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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.

The Bush Administration Viewed as a Bolivarian Propaganda Outlet

May 18, 2015

I’m continuing to poke around the WikiLeaks cables (after my last post) and found references to to be of particular interest. The Bush administration’s diplomatic staff in Caracas appeared to take it very seriously as a propaganda outlet for Venezuela’s Bolivarian government.

an excerpt from the May 11, 2004 US Embassy Cable

An unclassified cable from the US Embassy in Caracas, dated May 11, 2004 and titled “The ABCs of the Venezuelan Government’s Political Propaganda Strategy,” includes a section titled “Other Mechanisms” that lists among “numerous sites” dedicated to “Propaganda on Line” [sic].

The site is also mentioned in a confidential cable from the US Embassy in Caracas dated May 31, 2005. Titled “GOV [Government of Venezuela] Holds TIPS [Trafficking in Persons] Hearing in National Assembly,” the cable concludes that “[t]he National Assembly hearing seemed to have been put on for the [US] Embassy’s benefit, as we were the only international or diplomatic representatives present.” The embassy staff clearly believed that the hearing was merely political theater, designed to present the Venezuelan government as proactive on the issue of human trafficking in order to convince the US State Department to change its status in relation to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

The State Department issues an annual report that classifies countries in three tiers. In 2004, Venezuela was reclassified from tier 2 to tier 3, meaning that it was grouped among “[c]ountries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” (I’m taking the tier definitions from the 2014 report, as I can’t find them stated in the 2004 or 2005 reports.) The hearing discussed in the cable was perhaps meant to represent “significant effort,” but the embassy wasn’t buying it. (Venezuela remained in tier 3 in the 2005 report, which was released on June 3.)

A section of the cable entitled “Who Attended” notes that “[a] Canadian journalist was reportedly in attendance as were some pro-Chavez media outlets.” Further below, in the final “Comment” section, the cable states that “[p]ro-Chavez media outlet “” published an article May 27 about the hearing, appearing to lay the groundwork for an attack should Venezuela remain Tier 3.”

an excerpt from the May 31, 2005 cable

The article (authored by Jonah Gindin) provides in depth (and, I think, high quality) analysis of Venezuela’s tier ranking within the political context. I don’t see that it set the stage for an “attack”, so much as formed part of a relatively regular series of articles on the subject, all of which seem to reflect the Venezuelan government’s position that the trafficking report has been manipulated by the US in order to gain leverage of Venezuela. did, indeed, publish a story (authored by Sarah Wagner), on the release of the 2005 report, but by that time it had already published at least four articles on the subject (in addition to the May 27 article mentioned above) and it would publish at least three more over the next six years.

The unsurprising take home here is that the Bush administration took a highly confrontational approach to, viewing it not as an autonomous civil society organization contributing to a marketplace of ideas in accordance with classical liberal ideals, but as a propaganda outlet in the service of an authoritarian government. This seemingly contradicts its stance on the status of commercial media outlets in Venezuela, which it held up as legitimate organs of civil society and not propaganda outlets in the service of an oppositional oligarchy.

Full disclosure: In 2011, in anticipation of spending time in Venezuela for my dissertation field research, I unsuccessfully applied for a position as a part-time staff writer with I subsequently contributed three articles, each of which first appeared on this blog and for which I received no compensation.


An additional note: The May 31 cable includes one of the few mentions of “community media” in all of the leaked cables. The Venezuelan government’s presentation of the steps it had taken to prevent human trafficking included “[c]onducting an information campaign through ‘alternative and community media’ sources.” Arguably (and perhaps ironically), this reinforces the idea that the Venezuelan government treats the community media sector as a propaganda tool.

What Can We Learn from the WikiLeaks Cables About US Relations with Latin America?

May 16, 2015

TeleSUR English has posted an interview with Norwegian journalist Eirik Vold that focuses on relations between the US and Latin America, based on information that Vold gleaned from the leaked US diplomatic cables hosted by WikiLeaks. Much of the discussion was related to the media, so I’m going to summarize and comment on some of his remarks.

