Although President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela continues to excite fits of hysteria north of the Rio Grande, Simon Romero of the New York Times (Feb. 9, 2008) wants us to know that Chávez is "increasingly on the defensive."
Mirna de Campos, a nurse's assistant, tells Romero that "I cannot find beans, rice, coffee or milk." Romero mentions other problems in Venezuela, but this food shortage is the one you remember.
Romero goes on to say that "Mr. Chávez has stirred deeper anxiety by intensifying threats to expand state control of the economy and society. For instance, Mr. Chávez warned Monday that he would nationalize large food distributors caught hoarding groceries."
In the process of alerting us to this "deeper anxiety," Romero has raised the issue of "distributors caught hoarding groceries." My deeper anxiety would involve food, not "threats to expand state control of the economy." But I don't understand the mysterious world of the New York Times.
Eight days before Romero's article appeared in the Times, Australia's Green Left Weekly carried "Venezuela: Combating Food Shortages" by Federico Fuentes and Tamara Pearson. They interviewed Luis Albonoz, a shopkeeper in Venezuela, who told them of widespread shortages of basic foods. They asked him the cause of the shortages. "It's a problem of smuggling," he told them. "Some people hoard large quantities and then they sell them at much higher prices."
Fuentes and Pearson go on to mention another cause of the food shortages. According to a report prepared by the Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "between 2004 and 2006, the real income of the poorest 58% of the population increased by 130% after allowing for inflation." Because poor people now have more money, they buy more food, thereby contributing to the shortage. In addition to this, food is available at the Mercals-the state-subsidized supermarkets-for 39 percent less than the usual price.
Problems like these are common in young socialist economies. In Cuba, shortly after the revolution, the government established a fixed low price for milk by subsidizing the stores that sold it. Overnight, milk shortages occurred. Parents who previously couldn't afford milk for their children now found that they could. This option didn't exist under the Batista regime. The U.S. press used this "milk shortage" to show that socialism had failed, when it actually had succeeded, especially for parents who could now afford to buy milk.
Romero's article is not his only effort to relieve our fears about Venezuela. Back on November 10, 2007, he offered a stirring account of the "nascent student movement" that opposes President Chávez. This movement received a great deal of air time on U.S. television news, where we learned that Venezuelan students opposed changes to a TV station. Next we discovered that they opposed the much-discussed amendments to the Venezuelan constitution.
Romero's article continues this saga. He interviews Yon Goicoechea, a leader of the nascent anti-Chávez student movement mentioned above. Goicoechea is studying law at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. How does he hope to get rid of Chávez?
"We believe in exhausting the democratic options available to us through peaceful action," the leader says. "We want social transformation, not a coup. The real coup d'état is coming from Chávez, who wants to perpetuate himself in power."
At this point, Romero launches into a discussion of "the students." We learn that "the students first burst onto the scene over the summer." Moreover, President Chávez doesn't care much for "the student movement." And the American government has "denied supporting the students." For line after line, it's "the students" this and "the students" that.
As he approaches the end of the article, Romero finally acknowledges that some students actually support President Chávez. But the clear implication of everything else is that "the students" oppose Chávez, included a working-class student that Romero drags into the Times to prove how diverse "the students" really are.
Why don't more students support Chávez?
In an interview with Pepe Escobar, MediaBite asks much the same question. Escobar is a native of Brazil who now writes for The Real News Network, Asia Times Online, and elsewhere. MediaBite is an online journal that wants us to know that it takes "a shot at bias in the media."
Escobar says, with a good deal of verbal animation, that the mainstream Western media have created the impression that Venezuelan university students are largely opposed to President Chávez. "It was impossible to read anywhere that these students came from elite, private universities, were more interested in fleeing the country after graduation to snatch an MBA in the U.S., and were a minority," Escobar says. "The majority studies in public schools, and they are Chavistas with widely varied degrees of fervor."
We've been conditioned to believe the New York Times. By contrast, you assume that anything owned by Rupert Murdoch is full of lies, and that's what you always get. This predictability has a calming effect on the mind. It reassures you. The Times is more subtle. Sometimes one line of truth among all the lies makes you believe the entire article. This agitates the reader, makes him fearful.
In the past, Romero wrote some fairly evenhanded pieces about Venezuela. I foolishly expected the same from him now.
Patrick Irelan is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.