The truth about Venezuela unrest: media accused of gross distortion

Whatever the situation in Venezuela today, we believe that what follows may be the most correct version of what has been happening in that country over recent weeks and months. And in seeing the disparity between what our governments allege, what our news media tell us and what is most probably what actually happened, we realise how important it is to seek all information and judge carefully what we are told by others. This statement is made by nine Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Venezuela: Martha Benson, Phil Brady, Mary Jo Commerford, Maggie Han, Glenn Rabut, Peter Ree, David Rodriguez, Sami Scott, and Lisa Sullivan.

We are a group of nine Maryknoll lay missioners who have worked in Venezuela for between five and 15 years, accompanying the poor of the urban barrios and rural towns in the state of Lara.

At this moment, Venezuela finds itself in the throes of a tense and bitter political conflict which is causing considerable damage to the lives of the average Venezuelan and to the well-being of the nation. It appears to have the very real potential of becoming a much more violent conflict.

We are currently on Day 53 of a national strike. Our reality is one of 20-hour gasoline lines, two-day lines for cooking fuel, scarcity and speculation of food staples, and the loss of billions of dollars from oil revenues that pay such items as teachers' salaries and hospital supplies.

Perhaps most critical, once-peaceful marches are becoming increasingly confrontational and violent.

As missioners who have walked alongside the Venezuelan people and experienced their tremendous warmth and generosity for many years, we feel pain and sadness as we witness the divisions and hardships that are taking place in front of our eyes. We feel a sense of alarm that we may be at the doorstep of a much more serious and violent situation.

While the world has its eyes focused on the possibility of war in Iraq, here in Venezuela we find that the underlying cause of this conflict is a similar one: oil and the desire for control of Venezuela's huge reserves of oil.

Likewise, we worry that the consequences of this conflict may spill over this nation's borders and have negative effects in the rest of the region. If unconstitutional or violent means are used to overthrow a democratically elected government here in Venezuela, this may set an undesirable precedent for other countries in Latin America.

We feel especially compelled to write at this moment because we sense that, despite much media attention to this situation, there are voices in this explosive conflict that are not being heard: those in the urban barrios, and rural towns such as those where we live and work. As events have shown us, if attention is not given to the opinions of this rather large block of people in the search for a solution (for instance, the poor, who comprise more than 50 per cent of the population), the results may well be surprising and, this time, lamentable.

Likewise, if the underlying cause of this conflict is not acknowledged, a solution will not be long lasting.

Though the poor are routinely ignored by much of the press throughout the world, in Venezuela this situation is compounded by an unusual, and very disconcerting, situation.

At a time in Venezuela in which political parties have lost the respect of the majority of the population, the leadership of the political opposition has been taken up by a very unlikely and powerful source: the media. The power of the major television stations and newspapers is such that they appear to be directing the entire script of the opposition, using the very powerful tool that is in their hands.

Some of what we see here seems almost impossible to believe when we express it on paper, even though we have taped dozens of hours of television programs for reference.

For 53 days, since the Dec. 2 initiation of the strike, the four major Venezuelan television stations have not shown one single commercial ad. They do, however, show approximately 12 commercials per hour (about 100 a day). Each and every one of the commercials is an anti-Chavez ad. They are strikingly slick, smooth, moving, and obviously very professional and expensive. We can only wonder where the funding for this is originating.

When we try to imagine a similar situation in the U.S., we realise how truly disconcerting this is. Imagine that ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN showed not a single commercial ad for 53 days, but instead showed 100 ads a day directed at removing Pres. Bush from power, comparing him to Hitler and Satan. Imagine as well that every day the channels invited the public to anti-Bush marches, showing, more than 10 times a day, the hour, location and title of each daily march.

This situation is, of course, of grave concern to us -- not only because it results in an unbalanced and inaccurate portrayal of the crisis in Venezuela, but also because the use of the press to incite violence, rather than to inform, is very disturbing.

The press presents this conflict as arising from one clear and simple problem: the presidency of Hugo Chavez. He is portrayed as a dictator disguised as a democrat, and his removal, by any means available, must be procured.

