Number 297 May 31st, 2005

This Week: Colombia and Venezuela

Quote of the Week
“You can't write him off.” Aid and Extortion in Venezuela
Colombia: “Not a War Against Drugs”


I know I'm supposed to be in the middle of a series on Social Security “reform,” but I decided to take a week off from that and talk about some of the wild and wacky stories that have been in the media over the past month or so.  More on Social Security in the next issue, I promise.

As is often the case, this issue is too long to allow for much of an editor's note.  So that's all for this week.

In solidarity,


"Quote" of the Week:

Helen Thomas, long considered the “dean of the Washington press corps,” was for many years allowed to sit in the front row at presidential press conferences, and was invariably the first or second reporter to be called upon.  Under the current president, she has been moved from the first chair of the front row of the conference room to the back, and “is rarely called upon in press conferences,” according to one source.  The following exchange with White House press secretary Scott McClellan, from last Wednesday, might explain why Mr. Bush isn't too fond of her:

Helen Thomas:  The other day – in fact, this week, you said that we, the United States, is in Afghanistan and Iraq by invitation. Would you like to correct that incredible distortion of American history –

Scott McClellan: No, we are – that's where we currently –

HT: – in view of your credibility is already mired?  How can you say that?

SM: Helen, I think everyone in this room knows that you're taking that comment out of context. There are two democratically-elected governments in Iraq and –

HT: Were we invited into Iraq?

SM: There are two democratically-elected governments now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are there at their invitation.  They are sovereign governments, and we are there today --

HT: You mean if they had asked us out, that we would have left?

SM: No, Helen, I'm talking about today.  We are there at their invitation.  They are sovereign governments –

HT: I'm talking about today, too.

SM: -- and we are doing all we can to train and equip their security forces so that they can provide for their own security as they move forward on a free and democratic future.

HT: Did we invade those countries?

SM: [Addressing a different reporter] Go ahead, Steve.

“You can't write him off.” Aid and Extortion in Venezuela

I have written before in these pages about what I call the “Reversing the Headline Trick.”  It actually goes beyond headlines, since it applies to any idea in the news that involves a relationship between “us” and “them.”  The trick is simple: You just take a news story in the U.S. press and reverse the names (and associated labels) to see how it sounds.

This week I want to use a story about Venezuela to illustrate how useful this trick can be.  But first, a little background on Venezuela as it is in 2005:

The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was democratically elected in 1998 and re-elected overwhelmingly in 2000.  A right-wing coup in April of 2002 forced Chavez out of office but, after only two days, a massive popular uprising brought Chavez back to his elected position.  This past August (2004) the same opposition groups that were behind the coup forced a presidential recall referendum and, again, the Chavez presidency was affirmed, receiving the support of 60 percent of the voters.

Chavez's popularity is not really in doubt.  For example, here's the entire text of a one-paragraph news brief that appeared in the New York Times on May 3rd of this year:

“President Hugo Chavez's popularity rating is at 70 percent, among the highest of any Latin American leader... [This] indicates that the leftist leader's focus on social spending programs has paid off for his six-year-old government, even after an opposition movement tried to remove him from office last August through a recall referendum.  He now appears poised to win re-election easily next year, political analysts say.”

Exactly five months earlier, on December 3rd, the Times reported that “The Central Intelligence Agency was aware that dissident military officers and opposition figures in Venezuela were planning a coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002, newly declassified intelligence documents show.  But immediately after the overthrow, the Bush administration blamed Mr. Chavez ... for his own downfall and denied knowing about the threats.”

So, get the picture?  A phenomenally popular, democratically-elected leader of a sovereign nation was the victim of an attempted military overthrow at least tacitly supported by the U.S. government.  If you know all of this, then the “Reversing the Headline Trick” will be  easy to do.  Watch.

An April 26th headline in the New York Times read: “Venezuela's Leader Takes Tough Stance Toward U.S.; Bush Finds No Allies Against Chavez.”  Here's the lead paragraph:

“As President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say.”

Translation: The U.S. government is publicly considering intervening in the internal affairs of a democratic country, and one that just happens to it provide 15 percent of American oil imports.

Turn It Around

OK, now let's try the “Reversing the Headline Trick,” which really should be called the “Reversing the Names and Labels Trick.”  Let's reverse the names and labels in that first paragraph from April 26th, and see what happens:

“As President GEORGE BUSH of the UNITED STATES veers toward greater confrontation with VENEZUELA, the CHAVEZ administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his RIGHTIST government, VENEZUELAN officials say.”

Sounds a little different, doesn't it?

And that's just the first paragraph.  It goes on and on, in this article as in many others.  In the third paragraph the Times refers to “Mr. Chavez's strident anti-American outbursts.”  In the fourth paragraph the Times reminds us that “the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April 2002.”  If there were a coup mounted against the U.S. government with the “tacit support” of a government 100 times more powerful, would any subsequent “outbursts” against that country by Mr. Bush be described as “strident?”

Also in paragraph three, the Times refers patronizingly to Chavez pursuing “policies that seem intended to fly in the face of Washington.”   Of course, they might be intended to meet the needs of the majority of the Venezuelan people, and may not revolve around the needs of the United States at all.  But this radical idea is never entertained by the New York Times.  Such ethnocentrism is truly startling – even for someone who reads the papers as much as I do!

The Times quotes “a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill,” who frankly lays out the motivation for the planned U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign country: “The United States, [the aide] said, is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. ‘You can't write him off,' the aide said of Mr. Chavez. ‘He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us.'” Or, to put it another, unthinkable, way: He's the president of a country that has the right to control its own natural resources.

