By Lucas Koerner – Jul 30, 2020
Back in March, when coronavirus cases were beginning to surge in the US and in South American allies such as Brazil and Ecuador, Washington was busy raising the alarm about the “expansion of Covid-19 pandemic in the region, if not globally, if Venezuela… fails to address it.” Venezuela was reporting under 150 cases at the time.
This scaremongering propaganda has been repeated ad nauseam by the Western media ever since.
Despite Venezuela’s comparatively low figures for deaths and infections, corporate journalists regularly smear the Maduro government’s “authoritarian” handling of the pandemic, and actively hide the impact of the criminal US sanctions against the Caribbean country.
Maduro is said to be “tighten[ing his] grip on power, helped by coronavirus lockdown” (CNN, 6/19/20), “using Covid-19 to silence his opponents even further” (Americas Quarterly, 7/21/20) and causing “hunger, infection, repression” (New Yorker, 5/29/20). The country’s healthcare system is “crippled by a broken economy overseen by an increasingly authoritarian government” (New York Times, 4/10/20; FAIR.org, 4/16/20), rendering the Covid-19 outbreak in Venezuela a “frightening prospect” (Washington Post, 3/20/20) that “poses global threat,” as Human Rights Watch’s Tamara Taraciuk Broner and John Hopkins University’s Kathleen Page (Foreign Policy, 3/12/20) put it.
Most recently, Broner and Page (Washington Post, 7/2/20) blamed the collapse of Venezuela’s healthcare sector squarely on the “irresponsible and repressive measures by the government of Nicolás Maduro,” though they speculated that “US financial and oil sanctions could indeed be exacerbating the crisis.” They declined, however, to call for lifting the illegal US embargo, which leading Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodriguez estimates is costing the country almost $17 billion a year in lost oil revenues, insisting that “pressure needs to continue.” For reference, Venezuela imported just $2.6 billion in food and medicine in 2018.
Just as the media’s recitation of evidence-free US attacks against China’s Covid-19 response has helped distract from the Trump administration’s criminal incompetence (FAIR.org, 6/21/20, 4/9/20, 3/24/20), the vilification of Venezuela dovetails with the whitewashing of right-wing US client states in the region.
Alongside Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Chile currently lead South America in total Covid deaths per capita. However, unlike Brazil—whose far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been exceptionalized as the posterboy of Covid-19 denialism by the same Western media that helped put him in power (FAIR.org, 4/12/20)—neighboring pro-US regimes have largely been given a pass.
While Peru, Ecuador, and Chile are, like Brazil, members of the anti-Venezuela regime-change coalition known as the Lima Group, their right-wing neoliberal leaders are celebrated in the Western press as reliable, “pro-business” technocrats, in contrast to Trump and Bolsonaro–style “authoritarian populists” and what are viewed as their left-wing Chavista counterparts (FAIR.org, 5/7/20).
Despite presiding over the second-highest excess death toll per capita in the world, Peru’s right-wing Vizcarra government has received broadly sympathetic coverage from the international media. The New York Times (6/12/20) hailed President Martín Vizcarra as a model “centrist” technocrat who “followed the best advice when the coronavirus arrived in Peru”:
He ordered one of Latin America’s first and strictest lockdowns, and rolled out one of the region’s biggest economic aid packages to help citizens stay home.
The Times attributed Peru’s failed pandemic response to “deep-rooted inequality and graft,” but largely avoided faulting Vizcarra’s neoliberal administration.
Peruvian sociologist Anahi Durand told FAIR that the government rejected calls from the left to implement a universal basic income “that would have allowed the population to stay at home.” It opted instead for a policy of targeted aid to the poor, which has “not reached many people who need” it, the Times reported, refraining, however, from criticizing Vizcarra for the debacle.
At the same time, a small group of major firms—ranging from logging companies accused of tax evasion and fined for environmental infractions, like Maderera Bozovich, to transnational consulting giants such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young—received $2.5 billion in loans out of the government’s $7.5 billion credit package, which was funneled almost exclusively through top private banks. Neither the New York Times, nor other Western outlets like the BBC (7/9/20), Wall Street Journal (6/14/20) and Time (5/29/20), mentioned this rather crucial fact in their account of Peru’s disaster.
“The policy of the government has been to put the economy ahead of public health,” Durand concluded.
While corporate journalists are right to point the finger at Peru’s precarious informal economy and severely underfunded health system, they refuse to place any significant blame at the door of Vizcarra and the country’s “string of pro-business presidents,” whom they praise for reducing poverty (New York Times, 6/12/20).
The fact that the Andean country of nearly 33 million spends just $700 on healthcare per person, and has only two ICU beds for every 1,000 people is widely reported (Washington Post, 6/18/20; Time, 5/29/20). But this isn’t presented as evidence of neoliberal Peruvian elites’ “reckless disregard…for the life and health of…[their own] people,” which the Washington Post (7/2/20) and other newspapers regularly cite as the cause of blockaded Venezuela’s healthcare crisis. Other standards seem to apply to loyal US client states.
Ecuador has received relatively scant coverage in past months, despite the South American country leading the world in excess deaths per capita. In one of the few recent pieces of in-depth reporting, the Wall Street Journal (6/30/20) narrated the “success story” of how Ecuador’s devastated city of Guayaquil “largely vanquished the new coronavirus,” in which the former and current right-wing mayors collectively in power since 2000, Jaime Nebot and Cynthia Viteri, bizarrely figure among the heroes.
While acknowledging that the country’s business capital suffered 16,700 excess deaths—0.7% of the population, or almost three times the Covid death rate endured by New York City—the Journal carefully avoided any critical evaluation of the neoliberal Lenín Moreno administration’s role in the catastrophe, which it chalks up to a “deadly quirk in the calendar,” “slow reaction” and “political fights.”
The New York Times (4/23/20), for its part, appeared to renounce any pretense of journalistic inquiry, dismissing the disproportionate death toll as a “mystery” that is “impossible to explain”: “There is no obvious reason for Ecuador to be devastated far more than other countries.” What about the Moreno government’s obsession with pleasing bankers and persecuting political opponents?
Last October’s nationwide uprising (FAIR.org, 10/23/19; CounterSpin, 10/29/19) has all but vanished from Western media coverage, invoked only to smear the popular rebellion as “violent protests” where “eight people died and thousands were injured in two weeks of chaos that left Quito’s historic center looking like a war zone” (Financial Times, 6/15/20). Readers will find scarce mention in the press of Moreno’s brutal, militarized crackdown, nor of the continued imprisonment and persecution of supporters of ex-President Rafael Correa. Most recently, as Covid-19 cases spike in Quito, Moreno and his corrupt auditor general have been busy banning Correa’s political party ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
Also absent from the media narrative is any mention of the fact that the Moreno government, together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has pushed through savage cuts to public spending, including slashing investment in public health by 64% over the last two years. In 2019, 3,680 public health workers were laid off, equivalent to 4.5% of total Health Ministry staff. A further 2,279 of the ministry’s administrative staff, or 2.8% of total personnel, were laid off in May, following the signing of a new IMF loan, which mandated that the state reduce public spending by 6.2% of GDP through 2025.
It was this neoliberal austerity program—not vague accusations of federal government “indifference,” as reported by the Journal (6/30/20)—that back in March prompted the resignation of the Health minister, who stated that “no budget allocation has been received from the competent authority to emergency management.”
Economist Andrés Arauz, who previously served as Ecuador’s minister of Knowledge and director general of the Central Bank, commented to FAIR:
The minister complained that the Finance Ministry did not transfer a single cent for the emergency, while billions of dollars were being paid out in margin calls and speculative operations on the stock market.
Between February and April, Ecuador shelled out nearly $2.5 billion in debt payments, including hundreds of millions in margin calls on risky Wall Street loans.
Corporate outlets have all but ignored the payouts, but more egregiously, they gloss over the fact that it was Moreno’s voluntary decision to surrender national sovereignty to the IMF and Western banks, presenting him as the hapless victim of “dire economic straits” (Financial Times, 6/15/20).
Moreno had numerous available avenues for raising state revenue that he proceeded to close off. His government eliminated a pair of laws requiring windfall oil and mining revenues to be shared 50/50 between the Ecuadorian state and transnational companies, declined to renew import tariffs, and even passed a law removing a tax on the exit of dollars, as well as blocking the state from financing itself internally by borrowing within the country (Counterpunch, 11/13/18). All of these measures were aimed at enriching Moreno’s major local and foreign capitalist backers, who continue to engage in massive capital flight, to the tune of $900 million in April alone.
But this media narrative of Moreno shackled by a huge foreign debt, for which he supposedly has zero responsibility (FAIR.org, 10/23/19), is useful in justifying the kind of class warfare that the editors of the Financial Times (6/15/20) salivate for:
The president said the budget deficit would be at least $12 billion this year, about 11% of gross domestic product. To help fill the gap, his government has announced $4 billion of spending cuts, including scrapping state-owned companies, liquidating the national airline, and asking government employees and teachers to reduce their hours and pay.
Eight public firms are on the chopping block, with 3,604 workers set to lose their jobs, joining the 180,000 workers who have been laid off during the pandemic, according to official figures.
Meanwhile, facing zero international media scrutiny, Moreno has taken advantage of the current state of exception to ram through even more sweeping neoliberal measures, which had been halted by massive street protests last fall, including a labor reform undermining workers’ rights, the elimination of fuel subsidies, and modifications to the tax code previously rejected by the legislature.
Indeed, despite his bleeding of the country to the benefit of capital, Moreno’s corporate media admirers (FAIR.org, 2/4/18) will never refer to the right-wing US-friendly leader as an “authoritarian” whose “irresponsible and repressive measures” have cost thousands of lives, as Venezuela is described.
WaPo: Chile celebrated success against the coronavirus — and began to open up. Infections have soared.