Certainly Chavez, with his flamboyant personality, provides a striking and often delightful focal point for the opposition. However, for those of us who live in Venezuela, and especially for those of us who have lived under several other Venezuelan presidents, it is hard to find the facts to back this image of Chavez as a dictator, much less to find any justification to resorting to unconstitutional or violent measures to overthrow him.

We do recognise and criticise the fact that often Chavez has used inflammatory and divisive language and that, at times, his followers have resorted to violent tactics. We also recognise that the use of violence is not limited to one side of this conflict, and we unconditionally condemn any use of violence in this conflict.

Chavez was elected by the largest majority of any recent election; and during his government, there have been a total of four other, highly transparent elections. The new and very progressive constitution places a strong emphasis on human rights, and the process that ushered it in was one of unprecedented participation.

Our own low-income communities give testimony to the fact that this government has indeed given priority to the poor. Public schools and health care are now totally free and exempt of the "collaboration fees" -- a euphemism for privatization that was taking place under former governments. Increased percentages of the national budget have been given to health, education and housing. And for the first time, we have spacious and attractive schools, hospitals, community centers and sports complexes in our own very poor communities.

While the opposition frequently makes reference to the repression and violence imposed by this government, our experience is that this has been a government that, while certainly not error-free, has been much more guarded in its use of repressive measures.

We don't have to take our memories too far back to recall many instances of repression under other recent presidents -- most notably the terrible Caracazo massacre of 1989 under President Carlos Andres Perez.

Why then is there such blind hatred and determination on the part of many to remove this man [Chavez]?

It seems to us that the overriding motivation of the average participant in the opposition is an irrational fear, sometimes cultivated and certainly stroked by the media, that exists within upper-income sectors of society. It is a fear that Chavez will somehow cause the poor majority to come streaming down from the hillside barrios and take over their lives and world as they have known it.

The truth is, the poor do feel invited down, not to destroy or take over, but to take part in their country -- for the very first time. And this is precisely what is behind their often blind love of this man. Their very existence as human beings has been recognised and embraced, and the value of their participation has been affirmed.

This has mobilized them to take part in the public life of their country to the degree that, whatever happens to Chavez at this moment, they will remain a significant force to deal with. Perhaps this is why the walls of the barrios are often painted with the phrase: "Chavez somos todos."

We do, however, think that there is a much deeper issue present here which has turned an otherwise manageable political conflict into one that could spin out of control and spill beyond the country's borders: Venezuela's oil. PDVSA, the state oil company, provides the government with nearly half of its $20 billion budget and provides the United States with about 15 per cent of its oil imports.

Although the industry was nominally nationalized in 1976, it has been following the global tendency towards privatization and, in recent years, gives only 20 per cent of its earnings to national coffers, compared to 80 per cent at the time of nationalization.

In 2001, a law was passed under the new Venezuelan constitution that guarantees that the state own at least 51 per cent of any energy venture in Venezuela. Many feel that the passage of this law is what brought outside interests to the Venezuelan conflict, together with plentiful funding for the opposition. This is what motivated the United States to be among a lonely group of countries to recognise the interim government that replaced Chavez in a short-lived military coup last April.

Certainly, the involvment of the oil industry in the national strike is what has produced the most damage and hardships to the country.

In summary, we share with you some specific positions of the nine Maryknoll lay missioners currently working in Venezuela: We reject the use of any violence on the part of any side in the conflict. We call for an end to the national strike that has already caused serious damage to the country. We are concerned that the Venezuelan media are being used to incite violence rather than to inform.

We think that it is important to acknowledge that the root of this conflict is control of Venezuelan oil. We think that all voices should be heard in the shaping of a solution, not just those with greater access to funds and to media sources.

We are concerned about the role of the U.S. in the Venezuelan conflict, particularly because of their recognition of the April coup leader, and we are cautious about any role that they may have in shaping a solution. We believe that this conflict must be resolved within the legal framework of the Venezuelan constitution.

We are grateful for your attention and your support and appreciate your prayers for the Venezuelan people.