Guardian journalist Sibylla Brodzinsky misreporting on Venezuela

Brodzinsky's article ("Leftwing dictator or saviour of the poor: Chavez faces new challenge to his rule") fits into the pattern of half-truths and open lies that characterises the media coverage of the Bolivarian revolution. We expect this kind of thing from The Economist (which openly calls for "regime change") but not from the Guardian.We could not believe our eyes! We sent a letter to the Guardian (published on Thursday, May 25), but because this comes from a paper seen as "progressive" by many, we are providing a more detailed analysis herel.

Sibylla Brodzinsky's article on Venezuela ("Leftwing dictator or saviour of the poor: Chavez faces new challenge to his rule") fits into the pattern of half-truths and open lies that characterises the media coverage of the Bolivarian revolution. This is something we expect from The Economist (which openly calls for "regime change") but not from the Guardian.

When we saw the article we could not believe our eyes and immediately sent a letter to the Guardian (published on Thursday, May 25). But, because this comes from a paper seen as "progressive" by many, it might be worth analysing the article in detail.

To start with she affirms that a recall referendum against Chavez is "the last chance to remove the president constitutionally", something that seems to imply that otherwise the opposition will have no alternative other than to remove him by unconstitutional means. Has she considered the possibility of the opposition removing the president by waiting until the next presidential elections? Also, unnamed "experts" affirm "it may also be the last chance to avoid a civil war". So far, the only group provoking a civil war has been the opposition which carried out the April 11, 2002 coup, and which openly discusses the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government and calls on its supporters to rise up against it.

Trying to paint the opposition as innocent victims of an undemocratic president ("a former paratroop commander"), she says "the opposition used street demonstrations to try and force his resignation and last year staged a two month general strike". What about the military coup organised by the opposition in April 2002? Oh, but that is described by Brodzinsky as Chavez being "ousted briefly by a military rebellion, but returned to power two days later"! Who organised the coup? The opposition. Who returned Chavez to power, a mass movement of the people and a rebellion of military officers and troops loyal to the democratically elected president.

"Dozens of people have died in clashes between pro- and anti-Chávez groups during the past several years," Brodzinsky tells us. What she forgets to say is that most of those killed were Chavez supporters. Some 50 people were killed in the two brief days that the opposition coup lasted in April 2002 and nearly 100 peasant and trade union activists have been killed since Chavez won the presidential election in 1998. Most of those have been killed on orders from landowners and bosses to "solve" conflicts over the land reform and industrial disputes.

"The latest deaths came in February, when at least 14 people died in opposition demonstrations and as many as 200 were wounded". First of all the most recent case of a politically motivated murder is that of the of Giandomenico Puliti, Bolivarian leader and mayoral candidate of the Fifth Republic Movement in Tovar, Merida, assassinated on May 7. Secondly, in February the opposition called for an uprising against the democratically elected government when the National Electoral Council ruled hundreds of thousands of signatures collected for the recall referendum as invalid. The same Amnesty International report that Brodzinsky quotes only selectively describes the situation: "groups of opposition supporters using barricades, stones, Molotov cocktails and firework rockets. There were also several reports of protesters using firearms. In this context, there were clearly legitimate public security concerns, which the authorities had a duty to respond to." (AI INDEX: AMR 53/005/2004). The opposition clearly wanted to provoke a response from the government and the National Guard that would justify their theory that in Venezuela there is a dictatorship. If the opposition organises violent demonstrations using Molotov cocktails and firearms, violence will inevitably take place. However, in the last 5 years there have been dozens, probably hundreds of opposition demonstrations (some quite large, recently smaller in size) with no violence at all. In fact, after the violent incidents provoked by the opposition at the end of February, there was a peaceful (though small in numbers) opposition demonstration on March 6 (and there have been a few after that).

"Many fear that his friendship with Fidel Castro could herald a Cuban-style socialist system for Venezuela, and worry about his apparent sympathy with neighbouring Colombia's leftwing rebels", Brodzinsky informs us, without telling us exactly who these worried "many" are. There is also a straight lie dressed as a truth in the sentence when she talks about "apparent" sympathy for the FARC guerrillas on the part of Chavez. We publicly challenge Brodzinsky to provide any proof (a quote would suffice) to demonstrate this. The only thing she would have found out if she had carried out her journalistic duties is that Chavez offered to mediate between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, at a time when the two sides were engaged in peace talks. This is not just a small detail or an unimportant oversight. A major part of the US administration and Venezuelan opposition campaign to oust Chavez is to brand his government as being "supportive of terrorism". Since the FARC guerrillas are considered by Washington to be "narco-terrorists" the intention in associating Chavez with the FARC becomes clear. In a world dominated by Bush's "war on terror", this is a very serious accusation to make. Not only does Brodzinsky not provide evidence for this opposition allegation, but she tries to cover herself by saying that this "sympathy" is "apparent". This is convenient because it removes the need to provide any proof, but it is appalling journalism.

