The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

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.

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Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed Colombia’s president Juan Manual Santos and described his thoughts on the controversial ouster of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro:

Mr. Santos said he didn’t want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.

Well, lucky for Santos, he got his wish. The New York Times reported on April 23:

But a judge in Bogotá on Tuesday found that Mr. Santos had acted improperly when he ignored a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend the ouster because it could violate the mayor’s rights.

“Some might like it and others not, but my obligation as president of the country is to obey the law and the rulings of judges,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he had no choice but to reinstate Mr. Petro.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps not. On April 25, the Associated Press reported:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he’ll appeal a court ruling that forced him to reinstate the capital’s mayor a month after the official was removed for administrative irregularities.

And why would he do such a thing, if he was indeed “ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so”, as “some judge” had in fact done? The AP explains:

Santos said Friday said that he will appeal the decision because it has put the government’s credibility at risk.

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed Colombia’s president Juan Manual Santos and described his thoughts on the controversial ouster of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro:

Mr. Santos said he didn’t want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.

Well, lucky for Santos, he got his wish. The New York Times reported on April 23:

But a judge in Bogotá on Tuesday found that Mr. Santos had acted improperly when he ignored a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend the ouster because it could violate the mayor’s rights.

“Some might like it and others not, but my obligation as president of the country is to obey the law and the rulings of judges,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he had no choice but to reinstate Mr. Petro.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps not. On April 25, the Associated Press reported:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he’ll appeal a court ruling that forced him to reinstate the capital’s mayor a month after the official was removed for administrative irregularities.

And why would he do such a thing, if he was indeed “ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so”, as “some judge” had in fact done? The AP explains:

Santos said Friday said that he will appeal the decision because it has put the government’s credibility at risk.

French Economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” came to Washington DC today for a series of discussions with other economists and the public. The book itself, whose author has made enormous contributions over the past 15 years analyzing the distribution of income and wealth, is very rich in historical and data-driven economic analysis and has been widely reviewed. It could very well become one of the most influential books on economics in decades. This is not a review but rather a brief commentary on some of the extraordinarily interesting discussion – not often seen in “This Town” – that Piketty’s visit inspired.

One of Piketty’s main concerns is the increasing concentration of wealth that has characterized the past few decades, in the United States and other developed economies. He describes this phenomenon in great detail but also abstractly and usefully as r > g; in other words, the more that the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, the more wealth is concentrated at the top. Piketty noted a number of times, in response to questions, that he sees – as do many Americans – the main problem with inequality reaching what he called “extreme” levels is that it makes it “impossible to have proper functioning of democratic institutions.” His principal proposal for reversing this trend is a progressive tax on wealth.

At the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, my colleague Dean Baker strongly agreed with Piketty’s proposal to tax wealth, but argued for a “Plan B,” among other reasons because Plan A may prove to be politically difficult or impossible for some time to come. Baker’s proposals were interesting in that they were designed to lower “r” while at the same time raising “g.” He went through several sectors of the economy where there are large “economic rents” that can be captured through taxation or other reforms, while at the same time increasing the overall efficiency of the economy and therefore the growth of output. The financial sector is obviously target number one, where even a small financial transactions tax could capture tens of billions of dollars of annual revenue while reducing wasteful and even harmful trading (Baker referred to Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys” as a prime example). Then there are patents, where we in the U.S. pay $380 billion per year for drugs whose price is composed of something like 80 or 90 percent monopoly rents – about 2 percent of GDP lifted from the non-super-rich; plus the impediments to the advancement of medical science and actual harm to human health, as pharmaceutical companies hide their data, lie about their results, and promote the use of patented drugs for inappropriate purposes. (As one critic of the pharmaceutical industry put it, there are a lot more healthy people than sick people out there, so if you are a pharmaceutical company with a patented drug, you want to get some of those healthy people into your market).

Then there are the “too-big-to-fail subsidies” which the IMF recently estimated as 20 percent of after-tax corporate profits in the euro zone. Baker also briefly discussed anti-trust policy, corporate access to resources (such as airplane space at airports) that could be auctioned, and privatization of services such as health care that are more efficiently delivered in the public sector as examples of places where “r” could be reduced as “g” is increased.

Piketty’s response was interesting: first, he agreed with Baker that all these policy recommendations would be good for the world. But, looking at the history of returns to capital, he argued that these are not greatly affected by the overall state of competitiveness of the economy. I do not find this convincing. As Piketty well knows and even demonstrates, the mechanisms, dynamics, and legal basis of returns to capital evolve over time, as do the feasibility of alternatives to any set of current arrangements. When we have 40 percent of corporate profits going to financial sector, and “intellectual property” capturing a growing share of returns at the same time that technology is increasingly making much of consumption available at zero marginal cost, there is a lot of room for slowing or reversing the upward redistribution of income by going after rents. As Baker noted, we are talking about something like 30 -50 percent of after tax corporate profits – a big chunk of “r” and so much the more important if it increases g.

All this is not to detract from Piketty’s great work or his recommendation of a progressive tax on net wealth, which as he pointed out could even reduce the property tax burden on middle-class homeowners, who on average are paying property taxes on homes where their wealth (net of mortgage debt) is very small. Piketty also easily rebutted the arguments of conservative economist Kevin Hassett, who asserted that the Gini coefficient on consumption had not changed all that much, and that the increase in transfer payments had compensated for the upward redistribution of income in recent decades. As Piketty pointed out, Hassett’s data on income distribution, which is self-reported, misses a lot of the income of the highest income groups; even the tax data that Piketty uses is really a lower bound, and Hassett’s is far below that. A rare laugh erupted in the audience when Piketty noted, in French-accented English, that the consumption data of the upper income groups did not include “their consumption of politicians.” Which is of course Piketty’s main reason for focusing so much on wealth in his book. And Baker added that most of the income transfers in the U.S. come from the middle classes, (e.g. Social Security and Medicare) not from the rich.

A note on the morning discussion at the Economic Policy Institute, sponsored by the new Washington Center for Equitable Growth: Nobel prize winning economist Robert Solow (full disclosure: a CEPR advisory board member) was on the panel and made a point of what he called “the endogeneity of (economic) growth. “ In other words, that it is not necessarily determined by factors outside the economy itself. Now, one of the great things about Piketty’s book is that it shows, as he noted today, that there is nothing that would prevent or adjust the divergence between r and g over time that concentrates wealth; we are not looking at a market failure here. However, economic policy can be a very important variable for a long period of time. For example, there was a huge slowdown in per-capita GDP growth in the vast majority of low-and-middle-income countries between 1980-2000, as compared to the prior twenty years, especially if the measure is taken by comparing countries starting at similar levels of per capita GDP in 1960 and 1980. In the 2000’s there was a rebound, to a large extent because one of the few countries that pursued a non-neoliberal policy path – China – became the world’s largest economy and helped pull many developing countries up. In the high income world, the European economy has been drastically (negatively) affected since 2009 by harmful macroeconomic policy, led by the Troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission, and IMF).

And this is looking at per capita GDP, which is what matters for living standards but – as Piketty emphasizes – the slowdown in population growth lowers g, and therefore increases the concentration of wealth. Here is my last disagreement with Piketty: he described the slowdown in population growth as “frightening” because of its impact on wealth distribution. But it is also – especially in the high-income countries — one of the most important changes that is necessary to avert global climate disaster. And it also has a positive effect on living standards and income distribution: all other things equal, lower population (and labor force) growth increases the bargaining power of labor, and in any particular country, it increases the potential for everyone to have higher living standards with given levels of productivity growth.

All that said, Piketty’s book is a masterpiece and everyone should read it.

French Economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” came to Washington DC today for a series of discussions with other economists and the public. The book itself, whose author has made enormous contributions over the past 15 years analyzing the distribution of income and wealth, is very rich in historical and data-driven economic analysis and has been widely reviewed. It could very well become one of the most influential books on economics in decades. This is not a review but rather a brief commentary on some of the extraordinarily interesting discussion – not often seen in “This Town” – that Piketty’s visit inspired.

One of Piketty’s main concerns is the increasing concentration of wealth that has characterized the past few decades, in the United States and other developed economies. He describes this phenomenon in great detail but also abstractly and usefully as r > g; in other words, the more that the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, the more wealth is concentrated at the top. Piketty noted a number of times, in response to questions, that he sees – as do many Americans – the main problem with inequality reaching what he called “extreme” levels is that it makes it “impossible to have proper functioning of democratic institutions.” His principal proposal for reversing this trend is a progressive tax on wealth.

At the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, my colleague Dean Baker strongly agreed with Piketty’s proposal to tax wealth, but argued for a “Plan B,” among other reasons because Plan A may prove to be politically difficult or impossible for some time to come. Baker’s proposals were interesting in that they were designed to lower “r” while at the same time raising “g.” He went through several sectors of the economy where there are large “economic rents” that can be captured through taxation or other reforms, while at the same time increasing the overall efficiency of the economy and therefore the growth of output. The financial sector is obviously target number one, where even a small financial transactions tax could capture tens of billions of dollars of annual revenue while reducing wasteful and even harmful trading (Baker referred to Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys” as a prime example). Then there are patents, where we in the U.S. pay $380 billion per year for drugs whose price is composed of something like 80 or 90 percent monopoly rents – about 2 percent of GDP lifted from the non-super-rich; plus the impediments to the advancement of medical science and actual harm to human health, as pharmaceutical companies hide their data, lie about their results, and promote the use of patented drugs for inappropriate purposes. (As one critic of the pharmaceutical industry put it, there are a lot more healthy people than sick people out there, so if you are a pharmaceutical company with a patented drug, you want to get some of those healthy people into your market).

Then there are the “too-big-to-fail subsidies” which the IMF recently estimated as 20 percent of after-tax corporate profits in the euro zone. Baker also briefly discussed anti-trust policy, corporate access to resources (such as airplane space at airports) that could be auctioned, and privatization of services such as health care that are more efficiently delivered in the public sector as examples of places where “r” could be reduced as “g” is increased.

