Carroll in wonderland: how the Guardian misrepresents Venezuela

Samuel Grove takes apart the pro-US, anti-Chavez bias of the Guardian's Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll

September 16, 2008 · 13 min read

Over the course of two articles in as many days the Guardian‘s Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll has described the most recent crisis to beset relations between Venezuela and the Unites States. In his first article, published on 12 September 2008, Carroll reports on the Venezuelan government’s expulsion of the US ambassador amid allegations that the latter was involved in fomenting a coup against Venezuela’s democratically elected government. In the second article, published on 13 September 2008, Carroll reports the US’s claim that the Venezuelan government is aiding Colombian rebels and drug traffickers.

At this point it is worth looking at some of the criticism Rory Carroll’s reporting of Venezuela has come in for in recent months. For example, in a response to criticisms that Carroll’s coverage of Venezuela lacked objectivity, the Guardian‘s readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth, defended Carroll by arguing the Guardian is not required to be impartial. Carroll for his part acknowledged that he was ‘not a champion of impartiality’. Emphasising the polarising nature of Venezuelan politics, he instead saw it as his task ‘to steer a course between’ the two opposing sides.

Since Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1999, relations between the US and Venezuela have steadily deteriorated, especially after George W Bush became US president in January 2001. However, this latest confrontation arguably marks an all-time low in relations between the two countries. With both the US and Venezuela being given their respective voices in Carroll’s two aforementioned articles, this provides us with an opportunity to test whether Carroll’s articles measure up to the standards he has set himself.

When weighing up the strength of any allegations there are two main things to consider. The first is the available evidence to back up the allegations. The second is prior plausibility. I will deal with each in turn.

The evidence?

In his first article Carroll stresses that Chavez, ‘did not offer evidence of wrongdoing by the ambassador or any] other US officials\’. Furthermore, for Carroll there is \’scant\’ evidence that military officers detained by the Venezuelan government were involved in a plot either. The \’scant\’ evidence he is referring to (but curiously does not mention) is [taped phone conversations of retired military generals broadcast on Venezuelan television last on the night of 10 September.

Carroll also reports in the first article that the Bolivian government had expelled its US ambassador for ‘allegedly backing opposition groups engaged in bloody clashes with police and government supporters’. Carroll does not address the weight of these allegations in this article, but it is clear that he is sceptical of their validity.

In an audio interview he gave a little over a month ago he stated that the idea of US interference with Bolivia is merely ‘a standard line from Evo Morales which he has repeated from his big ally Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. So he frames … the opposition … [as] almost stooges of Washington and that they are reflecting the interests of the United States. I think this plays well with his own hard core supporters but I think generally in Bolivia people realise that this is very much an internal affair.’

Readers might at this point want to compare Carroll’s analysis with that of Benjamin Dangl, another Latin America-based editor. Nonetheless, Carroll (perhaps rightly) remains suspicious of evidence that emanates exclusively from Venezuelan and Bolivian government sources. The question is: does he apply an equal standard to the allegations made by the US government?

The answer is no, and Carroll employs a number of discursive devices to convey this. The first is to dispel the notion that the US allegations were in any way a counter claim. He quotes a US state department spokesman who dismissed the allegations as ‘reflecting] the weakness and desperation of these leaders\’. (In contrast Carroll describes Chavez in the same article as \’embarrassed\’ by the [Maletinazo scandal.) Then he supplements this quote with his own assertion that the US’s allegations were indeed separate from the events of the preceding days:

‘Separately, the US treasury accused three members of Chávez’s inner-circle of materially assisting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), leftist guerrillas who traffick cocaine and are considered terrorists by the US and EU.’

Carroll employs the phrase ‘materially assisting’ FARC presumably in order to give the impression of tangible evidence possessed by the US government, albeit evidence which Carroll himself is not privy to. What Carroll can provide however are the names of Chavez’s ‘inner circle’ alleged to be involved with FARC along with particularly incriminating circumstantial evidence:

‘Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Henry Rangel Silva are senior intelligence officials and Ramón Rodríguez Chacin was interior minister until this week when he unexpectedly resigned, citing personal reasons.’

Equally Carroll could have provided names of the military officers alleged to have been plotting against the Venezuelan government – among them Ruperti Sanchez Caceres and Helimenas Jose Labarca Soto – but he chose not to.

Readers well acquainted with Carroll’s reporting will know that he has a certain preoccupation with the Venezuelan president. In less than two years of reporting on Venezuela, Carroll has written an astonishing 79 articles with Chavez’s name in the headline alone. It is predictable then that the allegations against the US are presented by Carroll as yet another example of Chavez’s quirky and paranoid persona; the latest in a long running feud between the ‘self styled revolutionary’ (as Carroll repeatedly refers to him) and ‘the superpower’ he calls ‘the empire’.

Of course the allegations did not emanate from Chavez at all, but from Venezuelan intelligence services. According to the New York Times Venezuelan military prosecutors are already in the process of questioning the officers concerned. This Carroll is willing to concede, but lest we should draw our attention away from Chavez for a moment, he is quick to remind us that (after all) they are ‘his intelligence services’.

In stark contrast to the personalisation of the Venezuelan allegations, Carroll shows a reluctance to even attribute the US claims to the US government as a single entity. Instead we are provided with the conclusions by separate and perhaps even disparate elements of the US government. Carroll had already implied that there was sufficient distance between the US treasury and the State Department for us to consider their claims ‘separately’. However should we be in any doubt regarding the credibility of the treasury’s claims, Carroll quickly backs them up with the conclusions of … well … err … another member of the US government:

‘US drugs czar, John Walters, repeated claims that Venezuela and Bolivia were taking over from Colombia in the export of cocaine. ‘Venezuela is becoming a real super-highway for cocaine,’ said Walters. There had been a ‘four-fold’ increase in the flow through Venezuela in five years.’

