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Seven Questions for an Argentine Farmer

March 30th, 2008 | 09:47 AM

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Soybeans are to Argentina what oil is to Saudi Arabia

Argentine farmers and ranchers, tired of what they call “abusively high confiscatory taxes,” have brought the government to its knees with what may be the biggest agricultural strike in Argentine history. The strike (which includes hundreds of related daily street protests in the nation’s interior, as well as the blocking of roads and the refusal to sell farm products) is entering its third week. The strike has had a major impact on Argentine politics. But if it goes on any longer, it may also affect people’s basic consumption patterns. Since farmers are no longer selling beef, chicken, milk, wheat or other goods, supermarkets are finding it harder to stock these items. So what’s all the huff about?

The Argentine Post asked Andres Rosenberg, a farmer from Buenos Aires Province, to help us understand why farmers are upset. Andres manages farms in Buenos Aires and in Entre Rios. He produces corn, soybeans and wheat. He also raises cattle and produces the kind of beef that has helped make Argentina famous.

1) Do you support the farm strike?

Not the strike. I support the complaint that farmers are making. I believe in dialog. Having said that, this government does not listen to others. So the strike is, apparently, the only way to get the government to listen to our ideas. However, this complaint, which began years ago as a simple farmers’ complaint, has now become a political and social complaint shared by many people in society. This may escalate into an even bigger problem that will be harder and harder to resolve through negotiation. And as long as the government refuses to negotiate, it is possible, I’m afraid, that this will turn into something that leads to tragic consequences.

2) How important is agriculture to the Argentine economy?

Very important. Since 2003, when the “retenciones” or export taxes began, the government has collected over US $40 billion from farmers. More than a third of all the jobs in Argentina are directly or indirectly related to agriculture. Argentine history indicates that when the agriculture sector does well, the country does well.

3) President Cristina Kirchner and her husband (former president Nestor Kirchner) have accused farmers of lining their pocketbooks while other Argentines suffer from poverty. Is this true? Are farmers rich?

Farmers are making money now. Rich? That requires a perfect definition. However, because farmers are doing well, the whole commercial chain is doing well. The interior of Argentina is doing well because farmers are contributing to the development of small regional economies. Farmers stimulate the buying of food, industrial goods, services, and transport, etc. There are many towns and cities that are alive and thriving because of farmers. Examples include Las Parejas, Armstrong and others. These communities are growing thanks to the agriculture sector. Farmers invest a lot in their communities and this is reflected in growth and rural development. But there are many sectors of the economy that are making money.

4) What do you think of President Cristina Kirchner?

She is creating a kind of political and social division between farmers and average citizens that was heretofore nonexistent. She lacks understanding and political skill. I will keep my other opinions about her to myself.

5) What did you think of her speech Tuesday night (the one that led tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in Buenos Aires and across the country)?

It was absurd. It did nothing but create more conflict. Apparently, she seems to dislike people who make money. That’s my opinion. But if that is the case, she should tell it like it is and simply say so. It seems that making money in Argentina is a sin.

6) Do you think it’s fair for farmers to pay any kind of export tax?

I would agree much more with the idea if that money stayed in its place of origin. Export taxes are national taxes that are not shared with provincial or with municipal governments. They are a tax on production that takes place in provinces and in rural areas. What happened with the $40 billion that the government has collected since 2003? How has the government spent that money? These funds are never reinvested in local economies and that is where, I believe, they are most needed. Export taxes that total as much as 44% are illogical.

7) What should the government’s farm policies look like?

I am not an economist, so any ideas I might have should not be taken too seriously.

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NYT Argentina Story Lifted Material From Newsweek

March 26th, 2008 | 03:57 PM

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One of the most popular stories in The New York Times this month was a lengthy feature about expat artists in Buenos Aires. The 2,798-word story, written by Times editor Denny Lee and titled Argentine Nights, asserted that “legions of foreign artists are colonizing Buenos Aires and transforming this sprawling metropolis into a throbbing hothouse of cool.”

Lee wrote that “musicians, designers, artists, writers and filmmakers” are “helping shake the Argentine capital out of its cultural malaise after a humbling economic crisis earlier this decade.” According to the story, “nearly everywhere you turn these days, the new arrivals seem to be planting their flags, whether at a so-called Chorizo house in historic San Telmo or a glassy condo in Puerto Madero.”

For the most part, all of this is true. There is just one problem. This story already had been done, in almost exactly the same manner, more than a year ago by Newsweek. The original story, titled “The Capital of Cool,” was written by Brian Byrnes and published on January 15, 2007.

In his story, Byrnes wrote that “an invasion of foreign artists is transforming Buenos Aires into an emerging international capital of cultural cool. Like Prague in the 1990s, Buenos Aires offers chic on the cheap and is attracting scores of musicians, filmmakers, journalists, designers and even sitcom writers from abroad. Hundreds, if not thousands, have spilled in from the United States, England, Spain and beyond, helping to bring the capital out of a period of deep cultural isolation after an economic collapse five years ago.”

But the similarities in the stories do not end here.