Eirik Vold on TeleSUR English

I’m happy to see Vold make use of the cables. Though their release and the subsequent legal sagas of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange made headlines, I’ve felt that the content of the cables hasn’t generated sufficient attention. Vold makes this point, noting that WikiLeaks has provided an extremely user-friendly search interface which has gone underutilized, even though “[t]here’s hardly a conflict in the world where the US isn’t involved and where there isn’t some interesting cable in WikiLeaks that … could shed new light on that conflict that would be interesting for the world public opinion.” [Several years back, I used the cables as the basis of a post on the Alba-1 fiber optic cable linking Venezuela to Cuba that has received more visits than any other post on the blog and was republished in the July 2011 edition of Submarine Telecoms Forum.]

Most of what’s in the cables isn’t shocking or even surprising, since the machinations of US foreign policy are relatively clear to anyone paying attention. As Vold points out, however, “what’s new is that now you have this documented from the wording of the very US diplomacy and intelligence community and that can make a huge impact if it’s communicated to the public opinion [sic] in the different Latin American countries, which hasn’t been the case so far, surprisingly.” I agree and there’s a need for analysis to be translated into and/or conducted in the relevant languages.

The points discussed in the interview that were of particular interest to me:

1) Vold’s general takeaway is that the US government viewed Latin America’s move to the political left, begun with the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and sometimes referred to as the Pink Tide, as the most significant geopolitical shift since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wonder if that might now have been eclipsed by the Arab Spring and general turmoil in the Mideast, or perhaps Russia’s increasingly confrontational posture, but I can’t think of any more important shift at the time the cables were written.

2) Around 2004-05, the Bush administration shifted from open confrontation with Venezuela to a strategy of cooperation with Brazil and Argentina in an attempt to isolate Venezuela. This was a period when Chávez was particularly strong, having overcome the coup attempt and subsequent economic attacks of 2002-03 and launching the Missions. In fact, I believe it was in January 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre that he first openly referred to the Bolivarian revolution as socialist in nature. Perhaps the Bush administration had given up beating Chávez on his home turf.

As part of the Bush administration’s attempt to turn Brazil away from Venezuela, it sought to collaborate with a security official who had ties to Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s. This involved selling the idea that Venezuela’s purchase of 100,000 rifles from Russia represented a threat to Brazil and the region in general. You may recall that this and related scare tactics made a splash in the English language press during that time (including stories from Fox, the The New York Times, and the BBC). Vold points out that neither the US nor Brazilian governments put any faith in those ideas. Backing this up is a cable from April 13, 2005 that summarizes a meeting with Lula’s Chief of Staff, Jose Dirceu:

… Dirceu said the GOB [government of Brazil] does not  believe Chavez’s arms purchase plans indicate external  military designs. A Colombia-Venezuela conflict would be catastrophic for both countries, Dirceu said.  Chavez’s possible purchase of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles appears directed toward his arming of the local militias he is forming, Dirceu said, but he did not elaborate on why Chavez is forming militias except to observe that Chavez “feels threatened.” Dirceu seemed dismissive of the value of conventional arms in South America, asking [the] Ambassador [of the US] and PolCouns [political counsel?] how long they thought Venezuelan F-16s or MIGs (if the GOV purchases them) could stay in the air against a modern foe (read USAF).  Unless a country chooses to have long-range missiles or nuclear devices it has no significant deterrent against a powerful national enemy, Dirceu opined, and hence most conventional weapons — however flashy or costly — are largely toys for appeasing the “artifacts of national militaries”  in developing countries, and not a serious threat to any other state.

3) One late addition to the Pink Tide of left-leaning governments was the Paraguayan administration of Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic priest who took office in August of 2008. The US was clearly wary of Lugo’s links to Chávez, but the cables reveal that the Embassy staff was not particularly alarmed. As Vold put it, “this US cable says the [Paraguayan private] media is … so hysterically anti-Chávez … that it’s almost impossible for Lugo to make any efficient cooperation with Venezuela.” I didn’t find a cable with an explicit articulation of that conclusion, but my guess is that Vold is referring to a cable from January 2009 that discusses Lugo’s media strategy and acknowledges strong opposition by the commercial press.