She then, quoting again unnamed "analysts" ("and even some opposition members"!) says that "the cards are so stacked against them that the likelihood of a referendum is low". To back up this claim she quotes from Michael Rowan whom she describes as an American political strategist who has lived in Venezuela for more than 30 years. This bland and professional description is meant to give Mr Rowan an air of respectability (you see, he is not a "former paratroop commander"). However Brodzinsky conveniently forgets to say that Mr Rowan has a weekly column in one of the most rabidly anti-Chavez dailies, El Universal, where he makes his opposition views abundantly clear. In a recent edition of his column, comparing Chavez to Hitler and Mussolini he says: "Venezuela is starting to resemble Italy or Germany in the 1930s. As an elected leader with charismatic force and a radical worldview rose like a Phoenix to dominate the country, thoughts about how to put Venezuela back on a track of inclusion virtually disappeared. Consumed or appalled by the power and glory of the new leader's insane hatreds, every conversation turned on questions about him: Could he last, how can he be stopped, can he be recalled, how can I get away from this madness? This is exactly as the tyrant wants it." (The full article can be found in the opposition and coup supporting site Vcrisis and we recommend all our readers to read it in full to get a clearer picture of the kind of political thinking of people like Mr Rowan, an "American political strategist").

The truth of the matter is that the chances of a recall referendum being called are low because the opposition never collected the necessary number of signatures. Out of the 3.4 million signatures the opposition claimed it had collected only 1.8 million were declared valid by the National Electoral Commission (CNE), some 700,000 were declared invalid (where names did not correspond with national ID numbers, deceased or under aged people had "signed", etc) and 800,000 were declared doubtful and subject to a verification process (this was in the case where full sheets of data had been filled with the same handwriting). All the opposition needs to do in the verification period next week is to prove that at least 75% of those signatures are valid and then a recall referendum would be triggered (whether they can win such a referendum or not is another matter).

All Brodzinsky tells us about the National Electoral Commission is what the opposition thinks of it (that it is controlled by government supporters and that Chavez is manipulating the process). She does not even quote the government's position on this (which would be good journalistic practice). Even worse, she completely ignores the fact that the Carter Centre, the Organisation of American States and the European Union observers all certified that the signature collection and verification process were fair and free. These are hardly "Cuban-style" institutions, nor do they appear to have "apparent sympathies" for the FARC guerrillas!

The Carter Centre for instance, when the CNE publicised its decision on the number of valid and invalid signatures and those which had to be re-verified, declared that: "In this process, in particular, we find sufficient controls, including security paper for the petitions, full identification of the citizen with signature and thumbprint, summary forms (actas) listing the petition (planillas) serial numbers during the collection process, party witnesses, personnel trained and designated by the CNE, verification of each petition form and a cross-check with the summary forms, a cross-check of the names with the voters list, and a mechanism for appeal and correction." (You can see the declaration of the Carter Centre and the Organization of American States here). And although the Centre declared that they would have been more lenient regarding the sheets filled with the same handwriting, it also made clear its support for the process of re-verification of those. Brodzinsky conveniently ignores these statements since they would contradict the image she is trying to paint of a process manipulated by the government where the opposition does not stand a chance of getting enough valid signatures.

One of the funniest parts in Brodzinsky's article is when she says that: "For all his vitriolic rhetoric against the US and George Bush, Washington has so far failed to engage Mr Chávez directly in the fight. However, the US Congress has funded some opposition groups through a non-governmental organisation." This implies that Chavez is provoking Bush for a fight, but Bush (that great moderate) has restrained himself from engaging him directly. The truth, as is so often the case with journalistic articles on Venezuela, is precisely the opposite. Despite Washington's constant provocations against the democratically elected Venezuelan government and its constant interference with the sovereign affairs of Venezuela, the Venezuelan government has been very restrained in its response, and only more recently has started to reply directly to these constant provocations. As for the US not engaging Chavez directly, if what Brodzinsky means is that Bush has not yet ordered the invasion of the country, then that is true. But really, short of that, the US administration has used all other means at their disposal, open and covert, to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela, one that in reality has more claim to democratic legitimacy than Bush's.

We ask ourselves how an article by Sibylla Brodzinsky, who to our knowledge has never written for the Guardian before, but who is a regular collaborator of the right wing Miami Herald, made it into the pages of the Guardian.

Jorge Martin
International Secretary
Hands off Venezuela Campaign