The New York Times Versus Chavez

You can tell that the US-led campaign against Hugo Chávez has reached a critical stage when the New York Times starts providing rhetorical cover for Condoleezza Rice’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s increasingly desperate efforts to isolate the Venezuelan president.

Chile’s center-left president Michelle Bachelet — who Rice name-drops every chance she gets to prove she can have socialist friends — just last week warned Washington not to “demonize” Chávez. Yet despite this endorsement from Latin America’s most lauded reformer, the Times on Saturday ran a 1300-word, front-page hatchet job by Juan Forero titled “Seeking United Latin America, Venezuela’s Chávez Is a Divider; Some Neighbors Resent His Style as Meddlesome.”

The article quotes seven sources, all openly anti-Chávez save for Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, like Bachelet, has repeatedly defended his Venezuelan counterpart against Washington. But Forero ignores this support, instead choosing to cherry-pick through Lula’s public statements to find, and take out of context, a rare criticism.

Other supposedly objective comments come from the center-right — NYU’s Jorge Castañeda — to the Right-Right — Johns Hopkin’s Riordan Roett — of the political spectrum. Its worth noting that Roett’s primary claim to fame was a 1995 memo he wrote while an emerging-market consultant to Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican government to “eliminate the Zapatistas” and to slowdown democratic reforms. Now that’s “meddlesome.”

Forero holds Chávez’s “grandstanding” responsible for any number of Latin American ills, along with the slip in the polls of Peru’s Ollanta Humala and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador — both of whom are running for president in their respective countries and have received Chávez’s endorsement. Humala has plenty of his own baggage that can account for his declining numbers, while Forero misrepresents the Mexican race. López Obrador’s opponent and now frontrunner, Felipe Calderón, has only managed to overcome his personality deficit with the help of U.S. political consultants, including toe-fetishist Dick Morris, who have used focus groups to frame a series of highly negative TV ads. “They’re selling” Calderón “as if they were selling shampoo,” López Obrador’s campaign coordinator recently complained.

In Bolivia, similar “meddling” provoked a political crisis, along with scores of fatalities, when Democratic consultants James Carville and Jeremy Rosner managed to hand the presidency to the incompetent and out-of-touch Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, as documented in Rachel Boynton’s recently released film, Our Brand is Crisis.

Here’s an idea: how about a Times story headlined “America’s Carville is a Divider: Some Neighbors Resent His Style as Meddlesome.”

GREG GRANDIN teaches Latin American history at NYU and is the author of the just published Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and The Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan Books)