Vold seems to be exaggerating the Embassy’s conclusions, however, which led TeleSUR’s host, Greg Wilpert, to respond that “the role of the media and the effort to exploit the media seems to be a major kind of theme [in the cables]. So they [the US government] obviously count on the support, essentially, in one way or another, of the [Latin American commercial] media.” While that analysis may be generally valid, the cables themselves don’t bear it out in the Paraguayan case.

The Embassy, in a cable from January 2010 entitled “Paraguay Media Analysis”, recognizes greater variation in the Paraguayan media and singles out ABC Color, the “leading” daily newspaper, as being particularly anti-Chávez, thanks to the views of it’s owner, Aldo “Acero” Zuccolillo-Moscarda, who

also owns a department store chain, a construction company, a finance company, and has extensive real estate holdings.  Zuccolillo strongly dislikes Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and although he supported President Lugo in the 2008 elections, has since taken a strong anti-Lugo line.  He has told us that he fears Lugo is a “Chávez-Marxist” who wants to shut down independent media.

The January 2009 cable, meanwhile, discusses a meeting between the US Ambassador, the Director of USAID, and Zuccolillo, in which the latter expressed his fears that Lugo was “following the same plan the Sandinistas used in Nicaragua (in the 1980s)” and was going to use the national public radio network, as well as community stations, as a propaganda machine. That section of the cable, however, is entitled “Zuccolillo Lays It On Again”, signalling that the Embassy didn’t share his alarm. Moreover, the cable offers this concluding analysis:

It is also clear the entrenched media interests here, like most of the power interests which traditionally have “run” much of Paraguay are “closed shops” lacking genuine competition. And they are not shy about trying to pull us into a Cold War repeat if that’s what it takes to raise the alarm. On balance, however, we see Lugo’s efforts as trying to bring some coherence to his messages, messengers, and communications mediums to combat the sometimes brutal beating he has taken in the press. We do not yet see any evidence of a larger and calibrated plan to muzzle the powerful and partisan media enterprises in Paraguay, as Zuccolillo asserts. But we will keep on the look-out.

In fact, in April of 2009 the Embassy proposed offering the Lugo administration “technical assistance on communications strategy and messaging within the cabinet and outside” in order to counteract a “public image of inaction and indecisiveness.” The proposed assistance packages, which would come through the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, was outlined as follows:

Initially, the possibility of providing a communications expert(s) who could spend as long as a month working directly with [Communications Minister Augusto] Dos Santos and his team on a diagnostic mission, was discussed.  If Dos Santos liked the results, Post [the embassy?] would seek possible follow-on communications training and technical assistance. Dos Santos responded enthusiastically and had clearly already worked out some good ideas on how to approach the task.  He suggested we pick four ministries to start with, two that have good internal communications (he mentioned the Health Ministry as one), and two that have poor internal communications (specifically the Foreign Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry). We suggested the Interior Ministry as the fourth and he agreed. (NOTE: The Interior Ministry is Paraguay’s most senior ministry, led by a capable and powerful ally of the President. END NOTE).

Granted, this can be understood as nothing more than the Embassy taking advantage of the situation to gain access and influence, especially when the cable concludes by recommending that Washington authorize the aid “in a timely manner, before someone else does.” At the same time, however, the preceding sentence of that cable characterizes the assistance package as “the kind of quick-hit, relatively inexpensive help that could make a difference in the public perceptions of this government.” All in all, this doesn’t sound like the language of a government seeking to exploit Paraguay’s commercial media to hamstring or remove the Lugo administration.