We are not given a link to the data cataloguing this four-fold increase, but then isn’t Walters’ word good enough? He is the drugs czar after all – he should know.

Journalists afflicted with the same degree of paranoia as Chavez might entertain the idea that there is some cohesion in the activities between the different departments of the US government. Indeed investigations by Eva Golinger reveal that the US allegations might not have stemmed from the treasury at all, but the Pentagon. In May of this year she reported that:

‘[The] Pentagon has been seeking evidence that intimately relates President Chávez and his government with the FARC. Top secret documents from the Department of Defense (that we have declassified under FOIA) evidence that the Pentagon has been unable to find proof of a clandestine, subversive relationship between the Venezuelan government and the FARC. The sources used in some Pentagon documents that attempt to show such a relationship are completely unreliable, since they are mass media outlets from Venezuela and Colombia, such as Globovisión, Caracol, El Universal and El Nacional – all of whom are aligned with the opposition to Chávez.’

The fact remains that in spite of the different ways in which Carroll presents the two opposing sets of claims, both are strictly government claims and cannot be divorced from the political dynamics operating between the two countries. In this respect evaluating the prior plausibility of the allegations is especially important.

Prior plausibility?

Saturday’s article is by no means the first time that Carroll has reported links between the Venezuelan government and FARC. In previous articles he has attempted to explain these ties as ideological. On numerous occasions he describes the affinity between Chavez and FARC as \’no secret\’ , presumably in the hope that if he says it confidently enough no one would contest it. Nonetheless this will come as a surprise to many people, particularly as Chavez has explicitly appealed to FARC to give up their armed struggle. However while Chavez might espouse conciliation between Colombia’s warring sides, Carroll remains under no illusion regarding Chavez’s extremism, referring to him as ‘a social democrat turned US-bashing communist revolutionary’ and a ‘self-described communist’. This latter allegation drew the attention of David Wearing of UKWatch, who reported the following on his blog:

‘I emailed Carroll to ask for a direct quote … and he suggested I’d find one in a transcript of the presidential inauguration speech. I found the transcript. No quote. When challenged with this in a subsequent email, Carroll insisted that Chavez had called himself a communist ‘on television’ and that ‘millions of Venezuelans’ heard him. Yet still couldn’t summon up a quote.

‘Then a few months later, in an article on Che Guevara co-written by Carroll (4/9/07), we were quietly told that these days ‘Not even Mr Chávez, the reddest tinge in the pink tide, advocates communism’. Interesting that just a few months previously Carroll had repeatedly insisted in print and in correspondence with me that Chavez had publicly ‘declared himself a communist’ and that ‘millions of Venezuelans’, and Carroll, had heard him. Needless to say that I found this episode puzzling, to put it generously.’

Intriguing indeed. On this note we turn our attention to evaluating the plausibility of Chavez’s allegations. It is here that Carroll’s reporting borders on the farcical. In attempting to provide some context to the Chavez’s allegations, he notes that ‘Venezuela’s president has made previous claims about other alleged conspiracies, which were never substantiated.’ Carroll then goes on to suggest that Chavez’s claims are just populist rhetoric:

‘The timing of yesterday’s rhetoric prompted some to suspect political theatre designed to distract voters. Chavez faces important municipal and regional elections in November with inflation at 30%, Latin America’s highest, and a spate of damaging headlines about violent crime and crumbling hospitals.’

What Carroll quite preposterously fails to mention however is that just six years ago the US did support a coup against Venezuela’s democratically elected government. In April 2002 the presidential palace was surrounded by tanks, Chavez was arrested and promptly ousted from office and replaced with the leader of Venezuela’s business sector lobby group. The coup lasted only 47 hours however. In one of the more remarkable stories of popular direct action, Chavez’s supporters responded by surrounding the presidential palace themselves, ultimately forcing the conspirators to back down and re-installing Chavez as president. US involvement in the coup is now well known. However in reading through Carroll’s articles on Venezuela, I was moved to doubt whether Carroll actually knew about this crucial detail. How else could one explain this extract?

‘No one wants a return to the era of CIA-backed coups and rightwing dictatorships [of the 1970s] but there is, say policymakers, a yearning for a productive engagement with Washington that was sorely missed during the distracted Bush administration [my emphasis].’

I was partially relieved then when I finally found an acknowledgement that the coup had taken place. Back in June 2007 Carroll notes:

‘The Bush administration tacitly backed a coup that briefly ousted Mr Chávez in 2002 and has made no secret of its distaste for a leader who has thrown an economic lifeline to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.’

Does tacit support cover over $20 million dollars of tax-payers money given to anti-Chavez groups and plans to target the arrest of Chavez as well as 10 other senior officials? On this point I am prepared to give Carroll the benefit of the doubt. The strict definition of tacit is ‘understood without being openly expressed’. Perhaps the word Carroll meant therefore was clandestine.

The reality is that Carroll has never intended to steer an even course between the Chavez government and its opponents. He has been far more concerned with titillating his readers by slandering the Venezuelan government. In the same piece in which the Guardian defended Carroll’s journalism, Butterworth notes that

‘[Carroll] considers Chávez’s personality to be part of the story. [He told me]'”I try to give a sense of how bizarre and funny some things are…You have to get the tone right… the average reader knows when a piece is observational and can see for himself what is opinion.”‘

Readers can judge for themselves whether or not Carroll is getting the tone right. If by tone he meant misrepresentation, selectivity and bizarre omissions, it would appear, to this reader at least, that Carroll is fast becoming the butt of his own joke.

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