A favorite joke in my husband’s repertoire has Fidel Castro, before thousands of people in the Plaza de La Revolución, as a man in the crowd yells at him “I’m hungry.” Fidel asks to bring the man on stage and requests several pitchers of water from his assistants, which he then makes the man drink one after the other. After the last glass, he asks the man ”are you still hungry?” to what he replies “no.” Fidel then turns exultant to the crowd and says: “You see: this man wasn’t hungry. This man was thirsty!”

I’ve been thinking about this joke a lot: tropical gaslighting avant la lettre. Authoritarian regimes have this knack for twisting reality, for bending it to suit their version of the truth.

Just over a month into Trump’s presidency, crowd-size debates, Russian shenanigans and allegations of voter fraud have shown this isn’t just a south-of-the-border thing. But while this is all uncharted waters in the U.S., in Venezuela we’ve been around this particular block a few times. For 18 years since Hugo Chávez came to power, we’ve grown used to living in Alternativefactland.

Economic war is an alternative fact turned official doctrine: the canonical explanation for, well, everything that goes wrong in the country.

A few years back, Gabriela Ramirez, a former Ombudsperson with strong ties to the PSUV ruling party, said we needed to “reduce the feeling” of being unsafe that people had as a way of coping with our sky-high murder rate. It doesn’t matter if someone was asking for your mobile at gunpoint, and how many times you would hear this story from friends and family: for Gabriela, the numbers were irrelevant. It was the perception that people had of how bad things were (and still are) that counted. No wonder, then, murder rates have continued to rise: our governments obsesses about perceptions, but seems to have no feel at all for the reality that gives rise to them. 

Then there’s our economic war (guerra económica), chavismo’s go-to excuse for the pervasive shortage their policies have created – whether it’s toilet paper or chemotherapy drugs or tires or condoms. Economic war is an alternative fact turned official doctrine: the canonical explanation for, well, everything that goes wrong in the country.

Venezuela, we’re told, is waging a war against imperial forces allied with homegrown enemies of the homeland that impede goods from entering the country, and keeps perishable items stashed in warehouses —since the early 2000s!— to create despair and destabilize the government.

This isn’t an explanation that holds up to any kind of critical scrutiny. At all. It leaves outside the fact (yes, a fact) that Chavez seized thousands of farms that produced the rice, sugar, corn and milk and ran them into the ground. It conveniently omits the price controls that drove thousands out of business, as anybody with a passing acquaintance with economics knew they would. 

For years we’ve been told that what we are seeing is not what we are seeing, and that what we’re hearing is not what we’re hearing.

Right here on Caracas Chronicles, Quico Toro  recalled how then Vicepresident Jose Vicente Rangel told one of his colleagues, still choking on the cloud of tear gas she’d gone through mere minutes earlier, that there was no disturbance outside and that it was all a fabrication from the “fascist media.”

The word “mierda,” Lara explained, was part of Venezuela’s “cultural heritage.”

And there is that time when the late Willian Lara, then Communications Minister, defended the use of the word mierda (shit) by President Chavez referring to the opposition’s victory in a national consultation on constitutional reform (his exact words were victoria de mierda). The word “mierda,” Lara explained, was part of Venezuela’s “cultural heritage,” adding that Hugo Chávez needed to be thanked for using it, just like Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez did in his books. Days later, Lara went in front of the cameras to read the closing paragraphs of “El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba to highlight the Hochkultur use of the word.

I know, it’s difficult to decide what is more distasteful: that a sitting President described the democratic will of the people in straight-up scatological terms in front of a live nationwide TV audience or the very thought of putting Chavez and Garcia Márquez on an equal literary footing.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing alternative facts of all has been the slogan “Chávez vive” (Chávez lives) when he, quite indisputably, does not. Here, the autocracy’s fantasist instincts butt straight up against the outer limits of necromancy. It really is disturbing.

The power of relentless repetition is easy to underestimate. Coupled with continued attacks on independent media and outright censorship, it gets harder and harder to distinguish reality from fiction.

We saw this dynamic in full display four years ago, when he was due to take the oath of office in early 2013 but couldn’t, due to his failing health. His party, PSUV responded by organizing an act in which dozens of his followers were “sworn in” in lieu of the President because, after all, “Chávez somos todos” (we are all Chávez).

