National Commission of Human Rights, a Honduran government agency that has been criticized for turning a blind eye to many human rights violations and for supporting the June 2009 coup d'etat. The report was issued under the leadership of human rights ombudsman Ramon Custodio, and his calls for an independent U.S. investigation were reported in the Honduran press (even if they were ignored by the U.S. media). The report is also important because it is based on interviews of the Honduran Tactical Response Team members involved in the May 11 operation – interviews which the CEPR/Rights Action researchers were not able to conduct.

The original report in Spanish is posted here; we have posted a translation to English here. It finds:

- "All members of the TRT have stated that they only receive orders from American superiors and that they don't report anything, neither before nor afterwards, to their legal Honduran superiors, given that they ultimately don't deal with orders or logistics of any sort."

- "The Honduran authorities have not been able to interview the FAST Team members of the DEA because they are unable to identify them, even though they have made statements to CNN."

- "The declarations of the police officers who participated in the operation are contradictory in various parts, both between themselves as well as with the declarations of the victims."

- The report mentions that, according to the TRT members, the automatic rifle and ammunition mentioned among the objects confiscated during the operation, were found not in the "drug boat" but in another pipante docked at the Landin.

- The report casts doubt on a key part of the TRT testimonies, stating that "A logical and reliable explanation has not been provided as to how the pipante with the victims, coming from Barra Patuca, was able to come close to the boat with the FAST and TRT personnel and the drugs, without difficulty given that one or two helicopters were flying over the boat to protect it and provide it with preventive security."

It is notable that the report makes reference to this CNN video, in which now-former DEA attaché in Honduras, Jim Kenney, explains his responsibility for the vetting and training of the TRT agents.

And here are some of the recommendations that the report makes:

- "CONADEH - in the most respectful way- requests that the Senate Judiciary Committee of the United States and the Judicial Committee of the House of Representatives of the United States of America begin an in depth investigation of the issues raised during this operation."

- "We advise the National Police and the Armed Forces to cease to allow foreigners to have direct command over our personnel again."

The full Department of Justice Inspector General (DOJ/IG) report from the ‘Fast and Furious’ disaster was released on the 19th of September.  Coming on the heels of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which ended its month-long campaign around the United States last a week earlier, it is timely to think about several present-day realities: the paralysis afflicting policy makers around the topic of gun control, the Obama administration’s doubling down on Drug War policies, and the ongoing violence that affects people in Mexico, the U.S. and many communities in Central and South America.

Our government plays a crucial role in facilitating gun violence in Mexico (as well as throughout the region and in the U.S. itself), both by refusing to push for sensible gun control laws and by failing to enforce the laws already in place.  Between the calendar years 2007 and 2011, almost 70% of the 99,000 firearms that were recovered in Mexico and submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were U.S.-sourced.  U.S.-sourced here means that the firearms were manufactured in the U.S. or they were legally imported into the U.S. under the auspices of a federal firearms licensee (FFL). 

These numbers are likely to be very low estimates, as they only count guns successfully confiscated and turned over to the ATF for tracking, and they indicate that the U.S. is a huge part of the problem.  Rather than engaging in a serious review of current drug policy, the Obama Administration has focused on defending itself against allegations surrounding the “Fast and Furious” scandal, contributing to the paralysis that we have been seeing with policy makers around the issue of gun control, and even today this Administration continues to express enthusiasm for the War on Drugs in its current form.

When it comes to sensible gun control laws, it is clear that new laws are needed.  Here is another excerpt from the DOJ/IG report:

It is legal for a non-prohibited individual in Arizona to purchase an unlimited number of firearms from an FFL at any time. It is also legal for a non-prohibited person to pay for firearms in cash and to then transfer, sell, or barter those firearms to a non-prohibited third party.  (pp. 139-140)

It seems to me that ‘unlimited number of firearms’ is precisely what the movement towards sensible gun laws is trying to fight against—and if you have any doubt,  consider that the 5 individuals in the Fast and Furious case purchased over 100 guns each, and the one with the most purchases bought 723 weapons!

Everywhere you look, there are people who are taking seriously the claim that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has a big media advantage over the opposition in the upcoming elections.  The Committee to Protect Journalists, in their latest report [PDF] on Venezuela, states that “a vast state media presence echoes the government’s positions,” and refers to the government as having a “media empire.”

