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They’re at it again in Boston…

It’s sad that the most important news story in my country in probably two years gets so little space in rich world news stations. We get covered so little, it seems almost impolite to criticize what little reporting is actually done. But that sort of thing is sort of the founding reason for this blog, so that’s you’re about to get:

I think I more or less understand why so little is written about (and, more to the point, read) about Venezuela in the rich countries. It’s only partially the obsessive concern of North Americans with Michael Jackson’s extracurricular passtimes and the Bush/Iraq axis that’s to blame. It’s only partly that Venezuela is fighting the wrong world-historical battle – if chavistas were extremist muslims, boy would things be different! It’s true, that’s there, but I think there’s more.

A big part of the problem is that the political crisis in Venezuela can be a dauntingly complex story and American and European audiences have, by and large, alarmingly little background knowledge to build on. Some of the readers who email this blog blithely admit that they could not quite remember if Venezuela was in Central or South America (hint, it’s South!) Given those realities, I understand you won’t really have the chance to say anything much profound or detailed in a 4 or 5 minute radio segment, no matter how good are reporter you are. There’s just too much you have to explain to go at all deep.

I understand that. Still, I think Juan Forero (full disclosure: my former boss) could’ve done much better on this Here and Now interview about the firmazo. (from KBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate, I believe – the clip plays on Real Audio.)

Not for the first time Juan just kind of ignores the arithmetic inescapability of the fact that in a country that is 80-90% poor, and 60-65% against the president, it is not mathematically possible for the majority of those who are against the president to be non-poor. (Get an envelope, turn it on its back, and work it out!) It’s hard for me to understand why Juan finds it so hard to say this out loud, or write it in the newspaper.

The fact that the opposition is made up, in its majority, of poor people, is not some debatable point, some flight of rhetorical fancy on the part of an opposition spinmeister. It’s a fact, easily demonstrable. In Venezuela, 9 out of every 10 households earn less than the about Bs.1 million per month (about $300) it takes to cover basic expenses – food, rent, clothes, doctors, etc. for a family of five, which is the Labor Movement’s traditional definition of the poverty line.

Said differently, about 2,500,000 people live in non-poor households. If the national trend hold, half of them are minors, the other half will be voters. That’s about 1.3 million non-poor voters in the country – total. Assuming, unrealistically, that ALL of them signed to recall Chavez, they still would account for no more than a third of the 4 million or so signatures the opposition is hoping for.

In my view, it’s crucially important for readers to be very clear on this. Cuz yes, there is an awful lot of ignorance about the government out there, but there is even more ignorance about the opposition.

So poor people outnumber rich people in the opposition by 2-to-1. Meanwhile, people who oppose the government outnumber people who support the government also by about 2-to-1.

If a first world news audience doesn’t have these things explained, it will be very difficult for them to understand the central dynamic at play in Venezuela today, the basic vector that makes sense for all the others: today, the two thirds of Venezuela’s citizens who reject autocracy are making a valliant effort to wrest control of the state from that one third of the citizens who do support an autocratic vision of the country’s future. That, basically, is what’s at stake here.

This, of course, is all way too messy and confusing for your average gringo newspaper reader, who demands stories fed to him in an easily digestible format where moral ambiguity and complexity is kept to a minimum.

The thing is that these realities are irreducibly complex – they simply don’t fit very well into the neat little good-guy/bad-guy story about Venezuela that liberal Americans have been sold so powerfully in propaganda vehicles like The revolution will not be televised – a film that, one shudders to think, will be the only pre-existing frame of reference many listeners to Juan’s report will have had on the country. It is therefore tempting to simply leave such complications out of reporting on the opposition movement. Otherwise, it is easy to overwhelm an audience with material that it does not necessarily have the ability to interpret.

The only problem with this is that the image of the opposition that results is fundamentally distorted. The understanding a news listener takes away from an interview like Juan’s probably does nothing but reinforce his preconceived disney-style ethical take on the situation. ( Rich = Bad, Champion of the Poor = Good.) And it’s very hard to open a serious conversation on that basis.

Sigh. It’s quite frustrating for me. My inbox daily makes it clear how very, very little foreign readers actually understand about Venezuela. It makes me sad, but it emboldens me to write more, to try to make sense of parts of this mess for at least the few hundred people likely to read this blog. They’ll go and tell their friends, right?

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Known to friend and foe alike as Quico, Francisco Toro is Executive Editor at Caracas Chronicles.

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