Taking up permanent residence in Alternativefactilandia is risky. You start to worry (really worry) about your mental and emotional health. The power of relentless repetition is easy to underestimate. Coupled with continued attacks on independent media and outright censorship, it gets harder and harder to distinguish reality from fiction.

Even worse, relentless gaslighting ends up driving people to the point of no longer caring which is which. At some point, you know the government isn’t just lying but aggressively falsifying the truth, you come to accept it as normal. After all, there’s nothing you can do about it.

The Grey Lady got one thing right: Truth is now more important than ever. In the United States and in Venezuela. And when journalists and news outlets are called “enemies of the people,” reasonable people must panic. To play it cool is to capitulate.

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  1. Alternativefactilandia should be copyrighted 🙂

    But it goes to the heart of the philosophical problem of our time: the dictatorship of relativism.

    Relativism gives the thin intellectual cover to think anything you want just because you wish it to be so and satisfy yourself with “this is what I think and that is good for me”. Philosophy, logic, science be dammed. It is is a cop out to real intellectual scrutiny and healthy debate. Let alone the lack of humility to anoint anyone as an expert.

    Moving away from politics one only has to think homeopathy or vaccination deniers or early world creationists and … the list goes own for denizens of Alternativefactilandia.

    • What’s worse is that all relativism’s proponents know it is absolutely false. If all truth is relative, then there is no lie. But everyone knows when they tell a lie, and usually they know when they are told a lie.

      • Well yeah. One can hope. But in my world, there is this guy who comes along once in a while, and this guy, he’s a bit different. This guy, you are not so sure he understands when he is told an obvious lie if he likes it, and you are not so sure he understands that when he frequently says things that are not true, he understands they are not true. Another way of putting it politely is that he has a complicated relationship with reality.

        Everyone else, they know when they are lying, and they have the mental tools to be able to distinguish truth from fiction. With this one kind of guy though, its not so clear. And to add to the complications, it can change from day to day, minute to minute.

        In a tale by Cervantes, it is charming. In a guy who has the power to profoundly affect my life and those around me, not so much.

      • Correct. Mankind is capable of homicidal-suicidal impulses. IMO, you have struck on the very fundamental elements of philosophy, the discovery of truths. Two sane men do not need to “agree to agree” that the other exists, for example.

        The law has a definition of sanity as the ability to tell right from wrong. The presumption is that that ability is innate in an individual, as distinguished from a group, or even a nation of laws.

  2. Claro que “Chavez Vive!” No acabamos de celebrar los cuatro anos de “La Siembra De Chavez”, que ya ha dado sus frutos en incontables beneficios para Er Pueblo??

  3. García Márquez is overrated, he was one of the most ferocious lobbyists of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, which he defended with such blind fanatism that it even earned him a couple of punches straight to the face from Mario Vargas Llosa.

    And the Alternativefactland will remain the only version, as long as the opposition headed by the MUD insists on using the same language and fiercely refusing to fight it, examples are abundant: “2002 coup, Chávez’s Legacy, president Chávez, detained persons, radical loners, military stay out of this mess, everything’s because Baduel put him back…”

  4. As it turns out, Venezuela has been on the cutting edge of something very, very big. It was an experimental breeding dish for this particular virus. The lab brought in experts from all over the world: Russia, Cuba, China, Iran, to name a few.

    Liberal democracy is under serious threat by a handful of malevolent and narcissistic circus clowns, whose ideological wing is an army of feverish and committed internet trolls. Whose best argument is always: I know you are, but what am I?…

    And perhaps most disturbing of all, you see the rationalizations, the minimizing, the making deals with oneself over all of this. People of good will do not believe it can happen here.

    You are absolutely right. Playing it cool and leaving it to the other person to deal with is just a fashionable way of surrendering.

  5. “The Grey Lady got one thing right: Truth is now more important than ever. In the United States and in Venezuela. And when journalists and news outlets are called “enemies of the people,” reasonable people must panic.”

    Wow! A left-wing person who doesn’t want the closure of Fox News nor the arrest of its journalists!

    Faith in humanity restored!!!

        • Leftists always attack the person when they know they have lost on the issue.
          Just FYI, the NYT usually reverses their rhetoric after the agenda is exposed, re: Walter Duranty. But we already know the NYT’s concept of “truth.”

