Blame it on Caracas

Source: NY Times eXaminer founder Gregory Wilpert critiques the New York Times’ coverage of Venezuela – U.S. relations following the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats from Venezuela by President Nicolas Maduro.

“Stepping up hostilities with the United States, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela expelled the top American diplomat,” reads the first sentence of the New York Times’s coverage of the three diplomats President Maduro expelled on Monday (“With Accusations of Sabotage, Venezuela Expels 3 U.S. Embassy Officials,” by William Neuman, NYT, Oct. 1, 2013, p.A6). After explaining that Maduro accused the diplomats of fomenting sabotage and protest activity among the opposition, the rest of the article goes on to say, “The expulsions were the latest diplomatic swipe at Washington by Mr. Maduro since he took over for the country’s longtime president…” and that Maduro is intent on “painting the United States as an imperialist aggressor out to undermine his government.”

In other words, it is the Venezuelan government that is worsening relations between Caracas and Washington and that the U.S. government is an innocent victim of Maduro’s verbal and presumably not-so-diplomatic onslaught. The fact that the U.S. first initiated almost every turn in the worsening relations between the U.S. and Venezuela is conveniently omitted in Neuman’s article.

For example, it was ambassador-designate Larry Palmer, in August 2010, who first cast aspersions on Venezuela’s military and thereby torpedoed his acceptance as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Then, in May of 2011, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA for doing business with Iran. Later in that same year the Obama administration accused four Venezuelan government officials of providing support to Colombia’s guerrilla, the FARC, and levying sanctions in these officials. Shortly thereafter Obama himself accused the Chávez government of restricting human rights and of violating democratic principles in Venezuela. In January of 2012 Obama proceeded to expel Venezuela’s consul general in Miami for allegedly engaging in a spying operation against the U.S. while she was stationed in Mexico a year earlier. What happened was that she had met with someone connected to the Venezuelan opposition who tried to entrap her by claiming to have information about U.S. nuclear facilities. Other than meeting with someone who unsuccessfully tried to give her false information, she never actually engaged in any spying activity. Finally, the day that Chávez died, Maduro revealed that two U.S. diplomats were meeting with Venezuelan military officials, proposing destabilization plans.

Reading the New York Times on U.S-Venezuelan relations, one could get the impression that either none of these above-named incidents happened or that if they did, they were meaningless and do not deserve a reaction from the Venezuelan government. The fact that the Venezuelan government did react each time and did not tolerate these actions can—in the NYT worldview—only mean that the Venezuelan government is either hell-bent on sabotaging U.S.-Venezuela relations and/or that these actions are merely a smokescreen to distract from domestic Venezuelan problems.

Distraction is precisely what Neuman suggests when he quotes Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, “He [Maduro] needs diversions and distractions … The situation is so dire in Venezuela that he needs to find a scapegoat, and it’s convenient and politically so tempting to kick out U.S. diplomats,” and Neuman follows up with his own comment that “the country’s economic woes are getting worse.”

Given the lack of information about earlier U.S. actions against Venezuela, distraction appears to be a compelling explanation for Maduro’s apparently irrational attacks against the good-hearted Obama administration. Unfortunately for this narrative, the facts don’t quite fit. That is, while the article cites an unusually high inflation rate of 45 percent for 2013 so far, it fails to mention that inflation has been declining recently, from a high of 6.1 percent in May 2013, and dropping to 3.2 and 3.0 percent in July and August, respectively. Also, while economic growth has been sluggish, it has been fluctuating between 0.5% and 2.6% per quarter this year. Another area that is written about a lot is shortages, but these too have become less acute than earlier this year, according to official statistics. In short, while there are no doubt economic problems in Venezuela, they have been improving recently, contrary to Neuman’s claim that the situation is “getting worse.”

Once again, it seems that the New York Times is determined to present official enemies of the U.S. as irrational and deceptive, while the U.S. government is the innocent victim of these enemies. However, it really should not be all that difficult to believe that countries of strategic importance, such as Venezuela, which has one of the world’s largest oil reserves, would be a target of U.S. covert (or not so covert) intervention. After all, in Obama’s recent UN speech he promised, referring to the Middle East, “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” We have no reason to expect the U.S. to treat Venezuela any differently, especially if Obama can count on the New York Times to provide the media distortions it needs.

Gregory Wilpert is a political sociologist, activist, and freelance writer.