Piketty’s response was interesting: first, he agreed with Baker that all these policy recommendations would be good for the world. But, looking at the history of returns to capital, he argued that these are not greatly affected by the overall state of competitiveness of the economy. I do not find this convincing. As Piketty well knows and even demonstrates, the mechanisms, dynamics, and legal basis of returns to capital evolve over time, as do the feasibility of alternatives to any set of current arrangements. When we have 40 percent of corporate profits going to financial sector, and “intellectual property” capturing a growing share of returns at the same time that technology is increasingly making much of consumption available at zero marginal cost, there is a lot of room for slowing or reversing the upward redistribution of income by going after rents. As Baker noted, we are talking about something like 30 -50 percent of after tax corporate profits – a big chunk of “r” and so much the more important if it increases g.

All this is not to detract from Piketty’s great work or his recommendation of a progressive tax on net wealth, which as he pointed out could even reduce the property tax burden on middle-class homeowners, who on average are paying property taxes on homes where their wealth (net of mortgage debt) is very small. Piketty also easily rebutted the arguments of conservative economist Kevin Hassett, who asserted that the Gini coefficient on consumption had not changed all that much, and that the increase in transfer payments had compensated for the upward redistribution of income in recent decades. As Piketty pointed out, Hassett’s data on income distribution, which is self-reported, misses a lot of the income of the highest income groups; even the tax data that Piketty uses is really a lower bound, and Hassett’s is far below that. A rare laugh erupted in the audience when Piketty noted, in French-accented English, that the consumption data of the upper income groups did not include “their consumption of politicians.” Which is of course Piketty’s main reason for focusing so much on wealth in his book. And Baker added that most of the income transfers in the U.S. come from the middle classes, (e.g. Social Security and Medicare) not from the rich.

A note on the morning discussion at the Economic Policy Institute, sponsored by the new Washington Center for Equitable Growth: Nobel prize winning economist Robert Solow (full disclosure: a CEPR advisory board member) was on the panel and made a point of what he called “the endogeneity of (economic) growth. “ In other words, that it is not necessarily determined by factors outside the economy itself. Now, one of the great things about Piketty’s book is that it shows, as he noted today, that there is nothing that would prevent or adjust the divergence between r and g over time that concentrates wealth; we are not looking at a market failure here. However, economic policy can be a very important variable for a long period of time. For example, there was a huge slowdown in per-capita GDP growth in the vast majority of low-and-middle-income countries between 1980-2000, as compared to the prior twenty years, especially if the measure is taken by comparing countries starting at similar levels of per capita GDP in 1960 and 1980. In the 2000’s there was a rebound, to a large extent because one of the few countries that pursued a non-neoliberal policy path – China – became the world’s largest economy and helped pull many developing countries up. In the high income world, the European economy has been drastically (negatively) affected since 2009 by harmful macroeconomic policy, led by the Troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission, and IMF).

And this is looking at per capita GDP, which is what matters for living standards but – as Piketty emphasizes – the slowdown in population growth lowers g, and therefore increases the concentration of wealth. Here is my last disagreement with Piketty: he described the slowdown in population growth as “frightening” because of its impact on wealth distribution. But it is also – especially in the high-income countries — one of the most important changes that is necessary to avert global climate disaster. And it also has a positive effect on living standards and income distribution: all other things equal, lower population (and labor force) growth increases the bargaining power of labor, and in any particular country, it increases the potential for everyone to have higher living standards with given levels of productivity growth.

All that said, Piketty’s book is a masterpiece and everyone should read it.

en español

Despite the fact that the New York Times had to run a correction on February 26 for claiming that Globovisión in Venezuela was “[t]he only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government,” Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch (HRW) repeats the same error in the New York Review of Books yesterday, writing that:

Two of the four private stations voluntarily dropped their critical coverage; a third was forced off the air; and the fourth was hounded by administrative sanctions and criminal charges until the owner sold it last year to investors reportedly linked to the governments, who have dramatically curtailed its critical content.

In fact, the stations he claims have “dropped their critical coverage,” Venevisión and Televen, regularly run coverage that is critical of the government, as documented here.

Since the claim that these stations have “dropped their critical coverage” is demonstrably false, the NYRB, like the New York Times, should run a correction.

The fourth station he refers to is Globovisión. During the run-up to last April’s presidential elections, according to a Carter Center study, Globovisión gave nine times as much coverage to opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles as to governing party candidate Nicolás Maduro. Readers who are familiar with right-wing TV in the United States will note that this would not be possible for Fox News, for example, to get away with. So, if Globovisión “dramatically curtailed” its anti-government bias – Wilkinson offers no data — because it was bought by someone who wanted to practice mainstream journalism, the station could still have a lot of room to trash the government.

In fact, on February 17, in the heat of the recent protests, Globovisión ran an interview with opposition leader María Corina Machado in which she denounced the government for a series of alleged crimes and argued that people had the right to overthrow it. This casts a bit of a shadow over Wilkinson’s further claim that “while some news programs have interviewed opposition leaders and government critics, they do so under the legal and political constraints imposed by the government.”

It’s too bad that Wilkinson ignored or perhaps didn’t read the Carter Center’s report on the Venezuelan media during the vigorously contested 2013 presidential election campaign. The data from the report, taking into account audience share, indicate that TV media coverage was pretty evenly split between the two candidates. This contradicts the exaggerated picture that he paints in this article of an “authoritarian” government seeking to “control how the news gets reported on Venezuelan TV.”

The 2,800-word article – which provides few links or sources to back up dozens of allegations – contains a number of exaggerations and inaccuracies. For example, in describing the protests he writes that “Most of these have been peaceful, though in many places protesters have barricaded streets, and some have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails.” This contradicts daily news reports in the major international media. Some of the large daytime marches have been peaceful, but every night for nearly two months there have been violent protests where the participants throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces and sometimes neighbors who try to clear or pass through barricades. Not to mention the occasional shootings by protesters. He doesn’t mention it, but half of the 39 fatalities he refers to have apparently been caused by protesters.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is the job of human rights groups to denounce and expose all human rights abuses committed by governments (and non-state actors too), and I would not criticize a human rights organization for being too harsh on any government. And if Wilkinson wants to ignore or pretend he can’t see that this is another attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government taking place, that’s his prerogative too. But why the gross exaggerations and false statements? Aren’t there enough things to complain about without making things up?

HRW can get away with outrageous double standards if they want. They barely lifted a finger when a U.S.-backed coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Haiti in 2004. The perpetrators of the coup killed thousands of people, and officials of the constitutional government were put in jail. This did not raise a tiny fraction of the concern at HRW as compared to the “independence of the judiciary” in Venezuela, which of course was not more independent before their enemy Chávez was elected.

In 2008, more than 100 scholars and experts signed a letter documenting and “highlighting exaggerations and inaccuracies” in a “politically motivated” report by HRW on Venezuela. It is clear that HRW did not take any steps to correct their bias or carelessness with the facts. That is a shame. Of course, there is no political price to pay in the U.S. for exaggerating or making false statements about a government that Washington wants to destabilize. But it does not serve the cause of human rights; and it undermines the good work that HRW does in other countries when they are seen as a partisan ally of a U.S.-backed attempt at “regime change.”

Really they should stick to the facts.

en español

Despite the fact that the New York Times had to run a correction on February 26 for claiming that Globovisión in Venezuela was “[t]he only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government,” Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch (HRW) repeats the same error in the New York Review of Books yesterday, writing that:

Two of the four private stations voluntarily dropped their critical coverage; a third was forced off the air; and the fourth was hounded by administrative sanctions and criminal charges until the owner sold it last year to investors reportedly linked to the governments, who have dramatically curtailed its critical content.

In fact, the stations he claims have “dropped their critical coverage,” Venevisión and Televen, regularly run coverage that is critical of the government, as documented here.

Since the claim that these stations have “dropped their critical coverage” is demonstrably false, the NYRB, like the New York Times, should run a correction.

The fourth station he refers to is Globovisión. During the run-up to last April’s presidential elections, according to a Carter Center study, Globovisión gave nine times as much coverage to opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles as to governing party candidate Nicolás Maduro. Readers who are familiar with right-wing TV in the United States will note that this would not be possible for Fox News, for example, to get away with. So, if Globovisión “dramatically curtailed” its anti-government bias – Wilkinson offers no data — because it was bought by someone who wanted to practice mainstream journalism, the station could still have a lot of room to trash the government.

In fact, on February 17, in the heat of the recent protests, Globovisión ran an interview with opposition leader María Corina Machado in which she denounced the government for a series of alleged crimes and argued that people had the right to overthrow it. This casts a bit of a shadow over Wilkinson’s further claim that “while some news programs have interviewed opposition leaders and government critics, they do so under the legal and political constraints imposed by the government.”

It’s too bad that Wilkinson ignored or perhaps didn’t read the Carter Center’s report on the Venezuelan media during the vigorously contested 2013 presidential election campaign. The data from the report, taking into account audience share, indicate that TV media coverage was pretty evenly split between the two candidates. This contradicts the exaggerated picture that he paints in this article of an “authoritarian” government seeking to “control how the news gets reported on Venezuelan TV.”

The 2,800-word article – which provides few links or sources to back up dozens of allegations – contains a number of exaggerations and inaccuracies. For example, in describing the protests he writes that “Most of these have been peaceful, though in many places protesters have barricaded streets, and some have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails.” This contradicts daily news reports in the major international media. Some of the large daytime marches have been peaceful, but every night for nearly two months there have been violent protests where the participants throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces and sometimes neighbors who try to clear or pass through barricades. Not to mention the occasional shootings by protesters. He doesn’t mention it, but half of the 39 fatalities he refers to have apparently been caused by protesters.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is the job of human rights groups to denounce and expose all human rights abuses committed by governments (and non-state actors too), and I would not criticize a human rights organization for being too harsh on any government. And if Wilkinson wants to ignore or pretend he can’t see that this is another attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government taking place, that’s his prerogative too. But why the gross exaggerations and false statements? Aren’t there enough things to complain about without making things up?