Of course, Lugo was eventually and controversially impeached in 2012, with many observers and some Latin American governments likening the proceedings to the 2009 removal of President Manuel Zelaya from office in Honduras. On that note, a cable from December 2009 concluded that, “[w]hile most political actors tell us that [Lugo’s] impeachment remains only a possibility for now, we are closely monitoring the situation, and are being careful to stay out of this highly charged, domestic political issue.”

4) Vold argues that whereas the US government has strongly and publicly criticized leftist governments in Latin America for limiting press freedom, the leaked cables reveal that the diplomatic corps sees the commercial press as anything but weak. For example, according to a cable from June of 2009, US President Obama called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to congratulate him on his reelection and also “express support for a free and independent press.” This call came amid Correa’s public campaign against commercial media outlets that were critical of his policies and the Embassy staff carefully monitored public reactions to a White House press release on Obama’s stance:

Ecuadorian media on June 12 picked up the second half of President Obama’s message to Correa in such headlines as, “Obama advocates for a free press in Ecuador,” and “Obama asks Correa for a free and independent press.” These reports linked President Obama’s message in support of a free and independent press with the GOE’s [government of Ecuador’s] current administrative actions against Teleamazonas, led by CONARTEL [National Radio and Television Council], which could lead to the station’s closing. This reporting placed President Obama’s congratulatory call in the middle of the current debate in Ecuador on press freedom prompted by President Correa’s long-standing, ongoing attacks on the media, which in the case of Teleamazonas could lead to the first outright shutdown of an independent media outlet under Correa.

In the same cable, however, the Embassy acknowledged that:

There is more than a grain of truth to Correa’s observation that the Ecuadorian media play a political role, in this case the role of the opposition. Many media outlet owners come from the elite business class that feels threatened by Correa’s reform agenda, and defend their own economic interests via their outlets.  In addition, Ecuador’s weak political parties have left a political vacuum, which has been filled in part by criticism of Correa by some of the large Ecuadorian TV stations and newspapers.

The implication of Vold’s accusation is that the US government is simply duplicitous, using press freedom to attack leftist governments from one angle while all-too-free oppositional presses attack them from another. Certainly this has been the case, with the most notorious example being CIA support for Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper during the Allende administration.

Without denying that this type of duplicity still goes on, the cables suggest a more nuanced state of affairs in which the diplomatic staff truly believes that the professional model of objective, commercial journalism is the ideal to be attained. This is a problematic position, but it is not the same as outright cynical manipulation of a corrupted press. Here’s a relevant passage from the “Paraguay Media Analysis” cable:

The quality of reporting is poor in Paraguay and ethical and professional standards are often low. In general, reporting is sketchy, fact checking optional, and the line between reporting and editorializing is often blurred. Many media outlets reflect personal, business, or political interests. For example, both ABC Color and La Nacion mirror the conservative political views of the papers’ owners (see below). Both have taken a hard-line against President Lugo and coverage of him and his government is extremely negative in these publications. Paradoxically, the media is still one of the most trusted institutions in Paraguay.

I don’t mean to be entirely exculpatory here. This is the diplomatic corps, not the CIA, and it’s highly significant that the owners of oppositional media conglomerates have relatively frequent meetings with US ambassadors. Also, despite the classified nature of the cables, US diplomats may deliberately frame their relationship to foreign political actors in the best possible light when writing them, knowing that they will or at least could be seen by the public someday. But what these cables don’t seem to offer is smoking gun evidence that the US government was directly manipulating the Latin American commercial press during the 2005 – 10 period.

5) In a related exchange, Wilpert says, “But one of the things that I noticed, and I think in some of your writing you’ve mentioned, is also the effort to exploit certain media biases, for example about Iran’s supposed role in Latin America and its influence that it has in Latin America.” Vold replies by noting how fears of Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Nicaraguan complicity with Iran made headlines in the US press, but that the diplomatic corps didn’t believe it: “It’s not that they’re nervous … or paranoid, it’s that they do not believe in this. And you see in this cable that the US diplomat says, ‘Well, there seems to be nothing to all these accusation about bicycle factories in the Venezuelan llanos region hiding advanced Iranian weapons directed at the US. There’s nothing into it [sic], but it can be exploited to undermine Chávez’s support internationally.'”

