The Nation‘s shameless spin on Venezuela

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Leopoldo López

The other day Foreign Policy posted an excellent article by Jeffrey Tayler entitled “Venezuela’s Last Hope.” The reference was to Leopoldo López, who was described by Tayler as “the most prominent and charismatic leader of Venezuela’s embattled democratic opposition” and as embodying “the change his country needs” – and who’s been a political prisoner for over a year. Although his jailers have subjected him to “especially harsh treatment, hurling excrement and urine through his cell’s bars, disrupting his sleep, confiscating his personal belongings and writings, subjecting him to eight months of solitary confinement (torture, according to the relevant United Nations convention), and denying him legally mandated visits from his wife…and his two young children,” López has twice refused offers to be released and sent to the U.S. in exchange for a convicted traitor.

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Nicolás Maduro

The contrast between López and Nicolás Maduro, the incompetent clown who incarcerated him, is stark: Maduro is an ignorant lout who rode the wave of chavismo from poverty to power and who, unable to abandon the ideology that underlies Venezuela’s economic crisis, seeks to distract his followers with fatuous speeches blaming everything on the evil U.S. and his “fascist” opponents; López, handsome, charismatic, and highly intelligent, attended Kenyon College and Harvard, served as a “high-level analyst for the country’s state-owned oil company,” taught economics at the university level, and for eight years was the remarkably effective and corruption-free mayor of the Chacao municipality in Caracas. “If anyone is fit to unseat Maduro,” wrote Tayler, “it is López.”

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Luis Britto García

Yet how have our friends at The Nation, that chavismo-loving, Putin-defending flagship organ of the American left, spun this story? In April of last year, under a headline identifying López and his allies as “Neo-Fascist Creeps,” it ran an interview with author Luis Britto García, a longtime Chávez courtier, who called López an “extreme right-winger,” “fanatical fascist,” and “ultra-super-reactionary” and mocked him as “the latest in a long line of messiahs of the right” who’d soon be forgotten.

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Greg Grandin

This March, The Nation ran another piece in which NYU history prof and critic of “U.S. imperialism” Greg Grandin, purportedly seeking the truth about the current situation in Venezuela, consulted a series of “experts” all of whom, unsurprisingly, supplied The Nation with exactly what it wanted. To sum up their wisdom: (1) we should “keep perspective” (after all, things are bad in Mexico, too); (2) the U.S. may not support Maduro, but the Venezuelan people do; (3) Venezuela’s economic problems are caused not by socialism by the “destabilizing” influence of the “fascists”; (4) Venezuela’s economic problems are caused not by socialism but by “a dysfunctional exchange rate system”; (5) Venezuela’s economic problems are caused not by socialism but by the fact that Venezuela has not become socialist enough – the country needs to leave “neo-liberalism” completely behind and “advance towards a post-capitalist model in which productive capacities are socialized in the hands of the people.” Yeah, that always works. 

And what about López? Grandin mentioned him in passing  in parentheses – identifying him as “the now jailed Leopoldo López”; but that was it. There was no mention of the reason for López’s captivity, no acknowledgment that he’s been locked up for over a year without trial; and, of course, no attempt to discuss the morality of his incarceration.

Surprising? No. This is just The Nation being The Nation – an eternal disgrace to freedom and tireless defender of socialist despotism.

“Who cares?”

Even though many of Vladimir Putin’s Western apologists – notably Noam Chomskywould surely identify themselves as ardent anti-imperialists, for them, as we’ve seen over and over again, the old imperial notion of “spheres of influence” is still very much alive.

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Vladimir Putin

Consider an exchange that took place on a German TV talk show early last year. A Ukrainian journalist who was standing up for her country’s right to freedom and self-determination told Klaus von Dohnanyi, a German Social Democratic politician: “I don’t feel particularly good about how you speak about Ukraine, as though the country didn’t even exist.”

She couldn’t have put it more correctly: Americans and Western Europeans who are eager to “understand” Putin’s motivations and his supposed feeling of insecurity over being “surrounded” by NATO are deplorably quick to reduce Ukraine – a nation of 45 million people – to a chess piece, a bargaining chip, a buffer zone without any rights or will or mind or its own.

(As we saw last time around, right-wing British opinion columnist Peter Hitchens – not to be confused with his late, great brother, Christopher – had a succinct answer to concerns about Russia’s moves on Ukraine: “Who,” he sneered, “now cares about squalid Ukraine….?” Back in 1938, certain British commentators wrote similar things about the Sudetenland.)

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Klaus von Dohnanyi

Dohnanyi’s response to the Ukrainian journalist was nothing short of disgraceful: “You can’t simply remove yourselves from a zone of influence,” he lectured her.

