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Globovisión Owner Indicted for Bribery

November 21, 2018

Nasty news regarding Venezuela today.

Alejandro Andrade, a longtime associate of Chávez who rose from bodyguard to Treasurer of the Republic (2007 – 2010), admitted to accepting $1 billion dollars in bribes during his term in the latter position. At least some of that money, it seems, was laundered by the Venezuelan owner of Dominican Republic-based Banco Peravia.

Also heavily involved was Raul Gorrin, one of the owners of television station Globovisión since May 2013, who allegedly paid bribes to Andrade in order to obtain profitable currency exchange contracts. According to a newly unsealed indictment, Gorrin paid over $150 million in bribes between 2008, when he bought insurance firm Seguros La Vitalicia, and 2017.

Globovisión sign on building with satellite dish

Globovisión was a fiercely anti-Bolivarian television network prior to 2013, having played a leading role in the failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez and later facing a long series of lawsuits and sanctions from the government. The stations previous majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, fled to Miami in 2010 after a court issued a warrant for his arrest for usury and conspiracy in connection to his car dealership enterprise.

Globovisión defended itself on free speech grounds that were sometimes questionable. In a September 2009 cable published by Wikileaks, for example, the US Ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, acknowledged that “Globovision is clearly playing with fire by broadcasting incendiary messages, which undermine its credibility and legitimacy and risk giving Chavez a stronger and more compelling excuse for shutting it down.”

In another cable, from February 2010, Duddy reported that “relentless Venezuelan Government (GBRV) pressure … has threatened to put [Globovision and other outlets] out of business,” with the result that Globovisión had pushed out Alberto Federico Ravelli, the station’s Director,  and “tone[d] down [its] strongly anti-Chavez orientation.”

Those moves were ultimately insufficient for Zuluoaga to maintain control and, following the 2013 sale, Globovision’s coverage became even less critical of the government. One academic study of the 2013 – 2015 period, however, concluded that “contrary to popular perception in Venezuela, Globovisión … does not exhibit a strong pro-government bias,” finding instead that it’s “framing of the issues has tended to be neutral, and that there was no significant bias in favor of the government or the opposition.” That study, however, was commissioned by Globovisión itself.

The upshot here is that one of the new Globovisión owners was deeply corrupt during the period when Venezuela’s economy began to unwind. And that unwinding resulted significantly, if not primarily, from mismanagement of the currency exchange system that was so deeply corrupted. This is not a good look for the Bolivarian government. It lends further credence to claims that the government used non-democratic means to constrain non-aligned press outlets and thus shape debate in the public sphere.

Globovisión has had much to answer for and there’s a legitimate argument that its actions in 2002, if not after, merited greater and more immediate sanctions. The Bolivarian government’s response, however, should have proceeded through formal and transparent democratic mechanisms. Forcing the sale of Globovisión to a corrupt ally is not consistent with the principles of liberal democracy, much less twenty-first century socialism.

The UN is Investigating extreme poverty in Britain. What does that tells us about the global political economy and the way forward?

November 14, 2018

The UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights made a visit to Great Britain this week to better understand the growth of inequality there.

Per the NY Times, “Special rapporteurs for extreme poverty are mandated to visit and investigate countries with high levels of deprivation and then report their findings to the United Nations. They have historically spent most of their time in the developing world, and Mr. Alston’s trip to Britain is only the second mission to a Western European country by a poverty rapporteur this century, the other being to Ireland in 2011. The rapporteur has also visited the United States twice since 2000” (my emphasis).

This indicates something obvious and well understood by many, but also under-analyzed and all-too-absent from mainstream political discussion. The political currents that we are currently witnessing, including a global trend toward polarization and authoritarianism, are directly related to the decades-long political economic shift toward neoliberalism and the dismantling of the Keynesian welfare state that began in the 1970s.

Following WWII and into recent decades, the hegemonic idea of development (as constructed and transmitted by Western elites) sought to bring post-colonial and Global South regions in line with the political economies of the US and OECD nations. This conception, known as modernization theory, met resistance from some intellectuals and activists, who produced alternative paradigms like participatory development or embraced socialist alternatives.