Here is how Byrnes described the local scene:

Champagne-fueled fashion shows and gallery openings keep the city’s glitterati on a 24/7 social schedule. Casting agents scour bars looking for young English or Mandarin speakers for the dozens of foreign commercials regularly being shot in the city. 

Here is how Lee described it:

Video directors are scouting tango ballrooms for English-speaking actors. Wine-soaked gallery openings and behemoth gay discos are keeping the city’s insomniacs up till sunrise. 

Lee precedes his remark about wine-soaked galleries with a sentence about video directors who scout tango ballrooms. Byrnes talks about casting agents just after he mentions the champagne-fueled fashion shows and gallery openings. Is there any difference between video directors who are scouting people and casting agents who scour bars for people? The similarities continue:

Byrnes:

Dozens of blogs written by expats enthusiastically tout the good life on offer in B.A. 

Lee:

Like dozens of similar blogs written by foreigners, it rhapsodizes about the Argentine good life. 

And continue:

Byrnes:

Argentina has a storied film tradition, and in recent years its movies have been gaining international acclaim, winning top honors at the Berlin, Stockholm and Tribeca film festivals. 

Lee:

Argentina has a storied film history — notable examples include the 1968 political documentary “The Hour of the Furnaces” and the post-junta feature, “Official Story,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1986 — and, in recent years, a so-called New Argentine Cinema has emerged, thanks to a new crop of directors like Daniel Burman and Lucrecia Martel who are winning prizes in Berlin, Toronto and other film festivals. 

To recap, we know so far that Buenos Aires is so hot that it is cool, that it has both champagne-fueled and wine-soaked gallery openings, that it has both video directors and casting agents scouting and scouring bars and tango ballrooms, that dozens of bloggers enthusiastically tout and rhapsodize about life here and that Argentina has a storied film tradition and history.

In each of these examples, Lee comes perilously close to plagiarizing the original Newsweek story. And yet he does not, strictly speaking, take Newsweek’s material and place it, verbatim, into his own story. But Lee’s imitation of Newsweek’s story goes beyond the uncanny echoing of phrases.

While writing about Argentine film, Lee mentions “Tomi Streiff, a filmmaker who moved to Buenos Aires from New York City with his partner and fellow screenwriter, Jane Hallisey. The couple is now working on a romantic comedy about a priest.” Byrnes, in his story, also quoted and referred to “Jane Hallisey, a screenwriter and film producer who moved from New York to Buenos Aires in 2003 with her Swiss partner and fellow cinéaste Tomi Streiff, to escape the grim, diminished work environment of post-9/11 New York.”

In all, Byrnes referred to or quoted 12 expats for his Newsweek story. Lee quoted or referred to not one or two of these sources, but to eight of them. These include Amanda Knauer, David Lampson, Gavin Burnett, Grant Dull, Jane Hallisey, Marina Palmer, Tomi Streiff and Tom Rixton. But while Lee referred to or quoted all of these sources, he did not contact all of them to confirm their stories. Marina Palmer, author of “Kiss and Tango,” is one of those people. She actually left Argentina in September to move to Oxford. And while she plans “to return to Argentina as much as possible,” she is no longer an expat in Buenos Aires. She said in an email that Lee had not interviewed her.

To be fair, Lee’s story is more extensive than the Newsweek piece, which runs 1,757 words. In all, Lee quotes or refers by name to 17 people, most of whom are expats or foreigners visiting Buenos Aires. He also talks about how Argentine artists are taking their work overseas.

Of course, it is common for different reporters and different media companies to cover the same events, trends, people and places. This is part of the business. But whenever possible, the best reporters will look for a unique angle that nobody else has covered. Photographers will seek a distinct smile or look on someone’s face.

When writers are not covering plane crashes, press conferences or other breaking news events, they generally have more time to investigate and craft their stories. They can – or at least should – uncover unique elements and tell their tales in ways that are fresh and original. This is, or at least ought to be, the case with features like the two we are examining here. To his credit, Lee expands on the original Newsweek piece, surpassing it in its in-depth portrayal of the expat artistic community. Lee’s story has more of a narrative quality to it, perhaps allowing readers to feel as if they are actually walking along the cobblestone streets that Lee describes. But Byrnes also writes of cobblestone streets. Indeed, where Byrnes notes that the “cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires’s historic San Telmo district don’t sing only with the seductive sounds of tango music anymore,” Lee writes that a “new kind of tango is taking shape along the crooked back streets of Buenos Aires.” One could be forgiven for concluding that these two stories really are singing the same tune.

The very premise of Lee’s story – that an expat invasion is “shaking” the cultural foundations of Buenos Aires – tends to undermine his own credibility in this matter. After all, if “nearly everywhere you turn these days” there is an expat planting his or her flag, as Lee wrote, then why did he not refer to more of them in his story? Why did he refer to or quote so many of Newsweek’s sources when “legions of foreign artists are colonizing Buenos Aires?”

Fred Brown is vice chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also a past national president of the SPJ and he helped write the Society’s 1996 Code of Ethics. Amid a long list of rules, the Code states that a journalist should “never plagiarize.”