HRW can get away with outrageous double standards if they want. They barely lifted a finger when a U.S.-backed coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Haiti in 2004. The perpetrators of the coup killed thousands of people, and officials of the constitutional government were put in jail. This did not raise a tiny fraction of the concern at HRW as compared to the “independence of the judiciary” in Venezuela, which of course was not more independent before their enemy Chávez was elected.

In 2008, more than 100 scholars and experts signed a letter documenting and “highlighting exaggerations and inaccuracies” in a “politically motivated” report by HRW on Venezuela. It is clear that HRW did not take any steps to correct their bias or carelessness with the facts. That is a shame. Of course, there is no political price to pay in the U.S. for exaggerating or making false statements about a government that Washington wants to destabilize. But it does not serve the cause of human rights; and it undermines the good work that HRW does in other countries when they are seen as a partisan ally of a U.S.-backed attempt at “regime change.”

Really they should stick to the facts.

En español

A new investigation by the Associated Press into a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project to create a Twitter-style social media network in Cuba has received a lot of attention this week, with the news trending on the actual Twitter for much of the day yesterday when the story broke, and eliciting comment from various members of Congress and other policy makers. The “ZunZuneo” project, which AP reports was “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” was overseen by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). AP describes OTI as “a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments — without the usual red tape.” Its efforts to undermine the Cuban government are not unusual, however, considering the organization’s track record in other countries in the region.

As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot described in an interview with radio station KPFA’s “Letters and Politics” yesterday, USAID and OTI in particular have engaged in various efforts to undermine the democratically-elected governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti, among others, and such “open societies” could be more likely to be impacted by such activities than Cuba. Declassified U.S. government documents show that USAID’s OTI in Venezuela played a central role in funding and working with groups and individuals following the short-lived 2002 coup d’etat against Hugo Chávez. A key contractor for USAID/OTI in that effort has been Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI).

More recent State Department cables made public by Wikileaks reveal that USAID/OTI subversion in Venezuela extended into the Obama administration era (until 2010, when funding for OTI in Venezuela appears to have ended), and DAI continued to play an important role. A State Department cable from November 2006 explains the U.S. embassy’s strategy in Venezuela and how USAID/OTI “activities support [the] strategy”:

(S) In August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team’s 5 point strategy to guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period 2004 ) 2006 (specifically, from the referendum to the 2006 presidential elections). The strategy’s focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.

Among the ways in which USAID/OTI have supported the strategy is through the funding and training of protest groups. This August 2009 cable cites the head of USAID/OTI contractor DAI’s Venezuela office Eduardo Fernandez as saying, during 2009 protests, that all the protest organizers are DAI grantees:

¶5. (S) Fernandez told DCM Caulfield that he believed the [the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Corps’] dual objective is to obtain information regarding DAI’s grantees and to cut off their funding. Fernandez said that “the streets are hot,” referring to growing protests against Chavez’s efforts to consolidate power, and “all these people (organizing the protests) are our grantees.” Fernandez has been leading non-partisan training and grant programs since 2004 for DAI in Venezuela.”

The November 2006 cable describes an example of USAID/OTI partners in Venezuela “shut[ting] down [a] city”:

11. (S) CECAVID: This project supported an NGO working with women in the informal sectors of Barquisimeto, the 5th largest city in Venezuela. The training helped them negotiate with city government to provide better working conditions. After initially agreeing to the women’s conditions, the city government reneged and the women shut down the city for 2 days forcing the mayor to return to the bargaining table. This project is now being replicated in another area of Venezuela.

The implications for the current situation in Venezuela are obvious, unless we are to assume that such activities have ended despite the tens of millions of dollars in USAID funds designated for Venezuela, some of it going through organizations such as Freedom House, and the International Republican Institute, some of which also funded groups involved in the 2002 coup (which prominent IRI staff publicly applauded at the time).

The same November 2006 cable notes that one OTI program goal is to bolster international support for the opposition:

…DAI has brought dozens of international leaders to Venezuela, university professors, NGO members, and political leaders to participate in workshops and seminars, who then return to their countries with a better understanding of the Venezuelan reality and as stronger advocates for the Venezuelan opposition.

Many of the thousands of cables originating from the U.S. embassy in Caracas that have been made available by Wikileaks describe regular communication and coordination with prominent opposition leaders and groups. One particular favorite has been the NGO Súmate and its leader María Corina Machado, who has made headlines over the past two months for her role in the protest movement. The cables show that Machado historically has taken more extreme positions than some other opposition leaders, and the embassy has at least privately questioned Súmate’s strategy of discrediting Venezuela’s electoral system which in turn has contributed to opposition defeats at the polls (most notably in 2005 when an opposition boycott led to complete Chavista domination of the National Assembly). The current protests are no different; Machado and Leopoldo López launched “La Salida” campaign at the end of January with its stated goal of forcing president Nicolás Maduro from office, and vowing to “create chaos in the streets.”

USAID support for destabilization is no secret to the targeted governments. In September 2008, in the midst of a violent, racist and pro-secessionist campaign against the democratically-elected government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Morales expelled the U.S. Ambassador, and Venezuela followed suit “in solidarity.” Bolivia would later end all USAID involvement in Bolivia after the agency refused to disclose whom it was funding in the country (Freedom of Information Act requests had been independently filed but were not answered).  The U.S. embassy in Bolivia had previously been caught asking Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars in the country to engage in espionage.

Commenting on the failed USAID/OTI ZunZuneo program in Cuba, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) commented that, “That is not what USAID should be doing[.] USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished.”

But USAID’s track record of engaging in subversive activities is a long one, and U.S. credibility as an “honest broker” was lost many years ago.

En español

A new investigation by the Associated Press into a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project to create a Twitter-style social media network in Cuba has received a lot of attention this week, with the news trending on the actual Twitter for much of the day yesterday when the story broke, and eliciting comment from various members of Congress and other policy makers. The “ZunZuneo” project, which AP reports was “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” was overseen by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). AP describes OTI as “a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments — without the usual red tape.” Its efforts to undermine the Cuban government are not unusual, however, considering the organization’s track record in other countries in the region.

As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot described in an interview with radio station KPFA’s “Letters and Politics” yesterday, USAID and OTI in particular have engaged in various efforts to undermine the democratically-elected governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti, among others, and such “open societies” could be more likely to be impacted by such activities than Cuba. Declassified U.S. government documents show that USAID’s OTI in Venezuela played a central role in funding and working with groups and individuals following the short-lived 2002 coup d’etat against Hugo Chávez. A key contractor for USAID/OTI in that effort has been Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI).

More recent State Department cables made public by Wikileaks reveal that USAID/OTI subversion in Venezuela extended into the Obama administration era (until 2010, when funding for OTI in Venezuela appears to have ended), and DAI continued to play an important role. A State Department cable from November 2006 explains the U.S. embassy’s strategy in Venezuela and how USAID/OTI “activities support [the] strategy”:

(S) In August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team’s 5 point strategy to guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period 2004 ) 2006 (specifically, from the referendum to the 2006 presidential elections). The strategy’s focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.

Among the ways in which USAID/OTI have supported the strategy is through the funding and training of protest groups. This August 2009 cable cites the head of USAID/OTI contractor DAI’s Venezuela office Eduardo Fernandez as saying, during 2009 protests, that all the protest organizers are DAI grantees:

¶5. (S) Fernandez told DCM Caulfield that he believed the [the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Corps’] dual objective is to obtain information regarding DAI’s grantees and to cut off their funding. Fernandez said that “the streets are hot,” referring to growing protests against Chavez’s efforts to consolidate power, and “all these people (organizing the protests) are our grantees.” Fernandez has been leading non-partisan training and grant programs since 2004 for DAI in Venezuela.”

The November 2006 cable describes an example of USAID/OTI partners in Venezuela “shut[ting] down [a] city”:

11. (S) CECAVID: This project supported an NGO working with women in the informal sectors of Barquisimeto, the 5th largest city in Venezuela. The training helped them negotiate with city government to provide better working conditions. After initially agreeing to the women’s conditions, the city government reneged and the women shut down the city for 2 days forcing the mayor to return to the bargaining table. This project is now being replicated in another area of Venezuela.

The implications for the current situation in Venezuela are obvious, unless we are to assume that such activities have ended despite the tens of millions of dollars in USAID funds designated for Venezuela, some of it going through organizations such as Freedom House, and the International Republican Institute, some of which also funded groups involved in the 2002 coup (which prominent IRI staff publicly applauded at the time).

The same November 2006 cable notes that one OTI program goal is to bolster international support for the opposition:

…DAI has brought dozens of international leaders to Venezuela, university professors, NGO members, and political leaders to participate in workshops and seminars, who then return to their countries with a better understanding of the Venezuelan reality and as stronger advocates for the Venezuelan opposition.

Many of the thousands of cables originating from the U.S. embassy in Caracas that have been made available by Wikileaks describe regular communication and coordination with prominent opposition leaders and groups. One particular favorite has been the NGO Súmate and its leader María Corina Machado, who has made headlines over the past two months for her role in the protest movement. The cables show that Machado historically has taken more extreme positions than some other opposition leaders, and the embassy has at least privately questioned Súmate’s strategy of discrediting Venezuela’s electoral system which in turn has contributed to opposition defeats at the polls (most notably in 2005 when an opposition boycott led to complete Chavista domination of the National Assembly). The current protests are no different; Machado and Leopoldo López launched “La Salida” campaign at the end of January with its stated goal of forcing president Nicolás Maduro from office, and vowing to “create chaos in the streets.”

USAID support for destabilization is no secret to the targeted governments. In September 2008, in the midst of a violent, racist and pro-secessionist campaign against the democratically-elected government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Morales expelled the U.S. Ambassador, and Venezuela followed suit “in solidarity.” Bolivia would later end all USAID involvement in Bolivia after the agency refused to disclose whom it was funding in the country (Freedom of Information Act requests had been independently filed but were not answered).  The U.S. embassy in Bolivia had previously been caught asking Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars in the country to engage in espionage.

