By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
In the balance of public and private media on 76 years of Russia-Venezuela relations, there is not a scintilla of scrutiny on 264 agreements, among them humanitarian aid, vaccines, and military advice, while Moscow’s influence over Caracas increases.
On Sunday, March 14, 2021, official spokespersons of Russia and Venezuela expressed their pleasure on the 76th anniversary of diplomatic relations between these two nations. Both parties agree that a strengthening of the relationship was achieved after Hugo Chávez rose to power and that, since then, they have created an exemplary model of cooperation based on a “strategic, effective and mutually beneficial partnership”. In principle, alliances between countries should not arouse suspicions or surprises. However, these two governments have devised a propagandistic narrative evading citizen scrutiny and significantly curbing the right to public information. Furthermore, claims of their actions against a common enemy, that is, the US government, also serve as an excuse for the ineffective public policies of the Nicolás Maduro government, especially in times of coronavirus, and promote a propagandistic system at the service of a better positioning of Russia on the world geopolitical map.
On this anniversary, both governments focus their discourse on the benefits of their partnership. That is why we wanted to see if, in this spirit, they offered any balance by means of a report on the matters of their agreements and treaties. With this concern in mind, we assessed the official information provided by the government on the websites of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and Economy and Finance, as well as the Office of the Vice President. We supplemented this analysis by reviewing the coverage of eight media outlets (six Venezuelan and two Russian) to find out if they provided some context for some critical issues around which this relationship revolves, such as humanitarian aid, vaccines, and military-technical advice.
We found in the nine official sources reviewed (ministries and public media) that the information is merely formal and protocol-oriented. They limit themselves to extolling both countries’ brotherhood in times of trouble, the administration of the late Hugo Chávez and its continuation by Nicolás Maduro in keeping these beneficial relations; they also underscore, as an essential issue to address, the threat posed by the government of Washington and its sanctions to the detriment of national sovereignty. Meanwhile, it is not possible to find in the media any hint of the outcomes of this relationship, at least a rough balance of the agreements, the cost of vaccines, or the scope of military cooperation between Russia and Venezuela.
These are just some of the aspects we address. We are motivated by the significant presence of Vladimir Putin’s government in our country, the opacity with which the national government handles a matter, in principle of an open and accessible nature, to inform the citizenship, and thereby prevent rumors, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and propaganda from adding up to disinformation as a state policy.
This research reviews official information available on the celebration of the 76th anniversary of Russian-Venezuelan relationships. We consider that the diplomatic events and statements could have provided an opportunity for the national media to conduct an overview of the results of this friendship which, with the advent of the coronavirus in Venezuela, has taken on a significant dimension in important areas of national life, such as humanitarian aid, vaccines, and military advice and training. These are all matters of public interest worthy of media coverage and subject to the constitutional duty of accountability by the national Executive.
Our focus of study is on the official websites and Twitter accounts of relevant ministries and the Office of the Vice President. We have also included information posted by the Russian Embassy in Venezuela. Additionally, we looked into news from 11 media: Three public and six private Venezuelan outlets, plus two Russian outlets, 17 sources in total. The period covered by this research is non-linear. Although we reviewed the entire week from March 14 to 20, 2021, the context of the issues covered in this study is set in 2020 (from that year dates much of the data collected as we have already shared in previous installments) and is complemented by the bilateral meetings held in February 2021.
Table No. 1: Government sources
|URL // TWITTER HANDLE
|OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT
|vicepresidencia.gob.ve // @ViceVenezuela
|FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY (VENEZUELA)
|mppre.gob.ve // @CancilleriaVE
|MINISTRY OF ECON. & FINANCE
|RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN VENEZUELA
|www.venezuela.mid.ru // @EmbajadaRusaVen
|RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO VENEZUELA
|FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY (RUSSIA)
Table No. 2: Media surveyed
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN
This is a qualitative, documentary research. Our corpus focuses on national Executive official sites and news items published by the domestic and foreign media selected. The government tendency to make announcements on Twitter compels us to review the accounts of some government spokespersons. In this case, we looked into the account of the Russian Embassy in Caracas and that of its ambassador.
The reading of the sources was conducted online. While were able to obtain some data from the websites, it was necessary to use the Google search engine and sometimes we have resorted to its advanced search tool. Our device for collecting information and organizing data is based on content analysis. Its initial categories aim to determine whether or not a given media outlet has any news on the subject under study and, if it does, what the focus given is.
