“Venezuela, more deadly than Iraq” read a headline in the New York Times on Aug. 23 – a headline of such shock value that it can only mean one thing: it’s election time in Venezuela. Inside Venezuela, similar headlines are printed almost daily in corporate media with the upcoming September 26 national assembly elections.
“Venezuela, more deadly than Iraq” read a headline in the New York Times on Aug. 23 – a headline of such shock value that it can only mean one thing: it’s election time in Venezuela. Inside Venezuela, similar headlines are printed almost daily in corporate media with the upcoming September 26 national assembly elections. Coincidentally, the Venezuelan corporate media and their allies among the Western press continually draw on the same crime statistics “leaked” from unidentified government sources or compiled by rightwing NGO’s.
The point of the articles is not to illuminate the real crime problem in Venezuela, but rather to persuade potential voters during the election campaign. Corporate media in Venezuela, which is owned by wealthy elites largely opposed to President Hugo Chavez, has continually used fear as a way to create an atmosphere of insecurity in an attempt to generate votes during elections.
International coverage was sparked most recently by the publication in the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional of a graphic and highly disturbing photo of corpses piled haphazardly in a morgue in the epicenter of Venezuela’s violence – the capital city of Caracas. While the photo was printed in the lead-up to this year’s election campaign, it was quickly discovered that it was taken no later than December of last year. Yet El Nacional’s owner, Miguel Henrique Otero, waited for a more political opportune moment. As he pointed out himself on CNN, they decided to hold off printing the photo until this month because “Venezuela is in campaign-mode.”1
Using the media as a political tool is not a new strategy of the opposition. When the government decided not to renew the license of RCTV – a television station involved in inciting protest and misreporting events during the 2002 coup that briefly overthrew democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez 2 – media reports claimed freedom of speech was threatened in Venezuela. Similar cries of censorship were printed in US media after the Venezuelan government tried to pass legislation that barred newspapers from printing graphic photos like the one published by El Nacional.
What the reports do not mention is that the press, a majority of which still remains in the hands of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, is used as a tool to advance the narrow political interests of the country’s oligarchy. The photo printed in El Nacional, which was too graphic to be shown in US media, is just one example of how the opposition has abused the freedom of press for their own political gain.
History of Media and Violence
A look back to before Chavez was elected in 1999 helps give context to the current challenges facing Caracas today. One of the wealthiest countries in Latin American largely due to its immense oil reserves, Venezuela also became known for its drastic inequalities of wealth. After the implementation of numerous neoliberal policies that cut social programs and raised the price of basic goods, many of the city’s poor were forced to turn to gangs and illegal activities. Police corruption and easy access to guns created a sense of chaos in the streets. In The Street is my Home, the Venezuelan author Patricia C. Marquez reports on research she conducted on violence in Caracas in the 1990’s:
“In effect, Caracas, is now in a state of siege. The walls that surround the properties of the well-to-do grow higher and higher, and even among the less well off and the poor, there is anxiety, uncertainty, and hopelessness. But while some seek to protect themselves in their fortresses, others cannot escape the bullets flying inside their thin rancho wall.”
However, as Marquez claims, the media largely underreported the violence. She notes that, “The violence in Caracas is much more serious than anything portrayed in the media.” Before 1999, the media, she continues, underplayed “the dimension of the problem to avoid disturbing the public.”
When I spoke with Julio Cesar Velasco, the former civil boss of a poor barrio in central Caracas, he reaffirmed Marquez’ remarks: “Before President Chavez the media reported one of every hundred killings.” However, now he argues, “the media reports every killing a hundred times.”
Yet one NGO, the “Venezuelan Observatory of Violence” (OVV) claims to use media as a method to generate statistics. Numbers published by the OVV, which is run by a right-wing opposition member, Roberto Briceño León, are widely quoted in numerous articles including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Strangely both articles were printed this month even though Reuters reported the same statistics in March of this year.3
Another report published in 2008 by Foreign Policy magazine claimed that according to “official” statistics, Caracas was one of the “Murder capitals of the World”. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal also quotes supposed “leaked” official reports in a piece published last week. Both articles fail to offer an explanation as how they obtained statistics that were not published and showed no investigation into their validity.
Furthermore, it is unclear what percentage of the actual murders is gang related, has been perpetrated by the police themselves or is a result of violence that has spilled over from the Colombian conflict. Reports also ignore vital information on how the data is collected and the background and funding of organizations such as the OVV. By denying the root causes and steps taken by the administration to solve the problem, the articles mislead the reader into believing the problem of violence was manufactured by Chavez.
