Always the target of media scorn, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s death was occasion for a double dose. “Venezuela Bully Chávez is Dead,” read the New York Post headline (6 March); “Death of a Demagogue” was how Time framed the news (5 March). “The words ‘Venezuelan strongman’ so often preceded his name, and for good reason,” declared NBC Nightly News in its send-off.
According to ABC World News, the day after he died was “the first day the people of Venezuela are no longer under the strong control of their president, Hugo Chávez” (5 March). National Public Radio’s obituary gave the last words to Chávez-basher Michael Shifter: “So in the end, he really was an autocrat and despot” (5 March).
An Associated Press piece worthy of the satirical publication The Onion accused Chávez of squandering his country’s oil wealth on education, health and nutrition programmes — programmes whose benefits, AP explained, “were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi” (5 March). Why help your people when you can build cool skyscrapers?
A Wall Street Journal editorial managed to include almost every dart in the corporate media arsenal. Chávez was a “classic petro-dictator”, a “charismatic demagogue” whose chosen successor guaranteed “that the combination of buffoonery and thuggery that Chávez pioneered will continue past his grave.” Discounting Venezuela’s remarkably successful social programmes, the editors wrote: “Yet despite the populism and government handouts, life for Venezuela — and particularly the poor — has only become worse” (6 March).
The obit in The New York Times said Chávez left behind “a bitterly divided nation,” and that his tenure “widened society’s divisions” (5 March). In the corporate media lexicon, terms like “divisive” are reserved for those who challenge power — not for the powerful who wage class war from above.
Chávez never had a chance with the US media. Shortly after his first victory in 1998, The New York Times’s Latin America reporter Larry Rohter summarised his ascendance: “All across Latin America, presidents and party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide victory in Venezuela’s presidential election on December 6, Hugo Chávez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the region’s ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known as the caudillo” (20 December 1998).
Putting aside historical fantasies about a Latin America where “ruling elites”oppose autocracy, for the US media, Chávez was the clown caudillo from the very beginning, making outrageous declarations, trashing his economy, rigging elections, and rolling up a dismal human rights record. That Chávez was a dictator, a “strongman … profoundly anti-democratic”, was self-evident (The Daily Beast, 7 March 2013). Never mind that he routinely vanquished opponents in elections Jimmy Carter called “the best in the world”, or that autocracies don’t generally feature elections where the opposition wins 44% of the vote, as happened in Venezuela’s 2012 elections.
There was always much to criticise about Chávez’s government, as with any government. The US media watch group where I work, FAIR, has challenged censorious Venezuelan media policies (while pointing out that the country maintains a robust opposition press). And cases like that of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, who was jailed by the government for releasing a prisoner held without trial for nearly three years, are not encouraging either.
The problem isn’t criticism; powerful leaders need to be scrutinised — period. The problem is that US and western reporters routinely fail to put Venezuela’s shortcomings in context, and refuse to apply a single standard. For instance, a FAIR study of US newspaper editorials on human rights (1) showed Venezuela portrayed as far more sinister and foreboding than violently repressive Colombia, the US’s closest ally in the region. If the reality of Venezuela during the Chávez years left something to be desired, it did not leave journalists, labour leaders and political activists fearing for their lives or worse. But US journalists can’t be expected to apply standards of fairness while serving Washington’s agenda.
In a eulogy in the leftish Nation magazine, New York University historian Greg Grandin pointed out that Venezuela has 11 political prisoners, including some held for participating in the 2002 coup (5 March). One may be too many, but the repression of political dissent, including state violence, decreased dramatically under the Chávez government. According to the 2005 Latin American Perspectives report “Popular Protest in Venezuela: Novelties and Continuities”, “There has been greater recognition of the right to protest, and this has been institutionalized” (2).
One of the most important tasks of western propagandists has been to portray Venezuela as an economic disaster. But that’s difficult, because Venezuela doesn’t look so bad, judging by the indicators that reporters use to assess economies notconsidered enemies.
It’s true that the country suffers from high inflation (20.1% in 2012), infrastructure problems, an overreliance on and inefficiencies in its oil industry. But since emerging from a ruinous strike by anti-Chávez oil managers in 2003, Venezuela has maintained a 4.3% annual growth rate, cut poverty by nearly 50% and cut extreme poverty by 70%.
In 2012 Venezuela’s growth stood at 5.8%, with unemployment at 6.4%, half what it was when Chávez took office. Economic inequality in Venezuela is the lowest in the region (GINI coefficient: 0.397). And all this was achieved while vastly expanding education, healthcare and nutrition programmes. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate has dropped steadily, more than 30% since Chávez came to power, and UNESCO has declared Venezuela free of illiteracy. This progress did not stop The Washington Post from decrying “the economic pain caused by Mr Chávez”, the man who had “wrecked their once-prosperous country” (5 January).
Last December a New York Times report on the hassles of daily life in Venezuela explained that Chávez has managed to stay in office by winning over “a significant majority of the public with his outsize personality, his free spending of state resources and his ability to convince Venezuelans that the Socialist revolution he envisions will make their lives better” (13 December 2012). As if people who’ve plainly seen their lives improve need to be convinced of the fact.
A month later it was the turn of ABC News: “5 Ways Hugo Chávez Has Destroyed the Venezuelan Economy”, was the headline over a piece published on its website by Stephen Keppel, economics editor of Univision, the Spanish-language television network (17 January 2013).
Why the increased hyperventilation and distortion over Venezuela’s economy? Because, in the end, the vitriol was not so much about elections. If elections were important to them, US newspapers, including The New York Times, would not have cheered Venezuela’s 2002 coup, and might show more concern for America’s own money-corrupted, broken process. If human rights was a chief concern, western journalists would have spent a good deal of the 14 Chávez years denouncing countries, including many US allies, with far worse records than Venezuela.
Steve Rendall is a member of the US media observatory Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
(1) “FAIR Study: Human Rights Coverage Serving Washington’s Needs”, Extra!, New York, February 2009.
(2) “Popular Protest in Venezuela: Novelties and Continuities”, Latin American Perspectives, vol 32, no 2, Thousand Oakes (US), March 2005.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.