Commenting on the failed USAID/OTI ZunZuneo program in Cuba, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) commented that, “That is not what USAID should be doing[.] USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished.”

But USAID’s track record of engaging in subversive activities is a long one, and U.S. credibility as an “honest broker” was lost many years ago.

Nate Silver, who became famous for his use of polling data to accurately project U.S. elections, launched a new blog – FiveThirtyEight.com last month.  It’s been off to a rough start, “something between a disappointment and a disaster” as Paul Krugman wrote soon after its launch, because of some pieces that handled data rather badly. “[S]loppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination,” says Krugman.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether the FiveThirtyEight article on March 17 by Dorothy Kronick on Venezuela fits this description.  While it has become acceptable to publish almost anything about Venezuela, so long as it makes the government look bad, here at CEPR we apply the same standards to all products.

The thesis of the article is strange.  Correctly noting that the political polarization in Venezuela is overwhelmingly along class lines, with the upper income groups tending to support the protests and lower-income Venezuelans supporting the government, she asks  rhetorically “why the divide?” and answers: 

They disagree over a political vision for their country in part because they measure Chavismo against two different benchmarks: Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past, while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.

I think what she means to say is that Chavismo looks better as compared with Venezuela’s pre-Chávez era, than it does compared with the rest of Latin America. The first part is a no-brainer: per capita GDP actually fell by more than 15 percent in the 20 years prior to Chávez (1978-1998).   However there is no evidence that the two sides are making any such different comparisons.  Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?  If that were the case in the U.S., for example, President Obama’s approval ratings would be very high and the Democrats would be sailing to a landslide victory in November’s congressional elections because the relevant income-level comparison for the U.S. is Europe, which has done vastly worse in the recovery from the Great Recession since 2009.     

Now let’s look at the comparison between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.  Is it fair or even logical to judge the performance of the Chávez (and Maduro) governments from 1999, the year that Chávez took office? For the first four years, the government did not control the national oil company, which accounted for about 50 percent of government revenue and 90 percent of export earnings.  Rather, it was controlled by the opposition, who used it to sabotage the economy and launch several attempts to topple the government.  As opposition journalist Teodoro Petkoff later wrote [PDF], the Venezuela opposition had a strategy of “military takeover,” from 1999-2003 (which succeeded briefly in the coup of April 2002).  The opposition’s last attempt to use their control of the oil industry in December of 2002 resulted in a loss of GDP of 24 percent, comparable to the worst of the U.S. Great Depression.  It also resulted in a large permanent loss of oil production in Venezuela’s traditional oil fields.

To ask an analogous question for the United States:  If Paul Ryan controlled the Federal Reserve and raised interest rates to 25 percent in order to push the U.S. economy into a severe recession while President Obama was in office, would Obama be responsible for the economic performance of the U.S. economy during that recession?

Now if you are hardcore opposition, you can blame Chávez for all of this damage by saying that if he had just done everything that his political opponents wanted (instead of what the electorate had voted for), there wouldn’t have been this enormous sabotage of the economy.  But I wouldn’t put Dorothy Kronick or Nate Silver in this category.

So, unless she can think of another reason to hold the government responsible for the economic damage caused by its opponents, we cannot start with 1999.  The government finally got control over the oil industry in 2003.  However, starting with 2003 would not be quite fair to the government’s critics, since that would measure growth from a low point.  The fair way to do it is to start with 2004, when GDP caught up with the pre-recession level.  That is a fair measure of the Chávez/Maduro years.

If we look at the growth of per capita GDP from 2004-2013, the picture changes significantly.  Venezuela comes in 12th of the 20 countries, and more importantly for Kronick’s comparison it is tied with Bolivia at 2.7 percent annual per capita GDP growth.  (Kronick uses Bolivia as a comparison to show that Venezuela has not done very well in the Chávez/Maduro years).

Latin America: Annual Growth, GDP Per Capita 2004-2013

 

Source: IMF.

The author notes the reduction of poverty in Venezuela but for some reason does not compare it with that of other countries. However if we do that, we can see that Venezuela comes in fourth of 9 South American countries plus Mexico in the percentage reduction of poverty and also of extreme poverty; note that it is ahead of Bolivia, Kronick’s chosen comparison, and far ahead of the average for Latin America as a whole. This measure includes only cash income; if we were to place a dollar value on the increases in access to health care, education, and housing, Venezuela’s rank would go up significantly. 

Latin America: Poverty Reduction

lacpoverty

Note: Superscripts refer to time periods reflected in graph; (1) 2004-2012, (2) 2004-2011, (3) 2003-2011, and (4) 2007-2012.

Source: ECLAC.

The rest of Kronick’s comparisons do not measure living standards.  Inflation of course has become a serious problem over the past 16 months, and if it were to continue at this rate it could negatively affect output, employment, and possibly income distribution.  However, we cannot assume that this will happen; for example, annual inflation was 39 percent in February 2003 but was brought back down.  So, all we can do right now for a comparison like this is to compare measures of living standards and social welfare from 2004 to the present, with the latest available data.  Many people are not aware of this fact, but inflation is not a measure of living standards. 

Neither is the amount of liquid reserves held by the Venezuela’s central government, which is compared with Bolivia in this article.  It is not clear why we are supposed to think this is an important comparison, or why Venezuelans should care about it.  According to the latest report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the liquid and semi-liquid assets of the central bank, PDVSA, and other government holdings sum to more than $50 billion, which is quite a healthy amount of reserves relative to Venezuela’s imports (about a year’s worth).  And especially since Venezuela’s currency is not directly convertible (there are exchange controls), it is not clear why cash reserves would be the most relevant measure for balance of payments purposes.

The author also compares Venezuela’s foreign public debt with that of Bolivia, showing that Venezuela’s is higher, at about 27 percent of GDP, with Bolivia at 16 percent of GDP.  Of course this isn’t a measure of living standards either, but it could be relevant if you think Venezuela is facing some kind of debt crisis.  It isn’t.  And if we are going to make the comparison, it’s important to point out that Bolivia had foreign debt amounting to 10 percent of its GDP – owed to the Inter-American Development Bank – cancelled in 2007.  That accounts for almost all the difference between the two countries’ foreign public debt.  It was Chávez who clinched this deal by pushing other South American governments to agree to the cancellation (which also included debt cancellation for Honduras, Haiti, Guyana, and Nicaragua).

The comparison of infant mortality reduction between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America is also way off-base.  The author measures annual percentage reduction, but of course it is much easier to reduce infant mortality by 1 percentage point if you are at 60 per thousand than if you are already at 18.  As the chart below shows, Venezuela started the period (you can use 1999 or 2004 here, it doesn’t change the picture) with the fifth-lowest infant mortality and ended the period with the sixth-lowest infant mortality.

lac infant mortality

There are more irrelevant comparisons (e.g. Chávez won his 2012 election by “only” 11 percentage points, less than other incumbents), but it is not worth going through them all.  The piece is a good illustration of the problem with this blog that Krugman pointed out, i.e. using (or misusing) numbers without a coherent framework. 

The comparison with Bolivia, for example, could have been instructive in illustrating two important economic policy mistakes made by the Venezuelan government, if the author had a coherent framework.  Although Bolivia did not need anywhere near 50 percent of GDP in liquid reserves to do it, the Morales government has kept the Bolivian exchange rate very stable for seven years.  They used a managed float without a pre-announced target, and accumulated enough reserves (while also using some exchange controls) to maintain the exchange rate within a narrow range.  Venezuela’s fixed exchange rate system, by contrast, has been much less stable and ran into serious trouble in the past year-and-a-half, with a sharp rise in the black market dollar premium and a consequent steep increase in inflation.

The second relevant comparison between Bolivia and Venezuela was their response to the 2008-09 world financial crisis and recession.  Bolivia – partly because of plans already in the works – had a large fiscal stimulus, and ended up with about the best growth performance in the hemisphere in 2009.  Venezuela responded with pro-cylical spending cuts and therefore had a recession that lasted a year-and-a-half (all of 2009 plus the first year of 2010).  If the Venezuelan government had adopted counter-cyclical policies, its growth for the past decade would have come in higher than Bolivia’s and ahead of most of the region.

Of course, if the trends of the past 16 months were to continue, the Venezuelan economy could go down a different path where it would indeed underperform neighboring countries in its stated goals of raising the living standards of the majority of Venezuelans.  But the author is trying to assert that this is what already happened during the Chávez/Maduro years – and for that, the data clearly go against her argument.

Finally, any evaluation of the Chávez/Maduro years should at least note the many billions of dollars of foreign aid that Venezuela has provided to the region – probably unprecedented for an economy of this size.  From the point of view of an opposition politician, of course, there is no credit due here.  But when looking at what happened to the oil revenues of this era that were not spent at home, it is not as if they ended up in some Swiss bank account as in the case of many U.S. allies. From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant.

Nate Silver, who became famous for his use of polling data to accurately project U.S. elections, launched a new blog – FiveThirtyEight.com last month.  It’s been off to a rough start, “something between a disappointment and a disaster” as Paul Krugman wrote soon after its launch, because of some pieces that handled data rather badly. “[S]loppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination,” says Krugman.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether the FiveThirtyEight article on March 17 by Dorothy Kronick on Venezuela fits this description.  While it has become acceptable to publish almost anything about Venezuela, so long as it makes the government look bad, here at CEPR we apply the same standards to all products.

The thesis of the article is strange.  Correctly noting that the political polarization in Venezuela is overwhelmingly along class lines, with the upper income groups tending to support the protests and lower-income Venezuelans supporting the government, she asks  rhetorically “why the divide?” and answers: 

They disagree over a political vision for their country in part because they measure Chavismo against two different benchmarks: Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past, while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.