          • I hate to break it to you mate but I think you just quoted Noam Chomsky verbatim. Yes, expose the agenda, bring down the administrative state, counteract the deep state. So much to do, so little time.

          • Certeris: search ‘Chomsky’ and ‘the role of the New York Times’ on Youtube. Watch it. Think about what the editor of the New York Times said about Chomsky and the far right. Then thank me from the bottom of your soul for revealing to you something important you did not understand about yourself. And then, after reflecting briefly on how wrong you were to doubt me, make a generous donation to the ACLU, and tell your buddy Benjamin to apologize to me.

  6. “Enemies of the people.” “Silent coup” “Deep State.” These are all terms that would be at home in Venezuela but their use in the world’s most powerful democracy gives me ample reason to worry.

    • American leftists do the following:

      – smear the opposition with claims of working with/for foreign enemies

      – unleash violent, organized street thugs to suppress free speech and opposition political rallies

      – use the intelligence services and government bureaucracies to target the opposition

      – use spurious legal claims to attempt to overturn a free and fair election

      – compare others to Chavismo

      Talk about lacking any semblance of self awareness…

  7. The derisive use of the phrase “alternative facts” here merely shows the ignorance and lack of objectivity of the author. The phrase was not used to mean “lies”. It is a way of saying “you have your ‘facts’ and we have ours”. Again, this does not mean “you have truth and we have lies”. It means we dispute the facts. We consider your “facts” to be lies.

    Here’s how Breitbart News desrcibed it:

    “a harmless, and accurate, term in a legal setting, where each side of a dispute will lay out its own version of the facts for the court to decide.”

    It’s so easy to mislead and propagandize you people, which is the whole problem here. The liars on the idiot box spout obvious nonsense and a large percentage of the population swallows it hook, line and sinker. You are like the bleating sheep from Animal Farm who are fed simplistic inane slogans which are used to shout down any real discussion. It’s not even subtle propaganda, it is very crude stuff meant for the unthinking.

    • I believe this is the first time Breitbart News [sic] has been cited as an authority here, in respect of exactly the thing that it is, no less.

      Fans of Venezuelanalysis, eat your hearts out.

      • There really is no need to cite any authority. Anyone who lacks the sophistication to understand the use of the phrase within the given context is wanting in common sense and/or education. Of course it’s a simple matter to propagandize such people.

        • “I am a genius, and all you worthless proles cannot get within inches of my phenomenal intelligence”.

          That’s how your reply sounds, Benjamín.

        • The context was that Miss Conway was referring to Spicer’s easily disprovable claims that Trumps’ inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s, that more people rode the DC subway system that day that any other inauguration day, etc. Those claims were indisputably untrue..not open to interpretation, not opinions, not “you have your spin but we have our spin”, but literally and demonstratively untrue.

          So, to summarize the context, she was calling Spcier’s complete lies “alternative facts” instead of the lies and untruths they were.

          Yet, you are on here defending the term and saying “it’s so easy to mislead and propagandize you people, which is the whole problem here” and then telling other people that they lack self-awareness.

          Sigh…Sometimes I weep for humanity.

        • The context of the phrase “alternative facts” was that it was used to describe and defend an obvious untruth. An untruth forming part of a constant stream of obvious untruths coming from Trump and his administration which continue to this day, unabated.

          People out there in the wide world do not generally argue facts “in the alternative”. Nor do they as a matter of course argue facts “in the alternative” that they know, or ought reasonably to know, are lies. If they do, those people are properly identified as…LIARS.

          Let’s put it another way. If people dispute an assertion of fact, they do not say: you’re wrong, I have “alternative facts”. They say, simply: no, these are the facts. That’s what normal people do. People who are not trying to defend a clown.

          At some point my friend, your superior education, perhaps mixed with a heady dose of Breitbart, may have said goodbye to your common sense on this one, in my humble opinion.

  8. The ‘journalists’ at Telesur only ask friendly questions to Maduro; CNN’s Donna Brazile, also a ‘journalist’, leaked the questions to Hillary ahead of a political debate, harming the US electoral process.