I can find no cable that matches Vold’s paraphrasing. I did find support for the claim that the diplomats don’t share the suspicions that made headlines. For example, in 2009 Israel released a report suggesting that Bolivia and Venezuela were supplying uranium ore to Iran for its nuclear program. These reports were certainly played up by ideologues like Roger Noriega (Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush), found their way into coverage in the mainstream press, and were recently echoed in a thinly sourced report on Fox News Latino.

True to Vold’s claim, the embassy in Caracas wasn’t buying it. Just weeks after the Israeli report came out, the embassy sent a cable titled “Venezuela Incapable Of Substantive Nuclear Cooperation With Iran / Russia”. Here’s the summary:

A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs “are full of (expletive).” He said Venezuela is currently unable to provide such assistance particularly as the Chavez administration “does not trust scientists.” He added that Venezuela’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia finalized May 4 is pure political theater as Venezuela is incapable of cooperation with Russia on the development, design, construction and operation of nuclear reactors.  Also contrary to the agreement with the Russians, to the knowledge of the scientific community, there is no exploration or exploitation of uranium, ongoing or planned, in Venezuela. The scientist contended that, even if the Venezuelan government used all Cuban scientists, exploring for commercially viable uranium deposits in Venezuela would require a large taskforce and news of such an effort would leak quickly.

The cable does not, however, suggest that the reports should be used to weaken support for the Chávez administration. In fact, it suggests that the Venezuelan government itself may want to play up such reports: “Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan produced uranium may help burnish the government’s revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims.” This point seems prescient, given a New York Times article that appeared several months later under the headline “Venezuela Says Iran Is Helping It Look for Uranium”. In this case, it seems the Venezuelan government may have been “exploiting certain media biases”.

In sum, Vold does good work in mining the WikiLeaks cables for insight into US relations with Latin America. I wouldn’t characterize his conclusions as incorrect, but in the context of an interview on TeleSUR English, they’re unsurprisingly presented without some of the more complicating nuances.

Can Tugg provide new opportunities for cinema as an articulating mechanism of civil society?

April 28, 2012

The LA Times recently covered a new service called Tugg that allows individuals to schedule and promote digital film screenings at their local multiplex. The idea is to provide self-selected audiences with an opportunity to view movies that major theater chains don’t deem commercially viable for extended runs.

The process is relatively simple. The screening’s “organizer” first chooses the movie they want to screen from Tugg’s catalog (which has 433 titles as of this writing). Then:

[t]he organizer selects a local theater, locks in a date and then aggressively promotes the event using Facebook, Twitter or other social media. If people reserve enough tickets — a screening typically requires a minimum of 50 advance ticket purchases — Tugg then books the film in one of the theaters that have signed up for its service. (LA Times)

Tugg is still in beta and the ability to organize a screening is not yet open to the public. I wasn’t able to determine how the catalog is curated, but my hope is that there will be relatively few filters for producers (and other rights managers) who want to make their films available. I’d also like to see smaller (art) theaters be included as potential venues. But the underlying logic of Tugg’s platform is compelling.

Tugg holds potential for producers working in the margins because it adds another avenue of distribution and revenue generation to the mix. But Tugg also offers new possibilities to civil society organizations. In addition to asking individuals to download and view a movie individually, or host a screening in their own home, organizations can bring together larger crowds and make use of the opportunity to host discussions and generate further collaboration in relation to campaigns and other initiatives. Of course, this kind of thing has been happening for decades in schools, libraries, and other public venues, and there may still be advantages to choosing those locations. But Tugg enables a new social viewing space that combines the ease of over-the-top, video-on-demand delivery with the quality, comforts, and convenience of the theater. That mix might help to attract larger and more diverse audiences.

In short, Tugg seems to offer a new set of possibilities for the cinema to serve as an articulating mechanism of civil society. I will be watching to see if community media producers take advantage.