I think what she means to say is that Chavismo looks better as compared with Venezuela’s pre-Chávez era, than it does compared with the rest of Latin America. The first part is a no-brainer: per capita GDP actually fell by more than 15 percent in the 20 years prior to Chávez (1978-1998).   However there is no evidence that the two sides are making any such different comparisons.  Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?  If that were the case in the U.S., for example, President Obama’s approval ratings would be very high and the Democrats would be sailing to a landslide victory in November’s congressional elections because the relevant income-level comparison for the U.S. is Europe, which has done vastly worse in the recovery from the Great Recession since 2009.     

Now let’s look at the comparison between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.  Is it fair or even logical to judge the performance of the Chávez (and Maduro) governments from 1999, the year that Chávez took office? For the first four years, the government did not control the national oil company, which accounted for about 50 percent of government revenue and 90 percent of export earnings.  Rather, it was controlled by the opposition, who used it to sabotage the economy and launch several attempts to topple the government.  As opposition journalist Teodoro Petkoff later wrote [PDF], the Venezuela opposition had a strategy of “military takeover,” from 1999-2003 (which succeeded briefly in the coup of April 2002).  The opposition’s last attempt to use their control of the oil industry in December of 2002 resulted in a loss of GDP of 24 percent, comparable to the worst of the U.S. Great Depression.  It also resulted in a large permanent loss of oil production in Venezuela’s traditional oil fields.

To ask an analogous question for the United States:  If Paul Ryan controlled the Federal Reserve and raised interest rates to 25 percent in order to push the U.S. economy into a severe recession while President Obama was in office, would Obama be responsible for the economic performance of the U.S. economy during that recession?

Now if you are hardcore opposition, you can blame Chávez for all of this damage by saying that if he had just done everything that his political opponents wanted (instead of what the electorate had voted for), there wouldn’t have been this enormous sabotage of the economy.  But I wouldn’t put Dorothy Kronick or Nate Silver in this category.

So, unless she can think of another reason to hold the government responsible for the economic damage caused by its opponents, we cannot start with 1999.  The government finally got control over the oil industry in 2003.  However, starting with 2003 would not be quite fair to the government’s critics, since that would measure growth from a low point.  The fair way to do it is to start with 2004, when GDP caught up with the pre-recession level.  That is a fair measure of the Chávez/Maduro years.

If we look at the growth of per capita GDP from 2004-2013, the picture changes significantly.  Venezuela comes in 12th of the 20 countries, and more importantly for Kronick’s comparison it is tied with Bolivia at 2.7 percent annual per capita GDP growth.  (Kronick uses Bolivia as a comparison to show that Venezuela has not done very well in the Chávez/Maduro years).

Latin America: Annual Growth, GDP Per Capita 2004-2013

 

Source: IMF.

The author notes the reduction of poverty in Venezuela but for some reason does not compare it with that of other countries. However if we do that, we can see that Venezuela comes in fourth of 9 South American countries plus Mexico in the percentage reduction of poverty and also of extreme poverty; note that it is ahead of Bolivia, Kronick’s chosen comparison, and far ahead of the average for Latin America as a whole. This measure includes only cash income; if we were to place a dollar value on the increases in access to health care, education, and housing, Venezuela’s rank would go up significantly. 

Latin America: Poverty Reduction

lacpoverty

Note: Superscripts refer to time periods reflected in graph; (1) 2004-2012, (2) 2004-2011, (3) 2003-2011, and (4) 2007-2012.

Source: ECLAC.

The rest of Kronick’s comparisons do not measure living standards.  Inflation of course has become a serious problem over the past 16 months, and if it were to continue at this rate it could negatively affect output, employment, and possibly income distribution.  However, we cannot assume that this will happen; for example, annual inflation was 39 percent in February 2003 but was brought back down.  So, all we can do right now for a comparison like this is to compare measures of living standards and social welfare from 2004 to the present, with the latest available data.  Many people are not aware of this fact, but inflation is not a measure of living standards. 

Neither is the amount of liquid reserves held by the Venezuela’s central government, which is compared with Bolivia in this article.  It is not clear why we are supposed to think this is an important comparison, or why Venezuelans should care about it.  According to the latest report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the liquid and semi-liquid assets of the central bank, PDVSA, and other government holdings sum to more than $50 billion, which is quite a healthy amount of reserves relative to Venezuela’s imports (about a year’s worth).  And especially since Venezuela’s currency is not directly convertible (there are exchange controls), it is not clear why cash reserves would be the most relevant measure for balance of payments purposes.

The author also compares Venezuela’s foreign public debt with that of Bolivia, showing that Venezuela’s is higher, at about 27 percent of GDP, with Bolivia at 16 percent of GDP.  Of course this isn’t a measure of living standards either, but it could be relevant if you think Venezuela is facing some kind of debt crisis.  It isn’t.  And if we are going to make the comparison, it’s important to point out that Bolivia had foreign debt amounting to 10 percent of its GDP – owed to the Inter-American Development Bank – cancelled in 2007.  That accounts for almost all the difference between the two countries’ foreign public debt.  It was Chávez who clinched this deal by pushing other South American governments to agree to the cancellation (which also included debt cancellation for Honduras, Haiti, Guyana, and Nicaragua).

The comparison of infant mortality reduction between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America is also way off-base.  The author measures annual percentage reduction, but of course it is much easier to reduce infant mortality by 1 percentage point if you are at 60 per thousand than if you are already at 18.  As the chart below shows, Venezuela started the period (you can use 1999 or 2004 here, it doesn’t change the picture) with the fifth-lowest infant mortality and ended the period with the sixth-lowest infant mortality.

lac infant mortality

There are more irrelevant comparisons (e.g. Chávez won his 2012 election by “only” 11 percentage points, less than other incumbents), but it is not worth going through them all.  The piece is a good illustration of the problem with this blog that Krugman pointed out, i.e. using (or misusing) numbers without a coherent framework. 

The comparison with Bolivia, for example, could have been instructive in illustrating two important economic policy mistakes made by the Venezuelan government, if the author had a coherent framework.  Although Bolivia did not need anywhere near 50 percent of GDP in liquid reserves to do it, the Morales government has kept the Bolivian exchange rate very stable for seven years.  They used a managed float without a pre-announced target, and accumulated enough reserves (while also using some exchange controls) to maintain the exchange rate within a narrow range.  Venezuela’s fixed exchange rate system, by contrast, has been much less stable and ran into serious trouble in the past year-and-a-half, with a sharp rise in the black market dollar premium and a consequent steep increase in inflation.

The second relevant comparison between Bolivia and Venezuela was their response to the 2008-09 world financial crisis and recession.  Bolivia – partly because of plans already in the works – had a large fiscal stimulus, and ended up with about the best growth performance in the hemisphere in 2009.  Venezuela responded with pro-cylical spending cuts and therefore had a recession that lasted a year-and-a-half (all of 2009 plus the first year of 2010).  If the Venezuelan government had adopted counter-cyclical policies, its growth for the past decade would have come in higher than Bolivia’s and ahead of most of the region.

Of course, if the trends of the past 16 months were to continue, the Venezuelan economy could go down a different path where it would indeed underperform neighboring countries in its stated goals of raising the living standards of the majority of Venezuelans.  But the author is trying to assert that this is what already happened during the Chávez/Maduro years – and for that, the data clearly go against her argument.

Finally, any evaluation of the Chávez/Maduro years should at least note the many billions of dollars of foreign aid that Venezuela has provided to the region – probably unprecedented for an economy of this size.  From the point of view of an opposition politician, of course, there is no credit due here.  But when looking at what happened to the oil revenues of this era that were not spent at home, it is not as if they ended up in some Swiss bank account as in the case of many U.S. allies. From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant.

I sometimes complain about U.S. media coverage of Venezuela, which is mostly one-sided and sometimes terribly inaccurate. But compared to most of the Latin American media, U.S. reporting is practically “fair and balanced.” Check out this amazing front page banner headline of Peru’s biggest newspaper, El Comercio, on Sunday, March 16 (photo below). Translation: “94 percent of Peruvians reject the Chavista model”; sub-headline: “82 percent of those interviewed consider the government of Venezuela to be a dictatorship.”

Imagine the New York Times running a headline like this. How ridiculous would they look? People would wonder: is this news in the U.S.? What percentage of the U.S. population knows or cares what the “Chavista model” is, or has an informed opinion on whether Venezuela’s democratically-elected government is actually a “dictatorship?” Not to mention that you would be hard-pressed to find a political scientist who specializes in Latin America who would accept the label ‘dictatorship’ for Venezuela.

Now I know what you are thinking. Peru is a bit closer to Venezuela and is part of South America. Peruvians speak the same language as Venezuelans. So, maybe there is some kind of buzz about “the Chavista model” in Peru or some great concern among the masses about the state of constitutional democracy in Venezuela.

Well, no. Peruvians are no more likely than residents of the United States to know anything about “the Chavista model” or about Venezuela in general. This “journalism” looks pretty much as irrelevant and strange in Peru as it would be if the New York Times had run the same headlines. The only qualifier I would add is that, since the media and right-wing politicians scream about Venezuela as in this headline, they are able to create a certain McCarthyist fear among some sectors. Sometimes they use this fear – without necessarily any real connection — against political opponents (e.g. as they did successfully in defeating the current President Ollanta Humala’s first presidential bid in 2006). But that is not much different from what the Florida Cuban-American U.S. Representatives and their neocon allies are doing in the U.S. Congress right now.

The difference is that you wouldn’t see this bizarre headline in the most important newspaper in the U.S. And the comparison to the New York Times is not quite right: as important as the Times may be, it doesn’t quite compare to a newspaper that owns a breathtaking 78 percent of the print newspapers, in a country where only 28 percent of households have internet access. Who knows how much the polling data they are blasting across their front pages accurately reflects public opinion about Venezuela – but to the extent that it does, guess where the public has gotten its (not very deeply-held) opinions from?

elcomercio201403

I sometimes complain about U.S. media coverage of Venezuela, which is mostly one-sided and sometimes terribly inaccurate. But compared to most of the Latin American media, U.S. reporting is practically “fair and balanced.” Check out this amazing front page banner headline of Peru’s biggest newspaper, El Comercio, on Sunday, March 16 (photo below). Translation: “94 percent of Peruvians reject the Chavista model”; sub-headline: “82 percent of those interviewed consider the government of Venezuela to be a dictatorship.”