One final mind-boggling comment, this one from the twelfth paragraph:  “A main problem for the United States is that Washington has little, if any, influence over Caracas.  The high price of oil has left Venezuela with no need for the loans or other aid that the United States could use as leverage.”  What a novel definition of “aid!”  What could it possibly mean to use “aid” as “leverage?”  Well, what the Times calls “leverage,” most of the world would call “extortion,” involving as it does the threat of economic strangulation, a standard way for the U.S. to project its immense power against weaker countries.  Again, imagine a news report characterizing as a “problem” the inability of Venezuela to use its “leverage” to change U.S. policies.  Outrageous, when the power relations are turned upside down.

The idea that a foreign leader might be considering “funneling” money to opposition groups in the U.S. would seem completely scandalous to most United Statesians, and it should.  Yet the fact that the U.S. is considering doing this very thing in another, far weaker, country, doesn't seem like such a bad idea, apparently.  While the Times managed to find a few people in this country who think “a more aggressive approach” to Venezuela is “a counterproductive strategy,” no domestic expert or politician was quoted as having a problem with such an approach in principle.

Framed as it was – as a routine decision about a foreign policy “problem” – this article probably deserved no better than page 9, which is where the Times put it.  Framed differently, however, it might take on more importance.  Here's a Nygaard Notes Alternative Headline: “U.S. Considers Intervention in Venezuela; Extortion Planned Against Neighboring Democracy.”  Now, that looks like front-page news.

There are two things that we might learn when we use the “Reversing the Names and Labels Trick.”  First, we might be able to see a moral or ethical dimension to a news story that wasn't clear upon first reading.  The second, and perhaps more important, thing is what we might learn about ourselves.  If a news story does not upset us as it is written, but it does upset us when we  reverse the roles, then we might begin to understand the power of the media to reinforce an ideological system that can make a disturbing double standard seem normal.


Colombia: “Not a War Against Drugs”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Colombia on April 28th, and readers of the U.S. press could be forgiven if they ended up a little confused about U.S. policy towards that country.  The New York Times' account of the Secretary's visit was typical, so let's look at it.

The headline read “Anti-Drug Gains in Colombia Don't Reduce Flow to U.S..”  The highlighted  quote attached to the article read “$3 Billion Brings Successes, but Traffickers Still Get the Narcotics Out.”

So, “gains” are mentioned, and “successes” are mentioned, and in each case there is a “but...”

The Times describes “Plan Colombia” as “the most aggressive counternarcotics operation ever” in that country.  (The Times apparently thinks that cocaine is a narcotic.  It's not.)  When signing the original funding bill for Plan Colombia in the year 2000, President Clinton said the hope was that “we will be able to support the courageous anti-drug efforts of Colombia, which can, in turn, help curb the flow of drugs in our nation.”  Five years into Plan Colombia, that nation now ranks as one of the largest recipients of U.S. “aid” in the world, and it remains the supplier of about 90 percent of the cocaine used in this country.

The Times' lead paragraph tells us that “American and Colombian officials say they have eradicated a record-breaking million acres of coca plants, yet cocaine remains as available as ever on American streets, perhaps more so.”  The article points out that, in the U.S., cocaine “prices have remained stable and purity has improved.”

As for the “record-breaking” number of coca plants destroyed, toward the end of the article the Times reports that “the State Department reported that 2004 had been ‘another banner year' in coca plant destruction.'  Nevertheless, “the White House drug policy office reported that 281,000 acres of coca plants remained, an area ‘statistically unchanged' from” 2003.

In sum, the actual facts reported in the Times story tell of a so-called “counternarcotics operation” that, after more than five years and the expenditure of billions of dollars, has resulted in increased availability and improved purity of cocaine on U.S. streets.  So why would the Times refer prominently to the “gains” and “successes” of this policy?  And why would Secretary of State Rice say, as the Houston Chronicle reported she did say, “This is a policy that is working.”? 

Actually, It IS a Policy That is Working.  Sort of...

Here's journalist George Monbiot, writing in the London Guardian in 2001, just after “Plan Colombia” was implemented: 

“Plan Colombia is not a war against drugs... Its ultimate purpose, as several international observers have pointed out, is to eliminate both leftwing guerrillas and grassroots democratic movements, in order to facilitate the seizure of the country's most valuable land.  The US envisages a new inter-oceanic canal through the north of the country, to bypass the congested Panama canal, [and] its companies have identified billions of dollars' worth of oil and mineral deposits.”

The Bush administration is asking Congress to extend Plan Colombia for at least one more year, asking for another $734 million next year on top of the $2.9 billion already spent.  With that much at stake, it makes sense to read that “Ms. Rice said Washington had no intention of reassessing the program...” and that the administration request would be backed up by something as weak as this:  “A senior State Department official who is involved in the Colombia program said, ‘Give us another year or so and see if there is any effect.'”  That is, another year and another three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars.

Given the history of U.S. policy in the region, Monbiot's theory about why “Plan Colombia” is seen as a success is quite plausible.  But it's unlikely that the average taxpayer in the United States would support a dirty war against peasants and workers trying to retain (or regain) some control over their land and resources.  We did that in the 1980s in Central America, and the protests in this country were huge.  So, in the pages of the media, Plan Colombia remains a “War Against Drugs,” with many “gains” and “successes.”  And Iraq is a war of liberation.