If verbatim theft is what counts, then Lee is not guilty. No two sentences are exact duplicates. But it sure appears that he virtually copied entire phrases, ideas and even the basic structure of Newsweek’s original article. I contacted Brown to ask him what he thought of Lee’s story. Does it amount to plagiarism?

“I’d say this is certainly a case where the similarities are not coincidental,” Brown said. “There are too many phrases that are too similar. One of the dead giveaways for plagiarism is that while the words may be slightly changed, the structure remains the same. That certainly seems to be the case here. And if it’s not plagiarism, it’s certainly sloppy and lazy journalism. This is not fair to the original writer. The New York Times should be more careful about this. Given its history, the Times needs to be very careful about this sort of thing.” 

Brown was referring mainly to the scandal surrounding former Times reporter Jayson Blair. In 2003 the Times gained heaps of unwanted attention after it was discovered that Blair had plagiarized material and engaged in the wholesale invention of stories. He had used fake sources and had written about places and events even though he had not been to those places or witnessed those events. At the time, the Blair scandal was the latest in a string of embarrassing discoveries involving unethical journalists who had greatly embellished stories or simply made them up from scratch.

Apart from misstating the age of one source, 25-year-old Tom Masterson (Lee said he was 35), Lee’s story appears to be accurate. Nonetheless, it appears that Lee took the entire skeleton of the Newsweek story and used it as his own without crediting Newsweek.

All of this underscores Brown’s view that Lee’s story is “sloppy and lazy journalism.” There is no ruling body in journalism that could preside authoritatively over a trial of this matter, but The NYT certainly could. That is exactly what Brown thinks it should do.

“The NYT has set very high standards for itself and it should live up to them,” Brown said. “Usually this kind of thing sets off an internal investigation that reviews other stories by the writer. If it turns out there are other instances like this by this same writer, I think the Times should follow its own standards and they should do what they did with Jason Blair. Maybe the general public doesn’t really understand this sort of thing or understand what all the fuss is about. But situations like this give newspapers like the Times an opportunity to say, ‘We care about ethics.’” 

Brown, who teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, said that no high school or college journalism teacher would allow a student to lift material like this. “If two of my students came to me with stories like these, I would certainly think that one of them copied from the other. It would not be acceptable.”

It should not be acceptable for the NYT either. Evidently, however, it has been. On January 22, 2006, Lee wrote a story titled “Lithuania: Finding a Future in Its Soviet Past.” It was a nicely written three-paragraph story on Lithuania that included colorful descriptions of two bars. Embarrassingly for the NYT, Lee had written the piece without having been to Lithuania. The Times attached the following “Editor’s Note” to the article:

A brief article in the Travel section on Jan. 22 described vestiges of the Soviet era in Lithuania. It told of “nostalgia for pre-perestroika innocence,” and described bars in Vilnius, the capital, that had Soviet military and political themes, and a park with statues of Marx and Stalin. 

The article was based on information obtained from travel Web sites and online searches of various other publications, including The Guardian, The National Post of Canada and USA Today, and some of its information was outdated. (Both bars, for example, closed some years ago.)

The article should have made clear that it was not based on first-hand reporting on the scene.

Whoa! Stop the press. In any kind of investigation into Lee’s previous work, this eyebrow-raising shocker would be key evidence. It is a blatant violation of Lee’s obligation to the NYT. He failed to comply with even the simplest of his duties as a reporter, which is to confirm the veracity of the material he is writing about. The Times rectified the situation and met its duty to readers by placing the editor’s note on Lee’s story. But this was only a partial fulfillment of the NYT’s responsibility. The newspaper, known as the Grey Lady in journalistic circles, also had an ethical duty to talk with Lee to ensure that this kind of thing did not occur again. Only Lee and his superiors at the NYT know if this occurred.

The NYT and other major media companies for decades have been accused of poaching stories from smaller newspapers and magazines. This is common in journalism. In some cases, it is unfair and irresponsible. In other cases, where the original work is cited, it can be considered flattering. Under no circumstances, however, can the wholesale copying of ideas, phrasings and structure be justified. This seems to be the case with Denny Lee and Argentine Nights. If so, it is more than sloppy and lazy journalism. It is intellectual theft. And Lee has been accused of this before.

In 2003, The Villager, a small New York City newspaper, published the following article, titled “You be the judge”:

For a while, we had become inured to The New York Times lifting our stories, but we finally got sick of it. 

On June 25, we sent to The New York Times over two dozen articles that closely parallel articles previously published in The Villager, and requested a review from senior New York Times management. An investigation by Connie Rosenblum, New York Times City Section editor ensued, and the matter was referred to one of her superiors, Bill Borders, a New York Times senior editor. After a three-week review, the Times acknowledged that The Villager’s original reporting should have been credited for some of these articles. Borders said that he agreed that “the Times seemed to show an unhealthy reliance on prior reporting in The Villager.”

The Times, however, did not respond to a request by The Villager to inform New York Times readers of this “unhealthy reliance” through a correction or editor’s note.

The New York Times sets a high standard in journalism. Its own ethics policy reads: “The Times treats it readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.” In this case, it is our view that the Times has not met its own high standard.