Since its emergence as a global leader in per capita Covid-19 deaths last month, Chile has received mildly critical coverage from across the media spectrum. Western outlets reproached the right-wing Piñera government for being “overconfident” (Washington Post, 6/23/20) and “out of touch” (Bloomberg, 6/16/20), based on its controversial policy of rolling quarantines and rapid reopening. Chile “failed to recognize that the affluent have maids, gardeners and cooks who might also get infected,” NPR (7/2/20) reported.
Media particularly faulted President Sebastián Piñera for not repairing the “disconnect between government and nation” exposed by last year’s nationwide anti-neoliberal uprising, which Bloomberg (6/16/20) vilified as “massive riots…[that] turned the city center into a war zone of smashed lights, debris, burnt-out buildings and graffiti.” At the time, corporate journalists by and large looked the other way while the Chilean state arrested 11,412 people, imprisoned 2,500, tortured 1,516 and injured 3,756, including 460 shot in the eye by police, according to Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (FAIR.org, 10/23/19, 10/26/19, 11/5/19, 12/6/19).
Frontline health workers reject the media’s gentle criticism of Chile’s Covid-19 response as understatements, accusing the government of Trump-style criminal negligence.
According to Dr. Roberto Bermudez, who attends Covid patients at two public hospitals in Santiago, the Piñera government has “followed the lead of the Trump administration” in manipulating statistics, refusing to implement a national quarantine and privileging corporate profits over public health.
“The strategy is very macabre. Chile allowed many people to die while trying to pursue herd immunity,” he told FAIR, referring to disgraced former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich’s comment in April that “the only way to protect ourselves is that the majority of people are infected.”
For months, Mañalich—a close friend and confidant of Piñera—doctored the country’s death figures, making public only the test-confirmed deaths, and not the considerable number of Covid-19 deaths diagnosed by doctors but with no test administered. United Nations Development Program Regional Director Luis Felipe López-Calva estimates that Chile could be under-reporting coronavirus fatalities by as much as 61%, based on excess death data compiled by the Economist.
Corporate journalists euphemistically described the government’s brazen lying to the public as “discrepancies” (NPR, 7/2/20) that caused “divisions [with] sectors of the medical community” (Guardian, 6/14/20).
They also ignored the fact that mayors and health experts across the country have been urging Piñera to declare a nationwide quarantine since the pandemic arrived in March, which was reported at the time (Reuters, 3/20/20; Newsweek, 3/23/20) but has since been erased from the media narrative. In response to the government’s stonewalling, multiple criminal lawsuits have been filed accusing Piñera and Mañalich of homicide, which has similarly gone unreported.
As in Peru and Ecuador, the press has turned a blind eye to the Piñera government’s systematic prioritization of private capital over human life. In April, the Chilean president promulgated a law authorizing employers to temporarily suspend workers’ contracts under the pretext of avoiding mass layoffs resulting from insolvency.
Over 677,000 workers have been left to scrape by on fractions of their already-meager earnings drawn from unemployment funds, while transnational conglomerates—now freed from wage obligations—pay multimillion dollar dividends to their shareholders. For instance, Latin American retail giant CENCOSUD paid investors more than $234 million between two of its subsidiaries after suspending the contracts of 7,731 workers. LATAM Airlines paid out $57 million while slashing wages in half through June, firing 4,400 workers and filing for bankruptcy in the US. Meanwhile, soup kitchens now blanket the landscape of metropolitan Santiago, configuring a new geography of hunger.
Reuters: Chile’s military moves through shadows to spot coronavirus curfew breakers
Reuters (6/12/20) romanticizes the “carefully gloved fist” of an armed force that in the past year has tortured and blinded hundreds of Chileans.
Also missing from the headlines is any criticism of Piñera’s crusade to normalize militarized state repression, including the deployment of active-duty troops to enforce sanitary restrictions and nightly curfews decreed under a “state of catastrophe” order issued in March.
Reuters (6/12/20) could scarcely hide its infatuation with the armed forces “safeguarding the coronavirus lockdowns and curfews Chilean-style, with soldiers and police working in tandem, wielding weaponry but with a carefully gloved fist.” The wire service did not mention that these are the same soldiers and police who, however “mindful of the growing poverty and hunger…caused by the pandemic,” have maimed, murdered and tortured, not only under the state of emergency, but during last year’s uprising as well.
Notwithstanding Piñera’s illegal militarization of Indigenous Mapuche territory and effort to ram through parliament a new intelligence bill targeting popular movements as “internal enemies,” the pro-US leader is not accused in the Western media of “tighten[ing his] grip on power, helped by coronavirus lockdown,” or “using Covid-19 to silence his opponents even further.”
It is clear that such indictments are reserved for Official Enemies like Venezuela, China (FAIR.org, 3/6/20) and Cuba (FAIR.org, 5/31/20, 4/14/20), but never loyal US vassals.
Lucas Koerner is a journalist and political analyst based in Caracas, Venezuela. He currently serves on the editorial board of Venezuelanalysis.