Sunday, December 02, 2007

"SHUTTING UP VENEZUELA'S CHAVEZ " by Roger Cohen: A Critique

by Thomas Riggins

Roger Cohen is an editor at The New York Times and columnist for its op ed page and for The International Herald Tribune. The above column appeared in the Times on 11-29-07. It is tendentious in the extreme, poorly argued and factually incorrect.

Cohen is in Caracas, presumedly to observe Sunday's constitutional referendum, and this column reveals the thoughts of a man who has no sympathy at all for the interests of the people of Venezuela but every sympathy for the interests of US imperialism and its supporters.

He begins his article by saying, "It was a fascist general in 1930s Spain who coined the phrase "Viva la muerte" or 'Long Live Death.' We are then told that although Hugo Chavez doesn't like fascists "he has not hesitated to deploy the imagery of death to bolster his leftist brand of petro-authoritarianism, now operating under the ludicrous banner of 'Fatherland, Socialism or Death.'"

Somebody should tell the patriarchally inclined Cohen that Patria, Socialismo o Muerte means 'Motherland[or Homeland], Socialism or Death. It is no more "ludicrous" than the slave owning Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" and means about the same thing. It also means just about what those New Hampshire fascists meant when they turned to the imagery of death for their state motto: Live Free or Die.

It should also be pointed out that what Cohen calls "petro-authoritarianism" is actually a government that has been democratically elected by its people in a country with a vibrant opposition press and ruled by a constitution approved by the Venezuelan people.

Knowing this, when Cohen calls Chavez an "oil-gilded caudillo", he is just being emotional and abusive. He might just as well write for the New York Post or the Washington Times. The Times is in fact slowly approaching that level of writing by adding Cohen's right wing blather to that already provided by David Brooks.

Cohen's rant against Chavez stems from his aversion to his policies leading Venezuela towards socialism and especially the new powers he may get as a result of the democratic choice of the people in the Sunday referendum. Cohen fears his new powers will allow him "to expropriate private property" [God forbid!] "and create the second formally socialist nation in the Americas alongside Fidel's" [it's about time].

"The measures amount to a constitutional coup," laments an opposition newspaper editor quoted by Cohen. So now he doesn't know the difference between a coup [Pinochet] and a free election. This is typical of the American mass media and its pundits.

Cohen certainly doesn't embrace the notion of People Before Profits. He grudgingly admits Chavez "has reduced poverty [the UN says "extreme poverty" has gone from 15.9 % to 9.9] but this has been at the "expense" of the underfunded oil industry.

I don't understand Cohen's concern about the establishment of "socialism." He says Chavez has actually been instituting a "crony capitalism" for his own benefit. The US has lots of experience dealing with crony capitalist regimes, so what is all the fuss about? In the rush to see all things evil about Chavez [Cohen has seemingly only interviewed opposition people, not one supporter of Chavez has anything to say] he can't make up his mind about what kind of regime is being built. Is it a second socialist state that is coming to be, or just another run of the mill Third World crony capitalist state with lots of oil?

Here is some really keen reportage. Cohen says you can't find eggs or chickens to buy due to "price controls." "Chavez's socialism [so he a socialist again, good] delivers subsidized gasoline and glittering malls but no milk." But is it really "price controls'? Other reporters have pointed out that the real reason for these sorts of shortages is hoarding by producers trying to sabotage economic reform and create a climate to help defeat the referendum. The pro-capitalist Cohen can only see the bumbling hand of socialism at work and not the invisible and criminal hand of price fixing capitalists creating an artificial shortage to further their class interests.

Cohen reveals his ignorance of what is going on when he says that since the US buys so much oil from Venezuela, "Chavez's 'socialism' [now its back in quotes] and his chumminess with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [what has that got to do with anything: Saudi Arabia is even worse and the US is very chummy with it]
do not extend to cutting off the 'imperialist empire'. Chavez is too shrewd to sever his lifeline." Nevertheless, despite the malinformed Cohen, that is just what Chavez has threatened to do. He has publicly stated that he would cut off oil to the US if it continues to interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs. The Chinese will take all the oil they can get, by the way. But poor Americans would suffer as Chavez sells discounted oil to poor communities in the US whom he cares about more than their own government does.

Towards the end of his article Cohen appears to have completely lost his mind.
He says that, in effect, by taking his socialist vision of Venezuela's future to his people to vote upon, his actions are as "grotesque and dangerous-- as Fascism was-- a terrible example for a region that has been consolidating democracy." That's right folks. By putting his ideas before the people to vote on them, Chavez is a bad example for democracy. It's positively Fascist!

He then approvingly quotes the hereditary Bourbon monarch of Spain, installed by a real Fascist, Franco, who told Chavez to "shut up" recently at an international meeting. He thinks Venezuelans should "follow suit on Sunday" by voting down the proposals in the referendum. Fair enough, the voting is free after all.

But as a journalist there is only one word for Cohen. That is "hack." I wish the New York Times had higher standards and told him to "shut up, already."

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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