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Taking On the New York Times

Look out: the gloves are off and as usual the New York Times is determined to destroy Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone. On Friday, the paper published not one but two critical articles about the director's latest documentary, South of the Border, about the tectonic political changes occurring in South America. Stone, who is known for such popular hits as Wall Street and Platoon, made his film based on interviews with such leaders as Raul Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. In his movie, Stone takes the New York Times and the mainstream media to task for their shoddy coverage of Latin America and demonization of Hugo Chávez, someone who Stone openly sympathizes with.

Going for a knockout, the Times hit Stone with a one-two punch. First up was film critic Steven Holden, who in a rather sarcastic review called South of the Border "shallow" and "naïvely idealistic." Unusually, the Times then continued its hatchet job on Stone by publishing another lengthy article in its movie section, this time penned by veteran Latin America correspondent Larry Rohter. In his piece, Rohter accuses Stone of numerous mistakes, misstatements and missing details. I don't think the points which Rohter raises are terribly earth-shattering, though I imagine script writers Tariq Ali and Marc Weisbrot will respond in short order.

For me, the wider point here has to do with political agendas. At one point, Rohter takes Stone to task for not disclosing the various biases of his sources. In his film, Stone relies on commentary from leftist observers of Venezuela, including Greg Wilpert, a longtime editor of Venezuelanalysis.com, a web site providing sympathetic coverage of the Chávez government. The site was set up with donations from the Venezuelan government and Wilpert's wife is Chávez's consul-general in New York [as long as we are talking disclosure: before it became, in my view, too identified with the Chávez government, I personally wrote many articles for the site].


Rohter Does Venezuela
 
Rohter's point is fair enough, but he is hypocritical for not disclosing his own particular bias. Far from a removed film critic, Rohter is an establishment reporter with a political axe to grind against the South American left. In 1998, when Chávez was first elected, the journalist described the political shakeup thusly: "All across Latin America, presidents and party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide victory in Venezuela's presidential election on December 6, Hugo Chávez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the region's ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known as the caudillo."


Four years later in April, 2002 Santiago-based Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chávez's forcible removal by the Venezuelan opposition. "Chávez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness," Rohter wrote, adding that the Venezuelan leader's fall could not "be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup."

Later, when Chávez was returned to power and the short-lived coup government discredited, Rohter reversed himself and actually used the word "coup" in a story about recent political developments in Venezuela. If his readers had any doubts about the true intentions of the Bush administration, Rohter assured them that "there were no obvious American fingerprints on the plot that unseated Mr. Chávez."

Three years later, Rohter was at it again, this time writing that Chávez was "stridently anti-American." Chávez on the other hand said it wasn't true, arguing that reporters were confusing his distaste for the Bush administration with anti-Americanism. In its magazine Extra!, media watchdog group FAIR shrewdly wrote "If dislike for the current administration is anti-American, doesn't that make tens of millions of Americans 'anti-American'? Moreover, by the media logic that calls Chávez 'anti-American,' shouldn't the Bush administration, whose distaste for Chávez moved it to support his ouster by an anti-democratic coup, be called 'anti-Venezuelan?'"
 
New York Times Correspondent: From Colombia to Brazil


In his film, Stone points out that the mainstream media has, more often than not, demonized Chávez while giving a pass to horrible human rights violations committed in neighboring Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the region. In his attack on South of the Border, Rohter doesn't address that allegation squarely, but continues to hark on human rights violations in Venezuela. What Rohter fails to disclose however is that he has provided sympathetic coverage to right wing paramilitaries in Colombia.

Indeed, as FAIR's Extra! noted in its May/June 2000 edition: "...when Carlos Castaño, leader of the Colombian United Self-Defense, the most notorious paramilitary group in Colombia, appeared on Colombian television and revealed the extent to which his own group was involved in the drug business, it hardly merited a passing word in the U.S. media. The New York Times' Larry Rohter wrote a story about Castaño's "grilling" on Colombian TV (3/12/00) that skirted the drug issue altogether."


