- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

With every passing day, life for Venezuelans becomes more dangerous. Since his election four years ago, President Hugo Chavez has presided over the most dramatic decline in the nation's fortunes: Analysts predict that in the first quarter of 2003 the economy will contract by 40 percent; more than 1 million jobs have been lost; approximately 900,000 people have gone into voluntary exile (most of them middle-class professionals); unemployment is at a staggering 17 percent; Almost 70 percent of the country's industries have gone bankrupt; 70 percent of Venezuelans live in a state of poverty (up from 60 percent when Mr. Chavez began his rule); and the income of more than 15 percent of Venezuelans has dropped below the poverty line.

Mr. Chavez's policies have left the nation in shambles. Stratospheric levels of corruption, collectivist central planning, mismanagement, and incompetence during the greatest oil boom have squandered a historic opportunity to cultivate a stable middle class. But stability is hardly the goal of Lt. Col. Chavez, who uses the nation's wealth to fund and supply weapons to the FARC and ELN drug-trafficking guerrilla terrorists in Colombia and the ETA Basque terrorist organization in Spain.

Mr. Chavez has cozy relationships with the dictators of Cuba, Libya, Iran, and Iraq (Mr. Chavez praised Saddam Hussein as his "brother" and "partner"), and earlier this month Mr. Chavez was accused by his personal pilot of funneling $900,000 to Osama bin Laden. Mr. Chavez has publicly described the U.S. military response to bin Laden as "terrorism" claiming he saw no difference between the invasion of Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Readers of the New York Times, The Washington Post and of the Associated Press, and viewers of CNN, are fed a dramatically different story. There is an enormous divide between what the world is hearing about Venezuela and what is really happening there. Reporters have so controlled the flow of information and disfigured the truth that their coverage of Venezuela is a caricature of what conservative critics call the "liberal media bias." What we are seeing in media coverage of Venezuela is not liberal bias, but totalitarian bias.

A recent example is Christopher Toothaker of the Associated Press. Mr. Toothaker has spent considerable time in Venezuela, he speaks Spanish, and he has access to government and opposition sources. In a Jan. 4 report, he minimized the importance of the upcoming constitutional referendum, stating that the opposition presented "over 150,000 signatures" to election authorities calling for a vote on whether Mr. Chavez should resign. This is a dramatic and deliberate understatement. The Venezuelan Constitution, approved by Mr. Chavez himself, provides for a referendum if 10 percent of the electorate petitions in writing. The opposition presented 2,057,000 signatures some 15 percent of the voting rolls a startling error that any fact-checker should catch. The smaller figure appears in dozens of other Associated Press reports, CBS, CNN and even in a story bylined by Ginger Thompson of the New York Times that was carried in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Miss Thompson is no fan of objectivity. On Jan. 3, the opposition organized a march to protest Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators carried flags, posters and signs calling for a peaceful resolution. The protesters were ambushed by members of Mr. Chavez's armed militia who dispersed the march with a hail of bullets and rocks. The Chavez police blithely watched the armed thugs shoot at the defenseless crowd. I was there. To our incredulity, the Chavez police then supplied the criminals with tear gas grenades. In her Times story, Miss Thompson characterized the violence as a "clash" and a "street fight" moral equivalency at its worst. American readers would never know it was an ambush.

The sympathies of Miss Thompson's colleague, Juan Forero, are revealed by Larry Birns, director of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs. In late December, Mr. Birns, a refreshingly sincere D.C. activist who acts as a Chavez cheerleader and apologist, told a Venezuelan government official the names of the four reporters he believed were most amicable to the Chavez government. This Times scribe made the top of his list: "He is committed to the revolution," Mr. Birns said of Mr. Forero. Reuters and the Associated Press were also praised for their "strong support" of Mr. Chavez.

The Washington Post's reporting is just as cant-laden as the New York Times', and its editorial page is utterly one-sided. Last Sunday, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research penned a column calling the Chavez government, responsible for dozens of political deaths, "one of the least repressive in Latin America." He should travel more.

Mr. Weisbrot states that "no one has been arrested for political activities." This is nonsense. Some of these arrests are so public Mr. Weisbrot cannot credibly claim ignorance. For example, Carlos Alfonso Martinez, an outspoken political opponent of Mr. Chavez and one of the most respected officers in the armed forces, was arbitrarily arrested on Dec. 30 by the secret police. The act caused public furor both because it was a further indication of government repression and also because Mr. Martinez was arrested without a warrant and remains under arrest even though a judge ordered his immediate release. How did this fact slip by the editors at The Post?

Mr. Weisbrot ends his column in The Post by saying that Chavez is Venezuela's best hope for democracy and social and economic "betterment." And yet Mr. Weisbrot does not support the referendum that would let the voters declare whether Mr. Chavez rules with the consent of the governed. Mr. Chavez told voters in a television broadcast: "Don't waste time. Not even if we suppose that they hold that referendum and get 90 percent of the votes, I will not leave. Forget it. I will not go."

Putting aside Mr. Chavez's track record on economics, does this really sound like the best hope for democracy?

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. government, business, and diplomatic communities make their decisions based on the "knowledge" they acquire from the media. Venezuelans are suffering unnecessarily because of the arrogance and favoritism of a handful of journalists. It is wicked. Yet what is worse is that, no matter what happens, the media will never be held accountable.

Thor Halvorssen is a human-rights activist who was a political adviser and consultant in two Venezuelan presidential elections. He lives in Philadelphia.

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