Beginning in the 1970s and through the 1980s, however, Western elites imposed new policies that doubled down on the hegemonic idea of capital-led development. These policies are most widely recognized in terms of Reagan and Thatcher’s austerity programs (1980s), the IMF-facilitated Washington Consensus of suggested policies for economically troubled countries in the South (1980s / 90s), and free-trade agreements in which labor has been outsourced to the South (1990s to present). Naomi Klein has referred to them as a Shock Doctrine, citing the 1973 Chilean coup and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria ion Puerto Rico prominent examples. Less discussed, but no less significant, were policies designed to facilitate global information flows via digital technologies, especially in the service of the financial sector.

Whether these policies actually led to quality of life improvements for the populations of the global South has been a matter of fierce debate, with points of contention centered on sweat-shop labor in South Asia and the rise of an urban Chinese middle class, for instance. The effect on populations in the North has been a lesser though occasionally significant matter of debate, with Ross Perot’s critique of NAFTA during the 1992 US Presidential campaign being a prime early example. These effects have risen further to the fore since the economic crisis of 2008, but they have remained obfuscated by the prominence of social issues like identity, terrorism, and immigration. The restructuring of the geographic wealth distribution of the global North is less addressed far less directly.

This has not been missed by those paying close attention, however. Ankie Hoogvelt recognized it in his 1997 book “Globalization and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development” (2nd edition in 2001), which argues that neoliberal globalization is not a mere expansion of capitalist relations but an involution of them, such that wealth and power are being brought back into the core regions of the global economy, thus increasing their inequality with peripheral regions. This is the basic critique of dependency theory, which was developed as early as the 1950s, but understood the periphery only in terms of the South. Hoogvelt extends the notion of periphery to regions of the North that were once integral to the capitalist apparatus but, thanks to new policies, are experiencing increased inequality and thus a quality of life closer to that experienced in the South.

This is the hard kernel of truth in conservative critiques of free trade, laments of lost factory jobs, and fears of immigration. It is evident in deals between states and private companies that offer substantial tax incentives for dubious investments, as with Foxconn’s factory in Wisconsin and Amazon’s recent “HQ2” announcement regarding regional offices in New York and Virginia. The Foxconn deal, over-hyped from the get go, has not been a boon to Wisconsin’s “heartland” economy. Amazon’s deal uses taxpayer funds to place the company right where it wants to be, next door to the Wall Street and the Pentagon, at the core of the global political economy.

I hope, but doubt, that the UN will construct and enact valuable initiatives to reverse this pattern. To the extent that it tries, I expect it will make yet another attempt, along with many liberal and conservative elites, to put things back the way they were. Conservative attempts to do so, epitomized by Trump, are clearly disastrous. Liberal attempts, like those offered by Bernie Sanders, strike me as a step in the right direction, but often not properly focused and perhaps altogether too frail. (One point of frustration: We should be much more concerned about robust funding for pre-K and K-12 education than community college for all.)

I think Hoogvelt had the right idea. He’s worth quoting at length:

“… if it is the case, as I believe, that at the present historical juncture a fundamental cleavage has opened up between, on the one hand, networks of capital, labour, information and markets – which link up through technology, and on the other, populations and territories deprived of value and interest to the dynamics of global capitalism. If, furthermore, this process is one that can be predicted to deepen and widen in both relative and absolute terms, then it would make sense not to talk about strategies of inclusion but rather to celebrate a concept of exclusion that tries to develop sustainable life on the outside. Moreover, if in capturing the fundamental logic of the system of global informational capitalism, we come to the conclusion that the properties of the system not only switch off, and render as economically irrelevant, particular locales and groups, but also undermined their capacity to regroup and reorganize in alternative modes of production and survival, would it not then be better to develop strategies of intervention that protect them from the gales of globalization threatening to overwhelm them?” (130-1)

The question has remained the same for some 150 years now, but we once again find it rising to existential levels. How to conceptualize and construct those alternative modes of production and survival? What is the concept of (self-)exclusion that will allow for sustainable life on the outside?

I believe I can point to some fundamental aspects of the answer. We must not privilege the power of the free market nor the power of the centralized state. Privilege should flow to a decentralized civil society that makes use of markets regulated by deeply democratic states. That democracy should inhere within civil society to the greatest and most localized degree possible, according to the logic of subsidiarity. Civil society organizations and networks, meanwhile, must adopt deeply democratic decision-making structures, with one outcome being increased opportunities for citizens to truly practice democratic behavior and thus recognize when it is properly modeled at higher levels of governance in which they have less opportunities for direct participation, but over which they can play oversight roles.