Has Dohnanyi forgotten that the eastern part of his own country was, until not very long ago, a part of the USSR’s “zone of influence”? As writer Ralf Neukirch put it in Der Spiegel, “the Ukrainians…are being sacrificed on the altar of sympathy for Russia.” Or, rather, sympathy for Putin, whom his midguided apologists see not as a tyrant but as a victim – even as they view 45 million Ukrainians as troublemakers whose very existence is a problem and whose longing for freedom only adds insult to injury.

Another such apologist for Putin’s designs on Ukraine is Atlantic Monthly‘s Russia columnist Jeffrey Tayler, who, in March 2014, argued that Putin was right to view with a gimlet eye U.S. aid to that country under the 1992 Freedom Support Act.

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Jeffrey Tayler

American efforts under this act, of course, have been aimed at helping a people liberated from Communism to develop democratic institutions; instead of lauding this noble goal, Tayler urged his readers to sympathize with Russians who see the program as insidious, and himself described these aid efforts as “aggressive steps…to reduce Russia’s influence.” By seeking to help Eastern Europeans develop free institutions and economies, the U.S., in Tayler’s view, is expanding its “hegemony” – and is doing so “at Russia’s expense.”

Some of us might suggest that what’s increased “at Russia’s expense” is the freedom and prosperity of its former subject peoples. But Tayler is less concerned about those millions of free people along Russia’s borders than he is about poor Putin, who, he maintains, is convinced – and quite reasonably so – that he’s “locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government — and even, possibly, for his life.”

Yes, his life. Tayler omits to mention the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and assassination of countless Putin adversaries, but he does raise the absurd specter of the US taking out Putin – for it’s apparently just a short step, in Tayler’s view, from mischievously encouraging the spread of liberty in Putin’s backyard to ordering his assassination.

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John Pilger

In Britain, the Guardian is home to several scribes who, it appears, can see Ukrainian freedom only through Putin’s eyes. John Pilger calls the 2014 Ukrainian revolution “Washington’s putsch in Kiev”; for him, Putin’s Russia isn’t an anti-democratic menace but an innocent victim of “provocation and isolation” by a U.S. government whose actions against it are “right out of Dr. Strangelove.” Fellow Guardian writer Seumas Milne agrees, calling Putin’s invasion of Crimea “clearly defensive” and expressing satisfaction that, thanks to Putin, “the east of Ukraine, at least, is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU.” Yes, you read that right: a columnist for the Guardian views NATO, not Putin, as a bully out to “swallow up” eastern Ukraine. Jonathan Cook, a former Guardianista, puts it like this: “Russia is getting boxed in by an aggressive Nato policy on its doorstep.” Again, everything’s upside-down: NATO’s the aggressor, Russia the prey.

Let’s wind up our overview of Putin’s apologists with a look at Daniel Larison, who’s been a regular contributor to the flagship paleocon journal American Conservative since 2004. Back in 2007, Larison published a piece in Taki Magazine (another paleocon sheet) entitled – no kidding – “Persecuting Putin.” In it, Larison – who was then a grad student in Chicago – condemned the “savage criticisms of Putin and his regime” by “putative” Western conservatives, whom he accused of a “lingering post-Cold War suspicion of Russia” and a “not-so-latent Russophobia.” If Westerners distrust Putin, Larison charged, it’s because “a relatively strong, assertive Russia poses an unacceptable threat to the ability of Washington and Brussels to dominate their desired spheres of influence in post-Soviet space.”

What about, um, the freedom of the countries in that “post-Soviet space”? Larison wrote so condescendingly about the spread of liberty to former Soviet republics and satellites that we found ourselves wondering exactly how old he is. We discovered that he got his Ph.D. in 2009. One suspects, then, that Larison is too young to remember the Cold War – too young to have ever set foot behind the Iron Curtain and experienced the genuine terror that was Soviet totalitarianism. Surely no American of conscience, we submit, could have lived through the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain and be able, in 2007, to write (as he does) about the freedom of Eastern Europeans as if it were simply a question of “spheres of influence” and of unsavory efforts by U.S. and European leftists to impose social democracy on people who belong, by nature, in the Kremlin’s orbit.

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Daniel Larison

Larison, we’ll repeat, wrote that piece way back in 2007. He hasn’t changed his tune, however. Like his American Conservative colleagues Pat Buchanan and William S. Lind, he’s written one piece after another making it plain that he sees Putin’s Russia as a bastion of the “conservative” values that the U.S., in the paleocon view, has brutally betrayed. As James Kirchick observed last year in the Daily Beast, “Larison is a dependable Putin apologist no matter how egregious the Russian president’s behavior.”

Alas, that statement could be made about all too many of Putin’s useful idiots in the West, whose dependability is matched only by their moral dereliction.