    If you ask me what I think about Donna Brazile and the folks at Telesur, I will say that they both are terrible journalists, I could even say that they are enemies of their people that I wouldn’t be lying, yet I would never forbid them from their right to be jerks nor I would break random stores’ glasses if things didn’t go as I planned in regard to my political preferences.

    And then to see leftists lecturing us on free speech as if they were immaculate saints is truly hilarious. Where was the author of the text when they were looting and burning stores because Trump won? I mean, reasonable people should have panicked back then. Because to play it cool is to capitulate, y’know?

    • Donna Brazile was fired from being an occasional CNN Political Commenter/Contributor for leaking a probable question for Democratic primary town hall event to Hillary. She is not and never was a journalist.

      Rather ironic that we are discussing ‘facts’ and you can’t even get your facts straight.

      • “Rather ironic that we are discussing ‘facts’ and you can’t even get your facts straight.”

        What is ironic is that you prefered to spent your time writing irrelevancies instead of initiating any meaningful discussion with what I wrote.

        In most countries (including the US) you don’t need a diploma to be a journalist. If you do the job of a journalist, you can call yourself one. All writers here at CC can call themselves journalists, even if they are economists, doctors, painters etc.


        I don’t see any reason why Brazile can’t be called a journalist.

        “for leaking a probable question”

        She didn’t leak one question. She leaked several of them.

        Read the headline only: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/07/donna-brazile-is-totally-not-sorry-for-leaking-cnn-debate-questions-to-hillary-clinton/?utm_term=.04893d9b7619

        Notice how the word “question” is written in its plural form: “questions”.

        But I wouldn’t even advise you to get your facts straight because it’s obvious that you just won’t be able to do so. It’s broken.

        • I only actually saw one specific question when I read the Wikileaks last fall and I’ve only seen one referenced anyway, regarding a lady from Flint (where there was lead in the water). Apparently she also told Hillary that the Death Penalty would be a topic…so although I guess I could argue about it being a leaked topic vs a specific question, I won’t. I am wiling to admit I was wrong.

          Regarding Donna as a journalist..she’s not one nor had ever worked as one. Her role on CNN was to represent the Democratic viewpoint, usually against a GOPer, while the host asked questions and put out topics. She didn’t interview others, she wasn’t a host, etc.

          Anyway, she’s also incompetent and did much damage to the Dems campaign chances (even without the news of her leaking to HIllary coming out).

  9. In Venezuela we don’t depend on the regime media and clownish messaging to learn about facts because we find ourselves facing them directly and raw in our daily lives , if we go looking for food , or medicines or car parts or anything needed to have a normal life or try paying for those scarce things we do find we can see for ourselves what those facts are …..!! They are not subject to conjecture or speculation , they bite deep into our very flesh and they bite hard , like the number of people we meet everyday who have lost weight or a relatives or friends or neighbors tale of how they or someone close to them was assaulted or robbed by the now dominant criminal bands.

    The govts efforts at ‘selling’ an alternative reality is a total failure , some 80 odd % of Venezuelans know what the facts are and what they mean , this is what all polls say ….the number of people who still make any pretense of following the govts explanations´grow smaller every day , the facts are staring us in the face and there is no denying them even with all the ‘noise´the regime makes us to distract us from their sordid existence .

    As Lincoln once said “you can fool all of the people some of the time , some of the people all of the time , but you can never fool all of the people all of the time” and after 18 years of oafish inept and corrupt governance there are very few left to believe any of the farsical ‘facts’ which the govt offers in a vain attempt to remain presentable !! Maybe in the US they still have people who can be hoodwinked into believing what the govt leaders say, but here there is practically no one who believes in what the govt says.

    Its become pathetic how hard and shrilly the regime tries to persuade people about an economic war that no one believes in , ask ordinary people in the queues and lines what they think of the economic war and they will answer with a bitter laugh of derision , ‘ just plain corruption is whats happening ‘ , no one is fooled …!! the other question they have in their lips always is ….’how long can this last ??’ and that’s the one fact that matters to all of us !!

    • Spent years cayéndome a coñazos with NYT fact-checkers who demanded I substantiate every statement of fact in every piece I wrote with evidence. No me lo contaron, lo viví.

