New York City

Although we commend Naomi Klein for writing about the struggle between the Venezuelan government and the private media, in her March 3 “Lookout” column, she misrepresented the position of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

While we do not dispute the Venezuelan government’s right to regulate public airwaves, and while we recognize that serious allegations have been made regarding the conduct of private media, we object to efforts by the administration of President Hugo Chávez to apply regulations that are inconsistent with international standards of press freedom. For example, some of the regulations that Chávez is seeking to apply forbid speech that incites “rebellion and disrespect of institutions and its authorities,” a statute that violates the American Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, the investigations are being carried out in a punitive manner by a government agency whose impartiality and independence are highly suspect.

During the past several years, CPJ has been carefully monitoring the media in Venezuela. The current investigations into the broadcast media come in the wake of a two-month strike by the country’s largest labor union and other opposition forces that has severely crippled Venezuela’s economy and contributed to social unrest there. We realize that in this polarized environment both private and state media have dropped all pretense of objectivity from their news coverage. And as we observed in a CPJ report, Cannon Fodder, published last summer, we are concerned that journalists–caught between the private media owners’ anti-Chávez objectives and Chávez’s charged rhetoric criticizing the press–are not being allowed to do their jobs. The result is that the Venezuelan people are being deprived of the information they need to make informed decisions about their country’s political future.

Committee to Protect Journalists

Wilmington, Vt.

Although Naomi Klein’s appraisal of the power of the Venezuelan media and Gustavo Cisneros is on target, I must say that the Venezuelan process has created a third current, which holds enormous promise. The head of the National Confederation of Workers, the soon-to-be-arrested Carlos Ortega, since his bitter experience with the fleeting President Carmona, has forged a forward-looking alliance with the recently arrested president of Fedecamaras, Carlos Fernandez. Among the chief points of their “governability agreement” are the inclusion of all Venezuelans in a truly democratic system and a policy of wealth redistribution.

Let there be no mistake. The situation in Venezuela today comes from decades of mismanagement, aggravated by market-oriented measures taken at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank. Chávez–“democratically elected,” as Klein calls him–won because of popular disgust with the system. He obtained 56 percent of 40 percent of the electorate. At this time, his legitimacy is severely compromised, since millions of Venezuelans have signed petitions for new elections. His government has now resorted to the arrest of opposition leaders for acting as allowed by Chávez’s own Constitution. And recently three military dissenters were murdered, execution-style, possibly by government-sponsored death squads.

Klein should join OAS Secretary General Gaviria, President Carter and the Venezuelan opposition in calling for free and fair elections. The Venezuelan media, especially Venevisión, are very powerful and sectarian, but Chávez has his own control over media and has put together an impressive political organization. Let the people decide. Elections are the solution to the problem in Venezuela.



Buenos Aires

In fact it is Joel Simon, in his letter, who is misrepresenting the Committee to Protect Journalists’ stated positions on the Venezuela conflict. Here he claims that the CPJ respects Hugo Chávez’s right to regulate the press and is opposed only to the aspects of the proposed law that would restrict criticism of public officials–the same position I took in my column. However, in its other statements, the CPJ has made no such distinctions and has instead issued blanket condemnations of any and all attempts by the Chávez government to criticize, investigate or regulate a press that, by the CPJ’s own account, has “dropped all pretense of objectivity.”

For instance, in its January 23 “news alert,” the CPJ states that it is “alarmed” merely because the Chávez government had launched an investigation of two private television stations to see if they had violated existing broadcast standards. In past statements the CPJ has condemned Chávez for openly criticizing the press, on the grounds that such criticism led to violent attacks on journalists by his supporters. I agree that Chávez has not done enough to condemn such violence, but the CPJ has not done nearly enough to condemn the more recent wave of arrests and beatings of pro-Chávez journalists working at community radio and television. These well-documented incidents are given only the most cursory mention in the Cannon Fodder report, with no quotes from those affected by the violence. It doesn’t help the CPJ’s credibility when Simon describes the recent general strike as being organized “by the country’s largest labor union and other opposition forces.” Please. Those nameless “other forces” were the managers of the national oil company and the largest business association in the country.

With that in mind, I’m afraid I can’t join Pedro Pereira in his appraisal of Carlos Ortega as a leader of “a third current, which holds enormous promise.” Ortega was not just a leader of the strike but a key part of the corporate and military alliance that staged the April 12 coup. Although he was pushed out of the alliance at the last moment, that was only because he was no longer useful: The goal of making it seem that regular workers were behind the coup had already been achieved. He may now be in favor of a more democratic means of pushing Chávez from power, but let’s remember that elections, for Ortega, are a backup plan.

There is one matter on which I strongly agree with Pereira: Chávez’s commitment to democracy is now also deeply in question. His opponents are showing up dead, and he is proposing a media law that would make it illegal to make such a “disrespectful” point in the press. Chávez is clearly at a crossroads: Will he recommit himself to the democratic values that brought him to power and the radical participatory process that created Venezuela’s new Constitution? Or will he lapse into the kind of authoritarianism that his opponents have been trying to provoke from day one? Stay tuned.



Kingston, NY

Re “Long Live the Estate Tax!” by Bill Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins [Jan. 27]: One of the good reasons for keeping the estate tax is that the superrich, to avoid paying it, donate vast amounts to charities rather than have the money taxed and put to some undetermined use. Besides, they get hospital wings, museums and college prizes named after themselves and respect and acknowledgment from the benefiting institutions. To get that respect from the government, you have to buy legislators, which, sadly, is not tax-deductible!


Havertown, Pa.

The estate tax is a blunt instrument, which should be reformed if it is to serve a useful social purpose. If encouraging donations to charity is the objective, replace the charitable deduction with a charitable credit. Knowing that everything left to charity comes off the estate tax, dollar for dollar, will encourage people to leave more money to charities. If the objective is simply to raise revenue for the government, impose a reasonable rate (much lower than currently) on all property of taxable estates, allowing no deductions. If the objective is to discourage concentration of wealth, then change to an inheritance tax, for individual bequests above a certain level, e.g., $5 million.

But the fundamental ethical question is, What entitles the government to treat death as a taxable event? If Bill Gates Sr. wants the government to get his money after he dies, let him leave it to the Treasury.



New York City

Three cheers to Gar Alperovitz for “Tax the Plutocrats!” [Jan. 27]. If the Democrats are ever to retake the government from the barbarians who stole it from its rightful owners, i.e., the people of the United States, they will have to start with a more progressive tax policy. But a federal “wealth tax” is seemingly not permitted by the Constitution, which limits Congress, in the case of any “direct” tax, to one that is apportioned in accordance with the population. Indeed, it took the Sixteenth Amendment to allow the government to levy a tax on people’s incomes without apportionment.

The Constitution does grant Congress the power to impose what appear to be “indirect” taxes–duties, imposts and excises–provided they are uniform. It doesn’t define these terms, but a wealth tax would not appear to fit any of those categories. It seems the plutocrats who wrote our Constitution were not about to allow a tax on wealth, i.e., slaves, land, etc. It will take another constitutional amendment to provide this form of taxation of the wealthy. In the meantime, let’s make the income tax more progressive, as Alperovitz suggests. And for heaven’s sake, let’s keep the estate tax.


San Francisco

Many features of the tax system working to the advantage of the rich are rarely mentioned. For example, since anyone can give up to $11,000 per year to another person tax-free, a member of a rich family could receive $44,000 tax-free per year if both parents plus two grandparents or an aunt and uncle each give the maximum. Thus, in ten years that person could accumulate $440,000 tax-free. A member of the working class, on the other hand, may never see a dime that isn’t taxed. Other well-known advantages for the better-off include irrevocable trust funds, which allow considerable estates to change hands without being taxed. Small wonder that with such favorable conditions for the transfer of riches, “a mere 1 percent of Americans owns just under 50 percent of financial wealth,” as Alperovitz notes.