Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has tried to prevent victims of the violent protests that were led by the jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in 2014 from being forgotten – specifically the police officers and government supporters who were murdered and who account for about half the protest-related deaths. Victims like Gisella Rubilar, mother of four, who was killed by a gunshot to the head while clearing away a barricade erected in her neighborhood by protesters, have been made invisible by the international media – rarely registering as statistics much less as people. Lopez, on the other hand, has constantly been portrayed as a pro-democracy hero and as a victim.
That is why I was shocked that Foreign Policy published Roberto Lovato’s lengthy and devastating exposé of Leopoldo Lopez. When Desmond Tutu, a decent person who is not on the far right, compares Leopoldo Lopez to Martin Luther King, that tells you how comically one-sided and dishonest the international media’s portrayal of Lopez has been. A recent, and vastly more typical Foreign Policy piece about Lopez ran with the title “Venezuela’s Last Hope”. The title summarizes that piece perfectly but it also shows how the international press has depicted the Venezuelan opposition since at least 2001.
In the U.K. Guardian, which is about as liberal as a corporate outlet gets, coverage was about 85 percent hostile to the Venezuelan government from 2006 to 2012. The publication of Lovato’s piece is a small crack in a propaganda edifice that has been constructed over many years. Some of the Venezuelan opposition’s reactions to the Lovato piece show how completely they have come to regard the international media as their turf. The reactions have also exposed the divisions within the opposition that Lovato described.
Lovato explained that Lopez and his close allies participated in a military coup in 2002 that for two days ousted the late Hugo Chavez - Venezuela’s democratically elected president at the time and mentor to Nicolas Maduro. Lovato describes how Leopoldo Lopez led the “arrest” of a government minster during the coup. Here is a video of Lopez leading the kidnapping. Another video shows Lopez proudly giving reporters a detailed account of it. At about the 19 second mark of yet another video, Lopez is at the scene of the kidnapping telling journalists that “President Carmona has been updated”. “President” Pedro Carmona was the business federation leader who had just anointed himself dictator of Venezuela.
Before Chavez was returned to office, the infamous Carmona Decree illegally annulled Venezuela’s constitution which had been ratified in a 1999 referendum. The decree was signed by the far right politician Maria Corina Machado, by Leopoldo Lopez’s father, and by other close Lopez allies named by Lovato. The signatories of the Carmona Decree have claimed that they merely put their names to an attendance sheet – an attendance sheet for a joyous pep rally for a dictator. This video exposes the “attendance sheet” claim as a lie. At about the 19:30 point, right after the decree is read aloud, the attendees, who had been wildly cheering after each article was read, are asked to sign it. At about the 20:40 point of the video, Carmona names Leopoldo Martinez, a political ally of Leopoldo Lopez at the time, as his finance minister. Martinez is then shown saying that he intends to keep a low profile as one of the dictator’s ministers. At roughly the 24:00 point you can briefly see Lopez on a TV show nodding with approval right after Venezuela’s private media is praised for its contribution to the coup.
Leopoldo Lopez’s lawyers brazenly lied when, as Lovato mentioned, they claim “Lopez was not a supporter of the coup”. Lopez was a supporter and a participant as Lovato makes abundantly clear. The international press routinely hides this from its audience outside Venezuela. It therefore gets away with dismissing the government’s case against Lopez for criminal conspiracy related to violent protests in 2014. The media also gets away with simply regurgitating whatever his dishonest lawyers say about Lopez’s case. Inside Venezuela, however, hiding the truth is not possible. Having people like Leopoldo Lopez remain prominent within the opposition is a serious problem for them.
For example, Juan Nagel, an opposition blogger, offered some qualified praise for Lovato’s piece. In responding to a deluge of criticism in the comments section, Nagel explained that the stubborn insistence on ignoring the coup and Lopez’s role in it has “done us a ton of harm.” But Nagel contradicts himself by also accusing Lovato of having a “cryptochavista fixation” on the coup – as if the violent overthrow of the government were a triviality.
Nagel’s fellow blogger, Francisco Toro, simply dismissed Lovato’s piece as a “loathsome hit-job pulled off by a hostile intellectual” and “vile crap in a publication that ought to know much better”. I wrote about Francisco Toro here, specifically a blog post of his where he advocates “winning ugly” – not actually perpetrating a coup but being ready to capitalize on one when it happens.
By whitewashing Leopoldo Lopez, the entire Western establishment - U.S. government, international corporate media, the human rights industry among others – also whitewashes itself.
Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights both responded abysmally to the 2002 coup. Neither group called on Carmona to resign and for Chavez to be reinstated. Neither group called on other governments to deny recognition to the Carmona dictatorship. The New York Times editors openly applauded the coup. As I explained here, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General stated that the Bush administration had "provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved" in it.
Leopoldo Lopez escaped serving any time in jail for his role in the coup thanks to a wide-ranging amnesty Hugo Chavez granted the perpetrators. With the benefit of years of hindsight, it appears to have been a mistake, one Nicolas Maduro appears very determined not to repeat.
As welcome as Lovato’s Foreign Policy piece is, one must be realistic about its short term impact. Propaganda works mainly through repetition. An occasional crack in a huge propaganda edifice can be quickly repaired or even ignored. We should not be surprised if Foreign Policy finds an excuse to retract Lovato’s article or, more likely, returns with a vengeance to the kind of propaganda that keeps Lopez and the US government happy. That said, persistent work like Lovato’s should encourage others. You never know when cracks in an edifice will propagate and bring the whole rotten structure down.