      • Your experience w the NYT can both support and rebut Neoneocon’s article. How does your experience support her article? Neoneocon points out that instead of the claim that “The truth is more important now than ever,” the truth has always been important, not just now. The NYT fact-checkers you experienced certainly weren’t asleep, only to awaken on January 20, 2017.

        In rebuttal to her article, the NYT fact-checkers you experienced were determined that your articles matched the facts.

        In support of Neoneocon, she documents examples of biased reporting at the NYT.

        A high school classmate of my brother has been a reporter for the NYT. As far as I can tell, his reporting has been objective.

      • Mr. Toro, es que no les diste el catalizador adecuado.

        En cambio, alsaime sólo tuvo que mandarles 200.000 dólares para que le publicaran la carta donde dice que él no es un narco y que es una pobre víctima de la derecha homosexual y agusadana mayamera.

        ¿Cómo alsaime probó que NO es un narco? lo dejamos a la imaginación.

  10. Trying to grasp the reasons for the conflict between trump bashers and loyalists on the issue of Trumps suspected ties to Russia Ive tried to go through the story of these suspicions and Mr Trumps responses:
    1. The US intelligence community composed of career public officials (who as a community are not known to lend themselves to the playing of partisan games) determined that Putin controlled hackers entered the internet connections of people in both the Democratic and Republican electoral machinery , and selectively leaked the contents of messages which prejudiced the public image of candidate Clinton with the clear intent of hurting her electoral chances. The natural consequence of those leaks was to favour Mr Trumps electorl chances .
    2. Mr Putin is known to be extremely devious , unscrupulous and ruthless in the pursuit of his political and geopolitical goals which for him involve treating the US as an enemy . There is a genuine fear that if he could he would act to covertly sabotage undermine and disparage the US system of Democratic Politics as a means of neutralizing the prestige and influence of the US in the World .
    3. Putins behaviour has ellicited the application of sanctions which hurt Russians economy and indirectly hurt Putins personal political interests.
    4. Mr Trump has voiced opinions which are highly laudatory of Mr Putin and has been very careful not to attack Mr Putins actions in the world stage, actions which have deserved the universal condemnation of all political leaders of the US and generally of the West.He has frequently expressed his intent of dramatically improving US relations with Russia .
    5. In the process of confirming Mr Trumps closest advisors appointment as futures members of his gabinet theyve told congress of their contacts with russian officials. Its been discovered that in some cases the disclosure of some of these contacts was omitted, leading to the resignation of one top trump official and the self recusation of another from an investigation which is being promoted by bipartisan groups in congress on the nature and extent of the russian hacking of people in the electoral machinery of both parties in the last electoral contest.
    6. Mr Trump has recently announced that he is informed by newspaper sources personally close to him that former president Obama unlawfully ordered certain national security agencies to intervene his phone conversations in Trump Tower and that he wants this to be investigated by US congress., The heads of these national security agencies have denied having recieved any such orders or ever having engaged in any such activities…… !!

    It seems to me that the bipartisan investigation on the extent and intent of the russian hacking of US political party officials is justified given the background information that is listed above …..and that equally there should be not just a congressional investigation but an official govt investigation of whether mr Obama has at any time ordered the intervention of Mr Trumps communications in Trump Tower , because if such order was unlawful then it is the DUTY of mr Trump to formally denounce such act and moreover to supply the specific information on which he relies to make such accusation .

    If it turns out that either investigation proves nothing then US and International opinion would feel a greater trust of US institutions and the country could go on to concentrate its attention on other pending items in the countrys agenda….If they reveal things that violate any rule or basic principle then acting to sanction whoever broke those rules would also help restore the worlds confidence in US institutions.

    These two investigations are separate but the result of either of them is of utmost importance to the US and to the World and they should be allowed to proceed without hindrance.

    • Bill

      Very good post. I do not believe the truth will ever come out. The whole idea of covert intelligence operations is the lack of any trail.

      My government has screwed with so many elections it is almost comical to hear the indignation coming out of DC. We have made too many deals with devils over the years. The ends justify the means attitude resulted in millions of deaths, millions more living under tyrannical regimes (tyrants that were our friends) and a significant loss of trust throughout the world.

      The most recent Wikileaks revelations are damaging many relationships that are already fragile. From tapping Merkel’s cell phone to influencing European elections, our foreign service personnel have a long road ahead with many fences to mend.