“granny style”: basketball, rationality, patriarchy, and hegemony

July 3, 2016
        The Big Man Can’t Shoot, which is the latest episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, opens up some interesting angles on the question of why people don’t adopt good ideas. Along the way, it makes a powerful point about the effect of patriarchy on our society, although Gladwell doesn’t quite connect the very apparent dots.
        As for sensible ideas, his primary case in point is the underhanded free throw, which Rick Barry used throughout his hall of fame career to amass the 7th best free throw percentage in the history of US professional basketball. Yet almost nobody else has used it. Wilt Chamberlain did for a little while, including the day he set the record for not only most points in a game (100), but also most free throws, going 28 for 32 from the line. This is notable because Wilt had been a terrible foul shooter. And also because, even after that game, he went back to shooting overhand and, thus, terribly. Why?
        Chamberlain himself said, in his autobiography, that shooting underhanded made him feel like a sissy.This is a 7’1″ man who weighed 275 pounds. The guy who scored those hundred points while hungover because he had picked up a woman and went carousing the night before. The same guy who would later boast that he’d slept with 25,000 women. You’d think he wouldn’t be too worried about being called a sissy, but he was. So was Rick Barry, in fact, when his father suggested he shoot underhanded, but he got over it because it worked. Almost nobody else, however, has been able to apply rational thought in order to overcome that gendered fear. Not even women, as it turns out.
        At least, that’s the anecdotal conclusion of the podcast’s visit to the Columbia College women’s team, where one player explains that they can’t take the “granny shot” seriously. And who could, after Will Ferrell lampooned the style in Semi-Pro? (Or did anybody actually watch that?) I find it to be compelling evidence for the way that prejudicial social constructions manifest across identity categories, even those whose members are arguably most directly harmed or at least constrained by their propagation. In a word, #hegemony.
        Worth further reflection is the contradiction embedded in this scenario for proponents of gendered archetypes. In Jung’s framework, for example, intellect and rationality are masculine traits, while intuition and sensuality are feminine. The same holds in the world of the tarot. If our patriarchal society privileges masculine archetypes, so that even women must emphasize them in their public persona in order to find success, then one would think that adopting rationally beneficial ideas would be the norm. Chamberlain would be more of a man for choosing the successful strategy. That was the reasoning that Barry’s father used to persuade him, but it’s obviously a very minority position. Why? Is the system of gendered archetypes wrong or do other archetypes override the privileging of rationality in this case?

AP = Associated Press or Asinine Paradox? Venezuela Apparently “Censors” the Subversive Films it “Nurtures”

September 19, 2015

The Associated Press has never been particularly favorable to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, but its labored attempts to spin the truth achieved a new level of absurdity with today’s publication of an article authored by Hannah Dreier and headlined “Venezuelan film flourishing as society becomes more censored”.

As if the headline wasn’t paradoxical enough, here’s what I believe to be a fair summary of the perplexing article (but please use the link above and let me know if you think I’ve mischaracterized the piece):

Publicity poster for From Afar [Desde Allá].

Publicity poster for From Afar.

A film titled From Afar, the premier effort of a little-known Venezuelan director, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last week. From Afar is representative of a “new wave of cinema [that] is emerging from the chaos and violence of modern Venezuela [and] focuses on highly personal tales of gay love affairs”. Most, if not all, of these films are at least partially financed by the state’s National Center for Cinematography, which has also opened a new film school. Although these films focus on transgressive sexual and gender identities (in a country that has traditionally been intolerant of queer identities), as well as poverty and crime (in a country where those two issues have largely shaped political discourse over the last several decades and acutely so over the last few years), “Venezuela’s state-sponsored films avoid overtly political topics”. From Afar’s director, Lorenzo Vigas, “says he never experienced any censorship” and no form of direct censorship (in any medium) is cited, but the films are being produced “despite increasing government control of TV and other media” and are effectively censored because “commercial theaters” prefer to show state-produced historical epics and Hollywood films. According to David William Foster, who teaches Latin American film at Arizona State University, this “invisibility is part of why the government can afford to nurture the relatively subversive films”.