With this review, we intend to document the above key issues and how they are addressed by government spokespersons and media. We are also interested in showing the coverage given by the private media. With this search, we illustrate media trends regarding the topic and on the dates reviewed. Likewise, we document the most outstanding trait in this time of pandemic: An information policy poorly handling public data pursuant to the constitutional duty of accountability and right of access to information, yet performing robustly for propaganda purposes. This treatment of information positions the Moscow government as an ally detached from opportunism, which supports the Nicolás Maduro government only to protect it from the siege of the United States and the sanctions of its Treasury Department.
With the rise of Hugo Chávez to power in 1999, Venezuela intensified ties with China and Russia as allies against the United States, as a way to enhance a new geopolitics that would decrease US influence worldwide. Chávez’s trip to Russia in 2001 resulted in the bilateral agreement for technical and military cooperation as well as the purchase of Kalashnikov rifles in 2005, used by the Venezuelan Army since 2006. At that time, it was agreed to build a factory for these rifles set to start production in 2019, which did not come to fruition. In 2002, the High Level Intergovernmental Commission (Comisión Intergubernamental de Alto Nivel, CIAN), whereby binational cooperation is managed, was created. After the visit of the then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2008, Chávez returns to Russia in 2010 when Vladimir Putin was already in office. Russian agency Sputnik reports that, during those two visits, over 40 cooperation agreements were signed.
Since 2013, Nicolás Maduro has further engaged in dealings with Russia. In Moscow on April 4, 2019, a memorandum of understanding was signed to establish the bilateral business council between Venezuela’s Foreign Trade Bank (Banco de Comercio Exterior, Bancoex) and Russia’s National Committee for Economic Cooperation with Latin American Countries (Comité Nacional para la Cooperación Económica con los Países Latinoamericanos, CN CEPLA).
By means of this web of agreements, treaties, and contracts with Russia in place, ties are growing closer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, the friendship between the two nations took the form of humanitarian aid and vaccines, matched with investment opportunities in Venezuela, in conditions of confidentiality under the protection of the so-called Anti-Blockade Law, a body of statutes drafted by the extinct – and disavowed by democratic countries – National Constituent Assembly. This law vested the government with extraordinary powers to take measures in economic matters. As stated by Vice President Delcy Rodríguez at the time, this law would be a strategic leap for the protection and safety of Russian investments.
In 2020, Nicolás Maduro insisted on highlighting the special Russian assistance in the establishment of the Military Scientific and Technological Council (Consejo Militar Científico y Tecnológico), as per his order in September 2020 and ultimately formalized in Official Gazette No. 42035 of December 23 that same year. In addition, the news that Russia is conducting anti-terrorist military training to the Venezuelan Armed Forces has recently made prominent headlines once again. This fact would not be objectionable if the context of what was reported did not point to the development of an elite group with military response capacity in urban areas, which has more to do with the increase of domestic unrest, according to Francisco Javier Sanchez, researcher at the University of Los Andes (Universidad de Los Andes, ULA), quoted in the above news item. The latter is a sensitive matter since it deems political dissidence as domestic enemy.
Additionally, Russian support for Venezuela includes humanitarian aid in its agenda, by means of participating in Phase 3 of the clinical trials and the subsequent arrival of the Sputnik vaccine. For this purpose, several strategic agreements have been signed, the details of which are not open to public access. A sort of russification of the pandemic in Venezuela.
February 2021 was a particularly prolific month in meetings between representatives of the two governments. In all of them, investment in Venezuela is promoted, bilateral trade exchange in favor of their respective peoples is encouraged, as well as other issues concerning multilateral international cooperation. The news items can be found on the Office of the Vice President’s website and other official sites.
As we can notice, the partnership between Russia and Venezuela has multiple ramifications with domestic consequences. Likewise, this relationship is linked to a geopolitical strategy identifying US imperialism as the common enemy to fight. Reference to the actions of the US government is an ever-present topic in official statements from spokespersons of both countries. Even when not expressly mentioned, allusion is always made to third parties who rhetorically speak of protecting citizens in this coronavirus crisis while imposing “their sanctions and other methods to stifle those national sovereignties not of their liking”.
The alliance between both governments enables a powerful communicational propaganda machine to promote the benefits of their relationship and the decline of US influence, not only in Venezuela but also in Latin America.
Official information is primarily found in publications of the Office of the Vice President, the Ministry of Economy and Finance (both presided by Delcy Rodríguez), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In regard with March 14, 2021, date of the 76th anniversary of bilateral relationships, the tweets on the accounts of the Russian Embassy and the Russian Ambassador in Caracas were included.
