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Friday, March 22, 2019

On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle

 Counterpunch

British photojournalist Alan Gignoux and Venezuelan journalist-filmmaker Carolina Graterol, both based in London, went to Venezuela for a month to shoot a documentary for a major global TV channel. They talked with journalist Paul Cochrane about the mainstream media’s portrayal of Venezuela compared to their experiences on the ground.

Paul Cochrane (PC): What were you doing in Venezuela, how long were you there and where did you go?

Alan Gignoux (AG): We went in June 2018 for a month to shoot a documentary; I can’t disclose what channels it will be on right now, but it should be on air soon. We visited the capital Caracas, Mérida (in the Andes), Cumaná (on the coast), and Ciudad Guayana (near the mouth of the Orinoco river).

PC: How did being in Venezuela compare to what you were seeing in Western media?

Carolina Graterol (CG): I am a journalist, I have family in Venezuela, and I knew the reality was very different from what the media is portraying, but still I was surprised. The first thing we noticed was the lack of poverty. Alan wanted to film homeless and poor people on the streets. I saw three people sleeping rough just this morning in London, but in Venezuela, we couldn’t find any, in big cities or towns. We wanted to interview them, but we couldn’t find them. It is because of multi disciplinary programmes run by the government, with social services working to get children off the streets, or returned to their families. The programme has been going on for a long time but I hadn’t realized how effective it was.

PC: Alan, what surprised you?

AG: We have to be realistic. Things look worn down and tired. There is food, there are private restaurants and cafes open, and you could feel the economic crisis kicking in but poverty is not as bad as what I’ve seen in Brazil or Colombia, where there are lots of street children. Venezuela doesn’t seem to have a homeless problem, and the favelas have running water and electricity. The extreme poverty didn’t seem as bad as in other South American countries. People told me before going I should be worried about crime, but we worked with a lady from El Salvador, and she said Venezuela was easy compared to her country, where there are security guards with machine guns outside coffee shops. They also say a lot of Venezuelan criminals left as there’s not that much to rob, with better pickings in Argentina, Chile or wherever.

PC: How have the US sanctions impacted Venezuelans?

CG: Food is expensive, but people are buying things, even at ten times their salary. Due to inflation, you have to make multiple card payments as the machine wouldn’t take such a high transaction all at once. The government has created a system, Local Committees for Production and Supply (known by its Spanish acronym CLAP) that feeds people, 6 million families, every month via a box of food. The idea of the government was to bypass private distribution networks, hoarding and scarcity. Our assistant was from a middle class area in Caracas, and she was the only Chavista there, but people got together and created a CLAP system, with the box containing 19 products. Unless you have a huge salary, or money from outside, you have to use other ways to feed yourself. People’s larders were full, as they started building up supplies for emergencies. People have lost weight, I reckon many adults 10 to 15 kilos. Last time I was in Venezuela three years ago, I found a lot of obese people, like in the US, due to excessive eating, but this time people were a good size, and nobody is dying from hunger or malnutrition.

PC: So what are Venezuelans eating?

CG: A vegetarian diet. People apologized as they couldn’t offer us meat, instead vegetables, lentils, and black beans. So everyone has been forced to have a vegetarian diet, and maybe the main complaint was that people couldn’t eat meat like they used to do. The situation is not that serious. Before Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela had 40% critical poverty out of 80% poverty, but that rate went down to 27%, and before the crisis was just 6 or 7% critical poverty. Everyone is receiving help from the government.

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