By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
While Bloomberg and Reuters investigate clandestine shipments of Venezuelan oil destined for China to circumvent U.S. sanctions, very few Venezuelan media barely quote them without digging any deeper, to the detriment of the right to information.
On November 30, 2020, Bloomberg published a report claiming that, in spite of the US government sanctions, “Venezuela almost tripled its crude oil exports”. Subsequently, on December 2 that same year, Reuters headlined: “New buyers spur a near doubling in Venezuela oil exports in November”. Both news items could be reasons for optimism if the country’s circumstances were not so dire; first, because the destruction of state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is an undeniable truth, and then, because the business dealings that the government of Nicolás Maduro has entered into are the best kept secret. The access to these are data are denied, so the information – or lack thereof – arouses justified suspicions and, in a way, confirms the systemic opacity typical of the Venezuelan government to handle matters that are sensitively public.
Furthermore, in this case, China once again appears as an actor that has become a fixture locally, especially in these times of COVID-19 pandemic. The Asian country has shown the resources it is willing to deploy in order to appear as a leading power and the best reference of the post-pandemic world scenario. Its presence in Venezuela is not an isolated phenomenon from the rest of Latin America. The relationship between both countries is not a reprehensible issue in itself. The problem rather points to the secrecy with which cooperation treaties, agreements, contracts, etc., that may have been signed with Beijing are handled and which are protected from public scrutiny as if they were personal matters between both countries’ rulers.
This issue of oil exports to China has several glimpses of media interest for Venezuela. Therefore, this brief investigation will look into the treatment given by the Venezuelan media to the clues provided by the two international news organizations mentioned above. Given the nature of the information, we assumed that the pro-government media would take two possible actions: Ignoring the information or denying it. As for the private media, we expected them to at least reproduce the news and further investigate; we did not expect them to let it go unnoticed.
Sometimes, it seems that the Venezuelan media find it difficult to follow up on the emergence of China as a new ally of the Government and, consequently, to anticipate, from a journalistic standpoint, some issues that should be on the citizens’ agenda. We repeat: China’s relationship with the Venezuelan government, in principle, should not be censored. However, the scope of its influence in so many matters, boosted in the midst of the complex humanitarian crisis worsened by the advent of the coronavirus, deserves special attention due to the shady nature of these relations between Caracas and Beijing.
The origin of the issue we are addressing dates back from the news released by Reuters (on November 30, 2020) and Bloomberg (on December 2, 2020). This issue is of major relevance for the country, primarily due to the crisis stemming from the lack economic and financial resources, which previously afforded a precarious but relative stability. According to the official narrative, the oil disaster is caused by the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department. This assumption has led the rule of Nicolás Maduro to handle the fabric of Venezuela’s foreign relations, in this case with China, with greater rigor in its usual opacity. This fact alone is a sign of disinformation that deserves to be scrutinized.
This research intends to evaluate whether the revelations of the two international news organizations mentioned above were echoed to any extent by the Venezuelan media ecosystem. It is worth noting that, among the media reviewed, we included Chinese news agency Xinhua, with presence as a subdomain on the website of Caracas-based multi-state television station Telesur. Likewise, the web sites of PDVSA and the Ministry of Oil (Ministerio de Petróleo) were also reviewed. The search was conducted online. The review includes any relevant publications between November 30 and December 6, 2020. We covered eight media listed in the table below.
|XINHUA NEWS AGENCY
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN
The selection of this topic was not based on a particular debate conducive to local media discussion and reflection. Instead, it was a kind of alert arising from the Venezuelan government’s arm wrestling with the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions. The data provided by Reuters and Bloomberg deserve special attention in reason of their timeliness and importance. It is basically a documentary review of news items published between November 30 and December 6, 2020, as well as a qualitative exercise carried out during that period to measure the importance given by the media ecosystem. The sample is representative of them and includes private and state-owned media, among them, Chinese agency Xinhua.
We used Google’s advanced search tool, because some online media do not have search engines and the ones that others have are not very user-friendly. In this opportunity, we reviewed eight media equally proportionate among state-owned and private outlets.
On November 30, 2020, on its news site, the financial information company Bloomberg published “Venezuela Oil Exports Almost Triple”, stating that such exports increased to over half a million barrels per day in November, and that almost all of it went to China. They claim to have vessel-tracking data gathered by themselves. Additionally, they claim that, while PDVSA’s internal documents show vessels such as Vinland, Pacific Cape, and Vision loading in the port of Jose; but they are not operational. Conversely, the data they have obtained show that they were decommissioned and broken up months before the scheduled loading dates in Venezuela. Based on such data, they infer that their names or unique identification numbers are being used by others. In addition, they mention the rather obscure companies that would be making the purchases (Zhejiang Ningda Chemical, Co. Ltd.; Arzhil International, and Cirrostrati Technology, Co.) and taking Venezuelan oil to Asia.