On that day, the website of the Office of the Vice President posted a special publication titled “Diplomatic relations between Russia and Venezuela are strengthened by means of respect for the self-determination of peoples”. The news item reflects the deep political trust that translates into “a robust agreement on energy, geopolitical, diplomatic, and military contribution matters”. These are relations consolidating respect for the self-determination of peoples and the shaping of a multipolar world. It is reported that, “to date, Venezuela and Russia have entered into 264 agreements on agricultural, oil, gas, industrial, mining, military, tourism, among others, as part of the development of the Russia-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission”. It is noteworthy that this list does not include the contract for the acquisition of the Sputnik V vaccine. Needless to say, access to information on these agreements and contracts is a challenging undertaking.
In the same news item, the subtitle “Venezuela-Russia strengthen alliances during COVID-19” is read. It mentions the partnership against what they call “the sanctions of the hegemon” in order to fight the pandemic. The scant level of detail falls short of providing sensitive public information, namely the nature and amount of the contracts, or how much of what is received from Moscow is aid, donation, or what the cost of those shipments is.
For its part, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared its piece including the tweets posted by bespoke Minister Jorge Arreaza. On a single line, it encapsulates the core partnership issues, the topic of COVID-19, and the ideological bias: “Relations between Russia and Venezuela are currently at one of their finest moments”, highlighting different alliances in multiple areas such as health, economy, culture and military, among others; they also share the same ideological and geopolitical vision.
In addition, the two countries maintain an important cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no lack of express references to the US government, its sanctions and its imperialist ambitions, in the face of which “Russia has shown its willingness to defend international law and has extended its support […]”. Also in this case is there no trace of information in terms of mandatory accountability for officials on matters of vital public interest.
Government media outlets Venezolana de Televisión, Correo del Orinoco, and Telesur are aligned with the tweets posted by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. Private pro-government newspaper Últimas Noticias adds to a short news desk piece what was posted on Twitter from the accounts of the Russian embassy and its ambassador in Venezuela.
Among the private media, there is no reference to the 76th anniversary of Russian-Venezuelan relations, despite the special publication featured in the website of the Office of the Vice President on March 14, 2021. We found identical results in the Russian agency Sputnik News and in Russia Today (RT).
In our research, we endeavored to approach the coverage of two meetings held in February 2021, both published on the websites of the Office of the Vice President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first one is described by the Office of the Vice President as “Venezuela and Russia discuss issues relating to multilateral cooperation”. It was held on February 22 in Caracas with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russian Ambassador in Caracas Sergey Melik-Bagdasarov. The other was a videoconference on February 25, between representatives of Bancoex (Venezuela) and the CEPLA (Russia), under the title “Venezuela and Russia continue to promote bilateral trade exchange for the benefit of the peoples”. These meetings did not arouse any interest from the media, although it seemed appropriate to refer to them as prior or preparatory to March 14, the epicenter of the celebration on the anniversary of the relations between the governments of Moscow and Caracas.
The focus of this research is an attempt at documenting a type of opportunistic relationship that the longtime crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic offer to Russia and Venezuela. Both countries base their actions on a hybrid warfare narrative pitting them against the United States, and serving as an argument to enter into agreements shielded from public scrutiny. All this is fertile ground for propaganda and disinformation.
The purpose of this research was meant to assess the information that the government might provide on the 76th anniversary of relations with Russia and to look at the media coverage in order to check if the occasion seemed timely for an inventory of information owed regarding the agreements and treaties signed by Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin. The fact is that the information provided by the government fails the test set forth in the National Constitution. There is no accountability, or timely and truthful information, which undermines the citizens’ right to information and hinders journalistic work, preventing access to sources and data with information of public interest.
Regarding the status of the media, their condition is severe. One of the reasons is that the so-called public media have been co-opted and turned into replicators of the official narrative. It is a militant journalism that fails to fulfill its informative duty and encourages government propaganda which, in this case, promotes Russia as a philanthropic stakeholder and a protector of Venezuela. On the other hand, with its performance, the private media miss this opportunity to even report on what the government remains silent regarding, as a systematic policy that tilts the balance towards rumor, mistrust, disinterest in matters concerning the country as a whole.
These actions and omissions cause widespread suspicion, which is fertile ground for manipulation and disinformation. The three core issues of our research, humanitarian aid, vaccines and military-technical assistance, have clear signs of russification warranting critical scrutiny from the media.
In the information reviewed, the use of Twitter by government spokespersons is evident. Based on these posts, news items without greater depth are prepared. This practice is proof of the precariousness of the journalistic exercise and the lack of willingness of public officials to inform truthfully. These circumstances are detrimental to collective resilience in the face of disinformation.