      President Trump needs to get off Twitter and use diplomacy. He needs to allow the professionals to tactfully open up the avenues of discussion. Everyone in governments around the globe listens when the POTUS speaks. President Trump needs to understand the language of diplomacy. Rash statements can and will have unintended consequences.

      A good start would be closing a Twitter account.

  11. “Truth is more important than ever, but if we get 200.000 dollars for a full page ad from a drug kingpin we can make an exception”

    The New York Times got itself in this mess by directly going against the personalized veto against our terrorist-chauvinist-drug kingpin VP, which could be considered to even go against USA’s interest.

  12. Luisa,
    You write an interesting article, but you fail to ask the $64,000 question.
    How did the US political situation and the disdain for the Mainstream Media happen?
    The access to social media has shown that the media no longer controls the debate. The political power that the media has wielded in the US has diminished significantly and continues to decline.
    I spent 31 years in US government service, including military, intelligence and the foreign service. Quid Pro Quo deals and tacit agreements are very common. The reporters and pundits that levitate to the top of the heap have expectations and egos that are as large as any politician’s. The ability to decide what news is of most interest, how it should be presented and who stands to gain is always in play.
    The most recent election cycle is both a study in this procedure and an shining example of the failure of reporting news with a political agenda.
    It is fair to say that the majority of Americans did not think Trump stood a chance against Clinton in the general election. The media covered Trump’s campaign more than any other Republican candidate’s campaign throughout the primary season. The lighter side and favorable reports that were spoon fed to the US voters and the absence of in depth reporting on issues that were brought out later in the campaign, contributed to Trump’s victories.
    Whether intentional or not, this bias played into a underestimated base of disgruntled voters.
    At the same time the media coverage of Clinton was blatantly biased in her favor. She may have been the better candidate. If the people in the media believed this and wanted to persuade the voters, they should have left the media and worked on her campaign.
    “Discovering” stories about Trump’s actions that were many years in his past attacking any minor misstatement or factual error, had the effect of making people tune out the media. When the media now reports something that many people would have found disturbing, the collective loss of credibility the media has amassed has left many of their reports falling on deaf ears.
    In essence the media created the political environment that they now disdain.
    Building up Trump in the primary races with the expectation that Clinton would destroy him in the election and ignoring Clinton’s shortcomings with the expectation that she would win the election has had an unexpected result.
    Whether it be the CIA or the Main Stream Media, rigging elections always has negative consequences.
    The refusal of the Main Stream Media to accept Trump’s victories has cast the opposition in poor regard among the majority of Americans. A very small and very vocal group of protesters being fueled by intense media coverage has not produced the desired result.
    Using violence and Fascist tactics while claiming to be protesting violence and Fascism has revealed the Hypocrisy within the Anti-Trump movement. The reports have contributed to less regard for the media and opinions that the opposition are just poor losers.
    The media reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein. The monster that they created is out of control.

    • ” The media reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein. The monster that they created is out of control.”

      Just like the media and the elites did here in Venezuela with the galactic rotten morcilla.

    • John, the $64000 question is addressed by looking at things like: historically sluggish growth, growing income inequality, and the influence of money in politics. There are no simple answers to solve these problems.

      One simple answer, however, is to find a scapegoat and weave a conspiracy theory. One conspiracy theory, alive on the far right and far left since at least the 1960s, is that there is some cabal of media elites who are setting an agenda which is screwing everybody. Like any good conspiracy theory, it weaves elements of legitimate concern, hyperbole, false equivalencies, and pure fantasy.

      The Mainstream Media is not monolithic and it does not have an Agenda. It is not even a Thing. That’s Chavista speak. That’s the reasoning of an authoritarian mindset and one that, quite simply, does not know journalists. Journalism suffers many of the problems we have in wider society, but it is not the cause of those problems and it is not the enemy. The enemy is unreason.

      Journalists failed to predict many things. They failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then, prediction is not the role of journalism. It is the purview of pundits and pollsters and talking heads. Maybe you have a valid criticism in that news outlets should report more, and be a platform for polls and pundits less. But take heart. People are subscribing more to journalism, and journalists are back reporting the news more than we’ve seen in years. Venezuela is another story however, and thank god institutions like the New York Times cover Venezuela.


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