From the Wilson Center’s latest report [PDF], we read: “Media coverage is not even moderately balanced.  . . . In television, the government’s predominance is overwhelming; it was estimated that by 2007 it controlled seven national television channels and 35 open community channels."

These statements are false and misleading, but they are adopted uncritically in almost all mainstream media coverage.  In fact, state TV had about 5.9 percent of the audience that watches television in Venezuela in 2009-2010. These data were gathered by AGB Panamericana de Venezuela Medición S.A., a local affiliate of Nielsen Media Research International, and are probably as reliable as Nielsen ratings in the United States. The data were collected through equipment boxes placed in each home, measuring minutes of each channel watched. A representative sample of 1000 households was constructed and data were gathered over ten years.

Thus, the above statements are similar to claiming that PBS TV, the public TV in the U.S., dominates broadcast TV in the United States.  Most of the major newspapers (e.g., El Nacional, El Universal) are also strongly against the government.  According to CONATEL data, only about 14 percent of radio is publicly owned; and since there is more strongly anti-government radio in Venezuela than TV, the opposition almost certainly has more advantage in radio than in other media.

Chávez, of course, regularly does cadenas – speeches which interrupt regular TV programming. But it is difficult to judge whether these speeches can balance the overwhelming media bias against the government.

There are also polling data indicating that the private, opposition media’s dominance in Venezuela has a significant influence on political beliefs. For example, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted in November 2006, just before the last presidential election, showed that “57 percent of respondents were at least somewhat concerned that people could face reprisals for how they vote,” with only 42 percent “very confident their votes would be kept secret.” This was a theme repeatedly transmitted through opposition media. In fact, there is a secret ballot and it is no more possible for the government to know how someone voted in Venezuela than it is in the United States, Germany, or Sweden.

The misrepresentation of the media is part of the ongoing gross misrepresentation of Venezuela throughout media and foreign policy circles, which has reached the point where almost anything can be said about Venezuela and remain unchallenged, so long as it is negative.

While media reports and U.S.-based human rights organizations tend to focus on attacks on the press in countries that have elected left leaders, the closing of La Nación in Chile has generated next to nothing from those some organizations and media outlets.

It was announced this week that La Nación, the 70 percent state-owned news outlet, would be closed. The print edition had already been shut down in 2010 after conservative president Sebastian Piñera took office. The state newspaper’s union issued a statement calling the move, “the culmination of an attack on press freedom” waged by Piñera, while adding that “Once again, the common people, the citizens, were shut out of the distribution of power and resources, this time regarding an historic publication.”

While Piñera cited economic reasons for closing the print edition, it seems unlikely that this was the only reason as, according to La Mostrador, La Nación had some $2 million in profits in 2011.

With the closing of La Nación, Chile’s written media is now almost entirely concentrated in the hands of two groups, El Mercurio Group (publisher of El Mercurio) and Copesa (publisher of La Tercera). The two media outlets, which were outspoken proponents of the 1973 coup that brought the Pinochet dictatorship to power, have received $5 million in government subsidies a year, in an agreement that dates back to the Pinochet regime. As Chilean journalist Francisco Martorell told Reports Without Borders last year, “This system, which had resulted in the disappearance of the opposition press, killed it off again after the return to democracy, although it had just barely been revived. To cap it all, there are now fewer print media in Chile than there were at the end of the dictatorship!”

Well, now there is one fewer, but don’t expect to hear much about it from the self-styled defenders of free speech.

CEPR’s lengthy report, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War,” continues to receive attention from the media and policy makers. The report is based on an on-the-ground investigation of exactly what happened on May 11, when four people were shot and killed and four others wounded in a joint U.S. DEA-Honduran counternarcotics operation in the Moskitia region of Honduras, and was co-authored by CEPR’s Alex Main with Annie Bird and Karen Spring of Rights Action, a human rights advocacy organization with decades of experience working in Central America.

The CEPR/Rights Action report is based on extensive interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses of the shooting and related events, as well as with U.S. and Honduran government officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, and the then-DEA attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, Jim Kenney, as well as Honduran officials who took part in the autopsies and evidence gathering for the Honduran authorities’ investigation into the incident. The U.S. government, despite the admitted role of the DEA in the events, and the admitted use of State Department-titled helicopters in those events, has not undertaken its own investigation, nor has it taken any responsibility for the victims or their ongoing struggle to recover from the physical, mental and emotional wounds left over from May 11.

