Watch full interview with NACLA contributing editor Keane Bhatt on The Real News (February 24, 2014)
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Venezuela has certainly been in the news lately, with massive protests and pro-government and opposition protests rocking the country. At least five people have been killed.
But can Americans really trust their media to give them an accurate description/representation of what's happening there?
Now joining us to deconstruct this is Keane Bhatt. He's a Washington, D.C., based activist and writer, contributing editor to the North American Congress on Latin America, or NACLA.
Thank you so much for joining us, Keane.
KEANE BHATT, WRITER, NORTH AMERICAN CONGRESS ON LATIN AMERICA: Good to be with you, Jaisal.
NOOR: So we wanted just to take a few minutes and break down exactly how the media's representing what's happening in Venezuela and what the reality really is. So let's start with one of the myths that the mainstream media here is putting forward. It's that inflation and inequality and economic conditions are a huge problem in Venezuela and this is what's really driving the protest. Let's start with that. What's your response?
BHATT: Well, there's no doubt that there are some serious imbalances. So you do have, you know, shortages in basic foodstuffs. You have a very high inflation rate, about 56 percent. So that is real.
And, you know, there are ways to deal with that, and the government will have to deal with that in a much more aggressive way. So a previous guest of yours, Greg Wilpert, has outlined some of the issues around inflation in Venezuela and tamping down on the black market there by—you know, one of the ways that you can do that is by flooding the economy with much-needed dollars, which are used to buy products that are imported from outside of the country.
But, you know, you can't exaggerate the economic problems that are taking place in Venezuela.
If you look at unemployment, it's at a very low point. It's about, you know, 6 percent. If you look at poverty from 2011 to 2012, Venezuela presided over the sharpest decline in poverty throughout the entire region. So it fell by 19 percent in 2013. Despite the problems of inflation and so on, you have further reductions in the rate of household poverty. So that fell by an entire percentage point over 2013, despite the inflation.
So what you're seeing is a portrayal of Venezuela as some kind of a chaotic economic basket case. But when you look at a lot of the macroindicators, you've had real respectable per capita income growth. Over the past decade it's been at about 2.7 percent annually. Again, you know, if you look at this historically, poverty has been slashed by half, absolute poverty by 70 percent. The inequality has been reduced so drastically that it's now the lowest in Latin America.
And to give you a historic perspective, the inflation problems that beset Venezuela now are nothing like the inflation that predates the Chávez era, in which it was much, much higher.
So what you're seeing is a very distorted and false rendering of what's taken place in Venezuela during the Chávez years, and even during the Maduro years.
NOOR: And talk about why this is the case, why this is such a threat. The decreasing inequality seems to be fueling a lot of the opposition forces. Why is that the case?
BHATT: Well, Latin America's had the highest inequality in the entire world. You've had countries that have been run by, you know, oligarchs and you've had a very, very entrenched, multigenerational inequality there. And what Venezuela's been able to accomplish over the past decade and more is taking the wealth of that country, the resources—in this case, oil—and actually including the general public in the development of that country.
And that has had a very kind of a sharp and important psychic kind of a dimension as well for elites around Latin America, and as well for the United States. I mean, what preceded the Chávez era was a governance style in which you had two political parties which were very similar in—you couldn't really distinguish very substantive differences in their platforms, and they were basically in an accord in which they would change hands of the governmental institutions every so often. Meanwhile, the kinds of resources of the country, the wealth of the country, was controlled by a kind of an unelected elite.
And so what you've seen over this time is a redistributive program in which, once Chávez was able to take control of the oil revenues in 2003, you have seen a very marked improvement in the living standards of the population. And that translates into a lot of widespread support and widespread kind of acceptance of a new development process which is very distinct from the kind of economic program of neoliberalism, which was instituted very harshly in Venezuela prior to Chávez.
So this break with neoliberalism, neoliberalism which would be qualified by a slashing of social programs, deregulation, and a liberalization of the economy, that has carved out a path that is very appealing to a lot of countries that are facing these kinds of entrenched inequalities. And so Venezuela poses a threat, not least of which because it is the largest oil-producing country in the hemisphere.
NOOR: And, of course, I wanted to talk about what the U.S.'s role has been in this. We'll have an opportunity to talk about the history a little bit as well.
But I want to start off by getting your response to recent comments by White House press secretary Jay Carney. And he said, "We've seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the U.S. or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. And these efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces." And they say—Carney says, "The allegations ... are baseless and false."
What is your response? And what has been the U.S. role in Venezuela within the last decade and longer, and especially today?
BHATT: Well, that's a crucial point. You know, by portraying the Chávez government, and then the Maduro government, as essentially paranoid and inventing these kinds of grandiose delusions of constantly being under threat, what it really does is it obfuscates the very clear role of the United States. So in 2002, as you know, the U.S. backed a coup that overthrew the Chávez government, which was democratically elected, for two days. And, you know, one of the coup perpetrators, a vice admiral in the Venezuelan Navy who was the defense minister under the coup government, Héctor Ramírez Pérez, he said, basically, that fortunately we have an important weapon, which is the media, and that the Venezuelan people saw neither the Army nor the Navy fire a single shot; our arms were actually, our weapons were actually the media.
And so there's a very long history of the Venezuelan government—a democratically elected government which received even a greater mandate in the regional and municipal elections, which the Chávez coalition won by a nine-point margin—they've been facing an opposition that knows, unlike many other countries around Latin America, that they can count on U.S. support, both tacit and overt, if and when they decide to move beyond the electoral arena to try to effect change through extra-electoral means.
And that's what's taking place here. If you look at the leadership of Leopoldo López, who was the cofounder of Primero Justicia, you know, over the past decade, he's received training and support by the International Republican Institute. He was a direct National Endowment for Democracy grantee. They've received, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars, these opposition groups. Marína Corina Machado, you know, who's the president of SUMATE, another opposition party, she—you know, SUMATE also received an NED grant, you know, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars after the coup.
So, you know, while there's no indication that the United States is active in this particular effort, in which the opposition is clearly attempting to force a democratically elected government to withdraw and to actually—to resign, you have many, many indicators of a constant, ongoing, you know, U.S. support through financing, through providing training, and by incentivizing these kinds of behaviors with their immediate acceptance of the coup government of Pedro Carmona in 2002. You know, WikiLeaks actually produced a document, a 2006 cable, which talked about—you know, which was signed by the U.S. ambassador and described a number of positions, which included "Penetrating Chavez' Political Base," "Dividing Chavismo", protecting U.S. vital interests, and "Isolating Chavez Internationally." And I'm basically saying this almost verbatim. So the fact that this government may believe that there's a conspiracy against it on the part of the United States government is not very outlandish at all.
NOOR: Keane Bhatt, thank you so much for that analysis. We'll love to have you back on soon.
BHATT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jaisal.
NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. You can check out all of our coverage about what's happening in Venezuela at TheRealNews.com.
Thank you so much for joining us.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
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.org, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with his blog on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt