From Che to Chavismo, Via Barcelona
David Placer is a Venezuelan journalist based in Spain, where he has uncovered local government corruption and exposed organised crime rings. He is raising funds with Byline to visit Bolivia, where he believes he has access to information that will shed new light on the circumstances surrounding the killing of Che Guevara. We talked to him ahead of his campaign.
What explains your interest in Hugo Chavez? And what is your reaction when Western progressives admire Chavez?
Admiring Chávez and his policies in European countries with strong public health systems, where people have security and where they can have food and goods with any restrictions can be surprising, but the paradox is that these European supporters would reject most of Chávez’ policies in their countries.
But personally speaking, Chávez was also an extraordinary leader who managed to accumulate more power than any other Venezuelan president in the past 60 years. He was able to change the Constitution, laws, and the political and economic structure of Venezuelan society. How could a single man change the direction of an entire country? How could he delude people and attract the poor so strongly? His unique personality and his ability to convince, and to manipulate people based on their weaknesses and fears – that is what I decided to investigate.
And then… what exactly is it about Chavez, is it unique charisma, or something else? Are there any other leaders in history who he has a lot in common with, in terms of persuasive power?
It's not only his charisma, but also his powerful message. He became popular in a live television broadcast when he was arrested in 1992 after attempting a Coup d’ État. He admitted responsibility right in front of the cameras (that was new in a country when people don't tend to assume their responsibilities) and he also stated that he would try it again. That showed the people that he was the brave soldier that the country needed. Because of his origins, he also introduced ambitious policies on poverty, but in the wrong way. He gave aid and free houses to poor people, but many of them had to bribe to corrupt government workers to obtain them. He used oil money to help the poorest people but did not create a productive economy based on this money. He just spent it. That’s the main reason for the current crisis, and things are getting worse now the oil price has fallen.
Why do you think Western left-wingers love him so much? Is it simply because he dared to oppose the US, or is there something more to it?
When he came to the United Nations and said that he could smell sulphur (referring to the former US President George Bush), of course many left-wingers loved him. But I think they supported him because they did not have much understanding of the policies he applied in his own country. Many of his policies were anti-democratic. To win his last Parliamentary election, he modified the electoral law in order to assign more congressmen in the areas where Chavismo was strong. That explains why with the 48% of the votes, he could control 66% of Parliament. And now, Chavistas are trying to change the rules again to reinforce their power even with fewer votes, according to what I have heard lately.
How would you evaluate Maduro by comparison?
He loses in all comparisons with Chávez. He is not as persuasive as Chávez, and is neither communicative nor a leader. Chávez was also a showman: he used to sing, play guitar, and tell stories... And from a mass media perspective, Maduro is boring, without any initiative of his own. He is even trying to imitate Chávez’ voice. And because he has less support, he has to be more authoritarian.
What do you think will happen in Venezuela? Will the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ continue, or will people get tired of Maduro’s increasing authoritarianism?
The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is facing a tremendous crisis, mainly because of high debt and falling oil prices. The future of the government will depend on these two factors. They don’t have enough money to maintain the structure that was created by Chavez. The system is collapsing: there is not enough food and people have to wait for hours to buy few products at the supermarket. The situation is not sustainable.
Moving on, there are many problems in the UK/US media, such as the increasing influence of advertisers on journalism, job losses, declining quality, etc. Is it the same in Spain? What is the situation of journalists in Spain?
All these factors are affecting the Spanish media and Spanish journalism. The deepest crisis since the Civil War in 1939 caused a mass destruction of jobs and financial losses. In addition, traditional media are facing another crisis: the migration to internet. The main newspapers have lost 50% of their readers since 2008 and now they depend not only on advertisers, but even more so on banks.
Prisa, the company that owns El País, the main newspaper in Spain, has debts of three billion euros, the same as entire regions such as Murcia, Asturias, or Extremadura. Now readers can see how a traditional lefty newspaper is getting closer to the conservative government and to the banks. The key is that media can only be independent when they are independent in terms of money.
Can you please explain further what you mean about El Pais getting close to the government and banks?
El País has an indigestible debt even though it is the most read newspaper in Spain. So, the government convinced the main banks to lend money to save it. Now, the newspaper is closer to the policies of the government and the banks. For example, El País did not publish anything important about the Swissleak case when they used to collaborate on stories like this with international journalism networks. The bank, HSBC, is one of the creditors. And the paper’s policy of supporting Palestine ended in 2010, after the US fund Liberty Acquisition Holdings invested in El Pais.
Are there any alternative models of media financing in Spain? Is there much crowdfunding of journalism, or anything else like that?
There’s some good news in Spain. Eldiario.es is a digital native newspaper that is growing day by day thanks to the donations of readers. They are taking the left-wing readers that are abandoning El País. And in September, the former director of El Mundo, the second newspaper in Spain, is preparing to launch a digital paper called El Español. They have raised almost four million euros from contributors
Who are your journalistic heroes?
Personally, I don't have heroes, but I admire the work of John Dingues, former Latin American Correspondent of Washington Post. He revealed the Condor network, a criminal network set up to kill opponents of governments in Chile, Argentina, Brasil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia during the seventies. I admire the reports of John Lee Anderson, Alma Guillermo Prieto, and the magical writing of Ryszard Kapuscinski and, of course, Gabriel García Márquez. Closer to home, I also admire the work of two colleagues in Barcelona: Samuel Aranda, a photojournalist who I work with in El Periódico and a winner of the World Press Photo award two years ago, for his humanity and sense of compromise; and Leonardo Faccio, the writer of the Lionel Messi biography.
What piece of investigative journalism that you have done are you most proud of?
I investigated how gangs in Barcelona are organized and how they began and grew. It's a new phenomenon and a result of mass immigration from Latin America, which began in Spain the past decade. Journalists in Barcelona used to explain the gangs from the police point of view. I talked to the gang members, interviewed them and explain them as a social problem.
I also investigated a corruption network in the Barcelona area. Workers in the local government office at Esplugues were colluding with owners of certain bars and restaurants to excessively investigate and close down competitors.
One of the businessmen victimised by this collusion committed suicide, and so I started to investigate it.
Is this kind of thing common in Spain? How powerful is organized crime in your country, and is it growing now there is so much youth unemployment?
I think it was a big problem during the first years of crisis but it is not getting any worse now.
Were you ever in personal danger from investigating this, or anything else?
My colleagues and I are convinced that my departure from El Periódico was caused by pressures from the local government because of my coverage of problems such as gangs and rising crime and poverty. The government placed adverts in the newspaper and from that moment on I could not continue covering these topics.
You seem to be interested in the tougher side of Spain - gangsters, impoverished immigrant communities, unemployment etc - why is that? And are there not many other journalists reporting on such things?
I covered these topics when I worked for a Catalonian newspaper named El Periódico. I discovered an unknown side of Barcelona - one with serious social problems in the slums, drug trafficking, and thievery. I enjoy covering hard topics and I am sure many young journalists in Barcelona would like to write about them as well, but is quite difficult for young journalists to get jobs with decent papers. And experienced professionals prefer to cover easier areas as institutions and governments. I prefer working on the streets.
Have you ever gotten into personal danger doing any of this reporting?
Not directly, but two photojournalists I worked with were threatened. I didn’t receive threats from people in the street, but rather from a famous multinational company in Spain.
Do you find it sad that other reporters are less interested in investigative journalism? Are many journalists lazy these days?
Maybe, but I think new media, digital media can give new opportunities to investigative journalists. And this initiative, Byline, is a good example of it.
How did you come to be interested in the Bolivian community? What kind of stories can an investigative reporter find among Bolivians in Spain?
Bolivia is an amazing country. I have discovered incredible stories with the Bolivian communities in Barcelona. They are the poorest community of Latin American immigrants in Spain and they have to organise parties to raise the money needed to repatriate the bodies of their friends and relatives when they die.
Poor and unemployed Bolivian workers also go to construction materials stores to offer their services. It is like a reverse auction. The worker who requests the least money ends up getting a job for a few hours.
Are Bolivians exploited in Spain?
Bolivians are the last community that came to Spain, so they have fewer roots in Spanish society, and have the worst jobs.
Could you please tell us more about these body repatriation parties?
They hold them in public parks or in private Latin American restaurants. They are called quermese. They were created to raise the money needed to pay for any kind of good cause within the community. Repatriating a body to Bolivia comes under that category. Family members cook food and bring drinks. Friends call people and ask them to come to the party. There will be singers and bands from Bolivia, and people dance, drink and eat all day. They also hold raffles, and ask partygoers to put money into a piggy bank with a picture of the dead person on it.
Regarding Che Guevara, what are you hoping to find out about his assassination? Are there still many things which are unknown?
The police documents reveal that Che Guevara's body was submitted to strange treatment. We have to conduct a deep investigation into this case, to uncover more details about what the Bolivian authorities did to the body of this lasting icon of Latin America. Even though a lot of information about his death has come to light already, and there is a great deal of speculation about US participation, there are many unanswered questions: Who was the man who shot him? What did the local authorities do with the body? I want to find the answers to these questions.