It should not be difficult for the Times to acknowledge that its writers read, and draw from, other publications. The Times needs to enforce its attribution policy to credit the efforts of other independent news gathering organizations for their original reporting. It’s a matter of fairness, professional courtesy and good journalistic ethics.

Below is a sample of articles from The New York Times, paired with the attached previously published Villager article, that we think highlights the Times’ lack of attribution — and its “unhealthy reliance on previous reporting in The Villager.”

Denny Lee wrote sixteen of those stories.

All of this seems like déjà vu to Albert Amateau. He is a Villager reporter who wrote five of the stories that The Villager complained about to the NYT.

“Our publisher, John Sutton, was furious about this,” Amateau said in comments to The Argentine Post. “He is a real believer in journalism and in the editorial process. He raised hell with the Times about this and he cited Denny Lee for picking up stories from us almost verbatim.” 

Amateau said he was surprised to see that Lee was still writing for the NYT. “I haven’t seen his byline in ages. I figured they had gotten rid of him.”

Amateau said Lee easily could have avoided trouble if he had given The Villager credit for being the source of his NYT stories.

“We like it when people pick up our ideas and cite us,” Amateau said. “This is part of the news that our readers want to know about it. Denny was the major offender in all of this. He should have attributed those stories. It would make him look like a scholar and a hard worker. That would have satisfied John Sutter.” 

On August 4, 2003, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz addressed this issue and had the following to say:

Some journalistic sins are crystal clear, like Jayson Blair plagiarizing out-of-town stories without leaving New York. And some situations are much murkier. 

There’s no hint of plagiarism here; in each case, Times staffers did their own reporting and filed stories that read very differently. And it’s hardly unusual for big-city papers, including The Washington Post, to follow up on reports in smaller community papers. But in this case there appears to be a pattern of lifting ideas without credit.

So why did Lee not attribute the stories? He did not return an email request for comment. But doing so would not have made him or the NYT look bad. If anything, it would have made the NYT look magnanimous, earning it even more respect from readers and from journalists. After all, it is impossible for the NYT or any other media company to scoop everyone in all places and at all times. The NYT has very talented reporters, and lots of them. It will always get its fair share of original stories. For the NYT to assume it has to be the first to report every story is both unrealistic and arrogant. It is also an insult to hardworking reporters elsewhere whose own original work will never make it into the NYT.

Meanwhile, the NYT ran into trouble again last month in another story about Argentina. On February 28, 2008, the NYT placed another editor’s note on a front-page article by Alexei Barrionuevo. Slate media critic Jack Shafer discovered that the story, which was about a cocaine epidemic in Argentina, had plagiarized, word-for-word, more than 60 words from a previous Miami Herald article on the topic.

As for Argentine Nights, it is easy to guess why Lee might not have offered credit to Newsweek. In this case, Lee’s story comes exceptionally close to plagiarism. So Lee, who surely is aware of the similarities, would not want to alert anyone to them. But he easily could have crafted a story that was his own without relying on Newsweek. If the NYT continues to let Lee abuse his position like this it will be equivalent to sticking its thumb in the eye of hardworking reporters everywhere who live up to the industry’s highest ethical standards.

A recent Harris Poll indicated that just 30% of Americans tend to trust the press. A slightly higher percentage (41%) tend to trust Internet news and information sites. To improve these figures, journalists not only will have to say that they believe in high ethical standards, but they will have to live up to them. Media companies, meanwhile, will have to enforce them.

Journalists are not particularly respected as professionals. People often scoff at them the way they do at divorce lawyers and used-car salesmen. This is partly because we do not always live up to the ethical standards we set for ourselves. “The purpose of journalism,” wrote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, “is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” But if people do not trust us with that information, we will have defeated the very purpose of our work.

The attribution of original material has become standard practice in the blogosphere. Indeed, it is rare to see respected blogs that do not link or refer to original sources. Perhaps this is why more people seem to trust the Internet for news. Bloggers often offer praise and “kudos” to others for being the first to write something. A failure to do so is considered extremely uncouth. It is time for the Old World of print to catch up to the New World of digital media, where, perhaps, ethical practices have in some ways evolved faster and more completely than elsewhere. Denny Lee ought to be held accountable for his actions, and so should the Times.

UPDATE: Stuart Emmrich, the Travel Editor at the NYT, sent a rather detailed email to The Argentine Post in which he said “there was no plagiarism at work” in Lee’s story.

“As for the writing,” Emmrich said, “there are some unfortunate places where the two pieces overlap: “storied film history”; “wine-soaked art galleries” vs. “Champagne-fueled fashion shows.” And I don’t mean to minimize this issue at all – nor does Denny – but I feel those similarities have more to do with perhaps falling back on the old travel clichés — and of the difficultly of finding new ways to describe a city as being “hot” and “hip” — then (Sic) a deliberate attempt to copy someone else’s language or reporting.”

I am trying to find a way to post the entirety of Emmrich’s email via a down-loadable PDF or something similar so that readers can read it for themselves. I will update this post as soon as I have figured out how to do this.

