On “Shutting Up Venezuela’s Chavez”

Roger Cohen is an editor at the New York Times and columnist for its op ed page and for the International Herald Tribune. The column “Shutting Up Venezuela’s Chavez” appeared in the Times on 11-29-07. It is tendentious in the extreme, poorly argued and factually incorrect.

Cohen is in Caracas, presumably to observe Sunday’s constitutional referendum, and this column reveals the thoughts of a man who has no sympathy at all for the interests of the people of Venezuela but every sympathy for the interests of US imperialism and its supporters.

He begins his article by saying, “It was a fascist general in 1930s Spain who coined the phrase “Viva la muerte” or ‘Long Live Death.’ We are then told that although Hugo Chavez doesn’t like fascists “he has not hesitated to deploy the imagery of death to bolster his leftist brand of petro-authoritarianism, now operating under the ludicrous banner of ‘Fatherland, Socialism or Death.'”

Somebody should tell the patriarchally inclined Cohen that Patria, Socialismo o Muerte means ‘Motherland[or Homeland], Socialism or Death.’ It is no more “ludicrous” than the slave owning Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” and means about the same thing. It also means just about what those New Hampshire fascists meant when they turned to the imagery of death for their state motto: Live Free or Die.

It should also be pointed out that what Cohen calls “petro-authoritarianism” is actually a government that has been democratically elected by its people in a country with a vibrant opposition press and ruled by a constitution approved by the Venezuelan people.

Knowing this, when Cohen calls Chavez an “oil-gilded caudillo,” he is just being emotional and abusive. He might just as well write for the New York Post or the Washington Times. The Times is in fact slowly approaching that level of writing by adding Cohen’s right wing blather to that already provided by David Brooks.

Cohen’s rant against Chavez stems from his aversion to his policies leading Venezuela towards socialism and especially the new powers he may get as a result of the democratic choice of the people in the Sunday referendum. Cohen fears his new powers will allow him “to expropriate private property” [God forbid!] “and create the second formally socialist nation in the Americas alongside Fidel’s” [it’s about time].

“The measures amount to a constitutional coup,” laments an opposition newspaper editor quoted by Cohen. So now he doesn’t know the difference between a coup [Pinochet] and a free election. This is typical of the American mass media and its pundits.

Cohen certainly doesn’t embrace the notion of People Before Profits. He grudgingly admits Chavez “has reduced poverty [the UN says “extreme poverty” has gone from 15.9 % to 9.9] but this has been at the “expense” of the underfunded oil industry.

I don’t understand Cohen’s concern about the establishment of “socialism.” He says Chavez has actually been instituting a “crony capitalism” for his own benefit. The US has lots of experience dealing with crony capitalist regimes, so what is all the fuss about? In the rush to see all things evil about Chavez [Cohen has seemingly only interviewed opposition people, not one supporter of Chavez has anything to say] he can’t make up his mind about what kind of regime is being built. Is it a second socialist state that is coming to be, or just another run of the mill Third World crony capitalist state with lots of oil?

Here is some really keen reportage. Cohen says you can’t find eggs or chickens to buy due to “price controls.” “Chavez’s socialism [so he a socialist again, good] delivers subsidized gasoline and glittering malls but no milk.” But is it really “price controls”? Other reporters have pointed out that the real reason for these sorts of shortages is hoarding by producers trying to sabotage economic reform and create a climate to help defeat the referendum. The pro-capitalist Cohen can only see the bumbling hand of socialism at work and not the invisible and criminal hand of price fixing capitalists creating an artificial shortage to further their class interests.

Cohen reveals his ignorance of what is going on when he says that since the US buys so much oil from Venezuela, “Chavez’s ‘socialism’ [now it’s back in quotes] and his chumminess with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [what has that got to do with anything: Saudi Arabia is even worse and the US is very chummy with it] do not extend to cutting off the ‘imperialist empire’. Chavez is too shrewd to sever his lifeline.” Nevertheless, despite the malinformed Cohen, that is just what Chavez has threatened to do. He has publicly stated that he would cut off oil to the US if it continues to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The Chinese will take all the oil they can get, by the way. But poor Americans would suffer as Chavez sells discounted oil to poor communities in the US whom he cares about more than their own government does.

