BOB GARFIELD: In the weeks leading up to the American invasion of Iraq, pundits and market analysts filled many column inches speculating on what the war would mean for oil prices here at home. In their view, the situation would be compounded by the turmoil in Venezuela where a two-month strike had paralyzed the oil industry. Those fears may have subsided but Venezuela's fading from the headlines does not mean that all is well there. The country's economy is in free fall. If you read the Venezuelan press, there's no doubt who's to blame: President Hugo Chavez. But if you're an American, the picture is a little murkier. Joining us to look at the divergence in these two stories is Francisco Toro, the political editor of VenEconomy -- a business magazine based in Caracas. Francisco, welcome to OTM.
FRANCISCO TORO: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: In the last year, among your other journalistic enterprises you've been running an anti-Chavez-ista web blog, and at some point this came into conflict with your work as a stringer at the New York Times. You ended up resigning from the New York Times. Tell me about that decision.
FRANCISCO TORO: I think "resigning" is a strong word. It implies that I had been on staff, which I hadn't been. I stopped stringing for them. Essentially I, I would not describe my blog as an anti-Chavez blog. There's a lot to be critical of on both sides. I was trying to give foreign readers an insider's view of political reality here that was very frank. The problem with that is that being very frank in a situation like this does come into conflict, clearly, with the very strict standards on impartiality that a paper like the New York Times has.
BOB GARFIELD:Just before you stopped working for the Times you wrote in your blog, quote, "The Venezuelan media and the foreign press corps are caught in a spiral of mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. First, what did you mean, and secondly are, are the problems still there?
FRANCISCO TORO: What I meant is that the Venezuelan press can't understand at all why the foreign newspapers don't report on Venezuelan news in the way that they do which is starting from the baseline assumption that the government is deeply authoritarian. To those of us who live here 24 hours a say and who have to listen to the press then speak several times a week, this seems to us blindingly clear. And it's very difficult for them to understand why the foreign newspapers continue to report on Chavez as though he were more or less a normal politician. The foreign press can't understand how the local media expect to be seen as real journalists when 99 percent of the material that they put on the air is clearly designed to embarrass the government.
BOB GARFIELD:The American media in the recent past seemed to have collectively agreed that some national leaders, like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, like Slobodan Milosevic, like Saddam Hussein --deserve titles like "dictator" and adjectives like "oppressive." But Chavez, so far, for the most part seems to have eluded that kind of labeling. Is there some sort of threshold that he must cross in order to assume the cloak of illegitimacy?
FRANCISCO TORO: Well what I would say is that Chavez has been very shrewd on his management of international perceptions of his government. He has been very careful not to make the kinds of openly oppressive or openly dictatorial moves that would clearly put him beyond the pale in the eyes of the first world media and also of first world governments. But what we found out over the last few years here is that democracy doesn't necessarily die with a bang. Sometimes democracy dies with a whimper. Sometimes democracy dies with a series of encroaching parliamentary procedures that little by little strip away citizens' basic rights until one day you look around you and you no longer live in a democracy. Now that's very much the kind of gradual process that Venezuela has undergone, but I think the foreign media is caught on and I trust that they will react accordingly.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, if it's true that Chavez is inching every closer to the, as you put it in your blog, "the full Mugabe," I wonder how it will affect you and how it has affect [sic] you. Do you think that you are in any sort of danger, either physically or otherwise?
FRANCISCO TORO: Well I personally am not as much of a threat to the government, because I am not on the television. The government has realized that the real mass medium here and the medium that creates problems for them is the TV. So my friends who work in television certainly are in danger; they're certainly harassed when they try to cover public events. Many of them have been roughed up, although not necessarily seriously, by pro-government supporters. The tenor of that kind of intimidation and harassment has also increased gradually and will probably continue to increase over time.
BOB GARFIELD:Well apart from the other journalistic conflicts that are swirling in your reporting life right now, what is it like for you to be in common cause with industrial forces that are using the nation's electronic media as a blunt instrument against the elected government?
FRANCISCO TORO: Well, it, it's very uncomfortable. I think in a political situation where you have two highly polarized sides facing each other off as enemies, reality becomes simplified, and realities that do not fit into the cookie-cutter ideological view of one side or the other become very uncomfortable for both sides. And so those of us who have tried to be critical certainly of the government but also of the opposition when the opposition makes mistakes, find ourselves under attack from both sides! Certainly the local media attacks the government in a way that is appalling; in a way that does not meet basic standards of journalistic balance. At the same time it's very difficult for people to condemn the private media, even though their interests are clearly mercantile and corporate interest -- they feel very much like if it is those interests that will stand up to a regime that does not respect basic democratic institutions and basic democratic freedoms, then well thank God somebody's doing it!
BOB GARFIELD: Francisco, thank you!
FRANCISCO TORO: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Francisco Toro is political editor of VenEconomy, an opposition-minded business magazine in Caracas. You can read his ruminations about the press and politics in Venezuela on his web blog, CaracasChronicles.com. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, no news is bad news in Congo; Minnesota's weather wars and a very dirty Pulitzer Prize.