FAIR goes on to note, "Rohter's report stands in stark contrast to a Reuters story about the same appearance (3/2/00), which lead with the admission: 'The leader of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary death squads has publicly admitted the drug trade finances most of the bloodletting committed by his ruthless militia force.' Castaño also explained that 'drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably finance 70 percent' of his total operations, another fact that the New York Times apparently found less important than the opinions of a waitress and a local magazine columnist, who felt that Castaño had undergone a 'surprising metamorphosis.' If Castaño's intent was to present a 'human' face to the world, the New York Times at least seemed happy to help."


Perhaps Rohter was also irked by Stone's sympathetic portrait of Brazilian leader and Chávez ally Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In an explosive 2004 article, Rohter suggested that Lula had a drinking problem, and that the issue had become a "national concern" in Brazil. In a furor, the authorities suspended Rohter's visa. When Rohter's lawyers wrote a letter asserting that the reporter meant no offense, the Brazilian authorities restored the visa.

Brazilian media stood up for Rohter's right to write, but was uniformly critical of the Times' article. Speaking with NPR's Bob Garfield, Brazilian journalist Antonio Brasil remarked "One thing is to say anything about a president ... and his possible drinking habits. It's another thing when he says that the Brazilians were concerned... Most people say that was not ... true. His sources and evaluation in terms of putting together the story would represent ... sloppy journalism."

Brasil added, "You cannot forget that this is a completely new government. In Brazil this is a Socialist ... government for the very first time. Lula is from the Worker's Party, and they are very sensitive of any comment, especially coming from America." In response, Garfield asked Brasil how local journalists could conflate the interests of the U.S. government with the New York Times. "You have to think [about] the whole situation of embedded journalists," Brasil said. The journalist added that he was concerned about the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times, remarking that "maybe the standards are not...high."

Perhaps, the Times is simply hitting back at Stone in a tit-for-tat. In South of the Border, the Hollywood director interviews a Times editor who admits to the paper's lackluster coverage of Venezuela. I wondered how Stone got the Times man to talk on camera, and whether there was ever an official or explicit line about how to cover the Chávez story. Whatever the case, the paper's old Latin American hand Rohter certainly got the word: then as now.

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Methane and Climate Change: From the Amazon to the Gulf of Mexico

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Hugo Chávez’s Geopolitical Rivalry Reaching Soaring New Heights

Hugo Chávez's geopolitical rivalry with Washington has reached soaring new heights -- literally into space.  After meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Caracas recently, the Venezuelan leader remarked that Moscow had offered to assist Venezuela in developing its own space industry including a satellite launch site and a factory.  It was Putin's first visit to Venezuela, and the Russian was received with full military honors upon arrival.  "This is a truly important day for the country and for Latin America," Chávez said.

 

Back in Washington, officials wasted no time in dismissing the Chávez-Putin tête-à-tête.  "We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages," declared State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.  In a caustic reference to Spielberg's E.T. perhaps, Crowley added, "to the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."

 

What's behind the Chávez-Putin summit?  At this point, the true scope of the space deal is unclear and hopefully all future initiatives will be wholly peaceful in nature.  Could the discussions have something to do with counteracting U.S. influence?  Chávez himself denies it, proclaiming loudly during Putin's visit that "we aren't making alliances here against Washington."

 

Such claims don't ring particularly true, however.  For the past few years, Venezuela's leader has been assiduously courting Russian support.  Indeed, just since 2005 he has signed a dozen military agreements with Moscow worth more than $4 billion.  Chávez's buying spree has included helicopters, fighter jets, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.  In addition, Venezuela has received more than $2 billion in credit lines for more Russian arms including T-72 tanks and an advanced anti-aircraft missile system.

 

To be sure, the Obama administration has stoked Venezuelan fears by proceeding with planned U.S. military bases in Colombia, a nation which borders Venezuela.  Yet, there's something disturbing about Venezuela's turn towards Russia.  In 2008, Chávez conducted joint military exercises with Russian vessels in the Caribbean, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great.  The ship has massive firepower and can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads, as I described in an article at the time.