Imagine the New York Times running a headline like this. How ridiculous would they look? People would wonder: is this news in the U.S.? What percentage of the U.S. population knows or cares what the “Chavista model” is, or has an informed opinion on whether Venezuela’s democratically-elected government is actually a “dictatorship?” Not to mention that you would be hard-pressed to find a political scientist who specializes in Latin America who would accept the label ‘dictatorship’ for Venezuela.

Now I know what you are thinking. Peru is a bit closer to Venezuela and is part of South America. Peruvians speak the same language as Venezuelans. So, maybe there is some kind of buzz about “the Chavista model” in Peru or some great concern among the masses about the state of constitutional democracy in Venezuela.

Well, no. Peruvians are no more likely than residents of the United States to know anything about “the Chavista model” or about Venezuela in general. This “journalism” looks pretty much as irrelevant and strange in Peru as it would be if the New York Times had run the same headlines. The only qualifier I would add is that, since the media and right-wing politicians scream about Venezuela as in this headline, they are able to create a certain McCarthyist fear among some sectors. Sometimes they use this fear – without necessarily any real connection — against political opponents (e.g. as they did successfully in defeating the current President Ollanta Humala’s first presidential bid in 2006). But that is not much different from what the Florida Cuban-American U.S. Representatives and their neocon allies are doing in the U.S. Congress right now.

The difference is that you wouldn’t see this bizarre headline in the most important newspaper in the U.S. And the comparison to the New York Times is not quite right: as important as the Times may be, it doesn’t quite compare to a newspaper that owns a breathtaking 78 percent of the print newspapers, in a country where only 28 percent of households have internet access. Who knows how much the polling data they are blasting across their front pages accurately reflects public opinion about Venezuela – but to the extent that it does, guess where the public has gotten its (not very deeply-held) opinions from?

elcomercio201403

Bolivia will most likely join Brazil and Argentina (Bolivia’s largest trading partners) by becoming the sixth member of the MERCOSUR group. Since 2006, Bolivian trade with MERCOSUR has grown by 17 percent. A recent study published by Desarrollo de Negocios Internacionales found that over the last 10 years Bolivia has experienced the second highest export growth rate in South America. This is remarkable considering that on average landlocked developing countries (LLDC) trade 30 percent less [PDF] than coastal countries [1]. As a result, for most landlocked countries transportation infrastructure plays a crucial part in facilitating intraregional trade. Since 2005, industrialization has become a key aspect of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ economic policy, particularly in the area of transportation, which in 2013, accounted for 30 percent of total [PDF] public investment [2]. The chart below shows levels of public investment in transportation as a percentage of total GDP since 2005:

nate-bolivia-blog-figure

Source: International Monetary Fund and Ministerio de Economía y Finanzas Pública Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia

Transportation and Road Infrastructure:

According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), on average LLDCs spend almost two times more of their export earnings on transportation and insurance expenses than developing countries and three times more than developed countries. Typically, LLDCs have higher transport costs in foreign trade due to lack of access to seaports and poor transportation infrastructure. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Bolivia was rated as having the second worst transportation infrastructure in the entire continent. Only 7.1 percent [PDF] of Bolivian roadways are paved (the lowest in all of South America).

However, since 2005, the Bolivian government has constructed 2,407 miles of paved highways, more than the total [PDF] constructed during the entire period from 1948-2000 [3]. In 2014, the Bolivian government seeks to construct an additional 486.7 mi [PDF] in roadways and is projected to invest an additional $244 million dollars [PDF] in the transportation sector. The creation of new roads has played a major role in facilitating export growth. (It is worth noting that heavy state investment in transportation is not unique to Bolivia. In fact, transportation has become an economic priority for many countries throughout the region in order to improve regional integration. In 2011, 80 percent of transportation infrastructure in South America was financed by the public sector.)

However, it is worth pointing out that the Bolivian government has received substantial criticism from some sectors of Bolivian society who feel that the creation of new roads are invasive and pose a threat to fragile ecosystems.

Bolivia was ranked [PDF] by Germanwatch number six of countries most-affected by natural disasters due to climate change in 2007. Each year the Bolivian government spends millions of dollars on road repairs in response to natural disasters. Earlier this year heavy rains rocked the country, resulting in 59 tragic deaths and causing about US$ 38 million in damage to road infrastructure. Environmental disasters are yet another factor that contribute to high levels of public spending on transportation.

Despite some public criticism, transportation infrastructure is seen by the Bolivian government as a necessary evil in order to facilitate trade, reduce inequality, create jobs (the transportation sector created 21,115 new jobs in 2012) and increase economic growth (in 2013 Bolivia recorded a 6.5 percent GDP growth rate. Its highest [PDF] in 38 years.) As Bolivia becomes the newest member to join MERCOSUR it will undoubtedly continue to increase trade relations with other member countries and this will most likely lead to the further expansion of transportation infrastructure.  

 


1 This is partially explained by the fact that Bolivia is a natural gas producing country, which allows them to use pipelines rather then highway transportation methods (the former being a cheaper, effective and less volatile method of transporting goods). Last year the government invested $134 million in hydrocarbons pipelines. However, road transportation is still the primary method of transportation for non-gas exports.

2 Sectors that receive the highest levels of public investment are ranked as follows: transportation, hydrocarbons, housing and education.

3 Since 2006, the government has also built an additional 42 bridges along with four international and two domestic airports. The transportation sector also acted as important source of job creation and in 2012 the industry created 21,115 new jobs.

Bolivia will most likely join Brazil and Argentina (Bolivia’s largest trading partners) by becoming the sixth member of the MERCOSUR group. Since 2006, Bolivian trade with MERCOSUR has grown by 17 percent. A recent study published by Desarrollo de Negocios Internacionales found that over the last 10 years Bolivia has experienced the second highest export growth rate in South America. This is remarkable considering that on average landlocked developing countries (LLDC) trade 30 percent less [PDF] than coastal countries [1]. As a result, for most landlocked countries transportation infrastructure plays a crucial part in facilitating intraregional trade. Since 2005, industrialization has become a key aspect of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ economic policy, particularly in the area of transportation, which in 2013, accounted for 30 percent of total [PDF] public investment [2]. The chart below shows levels of public investment in transportation as a percentage of total GDP since 2005:

nate-bolivia-blog-figure

Source: International Monetary Fund and Ministerio de Economía y Finanzas Pública Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia

Transportation and Road Infrastructure:

According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), on average LLDCs spend almost two times more of their export earnings on transportation and insurance expenses than developing countries and three times more than developed countries. Typically, LLDCs have higher transport costs in foreign trade due to lack of access to seaports and poor transportation infrastructure. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Bolivia was rated as having the second worst transportation infrastructure in the entire continent. Only 7.1 percent [PDF] of Bolivian roadways are paved (the lowest in all of South America).

However, since 2005, the Bolivian government has constructed 2,407 miles of paved highways, more than the total [PDF] constructed during the entire period from 1948-2000 [3]. In 2014, the Bolivian government seeks to construct an additional 486.7 mi [PDF] in roadways and is projected to invest an additional $244 million dollars [PDF] in the transportation sector. The creation of new roads has played a major role in facilitating export growth. (It is worth noting that heavy state investment in transportation is not unique to Bolivia. In fact, transportation has become an economic priority for many countries throughout the region in order to improve regional integration. In 2011, 80 percent of transportation infrastructure in South America was financed by the public sector.)

However, it is worth pointing out that the Bolivian government has received substantial criticism from some sectors of Bolivian society who feel that the creation of new roads are invasive and pose a threat to fragile ecosystems.

Bolivia was ranked [PDF] by Germanwatch number six of countries most-affected by natural disasters due to climate change in 2007. Each year the Bolivian government spends millions of dollars on road repairs in response to natural disasters. Earlier this year heavy rains rocked the country, resulting in 59 tragic deaths and causing about US$ 38 million in damage to road infrastructure. Environmental disasters are yet another factor that contribute to high levels of public spending on transportation.

Despite some public criticism, transportation infrastructure is seen by the Bolivian government as a necessary evil in order to facilitate trade, reduce inequality, create jobs (the transportation sector created 21,115 new jobs in 2012) and increase economic growth (in 2013 Bolivia recorded a 6.5 percent GDP growth rate. Its highest [PDF] in 38 years.) As Bolivia becomes the newest member to join MERCOSUR it will undoubtedly continue to increase trade relations with other member countries and this will most likely lead to the further expansion of transportation infrastructure.  

 


1 This is partially explained by the fact that Bolivia is a natural gas producing country, which allows them to use pipelines rather then highway transportation methods (the former being a cheaper, effective and less volatile method of transporting goods). Last year the government invested $134 million in hydrocarbons pipelines. However, road transportation is still the primary method of transportation for non-gas exports.

2 Sectors that receive the highest levels of public investment are ranked as follows: transportation, hydrocarbons, housing and education.

3 Since 2006, the government has also built an additional 42 bridges along with four international and two domestic airports. The transportation sector also acted as important source of job creation and in 2012 the industry created 21,115 new jobs.

It says something about overall media coverage of a subject when some of the most important news appears in the form of corrections.  On February 26, the New York Times corrected a false statement in a news report that had incorrectly referred to Globovision as “[t]he only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government.” This was false, and it was easy to show that other major television stations regularly broadcast opposition views.

Today the Times corrected an even more important false statement that appeared in an op-ed by jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López.  López had written that “more than 30” protesters had been killed in Venezuela in the recent protests. In fact the “more than 30” number cited by López includes all protest-related deaths, a fraction of whom appear to be protesters.  Although it has not been mentioned in major media coverage, a compilation of press reports indicates that the protesters themselves – not security forces – are responsible for about half of the deaths.  These include six national guardsmen who were shot, five additional people apparently shot while trying to remove barriers erected by protesters, and seven people who were killed apparently from crashing into protesters’ barriers (including two motorcyclists beheaded by wire strung across the road).