Link: Argentine Nights
Link: The Capital of Cool
Link: Brian Byrnes
Link: NYT Lithuania Story & Editor’s Note
Link: NYT Argentina Drug Story & Editor’s Note
Link: The Villager Story on NYT’s Stories
Link: Slate Story on NYT Plagiarizing The Miami Herald
Link: Harris Poll on Trust & the Press
Link: Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Code
Link: SPJ’s Ethics Hotline
Link: Online Ethics Advice for Journalists
Link: British National Union of Journalists Code of Ethics

*For reasons unknown to me, Howard Kurtz’s original story has been removed from the Washington Post site and must be found using Lexus Nexus or a similar kind of search engine.

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Perfil’s Online Traffic Death Counter

March 25th, 2008 | 08:29 PM

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One of the posts here that has spawned the largest number of emails was dedicated to discussing Argentine traffic fatalities. For those who want to keep track of this issue, the newspaper Perfil keeps an online traffic-death counter on its web site. The counter lets you know how many people have died in accidents today, this week, this month and so far this year. You can find it here. The original Argentine Post traffic story and video can be found here.

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U23D Opens March 27 In Buenos Aires

March 25th, 2008 | 09:15 AM

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In case you hadn’t heard, the Irish rock band U2 ‘s new three dimensional movie opens March 27th at the IMAX theater in Buenos Aires. Most of the scenes in the 84-minute movie, which is the first of its kind to be shot entirely in 3D, were filmed during two concerts here in Buenos Aires.

In an interview with IndieLondon, Bono talked about why U2 decided to shoot the film in South America in general and in Buenos Aires in particular.

“I felt that if we were going to do this right we had to do it in South America, since the band’s presence after an eight-year hiatus from the continent was certain to draw vibrant and enthusiastic crowds.”

He continues:

“Ireland and Argentina have so much in common, not just in terms of personalities but our passion and our shared history,” he explained. “They have had their difficult political past. But our differences based on our past should not prevent us from living a better future. We share much in common. The only difference is they can dance!”

For tickets, call IMAX at 4756-7676. The Imax theater is located in Vicente Lopez, near the Unicenter Shopping Center. Address: Esteban Echeverría 3750.

Link: IMAX
Link: U23D
Link: IndieLondon Article
Link: U23D Preview (Quicktime)

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The Argentine Post Goes To Venezuela

March 24th, 2008 | 06:08 PM

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There is a photo slideshow at the end of this post.

The Argentine Post has just returned from 10 days in Venezuela. It is a country of remarkable contrasts whose controversial leader, Hugo Chavez, has gained fame for his red-shirt “socialist revolution” and its venomous denunciations of “evil U.S. imperialism.” So what does that have to do with Argentina? Argentina’s fate has become intertwined with Venezuela’s in many ways, thanks to the doings of the Kirchner family.

Former President Nestor Kirchner turned to Chavez when Kirchner wanted to rid Argentina of its debt-defined relationship with the International Monetary Fund. Kirchner did not want the IMF dictating Argentina’s economic policies, so he copied Brazil and decided to pay off Argentina’s $9.6 billion debt to the fund. But there was a problem: Argentina did not have the cash. So Kirchner turned to Chavez, the Daddy Warbucks of Latin America, for the extra coin. Since then, Chavez has lent Argentina more than $5 billion. In return, Argentina has sent food, agricultural equipment and political support to Venezuela.

Chavez and current President Cristina Kirchner are strong allies and often defend each other in public. But if it is easy to find fault with Kirchner and her dogged determination to avoid the press and be held accountable for her policies, then it is even easier to fault Chavez, a leader whose irrational tendencies and gross misunderstanding of economics have put his citizens in danger (the recent threat of war with Colombia) and hindered his ability to lift Venezuelans out of poverty.

Chavez has won accolades from many of the world’s leftist organizations. He has also cultivated the support of Hollywood stars like Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Danny Glover, among others. Chavez spews little but hate for the U.S., but he also voices support for improving the lives of Venezuela’s poor. It is easy to understand why he would attack a wildly unpopular U.S. president. It also is easy to understand why Hollywood socialists would jump on the bandwagon and support a charismatic Latin leader who claims to fight for the downtrodden. But does he really? Is Chavez really a champion of the poor? He can easily score political points by trashing President Bush, but how good is his record on the ground in Venezuela?

Venezuela is one of the world’s leading oil producers. When Chavez took office in 1999, oil sold for about $15 a barrel. Now a barrel trades for around $100. So even without doing anything, Venezuela should be doing much better financially than it was when Chavez became president. But Chavez has mismanaged PDVSA, Venezuela’s energy giant, and caused exploration and production to decline. Even so, his government has benefited tremendously from booming oil prices. This raises a key question: What has he done with all that money? Besides the $800,000 he sent down to Argentina in an unmarked suitcase, where has he invested the extra cash? Chavez has spent countless millions to support allied leaders in Latin America, but what has he done to help Venezuelans? Many Venezuelans I talked to are asking this question.