 

With Washington warning of a regional arms race, the left has chosen to stay mute about the weapons purchases or alternatively bash U.S imperialism.  Within the increasingly more unsettling geopolitical milieu, Chávez rails about the need to create a "multi-polar" world in which the U.S. would not be the only superpower.  Which nations are to comprise this Axis of Good?  Presumably, those countries which Venezuela is seeking to ally to, including Russia but also others such as China and Iran.

 

Chávez is sounding increasingly defiant.  When asked by reporters how the U.S. might view Venezuela's lavish defense spending, the president remarked, "We don't really care what Washington thinks."  For his part, autocratic Putin sounded cynical when discussing the budding new relationship.  If the U.S. didn't want to sell arms to Venezuela, he said, "Well, for us that's good."

 

During their meeting in Caracas, Chávez presented Putin with the so-called Order of the Liberator -- Venezuela's highest honor -- and provided the Russian leader a replica of a sword brandished by South American independence hero Simon Bolívar -- the namesake of Venezuela's socialist-inspired "Bolivarian Revolution."  Kissing the replica, Putin remarked, "Russia from the start has supported Latin America's struggle for independence."  The Russian added, unconvincingly, "Our objective is to make the world more democratic, make it balanced and multi-polar."

 

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets supported Cuba but it's debatable whether Russia ever took Latin American emancipation very seriously. Today, Russia has no ideological project and its take on Latin America seems even more narrow-minded. The budding geopolitical alliance between Russia and Venezuela, which now looks as if it could reach into space, would seem to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.
 
"Satellite" Diplomacy

 

The same might be said of Venezuela's courting of China, a relationship which has already yielded collaboration in many realms including military. Reuters reports that Venezuela has purchased a network of radars and jet-training aircraft from the Asian nation. Venezuela says the planes will be used to train local pilots and intercept drug traffickers, though the K-8 planes may also be refitted for combat as well as a missile-defense radar system. Chávez, who says he is simply modernizing his armed forces, adds that "China has become one of the biggest allies of Venezuela, and Venezuela is one of the biggest allies of China in the world."

With the launching of Venezuela's Venesat-1 communications satellite in late 2008, that alliance has resulted in big benefits for Chávez. The satellite, also dubbed "Simon Bolívar," was built with Chinese know-how and was Venezuela's first. Chávez hailed the launch as an "act of liberation," designed to eliminate his country's "satellite illiteracy." Venesat-1 was the product of concerted shuttle diplomacy: Chávez has been a frequent visitor in Beijing. 

 

Indeed, Venezuela and China have been collaborating on scientific and technological matters for the past eight years. As with Russia, Chávez hopes that growing ties with China will lead to a new multi-polar model in order "to break" U.S. hegemony. In 2005, both countries signed a contract for Venesat-1 in Caracas, and the next year Chávez went to China personally to oversee the construction of the satellite costing more than $200 million.

 

The satellite, which is designed to provide radio, television, and internet in three band frequencies, and whose signal will extend all the way from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, will facilitate not only broadcasting but also distance learning and medical services.  In southeastern Venezuela, a financially poor and rugged region where land lines are expensive to build and maintain, Venesat-1 will provide welcome telecommunications coverage.

 

From an economic and social standpoint, that is certainly a welcome development: for years, satellite-based networks have been concentrated in Venezuela's higher-income, more heavily populated regions. Venesat-1 by contrast will help to facilitate distance education and bring the internet to schools and homes across Venezuela. 

 

The orb will also lead to great advances in "telemedicine," that is to say the sending of medical tests of patients from remote areas via internet to medical centers for speedy diagnosis. This is particularly helpful for Warao Indians, a tribe residing in an easterly region of the Orinoco River Delta. Through telemedicine, the Warao will be able to consult specialists working in Venezuela's best hospitals.

 

Venezuela's Houston Mission Control

 

Let's not kid ourselves however: Venesat-1 also fulfills some valuable political objectives. Chávez himself has remarked that "a satellite at the service of capitalism is launched to make money, but Simón Bolívar will benefit development and the integration of our people." A satellite will help Chávez proceed with his agenda of politically integrating like-minded regimes throughout the region.

 

Reportedly, the first users of Venesat-1 have included the very vocally pro-Chávez public station Canal 8, as well as Telesur, an interesting pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela [for those interested in exploring the politics surrounding Telesur and the media in Venezuela, see my chapter on the subject in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left].  Chávez says Venesat-1 will strengthen Venezuela's sovereignty by overcoming the constant U.S. "media bombardment."

 

El Sombrero is a town lying some 200 miles south of Caracas in Central Venezuela. Recently, rolling farming landscape has been transformed by the arrival of satellite technology. Chávez's version of Houston mission control, El Sombrero houses satellite dishes as well as a radar facility which has employed both Venezuelan and Chinese scientists. Above the entrance of the facility there's a massive sign reading "Patria, Socialismo o Muerte" -- Fatherland, Socialism or Death. Nearby lies an air force base where Russian Sukhoi fighters take off constantly from a landing strip.

 

Daniel Varnagy, a telecommunications expert from Simon Bolívar University, told the BBC that Venesat-1, which followed the nationalization of Venezuela's telecommunications sector, could give the government the possibility of interfering with communications. "Chávez is trying to protect his political project and his own person. He believes he's being pursued and spied on by other countries," Varnagy said.

 

Venezuelan authorities, however, insist their intentions are peaceful and rule out any military or espionage uses. Venesat-1, Chávez asserts, is designed to lead toward the "construction of socialism."  The Venezuelan leader adds that Latin countries "spend millions of dollars in satellite services, almost all of them monopolized by big international companies.  It is the domination of space." Hardly amused by such fiery rhetoric, Washington reportedly requested that China suspend the launch of Venesat-1, a plea which Beijing flatly disregarded.

 

Another Space Race?

 

Chávez is correct in criticizing the excesses of U.S. foreign policy and his concern about American dominance over the space industry is understandable.  In light of U.S. high handedness in Latin America, it's reasonable that countries like Venezuela would want to build up their own space industry in an attempt to rival the technological edge of their northern neighbor.  To be sure, Venesat-1 will also be put to some beneficial logistical and social uses [though it could also be abused].

 

The problem is not there, but in the overall geopolitical context in which Venezuela finds itself. In an effort to build up his "multi-polar world," Chávez has allied himself with anti-democratic countries like China and Russia. Chávez's relations with these two have a technological component, but the alliances have taken on an increasingly diplomatic and political hue and it is here where Venezuela gets into ideological contradictions.

 

In an effort to satisfy China, Chávez has been making bizarre statements backing up Beijing's repression in such far-flung corners of the globe as Tibet [for more on this, readers can go to my website and read this article]. Though the world would be a better place without a sole superpower like the U.S., Chávez's multi-polar vision is problematic and could very well make things worse. What's more, in a political sense Venezuela's alliances are making a mockery of Chávez's calls for "21st century socialism."

 

Another undesirable result of these alliances has to do with military strains. Tensions on the high seas between Russia and Venezuela on the one hand and the U.S. on the other are bad enough. Could we now see a similar drama in space? The last space race, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, exacerbated superpower tensions and made the world a very unsafe place to live.

 

NASA, beset with fluctuating budgets and the political whims of ever-changing administrations and congresses, has experienced a relative decline in recent years. While such a decline was not such a huge concern following the end of the Cold War, America's once-clear dominance of space is now being challenged by other nations. Russia has been a leader in space launches, but currently China is a key player in human spaceflight. Indeed, China became just the third nation after the United States and Russia to send its own astronauts out on a spacewalk.

Evan Ellis, a consultant with technology firm Booz Allen Hamilton, told the Los Angeles Times that Venesat-1 was an example of "strategic relationships" China had been able to acquire because the United States no longer "closely defends its exclusive presence" in Latin America.

"Traditionally, Chinese diplomacy has been cautious there for fear of provoking us and endangering its U.S. trade relationship," Ellis declared. "But it's become bolder in its affairs, not just with relatively neutral countries, but even with a country like Venezuela, which is openly hostile to the United States."

 

The new competition has some on Capitol Hill growing concerned. During a hearing of the House's subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last year, ranking Republican of Texas Pete Olson remarked, "We should never ever cede American leadership." With Russia and now China promoting space ties with many new nations such as Venezuela, there is sure to be much hand wringing in Washington in the not too distant future.

 

All of a sudden, the space industry has become pretty fluid. It's a situation with unforeseen consequences for the traditional players but also for up and coming countries like Venezuela, a medium-sized nation which has now chosen to insert itself into the wider geopolitical milieu.

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Second Act For South American Left: Are Greens The Answer?

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Will Oil Spill Kill Off the Mangroves?

What if, instead of a nasty oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. public was now confronted with a natural catastrophe in the Grand Canyon or in California Redwood forests? Within the popular imagination, certain types of ecosystems elicit more sympathy than others, and very low on the totem pole are mangrove forests. Located in the tropics, mangroves are a mess of thick, tangled salt-tolerant trees and shrubs which thrive in brackish tidal waters. When I paddled through the Florida Everglades in a canoe some fifteen years ago, I found mangroves bizarre looking: trees have long roots which stick out above the water level.

Perhaps because they are swampy and inhospitable, mangroves have failed to capture the public's attention. Yet, they fulfill a vital environmental purpose as they are home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life. What's more, their myriad exposed roots provide a nursery for many commercial and recreational fish species, including shrimp and spiny lobster. Above water, they serve as a nesting and foraging area for wading and fish-eating birds.

While whales and dolphins are adored by the public and receive attention from environmentalists, few are aware of other aquatic mammals such as manatees and dugongs which rely on mangrove habitat.

What will it take for the public to become more aware of these vital swampy ecosystems? Tragically, some may only learn of their existence as a result of the ecological crisis afflicting the Gulf of Mexico. There, the BP spill poses a direct threat to 800 square miles of U.S. mangrove habitat located in Louisiana, Texas and the southern tip of Florida. Since 1980, upstream development and damming have felled 30% of Gulf Coast mangroves, and the oil disaster could well finish the job.


Antecedents in Venezuela
 
It's not the first time oil has posed a threat to mangrove ecosystems. I first became aware of this insidious connection while carrying out research on my dissertation which dealt with the environmental history of oil in Venezuela. In the early twentieth century, subsidiaries of Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell moved into the Lake Maracaibo area, located in the westernmost section of the country, with dire consequences for the environment.

Prior to the oil boom in the 1920s, wildlife on the east bank of Lake Maracaibo thrived within jungle and marshes. On the coastline grew mangroves which supported distinct microhabitats of birds, mammals, reptiles, gastropods, crustaceans, insects and fish. One naturalist reported that jaguars prowled local mangroves and "in some of the mangrove swamps near Maracaibo their trails are frequently found." Manatees, sawfish and caymans meanwhile plied the lake's mangrove waters.

Though mangrove contamination must have surely occurred, it's difficult to calculate the exact damage as we don't know the precise location of all these ecosystems during the first years of the oil boom. The death of local mangroves could have led to the destruction of habitat for many other organisms such as oysters and crabs, which typically live on and among aerial roots or in sediments. These would have been killed directly by smothering and/or toxic effects.

In general, oil enters mangrove forests at high tide and is deposited on aerial roots and sediment surface when the tide goes down. Mangroves can be killed by heavy or viscous oil which covers breathing pores on aerial roots, thus depriving the subsurface roots of oxygen. Mangroves can also be killed if oil penetrates sediments, through toxic effects of oil on subsurface roots. Root cell membranes are damaged, which impairs their normal salt exclusion function. The resulting influx of salt is a source of stress to the plants.

Some local mangroves were located right in the crosshairs of local oil development. Take, for example, the great swamp of Lagunillas which occupied 10 square miles and was covered in mangroves and other aquatic vegetation. One ornithologist remarked that "on the large cienaga at Lagunillas there were thousands of tree ducks...While not allowing a close approach when resting on the water, these ducks when flying seemed to have little fear of a boat." Unfortunately, oil fouled local waters and in 1928 petroleum actually ignited on the lake itself, leading to a large conflagration.


From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico


Having trammeled the environment in Venezuela, the oil industry moved on to the Middle East where it encountered more mangroves and an aquatic mammal called the sea cow or dugong, cousin of the Lake Maracaibo manatee. Off the coast of Bahrain, large seagrass pastures supported 2,000-3,500 dugongs, creatures which inspired mariners of old to envision mermaids.

Carrying out oil exploration in such close proximity to mangroves in the Persian Gulf was bad enough, but in 1991 the situation became even worse with the onset of war between Iraq and the U.S. At one point, the Persian Gulf became the site of massive oil spills, some of them the result of bombing and artillery barrages which targeted storage tanks and refineries.

Yet Iraq, which intentionally dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf in an effort to ward off a potential landing of U.S. marines, may have been the greatest environmental culprit. During the Gulf War, no fewer than 1 million barrels of oil contaminated local waters, with some estimates ranging up to a whopping 6 million barrels. Major mangrove forests were seriously damaged, hundreds of dolphins and porpoises died, and, catastrophically, between 20-30,000 seabirds perished including flamingoes, herons and cormorants.

Environmentalists grew particularly concerned with the fate of Bahrain's Tubli Bay, a complex system of flats and mangroves. Home to dugongs, sea turtles and shrimp, Tubli lay in the path of one damaging spill which had spread all the way from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. As the spill hit, it killed off plankton and algae which fed local fish.
 
A Collective Moral Failure


While oil spills are devastating for the environment in general, they are particularly damaging for mangroves. That's because oil persists far longer within such ecosystems. One mangrove expert has remarked, "Never, ever let oil get into a mangrove coast. You'll never get it out. It's like a sponge you rub on a greasy bacon pan. You need very hot water and a lot of soap, and you still might just give up and throw away the sponge."

Once contamination takes place, the possibility of recovering the environment may be limited: if mangrove prop roots become oiled the entire mangrove tree may die. What's more, because mangrove trees grow so slowly, replacing them can take decades. In the Gulf of Mexico, forests are tightly bunched and as a result people won't be able to get into swamps to wipe them down. In addition, there are literally hundreds of millions of trees.

Perhaps the only way to save some forests may be to laboriously scrape away a thin surface layer of soil to allow plants to grow. Scientists stress, however, that it's important not to push petroleum under the surface or remove rootstalks lying just beneath the surface. In addition, if there's a lot of oil this will complicate any rescue effort as rising and falling tides will simply add new coatings of crude.

While all logistical and technological means should be deployed to save Gulf mangroves, realistically we could be looking at significant damage all across the region. At this point, our best hope may be to minimize the environmental loss that's already occurred and hopefully head off a full scale disaster in the Florida Everglades.


Sadly, it may take a further tragedy for people to wake up to what we have lost. Experts agree that one of the most vital services performed by mangroves is to protect human settlements from storm surges and wind storms. It's a particularly crucial asset to consider in the hurricane-battered Gulf region. If Gulf mangroves are destroyed, a vital buffer will be eliminated. Additionally, the current BP oil spill could give rise to a vast surplus of potentially lethal hardwood.


Why has it been so difficult to acknowledge the important environmental services provided by mangroves? Harsh and forbidding, these habitats don't capture the popular imagination to the same degree as other national treasures. Slow moving manatees and sea cows aren't nearly as well known as dolphins. If this disaster reveals anything, however, it is the fundamental fallacy of this mindset and the need to preserve all ecosystems and creatures equally.

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