However, this would not be the first time the New York Times and other corporate media outlets have used questionable statistics. Simon Romero, whose article in the New York Times argues Venezuela is more dangerous than Iraq, uses the group Iraq Body Count as the basis for his statistics. However, the World Health Organization says deaths are over three times higher than what the Iraq Body Count claims. Surely, Romero, who lives comfortably in Caracas, does not think he would be safer in Baghdad?
Government Policies to Improve Security
Since Chavez took office over 11 years ago, numerous policies have been experimented with to tackle the violence. More general policies meant to battle poverty, specifically the social missions, which provide healthcare, education, jobs and rehabilitation centers (to list a few) to Venezuelan citizens, have had positive results.
Since the initiation of the programs, poverty has dropped in half and youth have new alternatives to a life on the street. However, with easy access to weapons, gun crime remains common and impunity often leads to repeat offenders. Tackling that issue, however, has been difficult in part because the corruption of the Metropolitan Police of Caracas (PM).
The PM has a long history of involvement in the murder, torture and oppression of youth and much of this violence has continued under Chavez. According to statistics from the government, not only in Caracas but also around Venezuela, police are responsible for some 15-20% of criminal activity.
As a method to tackle the problem, Chavez’s administration created the National Bolivarian Police (PNB). The idea for the PNB was developed from a National Police Reform Commission in 2006 in which the government and police forces participated in numerous community-based assemblies to determine the structure of police reform. According to the government, the new police force will adapt preventative and humane practices while working directly with communities and being held accountable to community councils. In January of this year, the first officers were deployed in Catia, the largest barrio on Caracas’s west side, which since then has seen an over 50% reduction in murders.
One of the most successful initiatives of the government in battling violence has been through the support of community organizations and councils that directly respond to the needs of their neighborhood. In areas such as La Vega, which used to hold the title as being one of the most dangerous barrios, culture programs have been the primary response in taking youth off the streets. On any given evening sport, music and art programs aimed at young males, those most likely to get involved in gangs, can be seen in almost every neighborhood.
The government does not only promote many of the culture-based groups in La Vega but also supports them with resources, while in some cases the Ministry of Culture will hire local teachers. As Tirso Maldonado, who coordinates a nightly political hip-hop school in La Vega told me, “In the 90’s, in one weekend we would wake up to 30 dead in our community. Now when one person dies people are in shock and community members march out of their houses enraged.” In La Vega, it is quite common to see people partying in the streets on the weekends and propping their doors open during the daytime. In the 1990’s, I’ve been told, that was unheard of.
Additionally, in 23 de Enero, an area with a population of over 500,000, residents were successful in actually removing the police from their barrio completely. Since then the community created their own police force and have taken over former areas home to drug-sellers, turning them into parks and meeting spaces. According to accounts from those living in the barrio, there has been an over 90% reduction in murders.
La Vega and 23 de Enero are not unique cases. From my own experience of not only conducting numerous interviews but also living in over a half-dozen of Caracas’s most “dangerous” barrios, there is a widely held belief that things are drastically improving despite the media reports.
Violence still remains an issue, though one that is not unique to Caracas but which also affects numerous cities around Latin America. The Venezuelan government’s failure to produce reliable statistics that are available to the public has been an obstacle in understanding the size of the problem. Not only would statistics aid the government in better attacking problem areas, it would also restore the public’s confidence in the handling of the matter.
Other obstacles facing the government are the concentration of violence in areas that are difficult to patrol. Petare, the largest barrio, and quite isolated on Caracas’s east side, has had scattered outcomes. The region is home to a large Colombian immigrant population and also one of the poorest and most densely populated barrios in the city. Furthermore, since regional elections in 2008, Petare has been under the control of the opposition, making it difficult for the national government to implement new security policies.
In western Venezuela, new threats of violence continue along the 1,375-mile border of Venezuela and Colombia, which has been a challenge for Venezuelan authorities to control. Drug traffickers and paramilitaries have been found operating along border cities and even as far east as Caracas. To add to the chaos, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands displaced by civil-conflict in Colombia migrate into Venezuela annually, many landing in the already overcrowded Caracas streets.
Reducing the murder rate in Caracas and elsewhere will continue to be a challenge to the current government in the coming years. However, with the creation of the national police force and the increased involvement of grassroots and community organizations, there is strong optimism that the problem will only improve. Unfortunately, the wealthy elite has shown that it is in their interest for Venezuela to remain violent – making it increasingly apparent that it is not Chavez’s policies that stand in the way of a safer Venezuela but the manufacturing of fear promoted by the opposition’s own media.
Lainie Cassel currently divides her time between Caracas, Venezuela and New York City. She can be reached at Lainie.Cassel[at]gmail.com.