In early February, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a Latin America tour aimed at promoting “democratic security”. But just before he set off on his trip, he speculated on the possibility of a military coup in Venezuela.
“In the history of Venezuela and South American countries, it is often times that the military is the agent of change when things are so bad and the leadership can no longer serve the people,” he said at an event at the University of Texas at Austin.
Tillerson’s comments came six months after US President Donald Trump threatened military action in Venezuela.
The Trump administration’s warmongering and threats have been accompanied by sustained bias in media reporting on the Venezuelan crisis. While there have been deep prejudice and selective reporting on other countries that have been designated as official US enemies (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia), exaggeration, monolithic and hegemonic narratives and an indifference to complexity, nuance or opposing views in the reporting on Venezuela in prestigious publications have seen new heights.
Project Syndicate, for example, recently published a typical example of this overwhelming bias. In the article titled “D-Day Venezuela”, the country’s former planning minister, Ricardo Hausmann, called on Latin American countries to intervene militarily in Venezuela.
Even the casual observer of Latin American affairs would know how absurd this idea is and not surprisingly, it met shock and indignation throughout the region.
National sovereignty is a sacrosanct political value in Latin America, for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with the history of foreign intervention in the region.
Not only is advocating for military intervention morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal; the Charter of the United Nations prohibits the unilateral use of force that threatens the independence of any state. Undoubtedly, the price of military intervention would be a high death toll, both among civilians and soldiers. Hausmann might see interventions such as the US one in Panama in 1989 as “successful”, but the relatives of the hundreds of Panama citizens who died that winter and the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed, might think otherwise.
Hausmann and others like him are making the case for military intervention on exaggerated portrayals of reality. Undeniably, there is hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages that are creating significant hardship for many Venezuelans, but Hausmann’s comparison of Venezuela’s current situation to that of Ukraine’s Great Famine of the 1930s in which millions of Ukrainians were starved to death by the Soviet government, is seriously off-base.
Hausmann uses these and other hyperbolic misrepresentations (like his comparison of Venezuela to Nazi-occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands) to persuade readers that Venezuela needs a military intervention.
Hausmann also cites a New York Times article and a similar Wall Street Journal piece which use pictures of emaciated babies, combined with true reports of food shortages, to create the impression that there is a widespread famine. However, a careful reading of both articles uncovers that some of the victims are actually babies who cannot breastfeed, and therefore are reliant on infant formula for which there is a major shortage in the country.
No doubt, this is a terrible tragedy, and the government should be denounced for allowing poor children (and adults) to die from lack of access to nutrition sources and medicine. Yet, what is happening in Venezuela isn’t comparable to the famine in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has cut off food supplies to “starve Yemen into submission,” as the New York Times editorial board recently wrote.
Note that the causes of the economic crisis are complex and while the Chavista government is very much responsible for it, this is hardly a new problem or simply associated to the heterodox policies, as Hausmann had alleged previously.
Hausmann’s portrayal of Venezuela is an illustration of how influential people are pouring fuel into an already-raging fire, even though their historical analyses of Venezuela have been completely off-point. When Hugo Chavez won a referendum on whether or not he was to be dismissed in 2004, the opposition refused to accept his victory and Hausmann challenged the results in a co-authored econometric analysis.
However, the referendum was held according to one of the most reliable voting systems in the world and certified by Organization of the American States (OAS) and Carter Center (CC) observation teams. Hausmann challenged the results by using unreliable US polling data from Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB), which claimed Chavez actually lost by a margin of 59 to 41 rather than won by a margin of 59 to 41 and its pre-referendum polls differed majorly from the majority of other polls.
This example is still crucially relevant today. The opposition went on to boycott the 2005 National Assembly elections, citing Hausmann’s paper as evidence that the referendum had been “stolen”.
Hausmann has continued this strategy, alleging in his Project Syndicate article that Venezuela is a “military dictatorship” and that the government “has stolen three elections in 2017 alone”.
In the October regional elections, there were indeed violations in one province, and despite allegations of rigging, the opposition failed to submit any evidence of it. The opposition boycotted the July vote for National Constituent Assembly and part of it decided not to run in the December mayoral elections. It is impossible to know the extent of any possible tampering, as no opposition representatives were present to audit the process, as in previous elections.
Now more than ever, such domineering and flimsy analyses are dangerous as it can derail a possible peaceful solution in Venezuela. There is a possibility that ongoing negotiations will result in presidential elections acceptable to both sides.
Maduro is not popular and Venezuela remains a deeply polarised country. Yet, as economist Francisco Rodriguez, one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuela’s economy, noted recently, the governing coalition has still been able to mobilise nearly one-third of the country’s adult population to support its candidates and win.
While there is at least some public debate over the sanctions against Iran, there is almost no discussion about Washington increasing the suffering of Venezuelans in order to overthrow its government.
In other words, in spite of inflation of more than 1,000 percent in 2017, medicine and food shortages, and the country’s worst depression in history, Venezuelans still voted for the current government. This is because they fear that the opposition, whose most prominent leaders pulled off a short-lived military coup in 2002 and immediately resorted to violence, might be worse. The Chavistas also fear political persecution if the opposition were to take power.
It is important to note that despite Hausmann’s constant challenges to Venezuela’s election processes, he, along with Trump and US Senator Marco Rubio (another staunch supporter of an anti-Maduro coup) fears that a democratically-driven negotiated settlement could actually work. And if such is indeed concluded, the fallacy of their warmongering would be exposed.
Currently, there is more talk and more pressure for the US to impose further sanctions on Venezuela.
But the current US financial embargo is already causing great economic hardship and human suffering. The government cannot restructure or even roll over its debt so it has been forced to cut imports drastically. This is worsening the shortages of medicine and food, as well as deepening the economic depression.
But while there is at least some public debate over the sanctions against Iran, there is almost no discussion about Washington increasing the suffering of Venezuelans in order to overthrow its government.
This is what happens when one group of people achieves such unprecedented hegemony in the representation of a country and their narrative is unchallenged in mainstream media.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.