I said that no form of direct censorship is cited, but the article does specify one instance in which a director “angered officialdom”: In 2013, shortly after the death of Hugo Chávez, a film called Bad Hair won the top prize at the esteemed San Sebastian International Film Festival. In a subsequent interview with the conservative Spanish newspaper, El País, the film’s director, Mariana Rondón, discussed her intention for the film to highlight the broad issue of intolerance, including political intolerance of the sort typified by Chávez’s 2007 public pronouncement that “Either you are with the Revolution or you are against the Revolution. Either you are with Chávez or you are against Chávez.” El País quoted Rondón in the headline, “Chávez sentenced us to war”, although political intolerance is only discussed in the final paragraph. This elicited a public statement from the Venezuelan government, which pointed out that Rondón’s career depended to a great extent on public financing, including that provided by the Bolivarian government.

Publicity Poster for Bad Hair.

Publicity Poster for Bad Hair.

The Bolivarian government has an unfortunate tendency to respond harshly and publicly to its critics, including those who are not aligned with the political opposition. Like Rondón, I disagree with black or white thinking, whether it comes from Chávez or George W. Bush, and films are often aesthetically (if not commercially) successful precisely because they dive into the gray, murky waters of complexity. (Somebody might let the AP know that socially beneficial journalism does the same.) It seems clear, however, that Bad Hair stands against intolerance and polarization generally, as opposed to the Bolivarian project specifically, and that Rondón got caught up in the ridiculous media wars that animate a certain portion of the Venezuelan population (on both sides of the political divide) and distract from more substantive and useful discussions. The government’s response here may indicate poor logic and/or strategy, but it is far from censorship.

The AP not only perpetuates the simplistic representation of Bad Hair but engages in outright deception by suggesting that Rondón intended her film as merely “a critique of the revolution’s ‘with us or against us’ attitude”. Having set up a purely political context, the article cites Rondón’s acceptance speech, in which she said: “I made this film to free myself from the pain of living amid so much intolerance…. Thinking differently shouldn’t be seen as a problem.” As should be clear from a number of subsequent interviews (for example, here, here, here, and here) the intolerance to which Rondón referred is primarily a question of racial, gender, and sexual identity. More significantly, Rondón stated in an open letter that she was not referring to Chávez in her acceptance speech. The vast majority of AP’s English language readers, of course, would know none of this.

The AP is also deceptive when it suggests that the Bolivarian government not only counts on, but is somehow responsible for the invisibility of the socially critical films it finances because they are not widely distributed in commercial cinemas and because Venezuelan audiences tend to prefer Hollywood fare. It’s difficult to make sense of this line of thinking. The Bolivarian revolution has frequently and continuously (and, in my opinion, often overly simplistically) denounced Hollywood films as exemplary of cultural imperialism and a threat to its socialist project. For precisely that reason it has sought to establish a thriving Venezuelan national cinema by increasing state funding for training, production, and distribution. According to the AP, however, that is all just posturing and the true goal is for the project to fail.

I don’t doubt that the government puts more resources into cinema that accords most closely with its ideological perspective, especially historical epics that present a politicized version of figures like Simón Bolivar. I don’t doubt that it has misdirected considerable resources into some terrible films. And I wouldn’t be surprised if much of what comes out of the National Center for Cinematography is little more than bad propaganda. There is much to criticize when it comes to the government’s communication policy. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As the AP article points out, “[t]he number of films produced in Venezuela has quadrupled since 2005 to about 20 a year”. Of course it goes on to note that this is “still far short of the average of 50 produced in Argentina”, though it doesn’t mention that Argentina has roughly 14 million more citizens and a long tradition of producing high quality cinema. The article might have also pointed out that Colombia, with a population similar to Argentina, produced 7 features in 2005 and 18 in 2011.

More to the point, the Venezuelan government doesn’t seem to be hiding the more critical films in the least. For example, here’s a 2013 article in the state-owned national newspaper that covers the two major prizes won by Bad Hair in Argentina’s Mar de Plata international film festival, which is one of the most important in Latin America. Meanwhile, earlier this year Bad Hair was one of only 15 features included in an exhibition at the state-owned National Theater that celebrated 118 years of Venezuelan filmmaking. And here’s another article from the same state-owned national newspaper (published just three days prior to the AP piece) which features the president of the National Center for Cinematography celebrating From Afar’s victory in Venice, detailing the major prizes won by Venezuelan films in the last several years (including Bad Hair and others from the critical “new wave”), and promising that From Afar “is going to be seen in Venezuela with all the preparation necessary so that there’s a big promotional campaign … in all the theaters and media, so that the community understands what the film is about.”