This correction is extremely important because most people who see the daily death toll from protests in Venezuela understandably assume that these are people killed by state agents.  Although the reporters are not intending to mislead, we can see the effect of this reporting in that López himself, and whoever edited, placed, or provided other assistance with the op-ed for him also were very much mistaken.  The net result of this widespread false impression is to greatly strengthen the opposition strategy, supported by many politicians and pundits in the U.S., to portray Venezuela as a violent, repressive, and illegitimate government. 

Although it is impossible to give a completely accurate accounting of who has been killed by whom in the six weeks of protests, the fact that only a small fraction of the fatalities were caused by security forces, and about half by the protesters themselves, should make people think about whether this is really a story about a “violent” government trying to repress “peaceful” protesters.  The Attorney General has also stated that there are 60 investigations of human rights abuses by security forces and that at least 15 have been jailed.  

The prior error and correction about the news media in Venezuela was significant in the same way, as I have detailed elsewhere.  In general, op-eds are given more leeway with respect to facts than news reports, so it is good that the Times recognized this as a significant factual error and promptly corrected it. 

The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has shown a great deal of independence and integrity in reviewing the content of the paper, yesterday looked at the question, “Does The Times Take Sides in Venezuela Reporting?”  I don’t have the time or space here to review the Times’ reporting on Venezuela over the past 15 years, but there is one complaint that she seems to agree with:     

Another reader, Paul Karlin, complains that The Times’s news and opinion coverage is “remarkably biased” against the Maduro government. He has sent me a number of examples of perspectives – critical of the American approach to Venezuela – that he finds lacking on the Times Op-Ed pages; it’s a reasonable point.

It sure is.  In the 15 years since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, the New York Times has offered many op-eds from an opposition viewpoint on Venezuela, including 3 in just the last month.  But only after Chávez died last year did the Times’ print edition offer its first, and to date, only op-ed on Venezuela from another perspective, by Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva. This contrasts with almost every medium-sized to large newspaper in the United States – e.g. the LA Times, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, and Washington Post, and scores of other mainstream and even right-wing city newspapers, which all published at least one op-ed offering another side of the story during the Chávez years.

It says something about overall media coverage of a subject when some of the most important news appears in the form of corrections.  On February 26, the New York Times corrected a false statement in a news report that had incorrectly referred to Globovision as “[t]he only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government.” This was false, and it was easy to show that other major television stations regularly broadcast opposition views.

Today the Times corrected an even more important false statement that appeared in an op-ed by jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López.  López had written that “more than 30” protesters had been killed in Venezuela in the recent protests. In fact the “more than 30” number cited by López includes all protest-related deaths, a fraction of whom appear to be protesters.  Although it has not been mentioned in major media coverage, a compilation of press reports indicates that the protesters themselves – not security forces – are responsible for about half of the deaths.  These include six national guardsmen who were shot, five additional people apparently shot while trying to remove barriers erected by protesters, and seven people who were killed apparently from crashing into protesters’ barriers (including two motorcyclists beheaded by wire strung across the road).

This correction is extremely important because most people who see the daily death toll from protests in Venezuela understandably assume that these are people killed by state agents.  Although the reporters are not intending to mislead, we can see the effect of this reporting in that López himself, and whoever edited, placed, or provided other assistance with the op-ed for him also were very much mistaken.  The net result of this widespread false impression is to greatly strengthen the opposition strategy, supported by many politicians and pundits in the U.S., to portray Venezuela as a violent, repressive, and illegitimate government. 

Although it is impossible to give a completely accurate accounting of who has been killed by whom in the six weeks of protests, the fact that only a small fraction of the fatalities were caused by security forces, and about half by the protesters themselves, should make people think about whether this is really a story about a “violent” government trying to repress “peaceful” protesters.  The Attorney General has also stated that there are 60 investigations of human rights abuses by security forces and that at least 15 have been jailed.  

The prior error and correction about the news media in Venezuela was significant in the same way, as I have detailed elsewhere.  In general, op-eds are given more leeway with respect to facts than news reports, so it is good that the Times recognized this as a significant factual error and promptly corrected it. 

The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has shown a great deal of independence and integrity in reviewing the content of the paper, yesterday looked at the question, “Does The Times Take Sides in Venezuela Reporting?”  I don’t have the time or space here to review the Times’ reporting on Venezuela over the past 15 years, but there is one complaint that she seems to agree with:     

Another reader, Paul Karlin, complains that The Times’s news and opinion coverage is “remarkably biased” against the Maduro government. He has sent me a number of examples of perspectives – critical of the American approach to Venezuela – that he finds lacking on the Times Op-Ed pages; it’s a reasonable point.

It sure is.  In the 15 years since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, the New York Times has offered many op-eds from an opposition viewpoint on Venezuela, including 3 in just the last month.  But only after Chávez died last year did the Times’ print edition offer its first, and to date, only op-ed on Venezuela from another perspective, by Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva. This contrasts with almost every medium-sized to large newspaper in the United States – e.g. the LA Times, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, and Washington Post, and scores of other mainstream and even right-wing city newspapers, which all published at least one op-ed offering another side of the story during the Chávez years.

Venezuelan opposition politicians and their allies in the U.S. frequently decry Cuba’s alleged influence on the Venezuelan government. Ironically however, there seems to be an important and growing nexus between the Venezuelan opposition and the anti-Cuba lobby in the U.S. Cuban-American lawmakers recently introduced sanctions legislation targeting Venezuelan officials that appears to be designed to push U.S. policy toward Venezuela in the same direction as policy toward Cuba.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the Venezuelan opposition’s ire for Cuba and the role it has played in the ongoing protests in Venezuela:

Enraged as they are by their nation’s leaders, many of the protesters who have spilled onto Venezuela’s streets have their eyes fixed on another government altogether, one they resent perhaps just as bitterly as their own: Cuba’s.

Their rancor is echoed by the Cuban opposition, which has thrown itself behind the Venezuelan protesters’ cause with gusto, sharing photos and videos of protests and police abuse on Twitter, urging Venezuelans to resist and even rapping an apology for what they call Cuba’s meddling.

The Venezuela protests have “energized” members of Cuba’s opposition, reports the Times. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, an anti-Castro blogger in the U.S., told the Times, “The fate of Castro-ism may be at play in Venezuela…What we were not able to topple in Cuba, we may be able to topple there.”

Yet despite near constant claims from the Venezuelan opposition that Cuba is in control of their country (for instance, when it was announced that Venezuelan congresswoman Maria Corina Machado would be investigated and possibly stripped of her position, she responded that “It’s clear to me that it was the Castro brothers who gave the order”), the Times notes that:

Such convictions are held by critics in both countries, although they offer little hard evidence to back their suspicions. And while some former Venezuelan military officers say that Cubans are involved in decision-making in the armed forces, some protesters go further, professing to see what they call “the hairy hand” of Cuba everywhere: saying they have detected Cuban “infiltrators” at street protests; seeing a Cuban hallmark in the tactics of Venezuela’s armed forces; and circulating unsubstantiated Internet reports that Cuban special forces, or Black Wasps, are operating in Venezuela.

The Times report follows a number of pieces from the Tampa Bay Tribune, which discuss the relations between anti-Castro exiles, specifically in South Florida, and the opposition in Venezuela. In early March, Paul Guzzo wrote:

From Tampa to the Senate floor in Washington, and throughout the United States, Cuban Americans who defend continued isolation of the Communist island nation are throwing their support behind Venezuelan Americans in their efforts to bring order to the South American country.

The Tribune reports on Casa de Cuba, an organization that has existed since the 1980s. Recently, the organization has shifted its resources to Venezuela:

Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney who has supported Casa de Cuba since its inception, said, “The fact is we got involved too late in Cuba. By the time our fight began Castro was already fully entrenched in the Cuban government.

“But that is not the case in Venezuela. We can inspire and create change there. It is not too late.”

Casa de Cuba has provided Venezuelan opposition supporters with full access to its center at 2506 W. Curtis St.

Reno and Fernandez said Casa de Cuba leaders are teaching these new allies how to organize demonstrations, speak to the media, lobby elected officials, raise money, support clandestine missions, make contacts abroad and distinguish between supporters and spies.

“It has been a perfect relationship,” Reno said.

One resident of Doral, Florida, home to one of the largest Venezuelan populations in the U.S., recently faced boycotts and other harassments after she pointed out that many of the pictures circulating on social media about Venezuela were actually faked. Tim Padgett reports:

Her case isn’t isolated. Boycotters also insist, for example, that a high-end restaurant in Coral Gables is owned by the son of Venezuela’s Supreme Court president. And that the owners of a Doral sushi restaurant are supposedly relatives of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores.

In each of those cases, however, the claims appear to be patently false.

And to many observers in Miami, it’s déjà vu – reminiscent of personal attacks suffered a generation ago by anyone who dared disagree with the hardline Cuban exile community.

As the Times points out:

the notion that Cuba’s future is at play in Venezuela is tempting hard-liners from both sides, including influential Cuban Americans, to polarize the conflict further, said Arturo López-Levy, a former Cuban security analyst who lectures at the University of Denver.

“Compromise is not a word in the lexicon of the Cuban revolution,” or of the Cuban exile community, Mr. López-Levy said.

