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On May 2, CNN executive producer Arthur Brice published what was purported to be a news article on Venezuela. Instead, Brice’s 4,300-word screed, titled “Chavez Health Problems Plunge Venezuela’s Future Into Doubt,” is little more than a platform for the bizarre theories of Roger Noriega, an ultra-rightwing lobbyist and one-time diplomat under George W. Bush, who Brice references over two dozen times throughout his article.
As a political commentator, Noriega pontificates with total brazenness. He appeared as the chief pundit in Brice’s CNN piece six months after announcing—based on what he said was the belief of Chávez’s own medical team—that the Venezuelan president was "not likely to survive more than six months.” Noriega is not fazed by facts. He promotes his fantastical claims in many major news outlets, often based on anonymous sources. Take, for example, his 2010 Foreign Policy article, “Chávez's Secret Nuclear Program,” whose subtitle reads: “It’s not clear what Venezuela's hiding, but it's definitely hiding something—and the fact that Iran is involved suggests that it’s up to no good.” (State Department officials dismissed this suspicion with “scorn.”)
CNN’s interviews with Noriega and the other mostly rightwing analysts likely led to this demonstrably false claim at the beginning of Brice's May 2 article: “Diosdado Cabello, a longtime Chavez cohort . . . amassed tremendous power in January when Chavez named him president of the National Assembly.” In fact, even El Universal, a daily Venezuelan newspaper long-aligned with the opposition, conceded in a January 5 report that Cabello was elected as the new president of the National Assembly, even if “only with the votes” of the majority United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Ewan Robertson of Venezuelanalysis.com found that 98 deputies of the pro-government bloc supported Cabello, while the 67-member opposition bloc opposed him. Such mundane electoral processes have guided much of Venezuela’s political dynamics over the past decade.
The rest of CNN’s long-winded compilation of hearsay proceeds in the same way. To give two examples, Brice turns to Venezuelan doctor Jose Rafael Marquina to shed light on Chávez’s current state of health. By Brice’s own admission however, Marquina “practices in Florida and has no direct connection with the case but says he has colleagues who know what is happening.” On the separate issue of Venezuelan politics, “the Cubans,” Brice writes, “may only have the power to suggest and manipulate as best they can,” but he also cites “some observers” who fear the Cubans could leverage their “perceived point men” in the country to unleash “militias in an attempt to take over.” Brice then quotes Noriega as saying, “I have no doubts that some Cubans would use violent means to deal with Venezuelans.”
These examples are indicative of CNN's desire to spin a yarn of intrigue. Venezuela’s October presidential vote should be no different from the past. Closely monitored, free and fair elections have been the final word in political outcomes in Venezuela. But by relying on telephone interviews with self-proclaimed “analysts” almost exclusively based in the United States, CNN portrays Venezuelan politics as a grand chess game of “powerful men trying to bend the arc of history because they believe their president's life may be slipping out of the hands of doctors and into the hands of God.” For CNN, Venezuelan voters play a marginal role, if any at all—it’s a sensationalized struggle between drug-dealing generals, Cuban spooks, well-connected cronies, armed militias, and a dying, charismatic strongman in thrall to Fidel Castro.
Had Brice decided to report on the ground from Caracas, he may have produced a video segment similar to the one that appears alongside his own article on CNN’s website. Journalist Paula Newton describes the free, government-provided medical attention in poor areas—a “concrete” reason why broad support for Chavez “isn’t exactly blind,” she says. Newton also shows Chávez voters displaying (reasonable) skepticism toward conjectures that the president is about to die or is already dead—a potentially valuable lesson for CNN, considering Brice's general credulousness.
Noriega’s buffoonish commentary in outlets like CNN would be more amusing if not for his hands-on experience in crafting devastating U.S. policies toward Latin America. Noriega’s career in government, one may recall, includes administering “non-lethal” aid to the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency as a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official in the 1980s. He followed this up as a senior staffer to Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990s, co-authoring the Helms-Burton Act, which intensified the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Bush II appointed him as ambassador to the Organization of American States in 2001, and in 2003, he replaced Iran-Contra veteran and Venezuelan coup-backer Otto Reich as Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. For this post—his last in government before switching over to the private sector—Noriega had big shoes to fill, and he undoubtedly rose to the occasion.
Whereas Reich failed to roll back the leftward tide of Venezuela in 2002 during his tenure (the military coup which overthrew Hugo Chávez lasted only two days), Noriega triumphed in damming the populist flood of Lavalas in Haiti. As the only mass-based political movement in the most unequal country in the hemisphere, Lavalas, headed by the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was an obvious threat to the Bush administration. The denouement of the administration’s destabilization campaign occurred in February 2004 when Aristide and his family were spirited away by a U.S. plane in the middle of the night. Noriega initially denied that the United States played a role in Aristide’s removal, feebly claiming that Aristide had embarked on the plane by his own volition. But according to Dr. Paul Farmer—Harvard health specialist and UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti—Noriega admitted “during a House hearing that Aristide did not know of his destination until less than an hour before landing in the Central African Republic.” Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, told Newsday right before the coup that “Roger Noriega has been dedicated to ousting Aristide for many, many years, and now he’s in a singularly powerful position to accomplish it.”