As oil prices have skyrocketed, so has government spending. This has helped fuel economic growth in Venezuela, but it has also spurred inflation, which surpassed 22% last year. This has pushed prices higher, making it harder for Venezuelans to buy basic things like food. Meanwhile, Chavez says literacy and poverty rates are improving dramatically. According to official government data, poverty declined to around 30% last year from almost 55% several years ago. If so, this is a remarkable achievement and should be lauded. But there is some reason to believe it may not be accurate. And even if it is, there is reason to think that a better government could have done much more to reduce poverty. Finally, if Venezuela’s economic boom and its subsequent development depends entirely on oil, the country may face a serious downturn if oil prices subside. It is evident that the U.S. is addicted to oil, but it seems that Venezuela is too, perhaps even more so.

Francisco Rodríguez is Assistant Professor of Economics and Latin American Studies at Wesleyan University. Before this, he was the top economist at the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004. In an extensive article in the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, Rodríguez says a prudent observer should question Chavez’s claims.
“Although opinions differ on whether Chávez’s rule should be characterized as authoritarian or democratic, just about everyone appears to agree that, in contrast to his predecessors, Chávez has made the welfare of the Venezuelan poor his top priority. His government, the thinking goes, has provided subsidized food to low-income families, redistributed land and wealth, and poured money from Venezuela’s booming oil industry into health and education programs. It should not be surprising, then, that in a country where politics was long dominated by rich elites, he has earned the lasting support of the Venezuelan poor.”

He continues:

“That story line may be compelling to many who are rightly outraged by Latin America’s deep social and economic inequalities. Unfortunately, it is wrong. Neither official statistics nor independent estimates show any evidence that Chávez has reoriented state priorities to benefit the poor. Most health and human development indicators have shown no significant improvement beyond that which is normal in the midst of an oil boom. Indeed, some [indicators] have deteriorated worryingly, and official estimates indicate that income inequality has increased. The “Chávez is good for the poor” hypothesis is inconsistent with the facts.”

Rodríguez then looks at Chavez’s efforts to flood shantytowns with Cuban doctors (many of whom have “escaped” to neighboring countries) and the impact that this has had on vital health care statistics in poor areas.

“In a number of recent studies, I have worked with colleagues to look more systematically at the results of Chávez’s health and education missions. Our findings confirm that Chávez has in fact done little for the poor. For example, his government often claims that the influx of Cuban doctors under the Barrio Adentro health program is responsible for a decline in infant mortality in Venezuela. In fact, a careful analysis of trends in infant and neonatal mortality shows that the rate of decline is not significantly different from that of the pre-Chávez period, nor from the rate of decline in other Latin American countries. Since 1999, the infant mortality rate in Venezuela has declined at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, essentially identical to the 3.3 percent rate at which it had declined during the previous nine-year period and lower than the rates of decline for the same period in Argentina (5.5 percent), Chile (5.3 percent), and Mexico (5.2 percent).”

Rodríguez also looks at Chavez’s claims about literacy rates:

“Even more disappointing are the results of the government’s Robinson literacy program. On October 28, 2005, Chávez declared Venezuela “illiteracy-free territory.” His national literacy campaign, he announced, had taught 1.5 million people how to read and write, and the education minister stated that residual illiteracy stood at less than 0.1 percent of the population. The achievement received considerable international recognition and was taken at face value by many specialists as well as by casual observers. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, reported that “illiteracy, formerly at 10 percent of the population, has been completely eliminated.” Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and UNESCO’s general director, Koïchiro Matsuura, sent the Venezuelan government public letters of congratulation for the achievement. (After Matsuura’s statement, the Chávez’s administration claimed that its eradication of illiteracy had been “UNESCO-verified.”

“But along with Daniel Ortega of Venezuela’s IESA business school, I looked at trends in illiteracy rates based on responses to the Venezuelan National Institute of Statistics’ household surveys. (A full presentation of our study will appear in the October 2008 issue of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change.) In contrast to the government’s claim, we found that there were more than one million illiterate Venezuelans by the end of 2005, barely down from the 1.1 million illiterate persons recorded in the first half of 2003, before the start of the Robinson program. Even this small reduction, moreover, is accounted for by demographic trends rather than the program itself. In a battery of statistical tests, we found little evidence that the program had had any statistically distinguishable effect on Venezuelan illiteracy. We also found numerous inconsistencies in the government’s story. For example, it claims to have employed 210,410 trainers in the anti-illiteracy effort (approximately two percent of the Venezuelan labor force), but there is no evidence in the public employment data that these people were ever hired or evidence in the government budget statistics that they were ever paid.”

Ten days is a brief amount of time to spend in Venezuela. It would be foolhardy to make sweeping generalizations about the country based solely on this visit. Nonetheless, some fair observations can be made. As someone who lived in Caracas 10 years ago, I was stunned by the growth in shantytowns that surround the city. The shantytowns, known in Venezuela as “ranchos,” once took up perhaps half of the beautiful mountainsides surrounding Caracas. They now seem to overtake entire mountains.

Their imposing presence can be felt in almost every neighborhood in Caracas. This was not true 10 years ago, at least not to this extent. Meanwhile, the anecdotal commentary from friends and relatives in Venezuela (most of whom are not partisan) indicates that many things – particularly crime – have gotten worse over the past decade. Moreover, Chavez’s price-control policies have led to widespread food shortages. Milk, cheese, sugar and other things can be hard to find. But if you are a card-carrying, red shirt-wearing Chavista, access to such items is a bit better. It is not enough simply to be Venezuelan; you must first be a Chavista. Indeed, one member of a family I know became a token Chavista just to get access to items sold in Chavez’s so-called Mercal stores, where subsidized food is available to the party faithful.