Towards the end of his article Cohen appears to have completely lost his mind. He says that, in effect, by taking his socialist vision of Venezuela’s future to his people to vote upon, his actions are as “grotesque and dangerous– as Fascism was– a terrible example for a region that has been consolidating democracy.” That’s right folks. By putting his ideas before the people to vote on them, Chavez is a bad example for democracy. It’s positively Fascist!

He then approvingly quotes the hereditary Bourbon monarch of Spain, installed by a real Fascist, Franco, who told Chavez to “shut up” recently at an international meeting. He thinks Venezuelans should “follow suit on Sunday” by voting down the proposals in the referendum. Fair enough, the voting is free after all.

But as a journalist there is only one word for Cohen. That is “hack.” I wish the New York Times had higher standards and told him to “shut up, already.”

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Eric Cavalli said on December 3rd, 2007 at 5:43am #

    Your contention that their exists a vibrant opposition press is a little bit of a stretch. Especially since Chavez refused to renew broadcast licensing for stations critical of him. This has not created an atmosphere where journalists feel free. Also the assertion that shortages are due to criminals intent on derailing reform is ridiculous. Producers will sell when they can make money, even if they don’t like their President. Most people are pragmatic. The fact is that Venezuela imports most of their food. With inflation running 20% in conjunction with price controls it is not surprising that their are shortages. I’m sure many other socialist regimes have experienced that it is hard to defy the laws of economics for very long. Chavez has done many good things for the poor in his country. He could do much more if he chose not to give away Venezuela’s natural resources to prop up Cubas failed socialist state. People sometimes forget that Hitler was also voted into office under democratic rule. It is a mistake to whitewash the movements of Chavez as simply someone who is trying to help the poor and he is being unfairly maligned by the evil empire. Venezuela is still a democracy. Thankfully Chavez and his 69 reforms were defeated.

  2. Michael Pugliese said on December 3rd, 2007 at 7:07am #

    If Riggins had been in Stalin’s USSR he’d be raving that the Kulaks with two cows were causing the milk shortage those counter-revolutionary Trotskyite Social Fascists, ‘ya know!

  3. Richard said on December 3rd, 2007 at 7:30am #

    That was one of the most ignorant retorts to an article I have ever seen. Chavez is destroying Venezuela. I have friends from Venezuela that used to go visit regularly, but now they fear for their safety when they return. They say that things have deteriorated so much that they are trying to convince their family to come to America before things go too much farther. I think the only reason Chavez got 49% of the people to vote for his referendum is because he gives away so much to the poor. In the short term, it seems really great for those people, but when the economy collapses and there is nothing more to give away, they won’t be so supportive. However, (if the referendum had passed) by that point they won’t have the right to speak out against the problems with the government. Everyone just has to hope that Chavez’s replacement (assuming that he doesn’t force himself into an indefinite position of power) is able to reverse the damage that he has done.

  4. Michael Pugliese said on December 3rd, 2007 at 7:41am #

    Is “Operacion Tenazas” disinformation from the Venezuelan government?

    Posted by Charles on November 30, 2007

    DemocracyNow! carried a segment with James Petras on the Operacion Tenazas story described below. Petras has not supplied any additional substantiation for the memo at the heart of this either on DemocracyNow! or in his Counterpunch article.

    Charley points us toward a post by Larry Johnson discounting the report. Larry says:

    State Department officers do not write memos to Hayden. Particularly mid-level Foreign Service Officers. A CIA officer under diplomatic cover sends his communications to headquarters via an encoded message. We call these messages cables, harkening back to the days of telegraphs and telegrams.

    This, in my judgment, is the work–very clumsy work at that–of the Venezuelan intelligence service eager to build on the truth that the United States has sought to oust Chavez.