As both the Times and the Tribune note, the support for the Venezuela opposition has also come from U.S. lawmakers that have long supported a more aggressive policy with regards to Cuba. The Times reports:

[Senator Marco] Rubio, a fiery defender of the American economic embargo of Cuba, introduced legislation with two other senators this month that would authorize $15 million in new funding next year for human rights and civil society programs in Venezuela and require President Obama to impose sanctions on people involved in serious human rights violations.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been among the most vocal in denouncing the Venezuelan government. The sanctions legislation she introduced a few weeks ago, which has 15 co-sponsors (11 are from Florida), outlines an extremely aggressive approach to the Venezuelan government and in fact, took some passages directly from the 1996 Helms-Burton act [PDF], which strengthened the embargo against Cuba. The legislation calls on the U.S. government to outline a strategy to ensure that Venezuela is, among other things, “substantially moving toward a market-oriented economic systems based on the right to own and enjoy property,” and “are committed to making constitutional changes that would ensure regular free and fair elections,” sentences taken word for word from Helms-Burton. But the passages seem divorced from the reality in Venezuela, where regular elections are held and private sector growth outpaced public during Chávez’s presidency.

Even the short title of the Venezuela legislation, the “Venezuelan Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act” matches that of Helms-Burton, which is known as the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996.”

The Tribune reports on concerns about the high-profile role being played by the anti-Castro lawmakers:

Attorney Martinez sees another concern; The resolutions are sponsored by Rubio, [Menendez] and Ros-Lehtinen, all of whom are among the most vocal anti-Castro leaders in the U.S.

Martinez said their involvement, coming on the heels of polls showing the majority of the U.S., in favor of, improved relations with Cuba, may point to ulterior motives.

By vilifying the Venezuelan government and tying Cuba to it, the pendulum could swing back to the side of preserving the embargo against Cuba, he said.

Venezuelan opposition politicians and their allies in the U.S. frequently decry Cuba’s alleged influence on the Venezuelan government. Ironically however, there seems to be an important and growing nexus between the Venezuelan opposition and the anti-Cuba lobby in the U.S. Cuban-American lawmakers recently introduced sanctions legislation targeting Venezuelan officials that appears to be designed to push U.S. policy toward Venezuela in the same direction as policy toward Cuba.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the Venezuelan opposition’s ire for Cuba and the role it has played in the ongoing protests in Venezuela:

Enraged as they are by their nation’s leaders, many of the protesters who have spilled onto Venezuela’s streets have their eyes fixed on another government altogether, one they resent perhaps just as bitterly as their own: Cuba’s.

Their rancor is echoed by the Cuban opposition, which has thrown itself behind the Venezuelan protesters’ cause with gusto, sharing photos and videos of protests and police abuse on Twitter, urging Venezuelans to resist and even rapping an apology for what they call Cuba’s meddling.

The Venezuela protests have “energized” members of Cuba’s opposition, reports the Times. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, an anti-Castro blogger in the U.S., told the Times, “The fate of Castro-ism may be at play in Venezuela…What we were not able to topple in Cuba, we may be able to topple there.”

Yet despite near constant claims from the Venezuelan opposition that Cuba is in control of their country (for instance, when it was announced that Venezuelan congresswoman Maria Corina Machado would be investigated and possibly stripped of her position, she responded that “It’s clear to me that it was the Castro brothers who gave the order”), the Times notes that:

Such convictions are held by critics in both countries, although they offer little hard evidence to back their suspicions. And while some former Venezuelan military officers say that Cubans are involved in decision-making in the armed forces, some protesters go further, professing to see what they call “the hairy hand” of Cuba everywhere: saying they have detected Cuban “infiltrators” at street protests; seeing a Cuban hallmark in the tactics of Venezuela’s armed forces; and circulating unsubstantiated Internet reports that Cuban special forces, or Black Wasps, are operating in Venezuela.

The Times report follows a number of pieces from the Tampa Bay Tribune, which discuss the relations between anti-Castro exiles, specifically in South Florida, and the opposition in Venezuela. In early March, Paul Guzzo wrote:

From Tampa to the Senate floor in Washington, and throughout the United States, Cuban Americans who defend continued isolation of the Communist island nation are throwing their support behind Venezuelan Americans in their efforts to bring order to the South American country.

The Tribune reports on Casa de Cuba, an organization that has existed since the 1980s. Recently, the organization has shifted its resources to Venezuela:

Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney who has supported Casa de Cuba since its inception, said, “The fact is we got involved too late in Cuba. By the time our fight began Castro was already fully entrenched in the Cuban government.

“But that is not the case in Venezuela. We can inspire and create change there. It is not too late.”

Casa de Cuba has provided Venezuelan opposition supporters with full access to its center at 2506 W. Curtis St.

Reno and Fernandez said Casa de Cuba leaders are teaching these new allies how to organize demonstrations, speak to the media, lobby elected officials, raise money, support clandestine missions, make contacts abroad and distinguish between supporters and spies.

“It has been a perfect relationship,” Reno said.

One resident of Doral, Florida, home to one of the largest Venezuelan populations in the U.S., recently faced boycotts and other harassments after she pointed out that many of the pictures circulating on social media about Venezuela were actually faked. Tim Padgett reports:

Her case isn’t isolated. Boycotters also insist, for example, that a high-end restaurant in Coral Gables is owned by the son of Venezuela’s Supreme Court president. And that the owners of a Doral sushi restaurant are supposedly relatives of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores.

In each of those cases, however, the claims appear to be patently false.

And to many observers in Miami, it’s déjà vu – reminiscent of personal attacks suffered a generation ago by anyone who dared disagree with the hardline Cuban exile community.

As the Times points out:

the notion that Cuba’s future is at play in Venezuela is tempting hard-liners from both sides, including influential Cuban Americans, to polarize the conflict further, said Arturo López-Levy, a former Cuban security analyst who lectures at the University of Denver.

“Compromise is not a word in the lexicon of the Cuban revolution,” or of the Cuban exile community, Mr. López-Levy said.

As both the Times and the Tribune note, the support for the Venezuela opposition has also come from U.S. lawmakers that have long supported a more aggressive policy with regards to Cuba. The Times reports:

[Senator Marco] Rubio, a fiery defender of the American economic embargo of Cuba, introduced legislation with two other senators this month that would authorize $15 million in new funding next year for human rights and civil society programs in Venezuela and require President Obama to impose sanctions on people involved in serious human rights violations.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been among the most vocal in denouncing the Venezuelan government. The sanctions legislation she introduced a few weeks ago, which has 15 co-sponsors (11 are from Florida), outlines an extremely aggressive approach to the Venezuelan government and in fact, took some passages directly from the 1996 Helms-Burton act [PDF], which strengthened the embargo against Cuba. The legislation calls on the U.S. government to outline a strategy to ensure that Venezuela is, among other things, “substantially moving toward a market-oriented economic systems based on the right to own and enjoy property,” and “are committed to making constitutional changes that would ensure regular free and fair elections,” sentences taken word for word from Helms-Burton. But the passages seem divorced from the reality in Venezuela, where regular elections are held and private sector growth outpaced public during Chávez’s presidency.

Even the short title of the Venezuela legislation, the “Venezuelan Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act” matches that of Helms-Burton, which is known as the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996.”

The Tribune reports on concerns about the high-profile role being played by the anti-Castro lawmakers:

Attorney Martinez sees another concern; The resolutions are sponsored by Rubio, [Menendez] and Ros-Lehtinen, all of whom are among the most vocal anti-Castro leaders in the U.S.

Martinez said their involvement, coming on the heels of polls showing the majority of the U.S., in favor of, improved relations with Cuba, may point to ulterior motives.

By vilifying the Venezuelan government and tying Cuba to it, the pendulum could swing back to the side of preserving the embargo against Cuba, he said.

Reading the daily reports on Venezuela’s protests, we find that “At least 31 people have died” (CNN) or the headline “Venezuela death toll rises to 33” (Reuters) and dozens of similar statements in television and radio reports. There is nothing inaccurate about this on its face, and no one can accuse the journalists involved of having exaggerated anything.

But let’s look at this for a moment from the perspective of the reader or listener, who is generally not an expert on Venezuela. What do they think when they read or hear these statements? If you want to find out, just ask anyone who happens to be near you when you are reading this right now: “Who is responsible for most of these deaths?” Unless they have done their own research, they will tell you that the government and/or security forces are responsible.

In fact, it appears that the majority of the deaths described in the headline “Venezuela death rises to 33” appear to have been caused by protesters. The average reader, of course, has plenty of reason to think the opposite; that it was the state security forces that were responsible for most of the deaths. In most countries where street protests take place and there is violence, the vast majority of the violence is indeed caused by police or armed forces. Even in places where protesters engage in violent acts, they will generally provoke greater violence from the state.  

So because this situation is so contrary to what people are understanding from the reports, perhaps reporters should include a simple statement that he majority of deaths appear to have been caused by protesters, not security forces. Otherwise, although it is not intentional, these reports continually reinforce the widespread belief, which is promoted by U.S. politicians and pundits who want Americans to believe it, that the government of Venezuela is violently “cracking down” on “peaceful protesters.”

Reading the daily reports on Venezuela’s protests, we find that “At least 31 people have died” (CNN) or the headline “Venezuela death toll rises to 33” (Reuters) and dozens of similar statements in television and radio reports. There is nothing inaccurate about this on its face, and no one can accuse the journalists involved of having exaggerated anything.

But let’s look at this for a moment from the perspective of the reader or listener, who is generally not an expert on Venezuela. What do they think when they read or hear these statements? If you want to find out, just ask anyone who happens to be near you when you are reading this right now: “Who is responsible for most of these deaths?” Unless they have done their own research, they will tell you that the government and/or security forces are responsible.

In fact, it appears that the majority of the deaths described in the headline “Venezuela death rises to 33” appear to have been caused by protesters. The average reader, of course, has plenty of reason to think the opposite; that it was the state security forces that were responsible for most of the deaths. In most countries where street protests take place and there is violence, the vast majority of the violence is indeed caused by police or armed forces. Even in places where protesters engage in violent acts, they will generally provoke greater violence from the state.  

So because this situation is so contrary to what people are understanding from the reports, perhaps reporters should include a simple statement that he majority of deaths appear to have been caused by protesters, not security forces. Otherwise, although it is not intentional, these reports continually reinforce the widespread belief, which is promoted by U.S. politicians and pundits who want Americans to believe it, that the government of Venezuela is violently “cracking down” on “peaceful protesters.”

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