Chavez and his supporters, much like Mrs. Kirchner and hers, often blame responsibility for domestic trouble on others. Last week, while defending Chavez’s food and price control policies, a government-backed newspaper columnist had this to say:

“The government is making a great effort to achieve price accords that guarantee the supply of goods. The problem is related to immediacy. It has been necessary to negotiate with capitalistic networks, networks comprised of multinational companies and oligarchs. We have to celebrate the way this problem has been confronted. The government is finding solutions.”

In essence, the above paragraph says nothing of value. It provides no details about the price accords and says nothing specifically about what the government is doing to ensure that people have access to things like milk. It is empty rhetoric, typical of the kind often heard in Venezuela. But what is more interesting is how the column ends. After three more paragraphs of vague rhetoric, the author goes entirely off topic and blames the U.S. while praising Chavez and his allies:

“Bravo president Correa (of Ecuador), bravo president Chavez. Bravo for the courage to stand up against the aggressions of the empire.”

Prior to that last sentence, the article’s author does nothing to link food shortages with “the empire.” Implicit, perhaps, in the author’s mind, is the assumption that all companies, especially multinational ones, are somehow related to “the empire.” But such a presupposition is nowhere defended in the article. It is simply taken as a given that the evildoing U.S. empire is involved in all that ails Venezuela. That last sentence is an intellectual cheap shot, an attempt to divert readers’ attention away from the real cause of Venezuela’s food shortage. This sort of reasoning is a kind of intellectual trickery that has become common in Venezuela.

Because Chavez froze dairy prices, giving farmers and agricultural companies no incentive to sell milk, the evil U.S. empire is to blame. This kind of flawed logic, and the weak rationale that underlies it, is typical of old-school communist propaganda. It is a kind of argumentation that appeals more to emotion than to reason.

Meanwhile, Chavez continues to invest in his propaganda machine. Photos, posters and murals of Chavez – pictured angelically alongside Christ, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – can be seen in many places, in newspapers, magazines and on television. Either Chavez or his supporters appear on television for hours every day to defend “la revolución.”

But their attempts to proselytize are largely devoid of logic. Chavez advocates a kind of mass propaganda that tends to dumb people down. He seems to not want a truly informed citizenry that is capable of questioning his policies. Instead of challenging people to think for themselves and agree with his agenda because it represents the best logical option, Chavez appeals to the lowest common denominator. In effect, his propaganda machine teaches people to memorize key slogans, instead of teaching them to understand the reasons for (and against) his policies.

By constantly blaming others for Venezuela’s problems, Chavez runs the risk of leading many Venezuelans to overlook the possibility that some of their problems may be homegrown. If too many Venezuelans are blind to this possibility, it will be all the harder to overcome the challenges facing the country. To a certain extent, this sort of problem affects Argentine politicians who deny the existence of problems, or blame third parties for them.

(Recently when a Venezuelan businessman illegally brought $800,000 of cash into Argentina, – allegedly to help finance Cristina’s presidential campaign – Cristina blamed the U.S. government for conspiring to make her look bad. This, even though the cash was transported via a chartered plane – paid for by her husband’s administration – that carried both Argentine and Venezuelan officials.)

But as long as average Venezuelans cannot buy milk, it is unlikely that any amount of propaganda will get Chavez much support. Recent public opinion polls seem to support this notion. Last week a survey published in El Nacional, one of Venezuela’s leading newspapers, indicated that just 36% of Venezuelans are confident in Chavez’s leadership. That is roughly the same percentage of Americans who support President Bush. Meanwhile, around 51% have no confidence at all in Chavez.

None of this is to say that Chavez has not done any good for the poor. Clearly he has made a concerted effort to bring doctors and teachers into some of the country’s poorest shantytowns. This has had a positive impact on some people’s lives, and this should be acknowledged. There appear to be many more doctors and teachers in Venezuela’s shantytowns then there were a decade ago. This is a good thing. But there also are more (and much bigger) shantytowns. This is a bad thing. So it can be hard to determine exactly how much progress has been made in the war on poverty.

All of this aside, what about the notion (touted by Hollywood’s cocktail party socialists) that Chavez represents a new breed of leaders trying to usher in a new era of global peace and prosperity? This is an inaccurate portrayal. Just days ago, Chavez recklessly sent nine battalions of soldiers to the Colombian border and risked provoking war with Colombia. This arbitrary and capricious move did not result from the careful considerations of a person dedicated to peace and prosperity. It needlessly endangered both Colombian and Venezuelan lives and put the entire region on edge. Meanwhile, Chavez’s decision to close temporarily the border with Colombia cost both countries millions in lost trade and income.

Last week, a group of international musicians held a “peace concert” along the Colombian-Venezuelan border. The concert was apolitical. The musicians voiced support for peace. No harm in this, right? But Chavez did not see it this way. He banned all state media from covering the event. As a result, no news of the event appeared on any of the state’s networks or in any of its magazines or newspapers. Are these the actions of a peace-loving global leader who is genuinely interested in peace and prosperity?

