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5/16/08

Venezuela, free markets, freedom of speech and human rights

This is a mural found near the presidential palace in Caracas.
It's still there.


Today I got a very nice mail from a reader (initials J.O.), who at the end of his mail asked;
"....What do you think about Chavez's government?? as you may know I live in the
US and I tend to favor free markets, free speech and zero tolerance for human
right violations."
That's what's called a good question, and rather than mailing him an answer, I asked if I could answer him via a public blog. It's worthwhile looking carefully at his question.

J.O. believes the USA has free markets, free speech and zero tolerance for human rights violations, so before looking at how Venezuela stacks up on these three counts, let's just consider exactly how the USA does.

USA Free Markets
The USA has a very simple and direct access to market forces, that's for sure. It's easy to set up a business, it's easy to buy and sell stocks, bonds etc on by far the biggest stock exchange system in the whole wide world.

On the other hand, this "free market" tends to become very socialist when the rich are about to lose all their money, as witnessed by the mindblowing amount of money Ben Bernanke has thrown at the economy in recent times when the greed of Wall St. bankers backfired on itself. Also, a truly 'free market' should also be free of pork barrel economic policies such as tax rebates for people that don't even pay taxes. Neither should it subsidize sectors of its economy (eg agro). Just a couple of examples there, you can add more I'm sure.

USA Free Speech
Undoubtedly, the USA scores well here. Freedom of speech is an enshrined principle in the US, as evidenced by the extremes of racist scum that exercises its constitutional right to propagate its filth via the internet, just one example of many others I could choose. Political debate is lively and happens on all levels of the socio-economic strata, from the New York Times to the New York Sun. Free speech in the USA? Undoubtedly YES, and a very good thing it is, too.

USA Human Rights Violations
There is currently only one nation on this planet that has repealed the right to habeas corpus. This is not a good start for today's USA, it has to be said. Then there's Gitmo, Abu Graib, and the assortment of secret detention centres that have been coming to light recently. Then there's the semantics of whether waterboarding is or is not torture, and if it has saved lives or not. Then there are the US "excursions" into Latin America these last few decades that include Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, The Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as there being plenty of admitted black ops activity in Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia etc etc. Shall we start on the Iraq thingy? Nah, not worth it, I think you might see my point by now. Forrest Gump got it right with his "Stupid is as stupid does". One thing to note, though, is how the USA tends not to violate the human rights of its own citizens, but saves that honour for non-US peoples.

Ok, enough about the USA; let's see how Venezuela looks under the same microscope

Venezuela Free Markets
Well, starting a business and making a profit is easy enough in Venezuela; that one isn't an issue as the thousands of retail outlet owners, Venezuelan service industry owners, oil services industry owners etc will quickly admit (if you went to their homes in Miami and interviewed them).

The stock market is open for business, but since Hugo went on his nationalization spree and took stocks like CANTV away from the bourse, the action is pretty much all bonds. However there is plenty of buying and selling in them, and you can play them via any decent world broker just as easily as you can the US T-10 etc.

The restrictions come on the currency, of course. Venezuela put pretty strict limitations on the free market exchange rate and dictates (should I use that word?) the official rate to the world, amen. But all the same, there's plenty of profit and loss for José Ordinario to make on the parallel market, and people creep round the edges of the CADIVI rules to make an extra buck on their foreign currency allotment every year.

Venezuela Free Speech
This is the one that confuses a lot of people. If there were no free speech in Venezuela, TV channels such as Globovision would not exist. Newspapers such as Tal Cual or El Universo would not exist. The multitude of anti-Chavez radio stations would not exist. Students would not be allowed to protest against the government...I mean, these students were even invited into the Venezuelan parliament to make their case! Can you imagine the Sinn Fein being invited into the UK House of Commons in the 1980s? Or Cindy Sheehan invited for tea'n'buns with Dubya at the White House? Or Uribe and the FARC being able to sit down and debate right now?

The one that everyone points to is, of course, the close down of RCTV last year. But RCTV actively supported a Coup D'Etat against the Chavez government in 2002, and were allowed to continue broadcasting for another 5 years until their licence was up for renewal. Think about this one: Just before the tide turned against the coup plotters back in 2002 Vice-Admiral Ramirez Perez told a Venezuelan reporter, "We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you." RCTV still continues to broadcast, by the way...that one confuses people, too.

So does free speech exist in Venezuela? Answer, YES. Without a doubt. For sure things are not perfect, with a President and government officials who make rumbling sounds against this media outlet and that journalist from time to time, but the same thing happens in the majority of LatAm countries...it's kinda normal, people. Argentina has been getting rather ugly on this score. The relationship between Correa and the Ecuador media is strained at best. Uribe and the media have a real love/hate thing going on. Alan Garcia uses his main attack dog Del Castillo to make intimidating sounds to Peruvian media and has even closed down dissenting radio stations in the last 12 months.

There is plenty more to say on this subject, but as final thought, one important thing to note is that the organization "Reporters Without Borders" has noted the murder of journalists in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and most notably Mexico in the last 12 months. No deaths in Venezuela.

Venezuela Human Rights Violations
This is an emotive issue, of course. Right here right now I will admit that I chose to highlight the bad parts of the US human rights record in the section above just to show a bit of counterpoint to the argument. Of course I wrote a terribly biased passage about the USA, and gave no credit for the enormous amount of good work the USA does around the world via its Peace Corps, or food aid, or disaster relief packages just to name three examples in a thousand.

Do you get the point? It's easy to point to the bad stuff anywhere, and Venezuela has its own serious problems with crime, murders, female emancipation, poverty, and a whole bunch of other things. On the other hand, the basic human rights to an education, to water, decent healthcare, power supply etc have improved dramatically for the lower social strata in the Chavez era. Venezuela does not have the stigma of political prisoners or summary court-martial style execution hanging over it like Cuba does. It does not have Colombia's problem of far right paramilitaries murdering union reps either. As for the economic situation, I honestly don't know if a right-leaning government would have done a better job in these times of high oil prices, or a worse job, or perhaps the same job. But there is no denying that Venezuela's poor are not as downtrodden as they were in previous decades, and the middle class are still doing their middle class things.

Venezuela is a democracy, with a democratically elected president who savours his triumphs and (as illustrated late last year) concedes his defeats. Please be clear on this one. It matters not whether you agree or disagree with the political leanings and the policies enacted there; Venezuela is a vibrant democracy and anyone stating otherwise is lying. Period.

Bottom line: What do I think of Chavez's government of Venezuela? I think it's not much better and not much worse than any other government in Latin America (and probably the world). What it does have is an enemy in the USA, and that goes a long way to explaining what the outside world reads, sees and hears about Chavez and company.

The fact is that no-one is innocent. There are corrupt liars in power in every government around the world. Extrajudicial killings happen in the UK. Bribes get paid in the USA. Innocent people get thrown in jail in Germany. Powerful people avoid justice in Japan. The list is endless. But one thing that every single head of state around the world has in common (I think) is the desire for his or her country and people to progress. You can disagree with the rightist views of Alan Garcia (I certainly do) or the leftist views of Cristina Kirchner (I certainly do) or any other leader across the political spectrum, but they all mean well. Fact is that Chavez believes in Socialism. And after winning two general elections and a recall election, it seems that the majority of Venezuelans agree with him. So in the end the people that matter have made their judgement, and my view is supremely unimportant. And unless you live in Venezuela that goes for you, too.