On its part, Reuters news agency published on December 2, 2020, that “New buyers spur a near doubling in Venezuela oil exports in November”. This increase resulted from the purchases of new clients supposedly linked to a company registered in Russia, which is devoted to take oil primarily to China. The data were obtained from the above company and Refinitiv Eikon. They identify the new buyers as Xiamen Logistic Grass, Olympia Stly Trading, Zaguhan & Co., Karaznbas, Kalinin Business International, and Poseidon GDL Solutions, clients that were registered in Russia by OGX Trading (based in Moscow). Reuters concurs with Bloomberg‘s statement regarding the use of vessels reportedly scrapped on PDVSA’s records.
According to the official narrative, PDVSA’s collapse stems from the U.S. Government sanctions. From this statement alone, we can corroborate elements of the disinformation that the Venezuelan government spreads in the form of propaganda. From that same perspective, they claim to be in and waging an asymmetric war joined by the government of Xi Jinping as an ally of Venezuela. In this regard, the stage is primed for the Venezuelan government to act at the convenience of its authoritarian leanings, instead of the interests of its citizens. To this is added its need for secrecy to protect its actions, all in order to prevent the “enemy” from discovering its own weapons.
The elements gathered by both news organizations provide data that are worth, at least, reflection from the Venezuelan media. These possible actions are now protected under the umbrella of the so-called Anti-Blockade Law. This statute allows the government to remove public activity from citizen oversight, and this was confirmed by the tip that Nicolás Maduro let slip on January 12, 2021, during his annual address to the National Assembly. On that occasion, he admitted to “secret flights” bringing spare parts from Asia to PDVSA.
In view of these facts, there are many angles worth a longer-term approach, including the effects of US sanctions on citizens, without excluding the reasonable doubt about the good in cooperation agreements between China and Venezuela. All these implications of the issue deserve a spot in media coverage, as well as an explanation from the Venezuelan government, one that goes beyond the worn-out rhetoric of the imperialist attack against the Bolivarian revolution.
The review of eight media outlet only turned out two news items in two different newspapers on two close dates, one on December 2, 2020, and the other on December 4, 2020. The newspapers that reported the news were El Estímulo and El Nacional respectively. Both cite as source the publication of Reuters agency. Their headlines were as follows:
|How did Venezuela double its oil imports in November?
|PDVSA’s exports doubled with new buyers
The above news items, each one in its own style, closely reproduce the contents of the source cited without further providing context or other relevant facts. It seems logical that this should be so, because access to public information in general is a difficulty that leads not only to opacity in government management, but also implies a speculative exercise, alien to the task of journalism. However, there are enough hints, for example, to explain that these shipments to China are destined to reimburse part of the billionaire loans owed by Venezuela, which does not bring in cash to PDVSA’s accounts.
What state-owned media outlets leave unsaid goes hand in hand with the practice of spreading the government narrative, a tenet of their information policy. Thereby, if the government remains silent, these media will act accordingly.
It is noteworthy that we also conducted a search on PDVSA’s website, almost as a formality, merely to rule out its failure to inform. Our assumption was that, if the official version is that we are in a state of war with the USA, disclosing facts on oil exports to China, as a mechanism to evade sanctions, is part of the information that must be kept secret in order not to show its own weapons to the enemy.
The opacity of the government, on the one hand, and the inaction of the media regarding some vital issues, on the other, make up a dangerous puzzle of disinformation, with pieces always fitting in a shape leaving the citizens’ right to information out of the picture.
In this case, China’s aid is not mentioned in the government media, which shows that promotion, in the case under analysis, is not a propaganda technique part of this partnership. On the contrary, silence on this matter seems to hint at sensitivity of the “dark envoys” as a tactic already attempted by Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, now part of the schemes deployed by Venezuela to evade and mitigate the effect of U.S. sanctions on the government’s finances. However, as we stated above, during his address of January 12, 2021, to his newly inaugurated National Assembly, Nicolás Maduro referred to “secret flights” bringing supplies to PDVSA’s refineries.
The precarious situation being experienced by Venezuela, at times, impairs approaching sensitive issues or reports on violation of the exercise of fundamental rights; but their interdependence warrants the need to ensure the former in order to be able to exercise the latter. In other words, the right of access to public information or freedom of expression may seem minor in the face of the need to access fuel and domestic gas, to name just two links in the long chain of needs existing in Venezuela. However, the truth is that protecting these fundamental rights is conducive to materializing guarantees of a social nature. Therefore, it seems timely to warn that the local crisis, worsened by the pandemic, may play in favor of accepting help wherever it comes from, without measuring the cost that we must consequently pay.
Given this assumption, Venezuelan journalism faces the challenge of doing a better job with fewer resources. Journalistic discipline has a liberal origin; but its moral character is tested in the face of authoritarian regimes that put the country on survival mode.
Media coverage and robust reporting by journalists on the geopolitical issues at stake in these times are essential. Warning without bigotry that there are no innocent actions by China and Russia, the United States, or the Venezuelan government, is an irreplaceable contribution to understand and accurately explain the challenges facing the country.