You can criticize Bolivarian media policy for a number of things, but blaming the government for the success of Hollywood films in Venezuelan theaters is just absurd, as is the idea that it is financing critical films even as it maintains a regime of censorship to keep them from being seen.

Community Cinema in Latin America and the Caribbean: Book Available Online

July 30, 2015

CineComunitario_portadaIf you read Spanish and have an interest in the history of community media in Latin America, you may want to check out a relatively new (2014) book called “El cine comunitario en América Latina y el Caribe” [Community Cinema in Latin America and the Caribbean], which was coordinated by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, who also wrote the overview section (and who I’ve mentioned previously, here and here). Additional sections cover specific countries and regions: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Central America, Chile, Colombia, Cuba and the Caribbean, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

The full text is available as a PDF from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), which published it.

The Church is the State at Bloomberg?

July 25, 2015

Here’s an interesting quote from today’s NY Times, in an article entitled “Pearson in Talks to Sell Its Stake in the Economist Group” :

The German media company Axel Springer and the financial information company Bloomberg, which came close to buying The Financial Times, were also approached, the newspaper reported.

But they declined to pursue the purchase because The Economist is held in a trust that guarantees “the continued independence of the ownership of the company and the editorial independence of The Economist,” according to its website. The Pearson shares do not allow control.

I can only take this to mean that Axel Springer and Bloomberg aren’t interested in owning media outlets whose content they can’t control. Or am I missing something?

The Role of Popular Communication in Bolivarian International Communication Strategy

May 31, 2015

Earlier this year Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro established the office of Vice Minister of International Communication within the Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Relations. The new post was authorized by Presidential Decree 1596, which specified its responsibilities. I’ve translated all six here, but it’s number five in which I’m primarily interested:

1) Develop an international strategy in coordination with the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, to enable the diffusion of information about Government progress and action.

2) Create international news bulletins and audiovisual material, in coordination with the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, that reflects the achievements of Venezuela abroad.

3) Promote, in coordination with the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, a strategy to project the Venezuelan Nation abroad, neutralizing any matrix of opinion with defamatory aims intended to harm the image of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and its system of government.

4) Pursue, together with the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, international legal action when any international media outlet directs offenses or lies against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the Revolutionary Government.

5) Create an International Network of alternative media, in coordination with the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, that will organize international alternative media outlets that support the Bolivarian Revolution, and by this means, create mechanisms to project necessary governmental matrices of opinion; in a manner coordinated with the various embassies.

6) Any other responsibilities assigned to it by Laws, Decrees, Regulations, Resolutions, and other Legal Acts pertaining to international communication.

Maduro appointed Mauricio Rodríguez to the post in late January. Rodríguez served as Vice Minister of Strategic Communication during William Lara’s term as Minister of Communication back in 2006-07. He served as both Minister of Communication and President of VTV from June to December of 2010. He was appointed as President of ViVe TV in 2014 and, as far as I know, continues to occupy that post. Last February he was appointed to the Board of Directors of VTV.

Maduro’s choice of Rodríguez in his current roles is perhaps telling. When I was in Venezuela in 2011, one longtime leader of the community and alternative media movement described Rodríguez’s term as Minister of Communication as “disastrous” (nefasto) because he did not truly believe in autonomous popular power for community media producers, with the result that resources were severely diminished. Meanwhile, to the best of my knowledge he is the first President of ViVe that was not among its founders and does not have a professional background in alternative audiovisual production.

Within the Bolivarian community and alternative media movement there are two general tendencies. Some believe popular media outlets should serve to consolidate the power of the state and others believe the Bolivarian government should serve to consolidate a radically democratic and largely autonomous system of popular communication. These are not mutually exclusive positions and most practitioners emphasize one or the other depending on the circumstances. Nonetheless, most reside more consistently on one side of the division.

I suspect that Rodríguez primarily sees popular communication as a strategic appendage of a state-led revolution. In my opinion, this is the wrong perspective. It will be interesting to see how he structures and utilizes an “international network of alternative media,” if he does at all.