    This is probably correct. There are a number of things about the memo that raise questions, such as:

    1. How would it have been intercepted?
    2. Why would it have been routed from a field officer directly to the head of the CIA?
    3. Why is there only one name on the distribution list?
    4. Why did the Venezuelan government not supply a photocopy of the original in English?
    5. There’s phrasing that seems odd, such as “a group called Red Flag, long a sworn enemy of our interests in the country.” or “We have reaped the greatest successes in the spheres of propaganda and psychological operations, to the point that in the last weeks, we have imposed our agenda and dominated the publicity scene.” Cables tend to be dry and operationally oriented (See, for example this from Operation Condor).
    6. There is extraordinary discussion of individual personalities and a numbered bank account, details that would be unusual for communication to one of the top figures in government.

    So, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about it. Unlike Larry Johnson, however, I don’t see any objections that are dispositive. It’s not unknown for very senior USG officials to be the point man on coups. Henry Kissinger on Operation Condor comes to mind. Nor is it impossible for that function to be outside of the Department of State. Rice is no Kissinger. My guess is that this has a 20% chance of being for real, and an 80% chance of being a fake… though perhaps one generated by the USG itself. The one thing that’s not at issue is that the tactics ascribed by the intercept to the USG have been used for real in the past.

    Lee Sustar, a left voice, makes it clear that there is by no means unanimity within Chavez’s party on the reforms (see here). That’s important to understanding this. Venezuela is really divided into five camps: people who want socialism, people who would have a violent coup than permit socialism, people who realize that there has to be some way to stop the opposition from getting its way through violence and sabotage but are skeptical about the proposed reforms, people who are alarmed by the proposed reforms even though they acknowledge that Venezuela has race and class problems, and people who are totally confused by it all.

    Choices! Choices! I guess things really are easier as long as Bush is the dictator.

    This entry was posted on November 30, 2007 at 8:24 pm and is filed under Venezuela. . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  5. gerald spezio said on December 3rd, 2007 at 7:42am #

    Sometimes you can’t tell a hack from a hack when you live in a culture where everything is hacked.

    Watch your brain.

  6. heike said on December 3rd, 2007 at 8:39am #

    Michael: you have identified many of the non-sequiturs of this black propaganda (my own view, publshed elsewhere in DV, is that the DGI had a heavy hand in this). Also, if there really were an operation such as this, it would have been treated at a much higher level than “confidenciel.” And this article also deserves the title of “hack” job. What does keeping Chavez “president” until 2050 have to do with “socialism?” Riggins is using the CP version of socialism to refer to Cuba, which has not yet attained “communism,” so is therefore “socialist.” Most non-communists in this country understand socialism in very different terms.

  7. Barbara said on December 3rd, 2007 at 11:36am #

    According to Heinrich Boll, about a third of those who would otherwise have cast votes in the referendum that elected Hitler were incapacitated at the time by illness: many establishments, including schools and some govt. offices, were closed due to the no. of people unable to function normally.

    Also: if the United States has a dictator, surely, whomever it is, it is certainly not the present resident of its executive suites.

  8. Max Shields said on December 3rd, 2007 at 12:09pm #

    So, what’s the real issue here? Hasn’t the US governement pretty much declared half the world’s leaders enemies?

    And what do these demonized leaders have in common? They weren’t democratically elected? They support US military intervention into Iraq and Afganistan (and elsewhere)? They have supported US rendition? they have opened their doors to US corporate globalization? Neoliberal free trade? Plundered their country to keep the US economy and global markets humming along and their personal cofers full? No. No. No. No. No. No.

    They have nationalized their resources – mostly, but not only, in the form of OIL.

    So, Cohen and his ilk should “shut up”. Theirs is not the cause of free press or democracy, it is the megaphone for American Imperialism.

    Furthermore – what’s the 50 years or president for life NPR is spouting?
    How long was Tony Blair in power? What are the term limits for the French Prime Minister? Or the German Chancillor? And the Prime Minister of Australia? NONE! And so how does this differ from Chavez’s referendum?

    OIL and US Hegemony in the South!

  9. HR said on December 3rd, 2007 at 9:13pm #

    Looks like the piece got the right-wingnuts into their usual tizzy, defending the corporate interest they hold so dear. As, usual, they miss the point. The changes proposed by Chavez were subject to democratic approval, a vote by the people. More than you can say for the legislated tyranny that has been imposed here for the last 30 years, particularly since the Bushies were selected into power by the “supreme” court.