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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“All You Have To Do Is Go There”

Mark Weisbrot on the U.S. media’s misleading reporting on

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Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., is considered to be one of the leading experts on the Venezuelan economy and the reforms of President Hugo Chavez. Weisbrot was in Milwaukee last week to discuss American media’s coverage of progressive changes in Latin America, coverage that Weisbrot claims is misleading.

He sat down with the Shepherd’s Louis Fortis to discuss what’s really happening in Venezuela. Fortis went to Venezuela last summer with a group of media members to investigate the media and freedom in Venezuela.

Shepherd: Everything we read about in the United States talks about Chavez curbing people’s freedom and that he’s a dictator. Have you seen this repression?

Weisbrot: If you go there you would see very quickly that Venezuela is a very open, democratic society, either compared to its own past or compared to other countries of its income level. I think those are the only relevant comparisons. It isn’t Sweden, but neither is any other country in South America. There is freedom of speech and assembly and the press. It has one of the most, if not the most, oppositional media in the hemisphere.

It has much more oppositional media than we have in the United States. It is hard to find people [in Venezuela] who are afraid to criticize the government. I think that’s easier to find here in the United States.

Shepherd: So can the papers or TV news attack Chavez for being corrupt?

Weisbrot: They say these things all the time. If you pick up the biggest newspapers or listen to the radio, you’ll find very harsh criticisms. Television as well. But television is more divided now because you have state TV stations.

State TV has been expanded a lot. It used to be that private, anti-government media had a monopoly. That’s less true now. I wouldn’t say it’s the best system. I would prefer to see all sides being objective. But what you have instead is state TV, which is pro-government, and then you have private media, which is much larger than state media, which is against the government. Between the two you can get both sides of the story.

Shepherd: The other argument is that Chavez nationalized media and other assets, and that the middle class is losing their fortunes and their wealth. How much of that is true?

Weisbrot: None of that is true. First of all, the private sector is a bigger share of the economy than it was when Chavez took office. When he took office, the state share of the economy was about 31%, and at the end of last year it was probably about 27%. So the private sector of the economy grew at a faster rate than the public sector. If you go back to the ’80s, the state sector was over 40% of the economy.

Chavez certainly ran on a program of 21st-century socialism, and people voted for him by a huge measure. I think the government has delivered on certain things. They have subsidized food for the poor, about 40% of the population. They have greatly expanded access to education, especially university education. They have health care for poor people, people who previously couldn’t afford it. Venezuela is similar to what you see in social democratic countries in Europe, for example. It’s not a state-run economy by any relevant comparison.

Shepherd: According to the news, they’re nationalizing the oil industry. What’s going on there?

Weisbrot: The oil industry in Venezuela was actually nationalized in 1976. Chavez was elected in 1998 and took office in 1999. But he didn’t take control of the nationalized oil industry. For the first four years he couldn’t really do very much. In fact, the people who controlled the oil industry were from the old regime and they used it to try to overthrow the government twice. They succeeded for 48 hours in 2002 and they tried again at the end of that year with a big oil strike.

Basically what the government has done is establish control over the national oil industry. That happened in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, the economy has grown by over 90% in real terms. The poverty rate has been cut by half. And you have these other benefits, in terms of health care and education. So it was very important.

The government also took a majority stake in certain joint oil ventures with foreign companies. But this was not a drastic change.

Shepherd: From everything you’re saying, it doesn’t sound like journalists are being thrown in jail for criticizing the government. The government is not appropriating private property, and Chavez has been democratically elected by 63% of the population in what outside observers say was a clean election: So why is he continuously referred to as a dictator?

Weisbrot: I think that’s something that’s generated partly from the United States. The Bush administration has been trying to get rid of this government for some time and supported a military coup in 2002 and funneled millions of dollars to opposition movements there. They have tried everything to destabilize and undermine the government and they have tried to isolate them diplomatically in the region.

That has backfired, and it has ended up isolating the United States. Almost everyone else in the region has supported Chavez, even though they don’t necessarily agree with his rhetoric or his confrontational style. They agree with him on substantive issues, on the future of South America, the economic integration there. And they agree with him on the question of the United States’ interference there. When you see these things about dictatorship, what you’re seeing is a political campaign against his government. But all you have to do is go there.

Where has there ever been a dictatorship in the history of the world where the media trashes the government in all of the major press every day? I’ve never heard of it.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com

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