Today, Noriega divides his time between his post as a Latin America “scholar” at the pro-corporate American Enterprise Institute (AEI) think tank, and as a registered lobbyist for various interests in countries that are the subjects of his widely published commentaries. Noriega’s influence-peddling has been extremely effective in recent years. For example, in addition to writing opinion pieces defending the 2009 Honduran coup d’etat, Noriega—who was hired to represent a Honduran textile manufacturers group—organized a meeting between the coup regime’s supporters and U.S. Senators less than 10 days after the overthrow of the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. Daniel W. Fisk, who helped set U.S. policies in Central America as a high-ranking government official in the 1980s and ‘90s, attended the meeting. According to The New York Times, Fisk was “stunned by the turnout.” “I had never seen eight senators in one room to talk about Latin America in my entire career,” he was quoted as saying.
The Times framed Noriega’s actions toward Honduras as a vestige of Cold War planning. Noriega, Reich, and Fisk, wrote The Times, viewed Honduras as “the principal battleground in a proxy fight with Cuba and Venezuela,” two countries that the three men characterized “as threats to stability in the region in language similar to that once used to describe the designs of the Soviet Union." Noriega certainly warned against a new red menace when he supported Zelaya’s overthrow; Honduras was ground zero in what Noriega called “the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy.”
Given Noriega’s disturbing record, it is astonishing that CNN produced a news piece on Venezuela through the lens of a lobbyist with obvious conflicts of interest in Latin America. Brice’s article, which never mentions Noriega’s lobbying, is dominated by comments like these:
Noriega and other observers have said [Chávez’s] appointments of Cabello and Rangel Silva have turned Venezuela into a narcostate. . . . 'If Cabello and Rangel Silva resort to dirty work to hold things together, Maduro is a guy they can bring in to give a veneer of respectability to the international community,' Noriega said, calling [the hypothetical scenario he just created] a 'junta kind of arrangement.' . . . The military also would face deep divisions if called upon to fire on Venezuelan citizens. . . . "The elections are, from [Cabello and Rangel Silva’s] standpoint, expendable," [Noriega] said. "On the other hand, if they believe they can add a patina of legitimacy, they will hold them. They're going to be hard-pressed to make a legitimacy argument with a narco kingpin in power."
Through CNN, Noriega is able to publicly fret over the prospects of a Venezuelan military coup (like the one the Bush administration and the IMF supported in 2002) and criticize Venezuela's purported drug trafficking (like the kind carried out by CIA asset Manuel Noriega and the U.S.-backed Contras). Noriega preemptively disapproves of a hypothetical Venezuelan election whose purpose, he says, would be to “add a patina of legitimacy” (despite Noriega’s own endorsement of the U.S.-backed sham elections in Honduras in 2009, which were conducted under a dictatorship).
There is also some historical context behind Brice’s unquestioning use of terms like “narcogenerals,” “narcostate,” “narcoterrorism,” and “narco kingpin” with relation to Venezuela. Many of these instances originate from Noriega’s direct quotes to CNN. This is just the latest example of media manipulation that Noriega’s colleagues mastered long ago. From 1983-86 Reich headed a taxpayer-funded propaganda outlet, the Office of Public Diplomacy, which, among other activities, placed false reports in major outlets that the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was involved in narcotrafficking. Haiti is another case: In 1992, the CIA created a fraudulent psychological profile on Aristide, which Senator Jesse Helms then used to denounce the president as a “psychopath,” a claim that was uncritically parroted by the press at the time. Aristide, the diminutive liberation theologian, was also the subject of a U.S. grand jury investigation due to his alleged involvement in narcotrafficking. Although the media repeated the claim that Aristide's was running drugs, human-rights attorney Brian Concannon pointed out in 2006 that ultimately, “not a single charge [was] issued from the courthouse.” (U.S. efforts to assassinate Aristide’s character through the courts continue up to the present day.)
But there is a silver lining to Brice’s CNN article: Roger Noreiga’s nuttier theories, thankfully, were not incorporated into the piece. Here are just a few short excerpts of Noriega’s baseless output as of late:
Noriega concludes this WSJ op-ed by appealing to international law. He writes that Venezuela's nefarious plans “should be challenged as a threat to peace and an act of aggression under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.” This is a perfectly appropriate way to deal with any rogue state that, in Noriega’s words, is prone to “meddle in the internal politics” of other countries, and provides “support for terrorist groups in the Americas.” Unfortunately, Noriega has it upside down. It is not Venezuela, but the United States that is unequivocally responsible for doing both kinds of activities. But don't hold your breath waiting for Noriega to equally apply such standards.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, CNN En Español, Truthout, and Upside Down World. He is the author of the new NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which takes a critical look at the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere.