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Beware of al-Chavezeera

I'm back writing for al-Jazeera, which is probably wondering why its activities are being monitored by the U.S. State Department in Venezuela. To read the article, click here.

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WikiLeaks and 'US media war' in South America

To read my article on al-Jazeera, click here.

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Honduras: Latin American Media War Continues

Read or listen to the mainstream media these days and you get the impression that Sunday’s coup in Honduras was all about a simple disagreement over the constitutionality of presidential term limits. But as the coup unfolds it’s becoming clear that the authorities want something more: the restoration of Honduras’s conservative political order and an end to President Manuel Zelaya’s independent foreign policy which had reached out to leftist countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

As part of their effort to consolidate power officials have moved quickly to restrain the free flow of information, in particular by cracking down on progressive leaning media. Only TV stations sympathetic to the newly installed coup regime have been left alone while others have been shut down. The climate of repression is similar to what we have seen elsewhere in Latin America in recent years. Specifically, there are eerie parallels to the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela when the briefly installed right wing government imposed a media blackout to further its own political ends.

Perhaps somewhat tellingly, the Honduran army cut off local broadcasts of the Telesur news network which is sponsored by leftist governments including Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba. Adriana Sivori, Telesur’s correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when ten soldiers arrived with rifles drawn. The men unplugged Telesur’s editing equipment in an effort to halt the network’s coverage of protests in support of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

When a soldier lightly slapped Sivori’s hand so she would hang up, the journalist grew alarmed. “They’re taking us prisoner at gunpoint,” she remarked. Sivori along with producer María José Díaz and cameraman Larry Sánchez were taken to an immigration office in a military caravan. There, the authorities beat them and demanded to see their Honduran visas. Shortly later, the journalists were released. However, the authorities have warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention.

What is so important about Telesur in particular? In my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) I devote considerable attention to the rise of the new station, itself a product of South America’s stormy political battles and contested media landscape. First launched in 2005, Telesur represents Venezuela’s effort to counteract the power of the right wing media establishment which played a role in the short-lived April coup of 2002 against the Chávez government. Seen as South Ameica’s answer to Al Jazeera and CNN, the station has been spearheaded by Andrés Izarra, up until recently the station’s president. A rising star in the Chávez administration, Izarra got his start as a journalist at NBC and CNN. Disgusted by right wing media coverage of the 2002 coup, he started to work for Telesur.

Since its launch, Telesur has given CNN en Español a run for its money and now has slick production values. Station Director Aram Aharonian says the news industry has gone through a dumbing down since the Gulf War. Journalism, Aharonian remarked to me during our interview in Caracas, had become instantaneous but also devoid of any investigation, analysis or debate. Telesur, by contrast, was “rescuing” journalistic ethics by providing context and opinions about goings-on. While you can expect to see more critical coverage of the Iraq War on Telesur than most mainstream U.S. media outlets, Aharonian says Telesur is independent and doesn’t have any particular political axe to grind.

Such assurances aside, the conservative establishment views Telesur as a threat. When the station announced a content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera in 2006, Connie Mack, a right-wing Republican congressman from Florida, remarked that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists.” In light of Sivori’s recent detention, one may surmise that the Honduran coup regime agrees with Mack’s hysterical views.

In Latin America, media has become a crucial fault line in the battle between the pro-U.S. elite and the incipient left “Pink Tide” which has been sweeping into power. In Honduras, the coup regime has not only gone after Telesur but also Channel 8, the official broadcaster of the Zelaya government. The moves prompted Venezuela’s official Bolivarian News Agency as well as Cuba’s Granma newspaper to issue formal letters of protest. Meanwhile a climate of fear and intimidation reigns throughout the capital, with networks providing scant coverage of political protest. Soldiers are reportedly guarding local television and radio stations.

In recent years Zelaya had been embroiled in a war with the conservative private media in the country. Now that the President is gone, these outlets have rallied in defense of the coup regime. Honduras’ two leading radio networks, Radio América and Radio HRN, have urged Hondurans to resume their normal routine and not to protest. Even as hundreds of protesters rallied at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa to demand Zelaya’s reinstatement, radio and TV stations made little reference to the demonstrations. Instead of reporting on political goings-on, the Honduran media outlets played tropical music or aired soap operas and cooking shows.

It’s reminiscent of the April, 2002 coup against Chávez when conservative media station Venevisión refused to cover pro-Chávez demonstrations and preempted its normal news coverage with a day-long marathon of American films such as Lorenzo’s Oil, Nell, and Pretty Woman. Venevisión, which substituted nonstop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda for its regular programming in the days leading up to the coup, was owned by billionaire media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, himself a leading figure in the Chávez opposition who reportedly bankrolled the opposition’s takeover of government.

In Venezuela, conservative coup leaders misjudged the popular mood. Amidst street protests, Chávez was reinstated in two days. In the wake of the coup Venevisión began to moderate its strident tone and the Venezuelan President went on the political offensive by spurring the creation of Telesur as well as other media outlets. If you flip the TV dial today you can still watch rabidly anti-Chávez stations like Globovisión, though the playing field has been leveled considerably. In addition to Telesur Venezuelans can also watch Venezolana de Televisión, a government channel, as well as state sponsored Vive which provides discussion on Venezuelan culture and politics. Chávez has his own TV talk show, Aló, Presidente, and there are dozens of pro-government papers including a tabloid called VEA.

The antagonistic media environment in Venezuela is echoed in other left-leaning countries in South America. Indeed, the newly elected Pink Tide regimes have taken on the private media with a vengeance: in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has proposed that the constitution disallow bankers from financing media outlets. According to him, Ecuadoran television is controlled by powerful interests and the Association of Television Channels is nothing more than a “bankers club.” In Bolivia, indigenous President Evo Morales launched a weekly radio show called The People Are News. The show airs for two hours each week on the Patria Nueva (New Fatherland) state network.

If Zelaya returns to power in Honduras, which seems likely, then we could see the government take on the power of private TV, radio and the like more significantly, perhaps by emphasizing more state media. It will be merely the latest chapter in the ongoing information war between the conservative, globalizing elite and more left-leaning leaders who are coming to power throughout the region.

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Mr. Big Stick In Latin America: Meet John McCain

Now that John McCain has presumably wrapped up the Republican nomination, it's natural to wonder what kind of foreign policy he might pursue towards the rest of the world if he were elected President. For example, how would the "maverick" McCain deal with Latin America?

In recent years, the region has taken a decidedly leftist turn; new leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have openly challenged U.S. diplomatic and political influence. McCain's record suggests that he would pursue a very hawkish and antagonistic policy in the hemisphere. It's even possible that the Arizona Republican, who has suggested that the United States might be in Iraq for hundreds of years and might "bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran," could ratchet up military tensions in Latin America and escalate conflict with countries like Venezuela.

The International Republican Institute (IRI)

McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World.

On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society. In reality, however, the IRI is more concerned with crushing incipient left movements in Latin America.

One of the least known Washington institutions, IRI receives taxpayer money via the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. A.I.D.). The organization is active in around sixty countries and has a budget of $74 million. On the board of IRI, McCain has been joined by a who's who of Republican bigwigs such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick.

IRI's Latin American Activities

In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti's two heavily conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the island's major business, church and professional figures, was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian President's forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI funneled taxpayer money to hard-line anti-Castro forces allied to the Republican Party.

In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were militantly opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television and radio ads. Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.

McCain and Cuba

McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI's Cuba work and praises the anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a national security threat," adding that "as president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship ... The Cuban people have waited long enough." McCain wants to increase funding for the U.S. government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations, seeks the release of all Cuban political prisoners, supports internationally monitored elections on the island, and wants to keep the U.S. trade embargo in place. What kind of future does McCain envision for Cuba? No doubt, one in which the Miami anti-Castro exiles rule the island. McCain's most influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from Florida, including Senator Mel Martínez and far right Congress members Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.

For McCain, It's Never Ending Free Trade and Militarization

On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes while working to isolate those governments which are rising up to challenge American hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been a big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia's status as a human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the "narco-trafficking and terrorist threat."

McCain has taken a personal interest in the Andean region. He has traveled to Ecuador and Colombia so as to drum up more support for the counter insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of dollars a year. McCain's foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn off the money flow to Uribe. "You don't build strong alliances by turning your back on friends," he has said.

McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support American style free trade. "We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region,'' he has said. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas."

Chávez has been one of the greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of McCain's free trade agenda, however. In recent years, the Venezuelan has pushed his own barter trade scheme, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which promotes economic solidarity and reciprocity between Latin American nations. Concerned about growing ties between Cuba and Venezuela, McCain said "He [Chávez] aspires to be this generation's [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a thing."

Fighting the Information War in Latin America

Speaking in Miami's Little Havana, McCain said that "everyone should understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez. "They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new oxygen" into Castro's regime, and that the U.S. government should do more to quell dictatorships throughout Latin America. Perhaps not surprisingly given his historic involvement in IRI, McCain's campaign Web site even featured an online petition calling for support in his quest to "stop the dictators of Latin America." The petition called for the ouster of Chávez "in the name of democracy and freedom throughout our hemisphere."

Though the petition was later taken down, McCain has staked out hawkish territory on Venezuela and would surely escalate tensions with the South American nation. Most troubling is the Senator's strong push for renewed U.S. propaganda in the region. McCain has criticized the Venezuelan government's decision to not renew Radio Caracas Television's license, and has called for reestablishing an agency like the United States Information Agency (the USIA oversaw a variety of agencies including the Voice of America radio network before it was merged into the State Department in 1998).

"Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and the American message amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas,'' McCain has said. "We need to re-create an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message to the world. Thiswould aid our efforts to communicate accurately with the people of Latin America."

If McCain was ever able to push through his aggressive media initiatives, he would antagonize many nations in the region which resent the pervasiveness of U.S. dominated media. Already, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay have formed a joint satellite news station called Telesur (in my upcoming book scheduled for release in six weeks, I devote an entire chapter to the issue of media politics in South America).

From Bolton to Big Stick

To make matters worse, the Chair of IRI has sought to promote neo-conservative figures from the Bush regime such as John Bolton. During the latter's confirmation hearings in the Senate, McCain urged his Democratic colleagues to approve the diplomat's nomination quickly. Bolton has been a hawk not only on Iran but also Venezuela. McCain, who refers to Chávez as a "wacko," said it was important to confirm Bolton. With Bolton at the United Nations, the U.S. would be able to talk back to "two-bit dictators" like the Venezuelan leader.

Like Bolton, McCain apparently shares his colleague's disdain for the United Nations and wants to create a so-called League of Democracies. As envisioned by the Arizona legislator, the new body would take the place of the United Nations on such issues as conflict resolution, disease treatment and prevention, environmental crises, and access to free markets. Interestingly, McCain's inspiration for the League is Teddy Roosevelt, who had a vision of "like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty."

Roosevelt, however, was no dove: he wielded a Big Stick and practiced gunboat diplomacy in Latin America. It's a policy which John McCain would probably like to revive if he is elected President in November.

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Chile: A Country Geographically Located in South America ‘By Accident’

Recently, I caught up with Manuel Cabieses, the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper. During the one hour interview, Cabieses discussed his own background and opposition to the Pinochet government, Chile’s free trade agreement with the U.S., the state of social movements in Chile, Hugo Chavez, China’s rising profile in South America, and the current position of left media in Chile.

NK: Could you tell me a bit about your personal background?

MC: I originally worked in an oil company as a young man. We created a union there, and I was responsible for the labor newspaper. Through the paper I got involved in journalism; I never studied journalism in a formal setting.

NK: How did you get involved in politics?

MC: I first got interested in a party which no longer exists in Chile, which was called Falange Nacional. This was the precursor to the Christian Democratic Party. I got interested in it because my mother was Catholic and friendly with various leaders within the party. I was never a militant however. Then, when I started working I got interested in the Communist Party. I wasn’t such a militant there either, but I got interested in Marxist books. Later, for work related reasons I emigrated to Venezuela, this was during the 1960s. In Venezuela I had contact with the Communist Party of Venezuela which at that time had initiated armed struggle. I later returned to Chile and became more active in the Communist Party. I took up work as a journalist at the Communist Party paper for example. Later I broke with the Communist Party and I became a militant within the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its Spanish acronym MIR). This was up to and even after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. Later I was imprisoned and expelled from the country. Subsequently I returned in secret to Chile as a MIR militant.

NK: Could you explain a bit about prison and exile?

MC: (long pause). I was detained 2 days after the coup, in the street.

NK: Nearby to your offices here?

MC: Yes, here in downtown. I was in a car. We were all obliged to get out of the vehicle, and someone in the street recognized me. The dictatorship had issued advisories, warning that certain people should hand themselves over, including me. I was imprisoned a little more than 2 years, in different prisons all over the country. Finally I was expelled along with my family. We went to Cuba. I was there for around 4 years and later I returned secretly with my woman, that Senora outside who you saw in my office. We spent almost ten years living in secret here in Chile, working with the MIR. That’s about it in summary.

NK: How strong are social movements here and to what extent can they push the government to the left?

MC: They’re very weak and atomized. The dictatorship, through repression and imposition of its economic model, were able to fracture social movements, and almost succeeded in liquidating any kind of left political movement. The labor unions today are far fewer in number than in the 1970s. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the emergence of a potent social movement here like in other countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador for example.

NK: What about students?

MC: The student movement last year was very strong in the sense that there hadn’t been a movement like that for many years. But intrinsically it wasn’t very strong in terms of organization and wasn’t able to mobilize on a national level. This year the student movement hasn’t advanced at all.

NK: What about the Indians?

MC: After the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Mapuche Indians have been politically active on a sporadic basis. But, as with other sectors of society, it’s a very atomized movement and there is no national Mapuche organization. The most radicalized Mapuches have been very beaten back and repressed.

NK: Could there be more social conflict here if poverty increases?

MC: Chilean economic development has reached a threshold. The economy was growing at a rate of 6-7%, but last year it went down to 4%. This year it’s hardly expected that it will significantly increase beyond this rate. The dynamism of the neo liberal, export model, seems to have reached a plateau because Chile lacks necessary infrastructure. Fundamentally, the export model is based on mining, especially copper, the rest is fruit and wood. But there’s no capacity to promote greater development and we lack diversified technology to compete. As a result the economy grows slowly, and a high number of people, some 500,000 individuals, are unemployed on a permanent basis.

NK: Has poverty been reduced?

MC: There has been a reduction in poverty in terms of percentages, but what has advanced more rapidly is extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority. Investors have reaped fabulous profits in the last few years, but meanwhile salaries and pensions have suffered. In this manner, the contradictions between extreme poverty and wealth have been sharpened. At the same time, the political parties have been delegitimized. The same political conditions are being generated here that we observed before the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Ecuador on a permanent basis, or Bolivia. These conditions will generate a difficult political and social milieu in future.

NK: How does society view Chile’s free trade agreement with the United States?

MC: There are labor sectors who look favorably upon the treaty. They believe what the media has told them, that the prosperity, this dynamic export economy, will filter down from the top towards the bottom. There are sectors of society which are not numerically insignificant, which have benefited in some way from the export model. For example, in terms of credit. Credit cards didn’t exist here before. But today a great many Chileans, even those earning low salaries, have them. We have also seen massification of cell phones. In Chile there are 14 million cell phones, and the population is some 16 million people. Support for the export model is clearly demonstrated in the electoral arena. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, between the electoral vote for the Concertacion and the right, more than 90% of Chileans have chosen to support this model. That’s because a political and social alternative hasn’t yet arisen.