One thing that Argentina and Venezuela have in common is that their leaders both seem to feel contempt for the press and for genuine political debate, although at least Chavez has held press conferences (He literally bear-hugged me at one here in Buenos Aires). Both express disdain for those who oppose their ideas or simply question them. But neither is willing debate their policies publicly in open forums. For those who slam the U.S. presidential campaigns and what many (including me) consider to be their shallow debates, Argentina and Venezuela represent a shameful setback in this sense.

Both are reminders of how much politics has devolved since Greek politicians were evaluated on the logic of the arguments they presented in the Agora. At least Cristina, defined by who she is and not what she does, represents progress in the evolution of women’s rights. And while not all was swell back in Ancient Greece – lest we forget that they defended slavery – both Chavez and Kirchner seem happy to keep their constituents intellectually enslaved to the notion that questioning government policies is unpatriotic.

*In all fairness to Daddy Warbucks (the fictional character in the Little Orphan Annie stories), we should note that he was a free-market capitalist and would not be any fan of Chavez’s “Bolivarian” socialist policies.

Link: La Hojilla (whose host Mario Silva adamantly defends Chavez every night on TV)
Link: San Fransisco Chronicle Article
Link: Gratificados Part 1 (a YouTube video presentation – in Spanish- that defends Chavez’s literacy campaign and trashes newspaper El Universal for a story that claims illiteracy still exists in the country)
Link: Gratificados Part 2

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post, Rodriguez’s view of the Venezuelan economy has been challenged. You can see the critique here. I have not yet had a chance to evaluate it carefully.

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Kirchner’s Approval Rating Drops To 47%

March 21st, 2008 | 09:30 AM

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Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s approval rating has declined to 47% from 54% a month ago, according to a survey published Friday in newspaper La Nacion. The poll, which is conducted on a monthly basis by Consultora Poliarquía, also indicates that the percentage of people who view Mrs. Kirchner unfavorably has risen to 19% from 15% a month earlier. Even so, Mrs. Kirchner remains the nation’s third-most popular politician, behind her husband and the one-armed Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli.

This represents a seven point decline in the president’s image from mid February. Mrs. Kirchner’s positive ratings have declined as people have become more concerned about inflation and its impact on the economy, according to Poliarquía. The consulting firm said Argentines expect inflation to total around 27% over the next year. Last year at this time Argentines expected inflation for the upcoming year to total 13.5%.

*Scioli is a former world champion motor boat racer. In 1989, while he was well on his way to becoming one of the sport’s leading champions, his boat was overturned in an accident during a race along the Paraná River in Argentina. The accident cost him his right arm. In 1991 he went on to win the Super Boat World Championship in the U.S. Since then he has been one of Argentina’s most popular personalities.

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U.S. Embassy Issues Easter Travel Warning

March 20th, 2008 | 03:49 PM

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This U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires today issued the following Easter Weekend travel warning for vacationers in Argentina:

This message is being issued to inform American citizens of travel conditions over the holidays. American citizens should be aware that road blocks in many parts of Argentina are complicating travel during Semana Santa (Holy Week), a local religious holiday that includes Easter Sunday.

The road blocks are part of a nationwide farm strike that may continue through next week.

Please monitor media reports and refer to the following web site to check the status of road blockages:

http://www.aca.org.ar/servicios/turismo/vial/pasos.html

Travelers should expect long delays in road travel, keep a full tank of gas as much as possible, have cell phones fully charged, and carry food and water in their cars.

Updated information on travel in Argentina may be obtained from the Department of State by calling 1-888-407-4747 within the U.S., or from overseas, 1-202-501-4444. For further information please consult the Country Specific Information for Argentina available via the Internet at http://travel.state.gov.

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Spanish For Your Nanny Video

March 6th, 2008 | 09:38 AM

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As far as I can tell, this video was not made in Argentina. Nevertheless, it is very funny. It is also very relevant to the experiences of countless expats who have moved to Argentina and hired nannies or other kinds of domestic help.

Over the years, I have known many, many people who have had excellent experiences with their live-in maids and/or nannies. But I have also known many, many people who have been robbed by their hired help. This clip does a great job of summing up the often-awkward relationship between comparatively well-to-do home owners or renters and their hired help. Enjoy.

*Bonus: The teacher in this video makes at least one little mistake when speaking in Spanish about cleaning supplies. See if you can figure out what it is.

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Scooping Argentina Videos Now On YouTube

March 5th, 2008 | 11:54 AM

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Scooping Argentina, the multimedia wing of The Argentine Post, has started posting videos on YouTube. Videos will continue to be posted first on www.scoopingargentina.com, but most of them will gradually make their way over to YouTube as well.

Scooping Argentina uses higher quality compression standards than YouTube, so the videos there will continue to look and sound better, but with YouTube the videos will now be easily available on iPhones and other devices.

You can find the Scooping Argentina YouTube Channel here.

If you visit the channel, you can sign up to receive email notices of new videos whenever they appear.

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