On Friday evening –a time when breaking news typically receives very little attention – the Honduran government released its own report on the events to the Associated Press. AP summarized the report’s findings: “that two victims of a shooting during a joint U.S.-Honduran anti-drug operation were not pregnant and none of the gunfire that killed anyone came from a law-enforcement helicopter…” and that “forensic tests show the bullets that hit the four people killed were fired horizontally, not from above. In addition, the slugs were from lower-caliber bullets used by M-16 rifles and not the heavier weapon mounted on the helicopter…”

The Honduran authorities’ findings, as reported by AP, depart from the evidence and the common points of the various eyewitness statements. In a lengthier follow-up article, I told AP’s Alberto Arce that the claims made by German Enamorado, chief of Honduras' Office of Human Rights are “simply…not credible, when confronted with forensic evidence and so much eyewitness testimony to the contrary.”

Here’s why:

For months, foreign policy circles in DC have been abuzz with a new acronym for a new supposed threat: a looming VIRUS (Venezuela, Iran, and Russia).  According to this theory, Venezuela’s recent cooperation agreements with Iran and Russia signal what is supposed to be our worst nightmare: Venezuela and Russia could be helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.  Thankfully, this week’s WikiLeaks releases have included two cables from Caracas, which handily refute any such fears.

Simply put, a cable from June 2009 tells us:

A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs "are full of (expletive)."

The documentary film “South of the Border” examines how the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries are depicted in the major U.S. media. Many major U.K. media outlets offer a similar treatment of Latin America. A recent analysis of BBC coverage of Venezuela in the Chávez years, for example, details numerous misleading statements and distortions. To take another case, The Guardian is currently prominently featuring a report from last year on “The rise and rule of” Hugo Chávez. The slideshow – almost a sort of mini-documentary – is done by South America correspondent Rory Carroll, and it provides a good example of the kinds of distortions and one-sided, de-contextualized information on South America that have appeared in many Guardian news reports over the past several years.

The slideshow begins violently, with the sound of gunshots and images of the failed 1992 coup d’etat launched by Chávez and other military officers. A barebones description of the coup quickly segues into an explanation that “Chávez … instead of shooting his way into power … seduced his way,” since “the poor were angry”, as Carroll puts it. There is no mention of the exponentially more bloody episode that would help explain how divided Venezuelan society had become prior to ‘92, and why the coup attempt was so popular: the 1989 caracazo, protests against IMF-mandated economic policies which were crushed by the Venezuelan military and police, resulting in hundreds and possibly thousands killed as troops fired on demonstrators.

Social Spending in Venezuela (1990-2005) 


Social Spending (including Soc Sec)
  Millions of Bolivares % of Public Spending % of GDP
1990 172271.3 29.9 7.8
1991 286635.9 35.8 9.8
1992 402292.1 40.1 10.1
1993 440023.6 40.0 8.3
1994 652605.1 33.7 7.8
1995 1037334.7 36.9 7.8
1996 2080229 32.3 7.3
1997 4113750.5 38.6 9.8
1998 4111346.1 34.7 8.2
1999 5607402.7 38.5 9.4
2000 8782242.8 37.3 11.0
2001 10778508.8 38.4 12.1
2002 12107275.2 38.2 11.2
2003 16224911.7 39.0 12.1
2004 25068023.3 41.4 12.1
2005 38781871.5 44.9 13.2

Source: SISOV (


Social Spending (minus Soc Sec)


  Millions of Bolivares % of Public Spending % of GDP
1990 157462.2 27.3 7.1
1991 261776.5 32.7 8.9
1992 366881.1 36.6 9.2
1993 399303.3 36.3 7.6
1994 568795.8 29.3 6.8
1995 903411.6 32.2 6.8
1996 1761219.1 27.3 6.2
1997 3467903.3 32.5 8.3
1998 3416919.5 28.8 6.8
1999 4429408.4 30.4 7.5
2000 7019333.9 29.8 8.8
2001 7716175 27.5 8.7
2002 9049090.9 28.6 8.4
2003 11674748.1 28.1 8.7
2004 18475914 30.5 8.9
2005 29685076.6 34.4 10.1

Source: SISOV (