NK: What have been the advantages of the model?

MC: There’s been a great modernization, growth in telecommunications, roads, airports, ports, and all sectors linked to export.

NK: Yes, the airport is quite impressive!

MC: If you go out into the countryside, a half hour out of Santiago, you’ll find agro export farms. There has been prosperity in that sense. Each year the companies register an increase on the stock market.

NK: Is there any chance Chile would back out of the free trade agreement with the U.S.?

MC: No, and in fact every day Chile signs a new trade agreement with other countries.

NK: How do you see China’s rising presence economically speaking?

MC: China is becoming more important. One sign of this is the anticipated copper profits from sales to China, amounting to $ 500-600 million dollars. China pays in advance.

NK: What do social movements have to say about China’s rising profile?

MC: Social movements are passive towards these types of issues. There are some labor leaders who are sympathetic towards China because they think it will have a respectful attitude towards Chilean interests. I think they are mistaken. The Chinese are doing business at the same velocity and lack of scruples as the United States.

NK: How strong is left wing journalism here in Chile?

MC: In television there’s nothing, there’s no station that identifies as leftist. There’s a radio station which belongs to the Communist Party, and there’s a few progressive radio stations. In the press there’s only two bi monthlies, El Siglo, of the Communist Party, and Punto Final, both have low circulation. We have no publicity and experience distribution problems. On the internet there’s more diversity but in Chile most people don’t have access as this is just beginning here.

NK: In Venezuela Chavez has created a lot of state television media and there’s been an information battle going on. Is that possible here?

MC: (long pause). You say, here?

NK: Yes (laughs). Are you surprised by my question?

MC: In Venezuela, you have that situation because there’s a government that confronts the private media. Here, the media is completely identified with the government. The government is the Concertacion, but the party shares power with the right. The media meanwhile is totally on the right.

NK: How strong is CNN and U.S. media here in Chile?

MC: Very strong, but amongst the middle and upper middle classes.

NK: Is Telesur (a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela) beamed here, and could it compete?

MC: There are some regions of the country, for example in the center, where you can receive Telesur and even Cuban TV. Otherwise however, only people who have access to Direct TV can watch Telesur. You need a long range antenna.

NK: Have you ever had any contact with the U.S. Embassy here while working for Punto Final?

MC: I have never had any contact with them, expect for one time when I applied for a visa to visit Puerto Rico. I was turned down. But, the embassy subscribes to Punto Final (laughs).

NK: It seems to me that Chile’s relationship with the U.S. is a bit ambiguous?

MC: I don’t think Chile has criticized the U.S. in a very direct way as some other Latin American governments have done in the past. Chile is located here by a geographical accident, in the Southern Cone of Latin America. With the exception of the Iraq War, Chilean foreign policy is completely identified with U.S. and European interests.

NK: You interviewed Chavez, what was your impression and what do you think will happen as far as Chilean Venezuelan relations?

MC: In 1994 I met Chavez in Chile. He was on a tour of Latin America and in Chile no one wanted to receive him. No leftist party wanted to associate itself with him because he had this image of being a military coup plotter. But we at Punto Final interviewed him. We went to his hotel and did a two page spread. These days I have a very high opinion of Chavez. I think he’s matured as far as his political ideas, he’s made them more solid, firmer. Sometimes to my mind he uses strident rhetoric when characterizing certain foreign leaders and doesn’t think before he acts. As far as Chilean Venezuelan relations, I don’t expect much. I think optimally what one might hope is that Chile may retain a respectful attitude towards Venezuela. But, I don’t think it will be friendly. Perhaps friendly between high profile politicians like Bachelet and Chavez, but this won’t extend to deep relations between the two governments.

Manuel Cabieses is the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper.

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